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.
I use the word “is” advisedly here. It is a sad but true fact that, at least in terms of his movie career, Steve has been in a slow but steady decline for about fifteen years. This year he will be appearing in the Pink Panther remake — a colossal train wreck in the making — and in… I can barely bring myself to type these words… Cheaper by the Dozen 2.
But I am willing to forgive Steve these indiscretions, because he appears to have given up on the idea of making good movies, choosing instead to appear in whatever crap Hollywood is making this year, collect the large paycheck, and add to his art collection. I find this kind of sad, because I still believe that he could be making good movies if he really wanted to, but he appears to have made a strategic decision to put as little effort as possible into films so he can concentrate on writing instead.
There’s something noble about that in an age where the trend is so completely away from everything literary. Every writer wants to be a movie star, whether secretly or openly; here’s a movie star who wants to be a writer. Is a writer. In addition to the seminal Cruel Shoes, Steve is the author of Pure Drivel, a second book of short comedy pieces; a novel called The Pleasure of My Company; two plays, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and WASP; and the novella Shopgirl.
The movie version of Shopgirl, starring the man himself, is coming out soon, and it is on this that I pin whatever slim hopes I have of Steve once again making a good film. Since it is based on his own book, and he took the time to write the screenplay himself, it seems possible that Steve will actually try in Shopgirl, and that it will not suck.
But no matter; Steve can keep churning out lame movies for the next three hundred years, and that won’t make him any less of a god. My plan is to devote this week’s entries to an appreciation of all the good things Steve has done over the years, and in order to save the beloved early stuff for last, I’m going to start with the most recent and move backwards.
Here’s a piece that Steve wrote earlier this year for the Washington Post. It shows that he can still be effortlessly, fantastically funny when he wants to be:
A Few Words on the Passing of Dave Barry's Column
By Steve Martin
January 2, 2005
Dave Barry is going on an “indefinite hiatus” only to attract attention to himself. Not famous enough, Dave? Why don’t you go on hiatus! Oh, and make it indefinite. That’ll grab some headlines.
Dave says he wants to spend more time with his family. But I hesitate to tell you that Dave’s family is a hash pipe and some old Playboy magazines. Yes, Dave has written many funny essays that have appeared in our nation’s newspapers. However, most of his material is plagiarized from his own mind. Often, a funny idea will come to Dave, and then he will use that idea in one of his columns. Also, he will sometimes have a perfectly legitimate sentence, and then twist that sentence all out of shape so it will read funny. Another device that he uses is the old trick of putting the punch line at the end of the sentence or paragraph. These tactics are abhorrent.
And, by the way, you know how he often says, “And I’m not making this up?” Well, he made that up. Dave Barry, and I am not making this up, loves Satan.
Yes, he’s really going on hiatus to give himself more time to worship Satan. When you think of all the Daves in the Bible, most of them are Satan worshipers. The snake, if you recall, was named Dave. And who is it who often takes a hiatus? Satan. Remember the movie, “Satan Takes a Hiatus”?
Also, Dave Barry plays in a band with Stephen King. Stephen King does not play music with people unless they’re able to shine beams of light from their eyes that can set fire to wastebaskets. And I’ve seen Dave at dinner parties light people’s cigarettes just by glaring at them, or sometimes he’ll just reheat fondue.
But I will miss Dave. I’m going to miss every Sunday morning when I would run outside and get the paper and read his column and laugh out loud and feel sick with envy because he’s so funny. Now I’m just going to have to settle for knowing that he’s still there, in Florida, being funnier than all of us put together, but that the rat is keeping it to himself.
And here’s Steve’s heartfelt tribute to Johnny Carson, which I stole from the New York Times:
The Man in Front of the Curtain
By Steve Martin
January 25, 2005
This letter comes a little late.
I remember seeing the tape of my first appearance on your show, on a home recording, a reel-to-reel Sony prototype video recorder, probably around 1972. What my friends and I ended up watching was not me, but you. It’s almost impossible to look away from oneself onscreen, but you made it possible, because there were lessons in what you did. You and Jack Benny taught me about generosity toward other comedians, about the appreciation of the plight of the pro, as valuable as any lessons I ever learned.
Your gift — though I’m sure you wouldn’t have called it a gift — was, as I see it, a blend of modesty and confidence. You wanted to do the job and do it well. You allowed the spirit of your idols, Stan Laurel and Jonathan Winters among them, to creep into you, and you found a way to twist their inspiration and make it new. In you I saw simplicity, joy, politeness, sympathy. Your death reminds me of the loss of America’s innocence, the distance we have come from your sly, boyish leers to our flagrant, overstated embarrassments for parents and children.
If I could wake you up for a minute, I would ask you to tell me how good you thought you were. “Between you and me,” I think you would whisper, “I know I was great in a subtle, secret way.” I think you would also say: “I enjoyed and understood the delights of split-second timing, of watching a comedian squirm and then rescue himself, of the surprises that arise from the fractional seconds of desperation when the comedian senses that the end of his sentence might fall to silence.”
Your Nebraskan pragmatism — and knowledge of the magician’s tricks — tilted you toward the sciences, especially astronomy. (Maybe this is why the occultists, future predictors, spoon-benders or mind readers on your show never left without having been challenged.) You knew how to treat everyone, from the pompous actor to the nervous actress, and which to give the appropriate kindness. You enjoyed the unflappable grannies who knitted log-cabin quilts, as well as the Vegas pros who machine-gunned the audience into hysterical fits. You were host to writers, children, intellectuals and nitwits and served them all well, and served the audience by your curiosity and tolerance. You gave each guest the benefit of the doubt, and in this way you exemplified an American ideal: you’re nuts but you’re welcome here.
We loved watching baby tigers paw you and koalas relieve themselves on you and seeing you in your swami hat or Tarzan loincloth, and we loved hearing Ed’s ripostes and watching you glare at him as though you were going to fire him, but we knew you weren’t.
We, the millions whom you affected, will weep inside when we see the reruns, the clips of you walking out from behind the curtain, the moment in the monologue when a joke bombed; we’ll recall your deep appreciation of both genuine and struggling talent.
Because you retreated into retirement so completely, let me thank you, in death, for the things I couldn’t quite say to you in life. Thank you for the opportunity you gave me and others, and thank you — despite divisive wars and undulating political strife — for the one hour a night across 30 years of American life when we were entertained purely, delightfully and wisely.