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.
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 Meor 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 strangely 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.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.