Steve Martin’s Big Year (American Way)

Steve Martin is a hard guy to pin down.  Unlike other 65 year-old movie stars, who sit by their pool waiting for their agents to call with the possibility of a job, Martin has single-handedly redefined what someone who has reached the age of official retirement can do if he still has the energy.  Right now, he’s on the road, touring America playing his banjo to packed audiences in Wisconsin, Idaho, Missouri, Rhode Island, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. But Martin is also getting ready to promote his new novel, An Object of Beauty, about the New York art world from 1993 to the present. Art is a subject he knows well, having first collected 19th century American artists, then modern art, then contemporary, and today, as he describes it, he’s “all over the place.” He’s shown his collection at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, and has even donated $1 million to the Huntington Library for their American art collection. He’s also preparing for the release of his new movie about competitive bird watching, The Big Year, costarring Jack Black and Owen Wilson. When his banjo-playing tour ends, he’s off to vacation in Greece with Anne Stringfield, his wife of three years (his second marriage).  So, he’s a busy guy.

“Get to Nashville if you can,” my editor says, “it would be fun to see you and Steve Martin hanging out, doing the town.”

Yeah, that would be fun. Except I know something my editor doesn’t.  Steve doesn’t get out that much. And he doesn’t “do” towns. He plays them, yes. But the adjectives that best describe the off-camera, off-stage, Steve Martin are these: private, polite, shy, serious, and distant.  Tommy Smothers, who once hired Steve to write for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late ‘60s, once said of him, “To spend time with him is like being alone.” This might be hard to fathom when you think of the Steve Martin who has hosted Saturday Night Live 15 times; where he and Dan Aykroyd played the wild and crazy Czech Festrunk brothers; or where he dressed up as King Tut in full Egyptian pharaoh regalia to perform his “King Tut” disco song which eventually sold over a million copies. Or the Steve Martin who in his stand-up act put a trick arrow through his head, or juggled kittens or invited the 20,000 people who came to see him at huge venues to join him for milk and cookies after the show.  It doesn’t jive with the writer of the tongue-in-cheek New Yorker pieces with titles like: “The Sledgehammer: How It Works” and “The Paparazzi of Plato.” The Steve Martin who hosted the Oscars three times isn’t the Steve Martin you meet when you sit down with him.

I know. Because I’ve sat across from Martin at his office before he became a movie star; on the set of his first movie The Jerk; on the set of L.A. Story; at my house when he came uninvited for dinner (well, Diane Keaton, who was invited, invited him without letting us know, which was OK because at the time my wife and I were at odds with our 16 year old daughter who wanted to spend the summer in Paris with her boyfriend, and when Steve and Diane came, it was amusing because they kept giving us advice, since they were paired in Father of the Bride and thus felt they understood the travails of parenting even though neither were married or had kids at the time); at his house when he invited me, playwright David Mamet, and novelist Joyce Carol Oates for dinner; and at my writing class at UCLA, where my students had the same expectations as my editor, assuming, incorrectly, that Steve Martin is a naturally funny, wild, and crazy guy.

That persona is what made him a millionaire and wildly popular. But that’s not who Steve Martin is. His 2007 bestselling memoir, Born Standing Up, paints a truer picture of the life of a stand up comedian, where he recalls the height of his success as “the lonleliest period of my life.” My flying off to Nashville to hang with Steve Martin would be no different than my calling Steve on the phone to have a conversation with him.  Either way, we’d be doing the exact same thing: sitting very still in one room talking seriously.  I would try to be his straight man, throwing up potentially funny scenarios hoping he would hit them out of the ballpark.  And Steve would analyze them philosophically, because that’s what he does, that’s how he is.  Steve Martin majored in philosophy at Long Beach State College.  He figured out early on how to put twists on everyday situations and poke fun at them.  But deep down, he did it in a philosophical vein. (In one of his routines he noted that “If you’re studying Geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all…but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.”)

What Martin wanted to accomplish with his zany material—putting his nose on a microphone and just standing there doing his nose-on-the-microphone routine; getting “happy feet” on stage—was making people laugh without their knowing exactly why what he was doing was funny.  “Laughter is the most peculiar emotional response of all,” he told me when we first met. “It doesn’t relate even to joy, as tears relate to sadness and terror. But laughter is really a spontaneous act. It doesn’t even mean you’re happy. It’s a very strange commodity—laughter.”

When Martin turned 50, he said that he thought it was his last viable decade. “In a way it was true. Because at this age you just don’t get a certain amount of attention by default.  But I’ve had this miracle happen,” he now says. “I just turned 65 and I’m still in show business. I’m still getting offers. I’m busy all the time. This year I’ve written a novel, cut a record, toured, and made a movie. I’m very lucky.”

His record, The Crow, is perhaps what surprised him the most. “They’re all original songs for the banjo. It became a big hit in the bluegrass world. It won a Grammy.  It’s been in the top 10 on the Billboard charts for a year and a half, and was number one for thirty weeks.   So I went on the road with it, to see if I could do it working with a band called the Steep Canyon Rangers. I still do comedy during the concerts, but it’s gentler.  And we play music, so I’m not constantly on the hook , which can cause stress. We’re going to record another album of all original tunes again, another 14 songs which we think are even better than the first record.  Then I’ll be on the road next year promoting that, after the album comes out in January or February.”

He’s not yet sure when The Big Year, the movie he made with Jack Black and Owen Wilson, will come out, but he had “a great, great time” making it.  “I really like those guys. We had very good acting rapport. It’s  about competitive bird watching. It’s a sweet small film. Definitely not broad humor; the characters are real, the story is real, the relationships are real. It’s not a slapdash comedy, though we all get a little nuts. ”

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