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Steve Martin: The Television Stuff

by Shawn Stone on September 26, 2012


In the 1970s, Steve Martin was one of those guys who remade stand-up comedy. While Richard Pryor and George Carlin were changing comedy from the outside, tackling topics and using language previously reserved for comics who “worked blue,” comics like Martin and Albert Brooks were undermining comic norms from inside the accepted tradition. Martin demolished show biz tropes—silly props, “sincere” banter—by presenting them in an ironic context.

You can get some sense of this from his early movies (The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains still “play”), but even better examples of Martin’s unvarnished (and influential) sensibility can be found on this new 3-DVD set from Shout! Factory. The Television Stuff collects his early stand-up specials for HBO and NBC, his variety and SNL-style NBC specials, and a compilation of short clips from over 40 years of TV appearances.

The place to start with this box set is disc 3, titled Bits and Pieces. It’s only 72 minutes long, and collects Martin’s appearances on late-night talk shows, Saturday Night Live, and award and tribute shows. It is a killer from first bit to last—including his goofy 1966 TV debut, telling corny jokes and playing the banjo on a local kids TV show. If nothing else, the bits, which jump from decade to decade and back again, show how consistently funny Martin has been. His particular brand of post-show-biz irony, which he has always mashed-up with utter silliness, wears well.

Two of the best are from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. From 1974, there’s a whacked-out, incredibly fast-paced parody of a typical slick Vegas entertainer that floors Carson and leaves Sammy Davis, Jr., dazed and confused; from 1992, Martin does a pantomime bit with a puppet peeking out of his crotch that leaves Johnny weeping with laughter. The first is an example of his cutting-edge stuff, with Martin making fun of a show biz institution that didn’t know it was dying; the second is a long, drawn-out, very clever dick joke that softens its attack by being mashed-up—in a frankly sentimental manner—with an older comedy tradition.

The best clip, however, is first: Martin’s 2000 acceptance speech for one of those “lifetime achievement” comedy awards that are handed out frequently and indiscriminately. Martin’s deadpan “thank yous” build in absurdity to a climactic joke that should have caused the entire genre of phony-baloney awards to spontaneously combust.

The other discs are just as watchable, if less consistently yuk-filled. The Stand-up Specials captures Martin in an L.A. comedy club on the cusp of stardom in his 1976 HBO debut On Location, and at the peak of his popularity in Homage to Steve, which includes an entire 1979 performance at the Universal Amphitheatre.

On Location is somewhat rough. The material is coming together, the familiar elements are all there—the arrow through the head, the banjo, the failed magic tricks, the dick jokes—and, as Martin explains in an interview extra, he and the audience are starting to recognize that “something” is happening. Three years later, the Universal Amphitheatre show is almost a “happening” in the old 1960s sense; Martin and the audience are on exactly the same wavelength. It’s something to see, and an interesting document of a kind of superstar stand-up phenomenon that has never quite been repeated.

The selection of NBC Specials reflects Martin’s variety-show background—he wrote for The Smothers Brothers Hour, The Sonny and Cher Show and Cher sans Sonny—and his success on the early years of Saturday Night Live.

“Just remember, Steve: No one is watching.”

That, Martin remembers in one of the interview segments, was what one of the producers of his TV specials said to him at a particularly intense moment on the set, when Martin was trying to make a bit as funny as it could be. What the producer meant was that the special would air once, and the next day it would be completely forgotten.

A Wild and Crazy Guy (1979) is presented in a condensed version, minus footage from his stage act that’s featured in the Universal Amphitheatre set. What’s left is choice, though, including a western-movie parody that presents Martin as a would-be “turtle boy,” a featured rider on the turtle rodeo circuit. (It’s as dippy as it reads, believe me.) 1980’s Comedy Is Not Pretty is even better. Regis Philbin appears in a fake PSA that illustrates the dangers of “drunken steamroller driving” (Martin flattens a soccer-playing kid); Martin and a group of chimpanzees re-enact Marty Robbins’ cowboy ballad “El Paso.” All Commercials (also 1980) is the closest to being an actual variety show, with skits, songs and production numbers—albeit a really dark variety show about the evils of American advertising. You may have to have been a ’70s TV kid to find it as hilarious as I did, but there’s a great deal of fun to be had watching Martin work alongside Steve Allen cohort Louis Nye, “Huggy Bear” Antonio Fargas, June Lockhart’s daughter Anne, and a young Paul Reubens. Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever (1981), his final TV special, lives up to its name: It’s essentially an episode of Saturday Night Live with Dan Aykroyd, Larraine Newman and cameos by Bill Murray and John Belushi. Plus, there’s a film by frequent SNL host Eric Idle. The most joyful moments are in Martin’s dance duets with Gregory Hines, which point to Martin’s song-and-dance turn a few years later in Pennies From Heaven.

The extras include brief interview segments with Martin, and a booklet featuring an essay by the New York Times’ Adam Lipak. The set is as well produced as the elements—which are of varying visual quality—allow. The import thing, however, are the laughs—and the set provides plenty of those.