Steve Martin has made millions off of his wacky sense of humor and slapstick physical comedy, but there is a more serious side to him he'd like audiences to appreciate as well.
Last weekend, Steve Martin hosted Saturday Night Live for a record 14th time. It was difficult to watch — not because it was bad, but because Martin is exhausting. I was dazed within moments of watching his opening skit, in which he races around the set of SNL in a frenzied attempting to prevent Alec Baldwin from appearing onstage. The man is like a mad dog. Watching him on TV, you can see the air crackling around him as he emits enough kilowatts of energy to power Manhattan for a week. He can't sit still, he can't keep quiet, his eyes sparkle with a manic gleam to entertain, entertain, entertain.
It's hard to imagine he still has such an abundance of energy. After 39 years in show business, doing everything from comedy writing, stand-up, short films, feature films, musicals, penning a few novellas, plays, screenplays, and — in his free time — writing pieces for The New Yorker, Steve Martin shows no signs of slowing down. After so many years in the business, he continues to be tremendously popular. His movies have earned over $1.4 billion collectively. This Friday his newest movie, a remake of The Pink Panther (he co-wrote the screenplay) opens nationwide. At 61, Martin is one of Hollywood's most bankable stars.
It's rare I wish I was older than I am, but while reading about Martin's career for the purpose of this article, I couldn't help but regret not being alive during his heyday as a stand-up comic. In the mid- and late-'70s, while I was still one of millions of sperm swimming around in my father's innards, hoping for a chance to make it outside, Martin mania had already taken hold of the country. As a comedian, he had achieved a rock-star-like status, his acts selling out to crowds of over 20,000 people and his first two comedy albums, Let's Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy, both winning Emmys.
The Steve Martin I saw last weekend on SNL was totally hilarious, but from what I've read, the '70s Steve Martin was even more extreme, running around stage like a man possessed, wearing rabbit ears or plastic arrows through his head, tap dancing, and strumming the banjo. It wasn't simply his wild behavior that people found funny, though — it was his unique style, a freshness and a sense of humor laced with irony and self-mockery (for example, a philosophical tirade punctuated by an abrupt physical act, like choking on a sip of water, or telling the audience they were idiots for spending money to get into a comedy club).
Stand-up may have made him famous, but it was a career in movies that Martin really wanted. His first movie, 1979's The Jerk, was a big success, costing less than $5 million to make and grossing over $100 million. Of course, his successful performance relied largely on the physical comedy he had won audiences over with during his live acts. Well aware of this and not wanting to be typecast, Martin decided to depart radically from his familiar role and try something serious. The movie was Pennies From the Heaven, a dark musical about the Depression, and was more or less a failure, both financially and critically.
Martin was disappointed, but undaunted. A man with that much energy didn't have time to wallow in self-pity. After all, he had another 11 movies to make before the 1980s expired, and another 24 coming up in the following two decades. Most of the movies were lighthearted dramas or comedies, some terrible (The Man With TwoBrains, Sgt. Bilko, Bowfinger) but many were also critically acclaimed (L.A. Story, All of Me, and Roxanne).
Throughout his prolific career, Martin appears to have waffled between his desire to avoid being typecast and his desire to give audiences what they want: the outrageous comic. The most commercially successful of his movies have all been comedies, such as The Jerk, Parenthood, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Bringing Down the House. Between these box office comedies, however, he dabbled in more dramatic roles. In The Spanish Prisoner, Grand Canyon, Novocaine, and Shopgirl, Martin proved he had more talents as an actor than falling down stairs or clapping his hands on the off-beat.
It is this more serious side of Martin that I like best. Like his contemporary, Bill Murray, when Martin tones it down a notch, his humor becomes far richer than in his hyperkinetic slapstick roles. L.A. Story, Martin's 1991 homage to Los Angeles, is an wonderful example of this. Martin plays a weatherman who is absolutely fed up with the city's vapidity and longs to find something more. As he dabbles with various L.A. remedies for his unhappiness, such as enema therapy and dating hot women 10 years his junior, he finally finds relief in the arms of a somewhat drab Englishwoman. My favorite line in the movie is when he pokes fun at the finicky eating habits of L.A. society via his coffee order. "I'll have a double half-calf cup of decaf with a twist of lemon," he says (or something to that effect). I think that line singlehandedly cured me of my need to order fancy frothy drinks at Starbucks; from that moment on I was a black coffee drinker.
His novella, Shopgirl, was another example of Martin's more subtle and serious side. His portrayal of the main character in the film, an older, wealthy bachelor who falls for a 25-year-old girl working in Saks, is riddled with irony and self-mockery — both qualities that used to appeal to audiences during his stand-up days. Here, of course, Martin uses them for a different effect.
A friend of mine saw an early screening of The Pink Panther two nights ago. Upon learning I was writing about Steve Martin, he advised me to "trash him" for doing that movie. I'm not sure what my friend is so upset about. From the previews I've seen, his performance as the stumbling and bumbling Inspector Clouseau doesn't seem to be much of a departure from his most popular incarnations — he wears funny clothes, falls down stairs, and generally looks like an idiot.
Judging from his box office record with such roles, I expect the movie to rake in the bucks. Of course, it will not do much to aid Martin in his long-standing battle against typecasting.