Steve Martin - Biography

By Tony Goldmark


Nowadays, hearing the name “Steve Martin” is more likely to conjure up images of safe, family-friendly comedies – Cheaper By The Dozen, The Pink Panther, Bringing Down The House – than anything resembling cutting-edge. It’s hard to believe today, but in the late seventies Steve Martin was one of America’s most-renowned, most interesting and above all funniest working stand-up comedians. Over the course of four albums and dozens of “Saturday Night Live” hosting stints (where he was often confused for a cast member), the grey-haired Martin established himself as one of the last comedy record superstars, with a strange amalgam of bizarre absurdist jokes, weird props, irreverent references to philosophy and religion, a childlike demeanor loaded with throwbacks to the 1950s, an almost jazz-like rhythm of important-sounding nonsense, and of course a banjo. Martin left stand-up in the early 1980s to develop a fruitful film career (perhaps TOO fruitful for his reputation’s own good) and referred to his stand-up memoir Born Standing Up as more a biography than an autobiography, because he’s not that person anymore. But Martin’s successful comedy albums kick-started his career in the first place, and they’re still every bit as funny today as they ever were.


Stephen Glenn Martin was born August 14, 1945 in Waco, Texas, and raised in Garden Grove, California. Martin soon developed a love of cartoons and children’s television, and as a pre-teen became an avid Disneyland visitor. In the early sixties he got a job at the Disneyland Magic Shop on Main Street, where he learned how to juggle, play banjo, create balloon animals and perform sleight-of-hand magic tricks, all skills he’d later incorporate into his stage act. He was also heavily influenced by the physical comedy and precision timing of Golden Horseshoe performer Wally Boag (nearly half a century later, Martin paid tribute to his earliest public performances in the park attraction “Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years”).


Martin attended California State University in Long Beach, where his major in philosophy gave him a thorough grounding in the magic of comedic non-sequitors. Martin soon transferred to UCLA and changed his major to theater, before dropping out for good and setting his sights on writing and performing. He landed a job writing sketches for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, for which he won an Emmy in 1969, and went on to write for The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour. He also started performing as a stand-up, opening for such acts as The Carpenters and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.


Steve Martin recorded his first stand-up album, Let’s Get Small, at the Boarding House in San Francisco, and got it released on Warner Bros. Records in 1977. It opened with one of his signature pieces, “Ramblin’ Man,” a banjo-driven country folk ode to absolutely nothing, in which he sang a bunch of incomprehensible lyrics, then prompted the audience to sing along somehow. He continued this idea later in the album with “Grandmother’s Song,” a simplistic children’s ditty his grandmother supposedly sang to him, which commands cheerfulness and friendliness at first, then offers such advice as “be pompous, obese and eat cactus” and “put a live chicken in your underwear” with equal cadence. Then Martin would lead the audience in a Pete Seeger-esque sing-along of these same ridiculous lyrics. An expert banjo player by now, Steve played it extensively on his first album, pointing out that it was “such a happy sound” that it had the power to nullify all sorts of tragedies, from poverty to fires to Richard Nixon. Other highlights included “Excuse Me,” in which Martin gets indignant at the backstage crew for no reason, culminating with a loud “Excuuuuuuuuuuuuuse MEEEEEEEE!” and the title track, in which Martin uses “getting small” as shorthand for drug use, as if marijuana shrunk people. Small peaked at #10 on the Billboard chart, and won Martin a Grammy for Best Comedy Recording, as did his second album, 1978’s A Wild And Crazy Guy, recorded half at the Boarding House and half at the massive Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver. Guy peaked at #2 in Billboard, literally marking the end of an era – no comedy album has charted so high since then, and no comedy album would crack the top ten for another quarter-century.


On Wild And Crazy Guy, Martin talked about his philosophy background (“you learn just enough to screw you up for life”), the repetition of doing the same show every night, the joys of cat toys, his collection of written works (“I’ll Take The Alphabet…was the first time I started using verbs”) and his real name (apparently, Steve’s birth name is “Bibibibibibibib,” or however you spell the sound of flapping lips). He also reprised two famous sketches he’d performed on “Saturday Night Live.” One was Festrunk, a dopey, heavily-accented Czechoslovakian “wild and crazy guy” who puts tuna fish sandwiches between his armpits (“I don’t smell like any other guy”) and breaks up with girls by throwing dog poop on their shoes. The other was the album’s closer, the song “King Tut.” Before performing “King Tut” on SNL in April 1978, Martin expressed disgust that the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” traveling exhibit had commercialized such an important historical figure, and how he sought to correct this injustice by writing an authentic song about ancient Egypt. Then Steve launched into a quasi-doo-wop tune with a refrain of the apocryphal “born in Arizona/moved to Babylonia…” complete with stiff dance moves that made the Bangles look authentic by comparison. “King Tut” was performed on record by “Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons” (actually, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and released as a single between Martin’s first two albums. It rocketed to #4 on the Billboard singles chart.


By this time, Steve Martin’s insane level of celebrity had started to disagree with him – he never let fame go to his head (though his stage character certainly did) but it wasn’t for lack of trying on everyone else’s part. As Martin explained in Born Standing Up, his fame led his fans to expect him to be the same guy offstage as on, and he simply wasn’t – he was quite shy and withdrawn personally, and unaccustomed to such things as, say, four room-service deliverers wearing fake arrows through their head – “funny, yes, but when you’re dead tired of your own jokes, it’s hard to respond with the expected glee.” Martin’s third album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, featured a few more classic bits, including “You Can Be A Millionaire” (deliciously mocking get-rich-quick schemes) and “How To Meet A Girl” (featuring the world’s worst pick-up lines) but it also contained a surprising amount of filler, including a two-minute banjo solo and an excerpt from Martin’s book Cruel Shoes. On one track, “Googlephonics,” Martin forgets what he’s saying and ruins the gag, then turns it into a bit about how badly he ruined the gag.


Pretty didn’t reach the heights of his previous efforts, peaking at only #25. But by then, Martin was growing severely disinterested in stand-up, and far more interested in film acting. His clout had scored him a few cameos in The Muppet Movie, The Kids Are Alright and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and in December 1979, Universal Pictures released his first starring vehicle, The Jerk. Based on a single line from his stand-up (“I was born a poor black child”), The Jerk followed the twisted epic life story of Navin Johnson, an idiot who leaves his adoptive family for St. Louis, works at a gas station and traveling carnival, dates a daredevil biker woman, sings “Tonight You Belong To Me” on the ukulele with Bernadette Peters, becomes a millionaire for inventing “The Opti-Grab” glasses-holder, and loses all his money in lawsuits. The Jerk became a smash hit, earning over a hundred million dollars in its initial run. Martin’s film career was up and running, and Martin soon found he infinitely preferred the social, collaborative experience of filmmaking to the competitive, antisocial experience of performing onstage alone. Purely out of contractual obligation, in 1981 Martin released his fourth and final album before leaving stand-up comedy for good. Side one of The Steve Martin Brothers was “Steve the rich comedian,” featuring his stand-up, and side two was “Steve the peace-loving hippie banjo player,” featuring fifteen minutes of banjo music (“by that time I was out of comedy material,” he admits). Brothers peaked at a disappointing #135 on the Billboard album chart, and wasn’t even treated to a CD reissue until leased to Wounded Bird Records in 2006.


Martin plunged himself into Hollywood and never looked back. Since then, he’s written and/or starred in nearly three dozen feature films, including Pennies From Heaven, The Man With Two Brains, ¡Three Amigos!, Roxanne, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood, L.A. Story, Bowfinger and Shopgirl. He’s also written nearly a dozen books and hosted the Oscars twice. And occasionally, in his unique inimitable delivery, you can hear glimpses of the brilliantly demented stand-up voice he used to be. Steve Martin’s albums have influenced generations of comics – from Eddie Izzard to Will Forte – to envelop their satirical statements with cushions of hilarious absurdity. Comedy may not be pretty, but at least Martin kept it from ever growing dull.


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