Steve Martin at 75: ‘The name Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr still makes me laugh’
Sarah Silverman, Reginald D Hunter and more on a ‘profoundly stupid, completely brilliant’ comic
Gloriously daft: Steve Martin as Dr Hfuhruhurr in The Man with Two Brains
He’s a master of slapstick, a surrealist clown, the don of comic film roles from Roxanne to The Jerk. As he turns 75, comics including Sarah Silverman, Reginald D Hunter and David Baddiel pay tribute to the hilarious majesty of Steve Martin
‘I wrote “I love Steve Martin” on my bedroom ceiling’
I fell in love with Steve Martin when I was 14. His standup, The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains… I loved him so much that I wrote “I love Steve Martin” on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom – and it’s still there.
I read that he loved an artist named David Hockney, so I loved David Hockney. I must have been the only 14-year-old in New Hampshire with all the months of a David Hockney calendar from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts pinned up on my wall. Gorgeous gay men in swimming pools framing the Steve Martin “Best Fishes!” headshot I had sent away for.
In the past decade or so, I’ve become friendly with him, and he is everything I’d hoped he’d be. Watching his friendship with Martin Short is wildly endearing. They adore each other, just really tickle each other to pieces. To see that admiration between friends, especially comedians – there’s something extra special about it. Like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. It’s a love for the ages.
I’ve been over to Steve’s house a couple of times – after speaking at his American Film Institute celebration and after speaking at Diane Keaton’s. After the one for Diane we went to Steve’s for grilled cheese and French fries and sat around to postmortem the night, which, I can tell you confidently, is all comedians’ favourite pastime. Let’s break it all down. Any comic will tell you they would much rather be talking in a diner about life than attend the chicest nightclub. We want to talk.
Steve took the role of host, starting conversations [chatshow host] Dick Cavett-style. Candice Bergen was there (their gang of friends is so cool) and Steve said: “Candy, when did you first meet Steve?” And she said: “I’ll never forget, I was with Lorne and Paul, and Steve was there, and he had never tried prosciutto…” Steve came in without a beat: “Can you believe it? And now I drive one!” And that, my friends, is why Steve Martin is the best.
‘He’s a yardstick for quality and taste’
I always liked Steve because he wasn’t brash or an extrovert showbiz type at all. When we worked with him for Monty Python’s 20th anniversary he was very much a quiet man.
I first heard of him when he was doing Saturday Night Live and he became a yardstick for good quality and taste. Everything he did, he did very, very well – dance routines, music routines – and he could be drily funny, too. He has a sense of humour that can go almost anywhere. Like some of the best performers, it wasn’t just an extension of his personality – you could see that he was so skilful and really honed his craft.
I found a diary entry from September 26th, 1980, when Python were in LA doing some shows at the Hollywood Bowl. Steve was a fan so he came along, and I wrote: “We went off to a party given to us by Steve Martin in Beverly Hills. His house turns out to be an art gallery, every wall is white, furniture is minimal, the rooms are doorless, quite severe in shape and design. It’s all quiet and rather lean and hungry – in fact just like its owner.”
‘He demonstrates how it’s smart to be silly’
For my high-school graduation gift, my mum bought me a copy of Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, believing it might guide me in my career (cough) in standup comedy. What she didn’t know is that it would also guide me into a lifelong crush on Steve Martin.
Every comedian likes to think of themselves as shy and misunderstood, when actually most of them are loud and incredibly predictable. But he has always struck me as a genuine introvert who was programmed wrong and given the unfortunate compulsion to create and perform for millions of people.
His film career is so impressive, it’s difficult to choose just one highlight. The dance sequence from Pennies from Heaven! The never-ending coffee-ground pour in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid! The slo-mo shower gag in LA Story! The iconic walk out from The Jerk! The time he went method for Cheaper By the Dozen and fathered 12 kids in preparation for the role… The list ends here.
The sharpness of his writing is never at odds with the utter goofiness of his physical performance – instead they work in tandem. He consistently demonstrates how it’s smart to be silly and it’s silly to be smart. A great example is his 1977 Oscar-nominated short The Absent-Minded Waiter, which is so profoundly stupid – and completely brilliant.
‘He’s my chief non-Jewish influence’
When I was 14 I found one of his CDs –Let’s Get Small – on a shelf at the Boston Public Library. A month later I’d listened to everything he had recorded. I was too young to identify the ham-fisted, populist-entertainer archetype he was sending up, but it was clear that he was blisteringly original.
Comics talk a lot about “finding their voice”. They mean some unique quality that marks them out as special. All the greats have that signature aspect. But how many can transmute that “voice” into acting? How about into novels, plays, short fiction, humour pieces? A musical? How about a series of bluegrass albums? Art criticism? Museum-quality acceptance speeches and talk-show appearances? The only good memoir ever written about standup? Only one.
The most appropriate comparisons to Steve aren’t comics; they’re artists such as John Baldessari, or architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m 31 now and a comedian. I enjoy Steve not just as a fan but as my chief non-Jewish professional influence. I’m no longer awed simply by the wattage of his talent but by its width, breadth and ambition. I love Steve Martin. There will never be another like him.
‘He’s America’s Eric Morecambe’
What I always find amazing about Steve Martin is that even though he became huge through SNL, and his own list of mentors includes a lot of talky Jewish standups like Jack Benny and Woody Allen, he seems to me to be the nearest thing America has to a great comic in the British surreal tradition, the one that stretches from the Goons through Freddie Starr via Reeves and Mortimer all the way to Stath Lets Flats.
He was the only American comic in his own time who didn’t do clever observations and jokes – almost the opposite: he went to places with no logic, that made no sense, and then relied on his own physicality and charisma to make it funny. What he is, despite being clearly an intellectual in private, is a great clown – but one who pits that clown against the smug trappings of showbiz, to undercut them.
I was watching a documentary about Laurel Canyon recently and discovered that, in the late 1960s, he used to support bands at the Troubadour. They showed footage of a bit where he begins to tell a joke but then gets too close to the microphone, knocking it over and hurting himself.
It was a refreshing drop, in the midst of a lot of self-serious hippy sincerity, of pure comedy, and I found myself, as I always do when watching Martin, laughing out loud. To come back to what I said at the start, he’s the nearest thing America has ever had to Eric Morecambe, and I can’t offer higher praise than that.
Reginald D Hunter
‘I’m in awe of him – including his art collection’
I was a child of the 1970s and 1980s, and I was a silly, dreaming child. One day a buddy of mine came to school with a copy of Steve Martin’s Comedy Is Not Pretty. I listened to that album over and over. I still have his short story The Cruel Shoes committed to memory. Also round that time he was on Saturday Night Live a lot, and he was doing standup with an arrow through his head – it was perfect for a boy who liked silly things.
He became one of the few comedians who has aged with me – the second R-rated movie I was allowed to see was The Jerk. I watched it again a few months ago, and it’s still so funny. With Roxanne and LA Story he was reaching his maturity as a performer as I was reaching maturity as a young man. And in the last 10 years he’s showed us what an old comedian can be.
I’m in awe of him, all the things about him that aren’t to do with comedy – his painting, his art collection, his music. In my opinion a true intellectual is someone who stays perpetually interested.
But, most of all, it was Steve Martin who told me it was okay to be silly. I grew up in the black south, and black American humour doesn’t do silly very much. When he was walking into the Oscars one year he demonstrated how you shouldn’t take any of it too seriously. Everyone was being asked: “What was your first job?” So Sigourney Weaver said, like, “I was a page on the senate floor”; Barbra Streisand says, “I waited tables.” When they asked Steve Martin he said, “Nope! Straight to the top!”
‘The name Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr still makes me laugh’
I love Steve Martin so much that I chose him as my specialist subject on Mastermind. This love affair dates back to the 1980s, when I saw the films he made with Carl Reiner.
Steve describes his comedy as “simultaneously smart and stupid”. I adored that those movies were high concept but also gloriously daft.The Man with Two Brains is a romp about mad scientists and attempted murder with brilliant dialogue: “Those aren’t assholes, it’s pronounced ‘Azaleas’.”
The character names Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr and Anne Uumellmahaye still make me laugh. Steve’s movies also stood out for me because the women in them were not just there to deliver the straight lines. Costars like Bernadette Peters, Lily Tomlin and Kathleen Turner got big laughs and were as weird, wild and crazy as Steve was.
As a standup he threw slapstick, magic and banjo into his sets. And he always seemed cool and poised, delivering everything with a throwaway ease. He said: “I would move through my act without pausing for the laugh, as though everything was an aside.”
I recommend you watch his performances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson – doing mildly obscene magic as the Great Flydini or constructing a comedy set for dogs. I recently introduced my kids to Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and now I only have to say “Those aren’t pillows!” to reduce them to helpless laughter. Happy birthday, Steve. Thanks for helping me win Mastermind. – Guardian