Late-Period Steve Martin
How to understand the actor, novelist, essayist, playwright, banjo player, crotch-centric variety show performer, and Oscar co-host.
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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.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.