Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)