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At His Ease

by Shawn Stone on April 6, 2011

A Conversation With Steve Martin

Palace Theatre, March 30

“Who cares?”

Steve Martin earned one of the biggest laughs of the “Conversation With Steve Martin” when he made this reply to a fan who asked, “What was the first song you learned to play on the banjo?”

Mean? Maybe. Funny? Undoubtedly. As a media colleague observed later, most audience Q&As lead nowhere; this was certainly true when the mics were opened up to the audience on this occasion. It didn’t sink the show, but Martin’s surprise at the banality of the questions was the tip-off that, for the man of the hour, this format is still a work in progress.

A Conversation With Steve Martin was billed as just that, an opportunity for an interlocutor, on this night WAMC’s Joe Donahue, and fans to ask the author-comedian-actor-director-musician questions about his multifaceted career. (Full disclosure: I have been a frequent guest on The Roundtable, which Donahue hosts.) The evening began with a fulsome and amusing introduction by Donahue, followed by a clip reel of Martin’s favorite bits.

The latter was oddly revealing, of both Martin and the audience; for example, there was a brief snippet from the dark Dennis Potter musical Pennies From Heaven, a notorious flop that Martin still values and his fans, judging from the silence which greeted the clip, do not. But mostly, the bits—from The Jerk, episodes of Saturday Night Live, Three Amigos, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, etc.—were quite funny and brought as many cheers as laughs.

The center of the large Palace Theatre stage was set up like a small parlor. Two plush chairs were set catty-corner to each other, with a small table topped by an impossibly high bouquet of flowers in between.

Martin came out, impeccably dressed (“as the face gets worse, the clothes get better,” he deadpanned), and sat down. Donahue tried, with mixed success, to ask questions, but Martin went where his memories and wit took him. There was some attempt at a career chronology, fleshed out with anecdotes that were consistently interesting or amusing or both. He covered bits from his writing and performing career on variety shows (imagine my surprise that I vividly remembered a funny skit he described writing for Sonny Bono and Tony Curtis on the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour), his stand-up success, appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the making of his first film, The Jerk. He described in detail how he came to his brand of punch-line-free comedy, and how early audiences reacted to it; he spoke with insight about how success essentially killed his comedy career.

But the evening didn’t have an even flow to it. And then there were the less-than-awesome audience questions. While I realize that plunking down $90 might make you feel that the Q&A session is all about you, it is not. By asking a question, you become a part of the show and thus assume a responsibility to the other members of the audience. You see, they also plunked down their $90, and it is incumbent on you to enhance the evening’s entertainment, not provide a testimonial or ask something pointless.

No matter. It was a fun evening, and in a few years, when A Conversation With Steve Martin shows run smoothly, we can say that we in Albany were the lab rats who helped make this possible.