Steve Martin: The Method to his Madness

UPDATED: May 9, 2011
PUBLISHED: May 9, 2011

In the month or so leading up to a string of guest appearances on the television talk-show circuit this past spring, Steve Martin was writing material. New material.

You can’t take your best stuff from the ’80s and go up against guys like Letterman and Colbert. Not in this day and age.

A one-liner here. An arched eyebrow there. Some deadpan to round things out. The little bits and bites ran through his mind for weeks, and Martin did what he does when he’s preparing for something: He thought about it all the time.

“It’s really an iceberg situation,” Martin says. “You see 10 percent of what goes into it.”

An icon who has shown the world, not to mention himself, that he can do pretty much anything—write, act, play music, wow crowds with the funny business that had us all at “Hello” years ago—Martin might be a Man Wonder. He not so long ago played against Meryl Streep in the movie It’s Complicated. He has a new record out, and on it, Paul McCartney performs the song “Best Love,” which Martin wrote. His last novel, An Object of Beauty, is filled with the kind of fascinating fiction and lyrical writing that makes book club mavens go weak in the knees. But none of it is whimsy.

Rest on your laurels? What’s a laurel?

And while you and I might think a guy like Steve Martin would have 10 minutes of humorous banter stashed in his back pocket, right there for the ready—Come on, just open the old prop trunk, slap that arrow on your head and go live with “Excuse me!” No, this is not the way he’s wired. “I like to go out there prepared,” he says simply.

When Martin does things, he likes to do them with confidence, and he likes to do them right. And he likes the warm and happy thrill that comes from doing the above. Besides, what’s better than cracking up Letterman? (Which he did.)

“I wouldn’t do any of this stuff, believe me, if I didn’t think I was doing a good job,” says Martin, who gave us time one Monday evening, making the phone call himself, no assistant or agent on the line to haughtily announce: “Please hold for Mr. Martin.”

“I certainly wouldn’t do a music album if I thought it was a celebrity album. I just wouldn’t.”

And that’s why Steve Martin, 65, is Steve Martin, still changing it up. Sure he could retire. But where’s the challenge in that?

The Daily Grind

Steve Martin is prolific. There’s really no other way to put it. Earning his first Emmy Award in 1969—a staff award that went to the writers on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—he’s worked in the industry at an impractical pace. Since breaking in with his first short film in 1977, The Absent-Minded Waiter, a piece of humor featuring Martin, Teri Garr and Buck Henry that’s still brilliant today, Martin has been in 41 major motion pictures.

He’s written or co-authored 10 of those 41 movies, appeared in two documentaries and had half a dozen onscreen cameos. Besides his screenplays, he’s also adept at getting essays and books published. Indeed, in recent years, this has been his accidental forte. (That, and music. Especially the music.) Martin’s books include one memoir, three compilations of his essays, three novels, two children’s books and two stage plays. He’s also published frequently in The New Yorker magazine. More recently, his zany online tweets have become almost as closely followed as those of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, the King and Queen of Twitter.

Martin tweets often, and it’s usually silly with a good social subtext. When he was (supposedly) called to jury duty in 2010, Martin created some funny bits as he, presumably, waited in the first-round pool with other Southern California jurors. (Martin has homes in New York and L.A.)

A few critics called this stream of jury duty postings one of Martin’s best performances in years, and even 20-year-olds—a demographic with no firsthand knowledge of his wild and crazy days—loved the clever missives, which Martin later said were meant to be a parody of society’s collective notion that anything goes in a tweet.

REPORT FROM JURY DUTY: Defendant’s hair looks very Conan-y today. GUILTY!

REPORT FROM JURY DUTY: Attorneys presenting “evidence.” Since when are security photos, DNA, and testimony evidence? Trusting intuition.

REPORT FROM JURY DUTY: Lunch Break. Discussing case with news media gives me chance to promote my new book.

It’s one thing to tweet a line here and there, audition the material, if you will. But what about his more serious work? How does he do everything that he does? Super vitamins? Afternoon naps? Copious lists? Ten assistants? Insomnia? A 16-ounce Red Bull first thing in the morning?

Martin, who, by the way, is incredibly soft-spoken, polite and willing to spend time on the telephone without uttering even one canned one-liner, can’t quite nail down what makes it come together. He just knows he’s not perfect, and he likes pointing that out.

“I’m not as disciplined as you might think,” he says. “I actually love what I do; it’s quite easy to be what others might call ‘disciplined.’ I love playing music. I love writing. And I love performing.”

Loving what you do? So that’s the answer!

Multimedia Martin

Steve Martin might be cerebral. He might play a mean banjo. He might even write fantastic fiction. But he’s also funny. Really funny. Still really funny.

So last September, thousands of fans were happy when Martin started his own Twitter account, SteveMartinToGo. The blogosphere is where the 65-year-old Martin flaunts his hipper, still-hilarious self, and Internet observers who watch such things often rave that Martin is one of the savviest Twitterers around. Indeed, Martin quickly learned how to debut jokes in Twitter’s often-limiting 140 characters or less.

This spring, when a cobra went missing from the Bronx Zoo, Martin jumped on Twitter: An Egyptian cobra has escaped and is hiding in the Bronx Zoo. I’m sitting in my King Tut hat by the phone awaiting their call for help.

Then, hours later: Phone rings. Caller ID: Bronx Zoo. I put on King Tut hat, ready for action. It’s the snake. Hard to hear. Lots of hissing on line.

From the edgy, slightly inappropriate humor that never seems to cross to a groan—OMG. President Lincoln has been shot! Wait, whoa, my Internet connection is SUH-LOW—to just plain silly Steve. Just saw a duck in the shape of a cloud—Martin loves using Twitter as a way of reaching out. And each tweet digs below his self-proclaimed shyness.

Whether he’s wearing plaid polyester pants and being wild and crazy, pretending he’s the mind-addled Ruprecht in the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or busting Alec Baldwin’s chops—the two are friends and have made a bit out of their competitiveness—Steve Martin is around, 24-7, making us chuckle.

Going to bed now. It’s late. Wait, I’m in Korea. It’s noon. Hey, let’s have lunch!

By the way, it’s a beautiful day where I am. I only wish I were where I am.

‘I Like to Get Things Done

Then, of course, Martin has to throw in his work ethic, which has been serving him well since he was a kid selling guidebooks at Disneyland.

He’s a 9-to-6 kind of guy, no groggy 5 a.m. sit-downs so he can make a deadline. Indeed, he is not exactly deadline-driven. “I like to get things done,” he says.

He used to make lists the old-fashioned way, on paper, but he “didn’t really consult them,” so he stopped. Martin does his writing at the computer, unless he’s using an application on his iPhone to make note of an idea—funny, insightful, silly, you name it. With music now being such an important part of his career, and thus his life, he can also record lyrics or banjo bits and send the audio to his collaborators, who these days are the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Steep Canyon Rangers and Sir McCartney himself.

With that said, here’s a tiny piece of Steve Martin insight, culled with care during our talk. “Isn’t the computer wonderful?” Martin says at one point, rather dreamily, apparently thinking of his iPhone apps and all their clever ways. “Think what Leonardo could have gotten done…”

Given Martin’s love for art, I’m assuming he was referring to da Vinci.

When Martin is working, and it seems he always is, he parcels out the projects. “I don’t do them all simultaneously,” he says. “If I’m writing a book, I’m dedicated to that. And that does take dedication, although I like to come back and reread it and get a fresh view. Sometimes, one thing inspires another.”

You just have to be patient, he says, and wait it out. “It’s amazing the number of times I am thinking of something else or a problem, and suddenly a joke will come out,” he says. “It’s like a part of your brain needed to not think about it.”

Still, phone apps or not, Martin appears quite, well, human, despite his 41 movies, 10 screenplays and 11 books and plays.

“I can waste as much time as anyone,” he says. “Cleaning out my computer, cleaning out my closets. On Letterman once, he asked me, ‘How do you do all this stuff?’ And I told him, ‘Well, I don’t have a job.’ ”

Which isn’t exactly true, but procrastinators worldwide will certainly appreciate Steve Martin throwing them a bone.

Finding the Magic

Steve Martin was born in August 1945, in Waco, Texas. He had one older sister, a stay-home mom who loved fashion and glamour, and a dad who moved the family to Hollywood in 1950 because he wanted to pursue acting. Glenn Vernon Martin got a job at a local fruit market, acted in some regional plays and took his anger and disappointment out on his family, particularly his son, Steve. In his memoir, Martin writes that he and his father had a relationship based on distance and fear. Once, when he was very young, his dad took him outside to throw the ball around. Martin says he was so confused by this overture, he wasn’t quite sure how to behave.

“I’ve heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts,” Martin says in his memoir, Born Standing Up, after writing about a beating that pushed the teenaged Martin over the brink and caused him to basically stop speaking to his dad until nearly three decades later. “I tell you this story of my father and me,” he writes, “to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”

While the move from Texas to California was designed to benefit his father, Martin himself was the long-term beneficiary. And it was a place called Disneyland that came to the rescue.

Although it might seem unthinkable now—in these times of toddlers on leashes, and GPS car-tracking systems and constant contact with our children through texts and cell phones—young Steve Martin climbed on his bicycle and peddled straight away, two miles from the family’s often unhappy home, to this new place called Disneyland. He was 10 years old.

Bartering the deal completely on his own, no helicopter mother at his side, Martin landed himself a job selling guidebooks to awestruck locals and tourists. The pay was $2 a day, which he says felt like a million bucks. More important, though, it opened up a world of make-believe and magic.

The magic—in the literal sense—would eventually be Martin’s launching pad.

A Wild and Crazy Guy

From those very early years at Disneyland, when Martin would work the morning shift in his red-and-white striped shirt and then roam the park like some kind of rogue boy explorer, Walt Disney’s new creation in Anaheim was Martin’s self-proclaimed Shangri-La. He writes that he was naturally drawn to two attractions: Merlin’s Magic Shop and Pepsi-Cola’s Golden Horseshoe Review in Frontierland, where a guy named Wally Boag wowed crowds with his “hilarious trade of gags and offbeat skills such as gun twirling and balloon animals.”

“He wowed every audience every time,” Martin writes.

A Laurel and Hardy fan as a kid, preferring them over the more maniacal Three Stooges, this was the first time Steve Martin had ever watched a comedian perform, in person, and Boag remains one of Martin’s most influential mentors.

Martin stayed at Disneyland until he was 18, eventually landing a job in his beloved magic shop, learning rope tricks like Butterfly, Threading the Needle and Skip- Step. As a teenager, he consistently earned C’s in school. But he was happy working the small, in-and-out crowds at the magic store, and it was around this time that he landed his first gigs at Kiwanis and Cub Scout events.

From Disney, he got hired at Knott’s Berry Farm, an amusement park with an actual performance stage called The Bird Cage Theater. Here, Martin worked with real actors doing real comedy drama, performing four times a day. On Sunday, there were five shows. Since stage survival was of the essence, Martin began to piece together the absurdist repertoire that would eventually propel him to stardom during the late 1970s, with albums such as Let’s Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy. The success of all that still seems a bit surreal.

From his memoir: “I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining and four were spent in wild success.”

All along the way, Martin studied comedy and performance, making note of why people laughed, when they laughed, how long they laughed. Comedy was a science to him, with a definite ebb and fl ow, a peculiar philosophic mind-bend that he continues to try to unravel, even today, writing new material, tweeting a test-run, preparing, so he can take the stage on the spring talk-show circuit and wow the ladies on The View. (Which he also did.)

Re-Inventor or Renaissance Man?

With his 1979 movie The Jerk a huge success, Martin was poised for years of stand-up greatness. Crowds loved him. He was making money, which allowed him to begin indulging in an art collection that today is both renowned and expanding. He had become a Hollywood insider, privy to unimaginable connections. He liked hopping into a limo after a show instead of hailing a cab.

He was also very, very tired.

The arrow on the head. The getting small. The twisted balloons he wore like a silly crown. “My act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction,” he writes in his memoir. The end came after a gig in Las Vegas, when he looked up and saw the cheap seats empty for the first time in five years. After fulfilling his last booking in Atlantic City, N.J., Steve Martin pretty much did the unthinkable. He walked away from stand-up.

It was 1981. He’s never been back.

In an appearance at the 2007 New York Film Festival, Martin told an audience he didn’t miss one little thing about those performance years, calling the rigors of stand-up “a young man’s game.” During our talk, he says simply that it was time. He knew it was time. And he was lucky to have already begun creating his next self. “I knew I didn’t want to do stand-up anymore and I also had this whole other venue,” he says. “Movies.”

In the years that followed, Martin did, on average, two major motion pictures a year, several of them his own written works. He’s tied with actor Alec Baldwin for the most guest-host appearances on Saturday Night Live; they’ve both done 15. In 2007, when he married Anne Stringfield—a former fact-checker and writer for The New Yorker, Lorne Michaels was his best man. And still, there was more.

Pauline Kael, the late New York-based film critic with the famous biting tongue, once wrote: “Steve Martin seems to cross breed the skills of W.C. Fields with Buster Keaton with some Fred Astaire mingled in.” Indeed, Martin has amassed a career so impressively diverse that it’s difficult to believe it was planned.

Who could possibly map out such a life? The beautifully written novels, the plays—the debut reading of his first play took place in Martin’s Beverly Hills living room with Tom Hanks reading the role of Pablo Picasso—the art collection, the funny kids’ books. And now, the music.

The Pleasure from Succeeding

Was it planned? All of it? Any of it?

“Absolutely not,” he says. “Especially this music thing. This music thing just happened in the last three years.”

The banjo was a famous staple in Martin’s early years. Indeed, he’d taught himself to pluck away and continued to enjoy playing and writing music through his busiest movie years. But three years ago, Martin was invited to play with banjo legend Tony Trischka on Trischka’s new record. (Check it out on YouTube. Awesome.)

“That was definitely not planned,” Martin says, offering a laugh.

In 2009, Martin won his first music-based Grammy Award for his Bluegrass album, The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo. Martin says he put the record together after realizing he “had four songs, maybe five, and thought that might be enough for an album.”

Among banjo aficionados, Martin is a noted master of the difficult claw-hammer method, which involves all five fingers pressing down on the strings with the fingernails, rather than an upward picking stroke. When he was invited to play alongside Vince Gill and John McEuen on the main stage at the Grand Ole Opry, he wasn’t there because he’s a movie star. He was there because, man, this guy can play. He’s been invited back several times.

His latest album, Rare Bird Alert, was released March 15 on Rounder Records, and before its release, Martin traveled with the Steep Canyon Rangers on their “Rare Bird Tour.” A few critics called it Martin’s best musical performance.

As he sits and talks with me, the Renaissance man who’s adept at this re-invention thing takes a moment to reflect on his latest music, the tour and taking the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, where so many greats have played.

“I do sort of get wowed by certain things,” he says, in his soft, this-is-really-me voice. “There’s Paul McCartney singing a song I wrote, and that is pretty cool that I’m even in the same room with Paul McCartney.”

But always, there he is, the kid from Disneyland with the striped shirt, the handsome young guy in the magic shop, the frenetic absurdist comedian who soared wildly to stardom and was able to decide: That’s that.

“The pleasure I get from succeeding still drives me,” he says. “I like to succeed. And when I say ‘succeeding,’ I don’t mean succeeding in a big way. I enjoy succeeding in a very small way. Whether it’s one joke or one song.

“Succeeding like that is nice.”

And nothing about it is wild and crazy.