Steve Martin remains the quintessentially—if not indeed the first major—southern Californian stand-up comedian. If his humor at first appears to disavow the comic’s sworn duty to acknowledge expectations before overturning them (so many of his jokes are free-floating punchlines), consider what might have passed for “normative” behavior in the land of crowd-pleasing simulacra where his youth was spent. He was raised in Orange County, introduced to magic and theater in Anaheim’s theme parks, and, later, educated in philosophy at Long Beach. Sun-baked highway tentacles, meanwhile, stretched up the coast to the experiential playhouse of 1960s San Francisco, and into the barren east, toward Las Vegas’s mirage-like meretriciousness, where vaudeville and vocal pop were choking to death between oceanic stretches of hot and strange sand. And then, of course, there’s Los Angeles itself, where as the joke goes few natives actually succeed, a truism eternally enforcing a sense of outsidership on residents too close to the action to see the fun in it.
And from this peculiar mix of opportunity and alienation, Steve Martin is spawned: a non-Jewish funnyman who eschews both the folkways-needling prurience of Lenny Bruce and the hyperaware hipster rap of George Carlin. He instead takes the stage with a banjo (since he can actually play it, it’s an anti-prop) and one of those cheap plastic-arrow-through-the-head gag-rigs. He occasionally cites social particulars: Drug use is skewered in the brilliantly faux-colloquial “Let’s Get Small” bit, smoking bans in another. But he does so gently; the backward goal is to illuminate the myopic club life of his persona rather than the oddness of our world. “My name is Steve Martin,” he reminds us after a few jokes. “And I’ll be out here in a minute.” The only other popular comic who reveled in such self-deprecating dada was Woody Allen—who, interestingly enough, also got his start as a gag writer (Allen for Jack Benny, Martin for the Smothers Brothers) and whose ultimate goal was also filmmaking. But Martin’s primary joke, unlike Allen’s, was comedy itself—or, at least, the weird, hammy, “work the crowd” ethos that had been called comedy in stage acts and on TV variety shows for years.
Martin’s stage act—and to a lesser extent his later sketch work, both documented for posterity in Shout! Factory’s new DVD set—pivots on his character’s “anti-performer” quality, a joke requiring an audience that is not starved for entertainment. Los Angeles is full of unfunny failures; Martin’s daring was to die on stage repeatedly with grace. In his early routines, he stammers and bumps the mic and lectures about “professional show-business” and promises to “get the show started” and turns the most pedestrian of objects into broken-down props, like the stool that refuses to get sucked into Martin’s lungs the way he assures us it did a few nights ago. Martin’s ascent to unthinkable but well-deserved celebrity in the mid-‘70s now appears predicted by his character’s very awkwardness toward celebrity. The jokes are improved by the incongruous energy of large crowds who seemingly show up to make Martin’s poor, piddling jokes look even funnier—who endorse his non-comedy in droves so they’ll be “in on the act,” like the gullible townspeople in Huck Finn that make celebrities of conmen before tarring and feathering them. Martin’s shtick is no con, but it requires a similar (and stimulating) suspension of taste to enjoy.
As Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up bemoans, however, the success of this humorous posturing also very nearly precluded his evolution as an entertainer-artist. Not only would audiences have trouble taking a man prone to spurts of “Happy Feet” seriously as an actor, but Martin’s skills as a language-oriented punchline writer didn’t immediately gel with the conceptual nature of mid-‘70s sketch comedy or the narrative cohesiveness of film. The Television Stuff valuably tracks Martin’s transition through the former and into the latter by way of his yearly, Saturday Night Live-like variety specials. True to his L.A. roots, several of his skits spoof methods of personal conveyance. (In one, Martin buys a sedan that’s in perfect condition but upside down, then heads straight for the drive-thru; in another, he plays a rodeo performer who’s famous for riding bucking tortoises.) Others mock odd intersections of high and low in SoCal’s—and by proxy, New York’s—obstreperously middlebrow culture: Martin, fearing that a string quartet will bore a television audience, punctuates and enlivens a chamber concerto with dances and juggling; the “Wild and Crazy” Festrunk Brothers attend a feminist art exhibit hoping to cash in on Bohemia’s sexual permissiveness.
Martin’s comedy has been occasionally misunderstood as “gentle,” a judgment passed more often on his films (Roxanne, L.A. Story), but that varyingly applies to his earlier work as well; little boys may get pancaked by steamrollers in some skits, but Martin’s cerebral absurdity leant itself to a strangely anachronistic lack of prurience. This too, however, fits the presumed goals of Martin’s low-rent clown. If one’s act is lousy, he might as well render it suitable for all ages and discriminations, right? Good comedians seek to conquer coveted demographics; poor comedians want the world, and sometimes get it. (Think of Carrot Top’s ubiquity.)
Appropriately, the vice that fuels Martin’s stand-up and sketch personality is one that even children, especially southern Californian children, can relate to: greed. “I love money,” he says in his act. “I want to eat it.” Avarice, to Martin, makes the world go ‘round. In his first, Oscar-nominated short film, “The Absent-Minded Waiter,” Martin plays the titular character, a server who subjects restaurant-goers Buck Henry and Teri Garr to all sorts of culinary abuse. But they accept the punishment, because at the end of the meal, the topsy-turvy waiter pays them the total of their bill and then some. Total humiliation for the sake of the almighty dollar: What better description of show business is there?
Ah, pre-digital television. It's doomed to suffer in high definition by virtue of its interlacing alone. Still, Shout! Factory's transfers are quite clean, respectfully reproducing the hot colors of late-night comedy back in the day, and a significant improvement over whatever VHS copies of these specials you might have lying around. The sound mixes are equally clear, though there's tremolo in some of the older material, probably due to wear in magnetic tape masters.
Steve Martin's brief comments on each disc are mostly flippant introductions; recalling his stand-up years for the memoir he penned was an obviously painful process he isn't eager to repeat. Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of this set gives much of the odds-and-ends style content the feel of a supplement, and there's an entire disc devoted to brief snippets that span from Martin's very first banjo-playing TV appearance (on Dusty's Attic) to his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize. ("I'm trying to remember that Mark Twain quote...how does it go? Oh, yes...'Whatever you do, for the love of god, don't name a prize after me.'") Furthermore, it would disrupt the flow to mention anywhere else in this review, but the funniest segment on the entire set has absolutely nothing to do with Steve Martin; Eric Idle, on loan from his Rutland Weekend days, ponders whether or not Stonehenge was built by dinosaurs in a special contribution to Steve Martin's Best Show Ever. That Martin would allow a Monty Python veteran to upstage him says a lot, if not quite as much as visual aids that depict the hole-digging triceratops, rock-lugging brontosaurs, or Tyrannosaurus rex "looking gaily on."
As Steve's grandmother would say: Be oblong and have your knees removed.