Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Steve Martin

Steve Martin In The Spotlight
(By Richard Goodman, December 15, 2010)

Steve Martin has been in the news this past month because of a talk he gave and how the audience reacted to him not being wild and crazy or even slightly zany. Never mind the fact that the talk was done to help publicize the release of his new book, which is a dramatic tale set in the art world. His previous two books were also subdued ventures, although they were tinged with humor of the sly and intelligent type. If this current book, which I just bought, is anything like The Pleasure Of My Company or even Shopgirl, it will be well worth reading but I’m not expecting another Pure Drivel simply because that hasn’t been the direction he’s been going lately. I wish I had been at that discussion because I would have loved it, knowing what I do about his recent literary ventures and being eager to hear him discussing the art world. The audience at his talk didn’t seem to realize that though and had their expectations calibrated wrong. They tried to hold him accountable to their expectations rather than his own so everyone came out of the evening feeling disappointed. Martin felt so off-put that he wrote a letter to the New York Times to discuss the matter. Since I have such a high regard for Steve Martin’s writing and career (minus three or four of his movies), I wanted to share his letter to the Times plus a recent career evaluation I read back in March and just for good measure, I’m throwing in two of my favorite Martin pieces from a few years back (from Pure Drivel, I believe).


The Art of Interruption
(By Steve Martin, New York Times, Dec 4, 2010)

Last Monday, at the 92nd Street Y in New York, I took part in a conversation about a novel I had written. The book is set in the art world, and my conversation partner was Deborah Solomon, an art scholar and a writer for this newspaper, as well as a friend. Some years ago, she and I had conducted a similar conversation in Washington to discuss my art collection. It was lively and entertaining, and I couldn’t think of a reason that this evening would not go as well. Because it’s an honor to speak at the Y, we agreed to do the event for free.

When I arrived for Monday’s talk, I was informed that it would be telecast on closed-circuit TV across the country. What I wasn’t told was that the viewers were going to be encouraged to send in e-mails during the discussion; what I didn’t expect was that the Y would take the temperature of those e-mailed reactions, and then respond to them by sending a staff member onstage, mid-conversation, with a note that said, “Discuss Steve’s career.” This was as jarring and disheartening as a cellphone jangle during an Act V soliloquy. I did not know who had sent this note nor that it was in response to those e-mails. Regardless, it was hard to get on track, any track, after the note’s arrival, and finally, when I answered submitted questions that had been selected by the people in charge, I knew I would have rather died onstage with art talk than with the predictable questions that had been chosen for me. Since that night, the Y has graciously apologized for its hastiness- and I am pleased to say that I look forward to returning there soon, especially to play basketball.

Now let me try to answer the question you might be asking yourself at this point: was I boring? Yes, I might have been. In hindsight, I probably should have read a few pages from my book to give the audience a feel for it, and I did struggle with a few explanations. But I was not lazy and neither was Deborah. We were both working very hard at our task. I have no doubt that, in time, and with some cooperation from the audience, we would have achieved ignition. I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note. My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have.

But I can’t help wondering what we might have said if we hadn’t been stopped. Maybe we were just around the corner from something thrilling. Isn’t that the nature of a live conversation? It halts, it stutters, it doubles back, it soars. We might have found a small nugget, something off topic or unexpected, that wouldn’t have warranted the refund that was offered. If the e-mailers could have lived with “I am unamused” for just a little longer, or had given us some understanding based on past performance, or even a little old-fashioned respect, something worthwhile, unusual or calamitous might have emerged. Who knows, maybe I would have ended up singing my novel.


It’s me again. I don’t think I completely agree with the central assertion of this next article- that Steve Martin is successful because he is selling nostalgia, either for earlier eras or for his own earlier brand of comedy- but I do like the fact that it tries to pin down why Martin has become so respected and successful lately. I think his current relevance is a result of the fact that he is able to deftly go between – and sometimes mix- intelligent and lowbrow tastes. For example, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had many scenes of physical comedy but there were also many layers of plot and character motivation sandwiched between the gags. It was a convoluted, mind-melting con game in terms of both plot and execution but you laughed your ass of the whole time your brain was working through the machinations and that is just one instance from his canon. Roxanne and LA Story do the same thing but with a sweeter edge. The Spanish Prisioner does it with bitter edge and Shopgirl does it with a melancholic tone.

Also, I feel like Steve Martin is more in tune with the general population than many other actors or performers. Yes, he’s more intelligent than any of us, he’s richer and more famous, and even- oddly enough for a 60 year-old white haired man- more attractive than us but I get the sense that he also has a hole in his life that he is trying to fill, with love or acclaim or the pursuit of excellence. He keeps trying new things because he wants to master them and therefore achieve mastery over his life and the lurking chaos of the universe. Of course that is my opinion, the same as the following article is that writer’s opinion, both of which may be different than Steve Martin’s opinion so next time I talk to him, I’ll ask him to elaborate for me on what’s his motives are in life. Here’s the article, followed by a couple of essays from the genius himself.


Late-Period Steve Martin
(By Nathan Heller,, March 4, 2010)

How to understand the actor, novelist, essayist, playwright, banjo player, crotch-centric variety show performer, and Oscar co-host: For those who have some aspiration in the arts, this is a good time to aspire to be Steve Martin. The actor has spent so many hours on honorary daises of late that getting tapped to co-host the Oscars- this weekend he will lead the ceremony for the third time in a decade, more than any other recent host- seems less a tribute than a kind of expert summons. In 2005, Martin accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the closest thing to a lifetime achievement award that Washington bestows on funnymen. Two years later, he was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. His bluegrass album, meanwhile- The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo- earned him, just a few weeks back, his second banjo Grammy of the new millennium. This sounds like, but is not, the basis for a joke that Steve Martin might make.

To students of his comic style, this polymath success is unsurprising. Martin was born in 1945, and at first glance his career clings to the boomer outlook like a pair of tight plaid trousers: wild and crazy in the '70s, familial in the '80s, professionally venturesome in the '90s, and taken with quaint silver-years hobbies in the aughts. Blink and look again, though, and his path has all the consistency of a patchwork quilt. In the space of a few recent years, Steve Martin published two slim novels, co-wrote and starred in the critical bomb The Pink Panther, co-wrote and starred in the critical bomb The Pink Panther 2, exhibited his private art collection, wrote arch theatrical plays, continued to perform crotch-centric variety acts, pooled funding for a banjo-art show at the Corcoran, published introspective New Yorker pieces, and hosted the Oscars. His star, all the while, has climbed. While many actors Martin once played opposite have disappeared from marquees, tabloids, and the lower cable channels, he has grown into a dean of big-screen comedy, a standby and a classic who can still hold sway on the red carpet. This is impressive when you realize that the last time Martin starred in an outstanding comic movie, George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

What accounts for Martin's staying power? The answer emerges only when you stop trying to play pick-up sticks with his endeavors and instead focus on the direction they all point in. Martin is not chiefly a comic, or an actor, or a writer. He is a nostalgia artist. From the years of his first wild ascent, his signature has been to reach toward a lost cultural moment and remake it in his own time. The collision of those two worlds, past and present, gives his comedy its distinctive flavor. It also helps account for his success. Martin's nostalgia is, in fact, the broader cultural nostalgia of the late '70s; and it's only by tracing that era's effect on his style that you begin to see the pattern hidden in the multiform career. To conjure an image of Martin in the '70s is probably to see him in one of three settings: onstage in a white three-piece suit, inside a King Tut headpiece, or as one of the Festrunk brothers, the pair of Czechoslovakian rakes who grooved fearlessly through the Western bloc. These acts, though, were the endpoint of his climb. Martin started as a countercultural voice in the late '60s, writing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, then a bastion of provocative liberal humor, and living in what he describes, in his recent memoir, as "the hippie center of Southern California." He wore long hair, a beard, and what appears to be a couple of pounds of turquoise jewelry. Onstage, he told a lot of Nixon jokes. He came to be distrustful of the laughs they earned. "It had already become rote," he once explained. "I felt that it was time to change that. In a way, it was time to go back to something pre-this time- to a sort of wild, crazy comedy." In an era when George Carlin spoke truth to power in a T-shirt and a ponytail, Martin donned a suit and tie. He used props suggestive of childhood- juggling balls, magic kits, funny hats- and spoke wistfully of the chaos of "today's world."

This was the birth of Martin's nostalgic style- the reach toward a lost, more naive moment, conjured with a plainly stupid hat, or a goofy music act, or a slew of funny faces. What made this comedy so electrifying, though, was the foot Martin kept planted in the present. His act was famously an anti-act- the magic tricks fell flat, the banjo routines often died after a few halfhearted bars- but he also jostled audiences by subjecting them to a kind of culture shock. The nostalgia Martin purveyed was inherently compromised. His balloon forms were childlike in concept, yes, but they were shaped like venereal disease and shouted profanities when popped. His "happy feet" had the qualities of a psychopharmacological tic. By the late '70s (after a long and sometimes painful-to-watch refinement of his style), Martin's act was a virtuosic dance that reached for a quaint sensibility, then dunked it in the cold water of his own, post-liberation era.

There is a battle of worldviews at each comic turn here: one genteel, prudish, naive and the other as free and uncensored as the Me Decade allowed. Where you expect a lurid gesture, you get preschool finger goggles. Where Martin sets up a wholesome defense of monogamy, he pivots suddenly toward rude sexual insouciance. This isn't just the comedy of foiled expectations. It's the humor of a value system fleeing toward another era and then back again. Just as the white suit itself was a vexed symbol (did it represent profound conservatism or, a la John Lennon, the opposite?), Martin's buttoned-up-but-libertine, childlike-but-arrantly-adult routine was culturally equivocal. One moment, he seemed to be trying to force the '60s back into their box. A second later, he was sucking on his balloons to get high.

This cultural ambivalence- if not plain schizophrenia- was a product of the time when Martin developed his style. Just as his own path was an answer to the counterculture, the '70s were a braid of liberal regret, what-now confusion, and desire to graft the virtues of another, clearer time onto the present. Martin's brand of nostalgia runs like mica through the era's art. The time of his success as a perverted vaudeville act, for instance, was the time when Woody Allen started backing his modern-love movies with scratchy jazz recordings and recasting dissolute cities as big-band-era playgrounds. It was when Polanski and Altman brought neo-noir into the modern mainstream. And it was when Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie launched a new Realist generation- one whose subject wasn't the tortures of a strait-laced middle-class life but, instead, the struggle to salvage domestic community from a burnt-out counterculture.

Martin's unique resonance in that moment helps to explain his uncanny ascent. (In 1975, Martin was having trouble filling clubs; by 1978, he was playing to stadiums and gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.) When he made the transition to film- because, he has said, the heat of a stand-up career came to be too much, and too isolating, and he wanted the long-term security of a movie career (could any justification be more of its era?)- his reach toward a lost culture turned explicit. Martin's first feature, The Jerk, was the story of an idiot savant who goes from rags to riches and back via a series of echt-Americana settings: a rural shack, a gas station, a carnival. The soft center of the movie finds Martin and Bernadette Peters singing "Tonight You Belong to Me" on the beach with a ukulele and a Dixieland cornet—the lowbrow version, essentially, of Diane Keaton crooning "Seems Like Old Times." From there, Martin starred in Pennies From Heaven, a Depression-era period piece studded with song-and-dance numbers, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, a black-and-white noir spoof. Outwardly, these movies sought to buoy recession-era audiences with glamorized visions of previous lean years. But they worked because they teased out the elements of a known zeitgeist success- Martin's upended version of an old-style variety act- and carried them onto the screen.

Things changed in the '80s, of course- politically, culturally, economically- and in the next decades, Martin tried to make his nostalgic shtick work without its original counterbalance. His solution was to turn the nostalgia on himself. Martin's '80s movies often hearkened back to his stand-up act: singing and dancing open-mouthed in Little Shop of Horrors, making balloon shapes in Parenthood, staggering with mantis arms in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Increasingly, though, the movies just hearkened back to themselves: Was that scene you remember in Parenthood or Father of the Bride? All of Me or The Man With Two Brains? Who makes two disembodied-consciousness movies in two years, anyway? In fact, as Martin has grown less reliable about complicating his nostalgic impulses, his movies have developed a bizarre marshmallow quality: sweet, delightful, family-friendly, and almost endlessly preservable. Many seem bizarrely out-of-time. Is The Pink Panther worth reprising just because the original movies are retro, clownish, and warmly familiar? Without a cultural clutch to lock into, Martin's recreative gears spin toward schlock.

What Martin has lost on-screen over the years, however, he's recovered elsewhere. Much of his recent writing takes on the same conflicts of desire, cultural expectation, and historical idealism that made his early comedy so gripping. Shopgirl, his debut novella, opens with flight toward a lost culture ("When you work in the glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore"). It goes on to follow a questing twentysomething in L.A. who finds herself mysteriously drawn to a flukily successful, highly paid, middle-aged divorcé- make of this premise what you will- then suffers as their urban fairy tale unravels under the pressures of modern life. This attempt to negotiate between two worlds- one imminent, the other nostalgic- also animates Martin's autobiographical essays; and it's easy to see how the same impulse underlies most of the other eclectic pursuits enumerated on his blindingly nostalgic Web site. Let's be honest: What's more quaint, and out-of-time, and culturally beside-the-point than bluegrass?

To some extent, the Oscars were made for Steve Martin in his current incarnation: wistful for an older form of glamour, campy as Ed Sullivan, and based on the premise that charming familiarity is what viewers want. That much is probably true. When Martin takes the stage this weekend, he and Alec Baldwin will face off about who has hosted Saturday Night Live more times. He'll quip about the fact that he's never won a statue. His modern-day variety routine will have none of the edgy restlessness he once brought to the stage. We won't care. These days, we, like Martin, turn to other places for escape.

Article URL:

Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods
(By Steve Martin, The New Yorker, June 9, 1997)

Representatives of the popular Times Roman font recently announced a shortage of periods and have offered substitutes - such as inverted commas, exclamation marks, and semicolons - until the crisis is overcome by people such as yourself, who through creative management of surplus punctuation can perhaps allay the constant demand for periods, whose heavy usage in the last ten years (not only in English but in virtually every language in the world) is creating a burden on writers everywhere, thus generating a litany of comments, among them: "What the hell am I supposed to do without my periods? How am I going to write? Isn't this a terrible disaster? Are they crazy? Won't this just lead to misuse of other, less interesting punctuation???"

"Most vulnerable are writers who work in short, choppy sentences," said a spokesperson for Times Roman, who continued, "We are trying to remedy the situation and have suggested alternatives, like umlauts, since we have plenty of umlauts - and, in fact, have more umlauts than we could possible use in a lifetime! Don't forget, umlauts can really spice up a page with their delicate symmetry - resting often midway in a word, letters spilling on either side - and not only indicate the pronunciation of a word but also contribute to a writer's greater glory because they're fancy, not to mention that they even look like periods, indeed, are indistinguishable from periods, and will lead casual readers to believe that the article actually contains periods!"

Bobby Brainard, a writer living in an isolated cabin in Montana - who is, in fact, the only writer living in an isolated cabin in Montana who is not insane - is facing a dilemma typical of writers across the nation: "I have a sentence that has just got to be stopped; it is currently sixteen pages long and is edging out the front door and is now so lumbering I'm starting to worry that one period alone won't be enough - that I'll need at least two to finally kill it off - and if that doesn't work, I've ordered an elephant gun from Jessie's, and if I don't get some periods fast I'm going to have to use it..." The magazine International Hebrew has offered this emergency statement: "We currently have an oversupply of backwards periods and will be happy to send some to Mister Brainard or anyone else facing a crisis!" .period backwards the in slip you while moment a for way other the look to sentence the getting is trick only The

The general concern of writers is summed up by this brief telegram:

Period shortage mustn't continue stop

Stop-stoppage must come to a full stop stop

We must resolve it and stop the stoppage stop

Yours truly,

Tom Stoppard

Needless to say, there has been an increasing pressure on the ellipsis...

"I assure to you," said the spokesperson, "I assure you the ellipsis is not - repeat, is not - just three periods strung together, and, although certain writers have plundered the ellipsis for its dots, such dots are deeply inelegant and ineffective when used to stop a sentence! An ellipsis point is too weak to stop a modern sentence, which would require at least two ellipsis points, leaving the third dot to stand alone pointlessly - and, indeed, two periods at the end of a sentence would look like a typo, comprende? And why is Times Roman so important? Why can't writers employ some of our other, lesser-used fonts, such as Goofy Deluxe, Namby Pamby Extra Narrow, or Gone Fishin'?"

In fact, there is movement toward alternate punctuation; consider the New Punctuation and Suicide Cult in Southern Texas, whose credo is "Why not try some new and different kinds of punctuation and then kill ourselves?" Notice how these knotty epigrams from Shakespeare are easily unravelled:

Every cloud engenders not a storm

Horatio, I am dead

Remembering the Albertus Extra Bold asterisk embargo of several years back, one hopes the crisis is solved quickly, because a life of exclamation marks, no matter how superficially exciting, is no life at all! There are, of course, many other fonts one could use if the crisis continues, but frankly, which would you rather be faced with - Namby Pamby Extra Narrow or the bosomy sexuality of Times Roman? The shortage itself may be a useful one, provided it's over quickly, for it has made at least this author appreciate and value his one spare period, and it is with great respect that I use it now.

The Sledgehammer: How It Works
(By Steve Martin, The New Yorker, July 27, 1998)

Many of today's adults, who are otherwise capable of handling sophisticated modern devices, are united by a contemporary malady: sledgehammer anxiety. "I feel I'm going to break it," "The old ways still work for me," "This is where technology leaves me behind" are the most common chants of the sledgehammer-phobe. Much of the initial fear comes from a failure to understand just how it works. By attaching a "heavy-weighted slug" (one of the many terms for the blob of lead at the sledgehammer's terminus) to a truncated super-cissoid, you create a disproportionate fulcrum. In other words, if you're a TV set showing Regis promoting a diet book, and you're in a room with an angry unpublished poet holding a sledgehammer, watch out.

The novice sledgehammerer (from the German Sledgehammerammalamadingdong) must be familiar with a few terms:

Thunk: This is the sound that the "clanker" (street term for the heavy-weighted slug) makes when wielded against the "stuff" (see next).

Stuff: Things that are to be wanged (see next).

Wang: the impact of the clanker and the stuff.

Smithereens: The result of being wanged.

Many people are surprised to find out that the sledgehammer has only one moving part: it. Yet "Should I buy now or wait for the new models?" is a refrain so often heard from the panicky first-timer, who forgets that the number of sledgehammer innovations in the last three thousand years can be counted on one finger. There are currently two types of sledgehammers on the market: the three-foot stick with a lead weight on the end, called the "normal," and a new model, currently being beta-tested, which is a three-foot stick with a lead weight in the middle and is called the "below normal." But don't let the market confusion keep you from getting your feet wet. The longer you wait, the fewer things you'll demolish.

There is a natural fear of sledgehammers, says the National Sledgehammer and Broken Toe Society, which is charting the most common accidents and offers tips for the sledgehammer's safe use. The over-the-head position, for example, often leads to excruciating lower-body pain, caused when the sledgehammer wedges itself between the thighs at the end of the backswing. There is also the self-inflicted back-of-the-head knockout on lateral swings, which is very rare, and afflicts only - to use the researcher's lingo - "really dumb people." There are also cleaning accidents. A home hobbyist in Valdosta, Georgia, reported that while he was removing paint from his sledgehammer it suddenly went out of control and destroyed his living-room wall, even though he never let go of its handle.

Despite all these drawbacks, the world of the sledgehammer is rife with enthusiasts: "I find the sledgehammer very erotic," says Jane Parpardello, who is a stockbroker with Smith Barney and wants everyone to know that her home phone number is listed. "I think it's because my father was shaped like a sledgehammer: the long, wooden body, the big metal head. When I see a man with that shape, I want to pick him up and swing him against an apartment wall."

The sledgehammer king, Marty Delafangio, whose net worth is estimated a forty-two thousand dollars, was recently summoned before Congress to defend his reasons for attaching a mandatory Web browser to his market-leading product. "I smelled money to be made," said Delafangio. "The combination of a Web browser and a sledgehammer is a natural." Congress disagreed, and now the Web browser can be sold only as an optional addition, although in a compromise the powder-puff attachment remains.

In the last ten years, the sledgehammer has come into its own, finally recognized for what it is: a tool, a thing, and a heavy object. A hundred years from now, when technology has altered the sledgehammer's appearance to a sleek, digital, aerodynamic machine, it will no doubt function as it does today, toppling the mighty and denting the hard.