Steve Martin: a ham-fisted entertainer who’s in on the joke

I am a Steve Martin completest.

I love him for his comedy albums (hits and flops alike), his magic performances and talk show appearances, his acceptance speeches and movie roles (the ones described as brilliant and decried as execrable, both). The TV specials and the sketch-comedy characters he’s played. The play about Einstein and Picasso I’ve never seen but have always wanted to. The novel and the humour collections and the short pieces in the New Yorker. The memoir chronicling his stand-up comedy years.

Especially the memoir chronicling his stand-up comedy years.

Have you read the book? It’s called Born Standing Up and it’s brilliantly self-aware and enormously illuminating. It’s also a bit sobering and intensely personal. Martin, at one point, was the most popular stand-up in the United States, and the memoir chronicles his rise from backroom magician at Disneyland to gabardine-suited phenom. Martin’s stand-up, a vehicle for mocking the self-satisfied showbiz world, was so well-crafted, so enormously funny, so perfectly pitched, that it outgrew simple parody.

The smarmy scaffolding was a character, but the sharp gags and fresh ideas and inspired silliness that accompanied it gave Martin a popularity that let him play stadiums and arenas and amphitheatres. The book details how, in those enormous spaces filled with fans wearing his T-shirts and roaring at everything he said, the air quotes with which he presented himself as a “ham-fisted populist entertainer” became a little more difficult to see. Martin, deprived of the artistic challenge that stand-up comedy used to provide him with, packed it in to pursue other things.

But the reason Martin, decades after the height of his stand-up fame, is still a comedy hero of mine, is because he’s never lost those air quotes. He wrapped himself in them. Watching him as he presents at the Oscars, or accepts the Mark Twain prize for American humour, you see a master as he winks at us, a persona that lacerates self-important celebrity by pretending to revel in its fecklessness and egocentricity. And there’s so much work in it. Every joke he does feels so distinctly “him” and there’s a carefully honed comedy voice that’s as apparent to me in, say, a guest appearance on The Muppet Show as it is on David Letterman’s couch.

It’s even in his music. The past few years, with the occasional acting role peppered in, Martin has devoted himself especially to touring alongside the bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers as a banjo player. He’s an exceptionally accomplished musician, and that’s a relief because watching someone great at something as they try something else doesn’t always come off right. I’ve seen one of my favourite comics attempt a show with a rock band, feeling a horrible sense that he was doing something he wasn’t made for. It was like watching Baryshnikov make grilled cheese or something.

It isn’t like that with Martin. In fact, watching “Steve Martin the musician” illuminates “Steve Martin the comedian”. His banjo playing is as technical and smooth and as distinctive within its field as his comedy was, and what he’s written and chooses to sing displays a finely honed musical and comedic instinct, and there’s no sense, in the moment you see him, that you’re missing out on Martin’s artistic presence by watching him do something not obviously comedic. Because Martin, in whatever he does, is a joyful performer of the highest quality, a 69-year-old still doing work that he finds challenging, still pushing himself as much as he can, still funny, still making stuff with increasingly sharper points, with subtler air quotes.

 

Original published in The Guardian in 2015.