It’s no secret that retrospective box sets capitalize on boomer nostalgia—after all, if twentysomethings wish to view D.A. Pennebaker’s sprawling film of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, their first recourse won’t be to Barnes & Noble but rather to the BitTorrent client of their choice. Hitting markets this Tuesday, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff fits squarely into the traditional model. Sadly not released in time for Father’s Day, The Television Stuff features more than six and a half careening hours of standup, sketch, and handsomely packaged bonus commentary from Martin and various SNL collaborators—all of which will earn it a comfortable home under the Christmas Tree this December, promising parents across the country bellylaughs and psychotropic flashbacks alike.
More fruitfully, this box set reminds us how decisively new Martin’s shtick proved in its day. It marked a departure from decades of television comics trading one-liners over canned laughter and making Hollywood in-jokes that were really Hollywood out-jokes—little nuggets of industry allusion that were accessible to suburban families and that met all the criteria for what Jack Donaghy might call “synergy.” It also represented a departure from the strategies of more cutting-edge comedians in the Lenny Bruce/Andy Kaufman mold, who responded to the Eisenhower/Nixon-era TV scripts with a reflexive (if occasionally high-concept) strategy of be-stoned confrontation: instead of Miles Davis turning his back on an all-white live audience, you had Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby aloud in deadpan until the auditorium was empty.
The physically and mentally agile Martin, with a certain schooling in university philosophy and plenty of tricks up his sleeve from an earlier career as a magician, merged these comic approaches into something mildly outrageous and largely fresh, even now. In his lengthy liner notes, essayist/commentator Adam Gopnik goes deep, analyzing what he calls the “sublime absurdity” of Martin’s early act—bunny ears, banjo and all. In his stand-up, Martin made hay from the idea of an audience in his thrall. He created an onstage persona of a self-congratulatory showbizzy performer who assumed everyone was immensely taken with him. He played both a sophisticate and a rube, gesturing towards the high-concept (any of his bits about the perils of metaphysics) before undercutting his own suavity with cannily calibrated buffoonery (mispronouncing “Socrates”). Martin announces that he’s getting “more outta the comedy thing, more into the intellectual thing” and then observes that his novels “really brightened up” once he started using verbs. Surrealism might be putting too fine a point on it, but Gopnik notes the comedian’s “kind of lunatic grand alliance” with the Monty Python crew. (The DVDs feature period cameos by Eric Idle and John Cleese.) In one mock PSA, Martin and Regis Philbin warn America that “over one half of all steamroller accidents involve drunk drivers.” If the Pythons were wreaking havoc on the conventions of British television (easier fish to shoot, and a smaller barrel), Martin was doing something similar stateside.
Though the three discs in this set are a bit uneven, the sheer antic pleasure that galvanizes Martin films such as All of Me and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is very much on display. In one bit for a 1978 NBC special, Martin lopes into a rodeo, mangling a cigarillo in his teeth and flashing cold eyes at all comers. The MC challenges Steve to tame the wildest beast in the West—“That’s him over there,” the guy says gravely, “the one with the fire in his eyes.” The camera, of course, pans to a sleepy-eyed tortoise, which Martin proceeds to ride while wearing a green dress. (It’s a long story.) Elsewhere, we get montages of Martin riding a dwarf pony; Martin riding an elephant; monkeys riding donkeys; Martin sharing a smoke with an orangutan (perhaps post-coital, though the context remains unclear)—reminding the viewer that no comic has ever worked better with animals.
Other moments fall flatter. In All Commercials … A Steve Martin Special (NBC, 1980), Martin composes jingles and hawks creams and lotions to minimal effect while promoting upcoming TV shows such as Bikini Coroner. These sketches are of course supposed to be subversive, to strike at the economic engine of the entertainment industry (just as Martin’s stand-up took aim at the inane pieties of show biz), but in fact do little more than muddy the water. Martin was and is capable of much more, as he proves with an accomplished tap-dance performance in which he goes toe-to-toe with Gregory Hines (disc two).
Of course, Martin went on to write “Shouts & Murmurs” columns in The New Yorker, publish a dozen or so books, and write the warm and inviting play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, all of which gives the lie to the buffoonery. He was S.J. Perelman with an arrow through his head, and—for all his stand-up jabs at “showbiz professionals”—a consummate professional himself, not falling prey to the career-corroding excesses of many of his SNL contemporaries.
In the commentaries, Martin addresses the camera directly and notes the influence of Jerry Lewis in the development of his own comic persona. This influence is undeniable, but we might be more interested in Martin’s career-spanning dabblings in ancient philosophy. In Comedy Is Not Pretty (1980), Martin plays Socrates in a tableau vivant of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting. After guzzling his hemlock, Martin is disturbed to learn that the potion is, in fact, deadly. “Since when?” he fumes. “I only know general things—what is truth? what is justice? I don’t know details. I don’t know what’s poisonous, what’s not. This is what irritates me about you guys.”
“All right, I’m gonna lay here, and I’m going to die,” Martin continues. “And you know what’s going to happen? You guys are gonna go out, and you’ll have dinner, and you’ll sit and stare at each other.” He means that the world is a lot more boring without him, a version of which might one day prove a fitting epitaph for Martin himself. Sure, you can shake your head at his latter-day roles (Bringing Down the House? It’s Complicated?). But revisit All of Me or the higher points of this compilation, and no matter your generation, it’s hard not to marvel at what Martin hath wrought.
Starring: Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin, Eric Idle, John Cleese
Release Date: Sept. 18, 2012