The name of the music section of this blog — “Dancing about architecture” — is inspired by the oft-quoted line “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” In my description of the category I attributed this quote to Elvis Costello, but with something less than 100% confidence, because I was pretty sure I’d seen it attributed to others over the years. Today I ran across a Web page that credited Steve Martin, and so I decided to investigate.
Turns out there is no definitive answer to the question of who first uttered this pithy phrase. A very informative brief put together by one Alan P. Scott — which you can see here — dissects the matter in some detail.
THE STEVE MARTIN GENERATION
Steve Martin was born on this day in 1945. I was born in 1967, which means that I was about 10 when A Wild and Crazy Guy came out in 1977, placing me squarely in the middle of the Steve Martin Generation.
Yes, there is such a thing — you know who you are. Those of us who listened to Steve’s records (and those are 33 1/3 revolution per minute long-playing vinyl records I’m talking about) until we committed them to memory, we tend to recognize each other right away. And not just because we often have that portrait of Steve signed “Best Fishes” in our cubicles. No, it’s because we’ve had our minds permanently bent by being exposed to existentialist meta-comedy in our formative years.
So how does a kid from Waco grow up to warp a whole generation? Well, let’s begin at the beginning.
COMEDY IS NOT PRETTY
It’s a cliche that you hear over and over in various forms:
• Comedy is serious business
• There’s nothing funny about comedy
• Dying is easy; comedy is hard
But the cliche exists because it conveys an accurate point: The best comedy requires from the performer total commitment, strict self-discipline, and a willingness to go beyond the usual bounds of tact and good taste.
We, the fans, tend to fixate on Steve Martin’s early work — the albums, Saturday Night Live, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and so on — and why shouldn’t we? That stuff was stupendously great.
But if you asked Steve himself, I bet he’d tell you that his golden age was his middle period, from All of Me in 1984 up through L.A. Story in 1991. This was when he finally became a movie star.
THE LATE PERIOD
In trying to break up Steve’s career into distinct phases, I realized that it was going to be much more difficult than I thought to cram it into a single week. For instance, today’s topic will be Steve’s Late Period, which in the schematic that I’ve devised includes everything after 1991’s L.A. Story. That means covering 14 quite productive years in one fell swoop, which is downright disrespectful, but I’m afraid I’m left with no alternative.
I am unabashedly stealing the concept of the Late Period from a 1993 New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. This piece offers a lot of insight into why Steve de-emphasized his movie career in favor of other pursuits.
Steve Martin — actor, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, poet, philosopher, comedian, and number-one role model for the prematurely gray — will turn 60 on Sunday, August 14.
Steve ranks very high on the list of my personal deities. He was the funniest man on Earth for roughly a decade (by my estimation from approximately 1975 to 1987). But Steve is so much more than a comedian; he is a true polymath for whom comedy is the gateway into an exploration of all existence.