Steve Martin Essay - Critical Essays

Martin, Steve


Steve Martin 1945?–

American comedian, scriptwriter, fiction writer, and actor.

Martin's fame rests on his reputation as a stand-up comedian. His comic approach, which one critic calls "inspired lunacy," is characterized by nonsensical, off-the-wall zaniness. Martin believes that comedy is more a matter of an entire character than of specific jokes or stunts; accordingly, he has created a strong stage personality to tie together his "flights of nonsense." Martin's humor depends on the unlikely combination of a respectable, "normal" person with wild, uninhibited behavior. For instance, Martin will walk onto the stage looking like a composed professional, tell a joke with a ridiculous or nonexistent punch line, and then laugh like an idiot. Martin notes that this contrast is the primary source of his success: "There's got to be order for my comedy to work, because chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is."

Martin wanted to become involved in show business at an early age. When he was ten years old he began working as a vendor at Disneyland; in the next eight years he found ample opportunities there to develop the skills he gradually incorporated into short routines: banjo playing, magic, and comedy. In 1964 Martin detoured from his career ambitions to enroll in Long Beach State College as a philosophy major. He studied for three years until, as he has said, "everything became pure semantics, nothing had meaning. It was like losing your mind." Martin then enrolled in a television writing course at the University of California at Los Angeles in pursuit of an entertainment career. His first break came in 1968, when he was hired as a comedy writer for the highly controversial and popular television show "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Difficulties with network censors caused the show to be cancelled during the 1968–69 season, but in 1969 Martin and the show's ten other writers received Emmy awards for their work. As a result of this success, Martin was in great demand, and he wrote for Glen Campbell, Pat Paulsen, Sonny and Cher, and other television performers. However, he quickly tired of writing formulaic material for others, and he quit television writing in 1971 to become a stand-up comedian.

During his first few years as a performer, Martin often appeared as the opening act at rock concerts, but audiences generally were unreceptive. In an attempt to gain wider recognition, Martin tried to create an image based on wild clothing, long hair, and beads. Although he met with some success, including his first guest appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1973, Martin began to attract greater attention when he significantly altered his approach in 1975. The short hair and white, three-piece, tailored suit he adopted contrasted sharply with his favorite props: bunny ears, fake arrows-through-the-head, and balloon animals. As Martin's dress became more conventional, his act became more outrageous and his popularity quickly grew. He appeared on television more frequently and in 1976 guest-hosted the popular "Saturday Night Live" show for the first time. Seemingly overnight, Martin's appeal became widespread; he performed at large arenas usually reserved for rock concerts, and audiences showed their enthusiasm by wearing fake arrows and bunny ears to his shows.

In addition to his live performances and television appearances, Martin has also recorded several albums. His first record, Let's Get Small (1977), won a Grammy award, as did his next, A Wild and Crazy Guy (1978). However, Martin's book of humorous sketches, Cruel Shoes (1977), was less successful. Most critics consider the stories and short pieces in this book to be slight and suggest that Martin's brand of humor is nearly impossible to translate into book form. More recently, Martin has been involved in films as an actor and scriptwriter. His first film success, The Absent-Minded Waiter (1977), is a short piece based on a skit Martin originally wrote for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." The film, in which Martin portrays a hilariously inept waiter, received an Academy Award for best short comedy film. Martin appeared in and cowrote the screenplays for several full-length motion pictures, including The Jerk (1979), Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), and The Man with Two Brains (1983), and also starred in the films Pennies from Heaven (1981) and The Lonely Guy (1983). Although critical reception to these works has been mixed, with one critic lauding Martin's ability to convert "expertise into the highest form of imbecility" and others finding the films just silly, they have been very popular with the general public.

Although critics find it difficult to define Martin's distinctive style, his deliberately goofy behavior and sometimes childish jokes elicit frenzied enthusiasm from his audience. His routines are frequently taken directly from the slapstick skits of early comic movies, but he makes these routines new by parodying them. Pauline Kael notes that Martin "gets us laughing at the fact that we're laughing at such dumb jokes…. He does the routine straight, yet he's totally facetious." Despite mixed reaction to this "dadaesque philosopher turned goofball," as one critic defined him, Martin is among the most popular comedians in America.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100.)

Susan Peterson

The nature of Steve Martin's humor defies pat definition. He wanders from downright silly sight gags such as repeated bumbling with the microphones to ironic quips about every subject imaginable (car seats to solar energy heat), to quirky musical excursions on the banjo somewhat reminiscent of the early Smothers Brothers.

All is executed from a rather mock-humble stance, with Martin himself professing to be uncertain as to why he makes people laugh. It could be, he claims, the pieces of bologna he puts in his shoes before going on stage.

The audience is led to attribute its appreciation of this madness to not only the humorist's, but also its own loony sense of humor. It is Martin's endearing gift to have succeeded in confirming that sense of fun in those present. (pp. 35, 37)

Susan Peterson, "Steve Martin, Liberty," in Billboard, Vol. 89, No. 7, February 19, 1977, pp. 35, 37.∗

Dave Marsh

Steve Martin has become the comedic rage by the usual means: introducing a couple of readily imitable phrases into the vernacular (excuse me if I don't repeat them). More than that, his characterizations have made being an asshole fashionable again; all he lacks is a lampshade. For this, he deserves a humanitarian award. Now, when you do stupid things people think you're being paid for it.

Unfortunately, the least deliberately absurd thing Martin has done was committing his act to vinyl. The problem with Let's Get Small isn't that the routines are the same old stuff we've seen on the Tonight Show and Saturday Night; they are, but that's not the issue. The issue is that this isn't a funny record, mostly because Martin doesn't sound like Martin. (This has something to do with the recording quality.) Because so many of Martin's bits involve ridiculous voices, a purely aural presentation of his humor seemed to have possibilities; it turns out that seeing him do all that dumb shit is as important as hearing him. (p. 94)

Dave Marsh, in a review of "Let's Get Small," in Rolling Stone, Issue 252, November 17, 1977, pp. 94, 96.

Bruce Malamut

Jokers like David Steinberg and George Carlin are just that—jokers and no more, whereas [Steve Martin and Randy Newman] (even sounds like a comedy team, eh?) are great U.S. humorists in the ironic and equivocal tradition of Mark Twain, Robert Benchley and the Marx Bros. You never quite know when they're being serious. They are both depraved and blasphemous—queers, nigguhs, bilinguals, schmucks who listen to this stuff ("who actually pay for it," as Martin puts it)—nothing is sacred….

Not to mention both of their attitudes toward the racial question. Both would be happy to A-bomb Rhodesia off the face of the map—after all, it'd be far more efficient than those stupid Geneva talks. Thank God both are apolitical (but look out Barry Goldwater if they weren't)….

Both of these Orange County sons share an ambiguous love for Americana which is more realistic and cynical than modern or idealistic….

The major difference between them is that where Newman has a heart (& a big one, judging by the likes of his most beautiful love songs), Martin shows no pity—he is supercilious to the point of psychopathology. But both Newman and Martin react to the same America, from Newman's brilliant Kurt Weill-like short-stories and lovable deviates, to the wide-eyed gruesomeness of Martin's most brutal skits. "Comedy is not pretty," he lectured a New York audience between two bits called "Happy Feet" and the mortifying "Cruel Shoes" concerning a masochistic foot fetishist's customized toe gear. The effect of this inspired juxtaposition was like grokking a perfectly sculptured bronze of the bilevel masks of tragicomedy. The only competition between these two faces of Dr. Sardonicus is to see who can be more rank and smile the widest simultaneously.

Bruce Malamut, "Evil Minds, Dirty Habits," in Crawdaddy, December, 1977, p. 82.

David Felton

[Steve Martin's] jokes are funny—not just funny but, you know, different, weird, "out there." Like his description of all the world's religions: "And the fourteen invisible people came down from the sky with the magic rings that only Biff could read."

Sometimes they're shocking: "Not too many people smoking out there tonight, that's pretty good; it doesn't bother me when I'm in a sleazy nightclub like this, 'cause I'm used to it, but if I'm in a restaurant, and somebody says (low moron voice, sort of like [Red] Skelton's Clem Kadiddlehopper), 'Hey, mind if I smoke?' I'll say (righteous but cool, like a salesman), 'Uh, no, do you mind if I fart?"…


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Tony Schwartz

Martin's style is a pie in the faces of Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl and all the iconoclastic comics who dominated the stand-up scene in the '60s and whose legacy has been passed down to most of today's best comedians. Now, the prevailing style is less political, but it retains an ethnic edge and an outsider's perspective. Woody Allen mines a mother lode of anxiety and insecurity, pleading the case for the little guy. Lily Tomlin urges that attention be paid to society's outcasts. Richard Pryor spins complex tales of survival in the ghetto.

All Steve Martin asks is that everyone have a good time. His approach is a throwback to vaudeville, slapstick and the comedy of his childhood idols, Red...

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Tom Carson

[Outside] of (maybe) Woody Allen or Lily Tomlin, I don't think the Seventies have provided a single comic genius…. Steve Martin has yet to prove he's a great, funny man.

Martin isn't a talent anymore, he's a commodity. His first album, Let's Get Small, went platinum, winning a Grammy and several important cover stories in the process. The new LP, A Wild and Crazy Guy, promises to do a lot better. Yet it's a slovenly piece of work, slackly performed and miserably edited. The routines don't build—they're not even routines, in any real sense of the word. Instead, the comedian simply meanders from one random one-liner to the next, and he's not in a terrific hurry to get there either…....

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Publishers Weekly

Rising comic star Steve Martin apparently has wide appeal, but ["Cruel Shoes," a] collection of 50 of his short routines, finds us reacting with irritation rather than chuckles. Short to the point of terseness (and sometimes pointlessness) the pieces are snide commentaries on what Martin sees as the pretentiousness of certain segments of society. The titles of "The Diarrhea Gardens of El Camino Real" and "Turds" convey the bathroom level of much of his humor…. It's difficult to find the source of Martin's popularity in these trivial offerings…. Perhaps it takes the tube to transmit his macho wit.

A review of "Cruel Shoes," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 215, No. 18, April...

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Roy Blount, Jr.

As a monologist, Martin is no Richard Pryor or Lily Tomlin (to name the two great stand-up comedians since W. C. Fields) or Lenny Bruce or Randy Newman or Bob or Ray. The best thing about his TV special last season was The New York Times's preview of it. To read in the newspaper of record that a man was to deliver on prime time network television a long sketch about turtle wrangling was gratifying; the sketch itself, one felt, was long. On his big-selling live album [A Wild and Crazy Guy], Martin performs worn material rather perfunctorily for an audience that seems intent on getting hysterical without grounds. His appeal to the young borders on the bubble gummy.

But Martin has done...

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Roger Angell

Watching "The Jerk," a comedy starring Steve Martin, is like spending an afternoon on the rickety rides of some sleazo travelling carnival …: now and then, an involuntary laugh is bumped out of us by an unexpected lurch or spin of the Whip, but most of the attractions are so slow and noisy and uncomfortable that even while we continue to smile (we're here for fun, aren't we?) we are mostly aware of the encompassing smells and dirt, and of the dimness of effort that has gone into the whole feeble entertainment. Steve Martin, of course, has been a star turn on television's "Saturday Night Live," but "The Jerk," of which he is co-author, owes much more to Mel Brooks. I am not a perfectly uncritical Brooks fan,...

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Robert Asahina

To be sure, this picaresque tale [The Jerk] is far from a classically constructed comedy. There are gags that might work as blackout sketches on Saturday Night Live that merely interrupt the story line of The Jerk…. There are narrative gaps and illogical thrusts that, I fear, were unintentional. But even some of the irrelevant material is strangely entertaining.

After Navin meets his true love, Marie …, he excitedly writes his mother: "Dear Mom, she looks just like you—except she's white and blonde." Later, the two lovers stroll along a moonlit beach, singing "Tonight You Belong to Me" in a pleasantly off-key duet, accompanied by ukulele and, of all things, cornet. The...

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Ken Tucker

Comedy Is Not Pretty! is Martin's third and most extreme collection of sweet-faced dirtiness, abrupt non sequiturs and fresh catch phrases…. Like most comedy albums, the new LP dulls after a few playings, and it ought to, because Martin relies so consistently on the gentle shock of his relentless meaninglessness. This must be going somewhere, you say about one routine after another, but they never do. He gets his laughs that way.

What Comedy Is Not Pretty! makes clear is the characteristic that's at once Martin's greatest fascination and biggest weakness: a complete lack of identification with his audience…. If his golden rule seems to be "Comedy is not pretty," its corollary...

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Much has been written about the "new wave" comedy of the late seventies. It's been defined as a backlash against the comedy of the sixties, which was preoccupied with social and political commentary. New wave comedy is not concerned with political issues. It's only concerned with silliness. In fact, Steve [Martin] has spoken proudly of deliberately weeding out anything in his act that has legitimate meaning. (p. 113)

Steve has said that comedian Jack Benny was one of his idols when he was growing up. He sees a similarity between his character and Benny's. Both characters have glaring flaws, yet they pretend to be unaware of them, even though they really know better. Benny perpetually insisted that he...

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Michael Sragow

What gives [Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid] some distinction is that it marks Steve Martin's most effective screen appearance yet. To put it briefly: clothes have made the comedian.

Describing how important his white suits were to his kinetic standup comedy act, Steve Martin said that they were "like leotards that define your body." With their sharp, square lines, they were a key component of the Martin comic persona: the total straight-arrow and ultimate fair-haired boy whose goofy amiability couldn't totally disguise his panic about making friends and influencing people in our post-hip era. Martin's everybody-join-in humor was the opposite of hip; his goal seemed to be finding the silliness that...

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Stanley Kauffmann

The idea [to intercut a film with clips from old films] is not overwhelmingly novel, but it never wearies when well used…. The intercutting idea is deftly used [in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid]…. It might have been really hilarious with a leading actor of comic talent. Steve Martin is not. In Pennies from Heaven, of course, he wasn't supposed to be funny, and wasn't anything else either. But I've seen some of his comedy routines on TV, and the only explanation I can find for his success is that he's inept. Martin is clumsy and insipid, and when an amateurish square comes out with an arrow "piercing" his head, talking about his wildness and craziness, it amuses people the way the branch manager of a bank...

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Jack Kroll

In a time burbling with misused and perverted intelligence, Steve Martin is a welcome apostle of pure idiocy. Not the corroded comforts of neuroticism (Woody Allen), not the subversive logic of madness and bad taste (Mel Brooks), but blessed idiocy is Martin's thing, and in director Carl Reiner he's found the perfect collaborator in creative cretinism. Well, not perfect, because as talented as Reiner is, the Martin movies he's directed and cowritten ("The Jerk" and "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid") are a bit scrappy; they don't have the total personality of the Allen and Brooks movies. Still, with Reiner, Martin has created an endearing hero of our time, the Jerk, an updated version of the classic Fool. And in "The Man...

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Richard Schickel

How sweet it is to find a movie in which the hero, having lusted after purely carnal pleasures for much of its length, finally falls in love with a woman's mind. That there is nobody attached to it, that it is, in fact, a brain Kept alive in a bottle by a half-mad scientist, might strike some people as a little funny. It will strike vaster numbers of them as very funny—especially after Steve Martin pastes plastic lips on the bottle so he can kiss his beloved….

[The Man with Two Brains] is the most assured and hilarious of the three Martin-Carl Reiner collaborations. There is something classically American about its monomaniacal pursuit of a gag every five seconds, characterization and...

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Pauline Kael

A comic's naked desire to make us laugh can be an embarrassment, especially if we feel that he's hanging on that laugh—that he's experiencing our reaction as a life-or-death matter. Steve Martin is naked, but he isn't desperate. (He's too anomic to be desperate.) Some performers can't work up a physical charge if the audience doesn't respond to them, but Steve Martin doesn't come out on a TV stage cold, hoping to get a rhythm going with the people in the studio. He's wired up and tingling, like a junk-food addict; he's like a man who's being electrocuted and getting a dirty thrill out of it. Steve Martin doesn't feed off the audience's energy—he instills energy in the audience. And he does it by drawing us into a...

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