Steve Martin was one of the biggest names in standup comedy, but he hasn’t practiced the form in 35 years. In between, he’s been a folk musician, an art critic, a novelist, and whatever a Bowfinger is. The dude from Cheaper by the Dozen used to be the dude from L.A. Story who used to be the dude that had a hilarious song and dance number about a dead pharaoh.
There’s a real tragedy in how much of his career as a solo performer has been forgotten, but it’s also the cost of being such a prolific artist in other mediums over nearly four decades — even if that means more people know Martin for Cheaper by the Dozen than the groundbreaking work he did in alternative comedy.
Yes, the author of Shopgirl is a very important art man. And he’s suddenly back in his purest form.
Vulture published a piece about how Steve Martin returned to standup last night for a few minutes, opening for Jerry Seinfeld. This seemed like it might be a possibility, after Martin’s appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Jesse David Fox writes about the experience in the Vulture piece, describing the set thusly:
“So, how was he? It’s always hard to tell with celebrity drop-ins, because the audience gives them a pass for the first few minutes, laughing at everything in a way that is more like friends at a dinner party than an audience who paid to be there, and Martin only did a few minutes, but, looking back at the jokes themselves, I’d say he was mostly pretty good, occasionally almost great, and for one moment truly special. ‘I’ll be honest with you, right off the top, because I’m a little upset with the Beacon Theatre,’ one joke began. ‘I was backstage and I used the restroom. And there was a sign that read, “Employees Must Wash hands.”‘ Pause. ‘And I could not find [pause] one employee [pause] to wash my hands.’ Man, is that a classic Steve Martin joke. Reading it back, it might read overly jokey or cheesy, but that’s the point. Martin in his prime did comedy that made fun of comedy. He told jokes that were unfunny, but he knew they were unfunny, and the audience knew he knew, and that’s what made them funny. The difference is that last night, he didn’t have the same schlock-y, showbiz-caricature persona he made famous in the ’70s — he didn’t do some dumb dance afterward — but you could still see the intention. And his specific, off-kilter rhythm was there (which is why I transcribed the pauses), where he hides the punch line so the audience isn’t just being told when to laugh, allowing them to surprise themselves with when they laugh. A technique he pushed further with his next joke, the aforementioned special moment.”
Ugh. This just sounds so delightful. As someone who has seen Steve Martin live on a few occasions, there is an electricity in the air that makes you hang on every word. If you aren’t a fan, maybe this description doesn’t translate, but for me this hits all the right notes.
The real question now is whether this means Steve Martin is returning to standup or was this a rare one-off? Fox shares his opinion:
“After the show, my friend doubted whether this counted as a return to stand-up. Martin told jokes that he has probably been telling for years in between songs with his bluegrass band. And she was likely right about the jokes — especially considering he performed half the set sitting down with his banjo — but it was not the same thing. Steve Martin hasn’t performed stand-up in roughly 35 years — he hasn’t not been funny; he hasn’t not stood up and told jokes, say, at Saturday Night Live or some awards show — he hasn’t gotten onstage in front of an audience explicitly expecting stand-up and performed stand-up. Sure, you have to imagine any Steve Martin bluegrass audience is expecting jokes, but they also are mostly anticipating bluegrass. Last night, there were no expectations once he grabbed the microphone, and in that way, he was just like every other stand-up comedian performing in the city at the same time. The difference is maybe imperceptible to us, but it definitely wasn’t to Steve Martin.
If you want to get deeper into Martin’s comedy past, pick up his book Born Standing Up.