Steve Martin: King of Hearts

The rising young comedian will do anything for a laugh

Gilda Radner as girl, Steve Martin as guy during the 'Lovers' skit on Saturday Night Live, February 26th, 1977 Credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

I. The Rising Young Comedian Bit

It was a dark and stormy nightspot on the fringes of San Francisco's North Beach. Waiters of mysterious origin moved furtively about the room; one of them carried a knife. Rising young comedian Steve Martin hovered close to the tape recorder and, bravely, under his breath, confessed to a humiliating act he once performed while still lonely at the bottom.

"The beginning of '75 I was really down and out," he said. "I was broke, depressed. I literally owed $17,000. And I was supposed to work the Playboy Club here in San Francisco for two weeks; they were gonna pay me $1500 a week.

"I worked there one night."

It was to be the darkest night of his career — …a Monday night, when the only place open was the Playboy Club and the only audiences available came on tour buses for a free dinner and show. They hadn't the vaguest idea what he was talking about; half of them, in fact, spoke only Japanese. Martin bombed both shows that night, quit, returned to his dressing room and discovered that someone had stolen his expensive white suit. That's when he performed his humiliating act.

"I roamed around North Beach, drunk, depressed, sour… and I walk by this massage parlor. So I go in and lay down on this huge pillow thing, and a girl comes in — you know, one of those real sleazy girls — and I said, 'What happens here?' I mean, I was really looking for … action."

Martin's troubled, deep-set eyes leered at a small dinner salad. "She says, 'Well, you rent a room for a half-hour, twenty dollars, or forty-five minutes, thirty dollars, and a girl comes in and, well, she'll see that you, uh … get off.'

"So I give her thirty dollars for forty-five minutes — I'm broke, I'm at the lowest part of my life, right? I go in the room, this girl comes in, closes the drapes, and they start this music. And she starts dancing … … and dancing and dancing and dancing … and I'm watching my time go by, and I say, 'Hey, this is costing me money here, I mean, uh, what am I expected to do?' She says, 'Well, usually you tip the girl, and we see that you … get … off.' I give her twenty dollars cause I really want it now. And so she keeps dancing and dancing, you know. And I say, 'Wait a minute! What is happening here?' I mean I'd just spent fifty dollarscash. And she says, 'Well, see, I'll dance around and you can jack off."'

Steve sucked bitterly on a Pimm's Cup and broke it. "I told her she ought to be ashamed of herself and I left."

Steve Martin's thirty-two-year life has not been pretty. Already it has turned his hair prematurely gray, a condition likely to remain for some time. Already it has burdened him with the reputation of a reckless crazyman who would do literally anything for a laugh. For example, during a sold-out performance last year at the Boarding House, a popular Frisco bistro, Martin juggled, did card tricks, played the banjo, put bunny ears on his head, sucked a grand piano into his lungs, ran into the lobby and tied himself to a bannister, then ran into the street and barked at passing cars. And that was just the first show.

To understand what might drive an ostensibly sane person — adroit musician, art collector, former philosophy student — to such schemes, one must return to the Fabulous Fifties, to Orange County, California, where, in an insulated patio atmosphere devoid of harsh weather or inclement minorities, Martin grew up. His father, Newport Beach realtor Glenn Martin, had once acted in theatrical productions and more or less encouraged Steve's showbiz career by never mentioning the fact. Thus, at the age of ten, without serious guidance or experience, young Martin faced alone the challenges of a cruel and illogical world. To his credit, he ignored those challenges and instead got a job at Disneyland, selling guide books, Frontierland rodeo ropes and magic tricks.

Demonstrating magic for rambunctious customers gave him an early chance to perform. More important, he was able to sneak away three times a day and catch Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe Revue, where a man named Wally Boag sang, told jokes and turned balloons into animals. (Even today one of Martin's most requested bits is his "fun balloon animals" act. Only instead of making animals, he twists the balloons into various VD bacilli and a giant birth-control device.) After eight years at the Magic Kingdom, Martin had memorized the entire revue. He had also learned to hate people.

"I hated waiting on them," he recalled with a trace of rancor and spittle about the lips. "I swore I was never gonna wait on them again." Martin quit Disneyland to work a place more demanding of his unique talents — a nearby amusement park called Knott's Berry Farm, in a melodrama at the Birdcage Theatre, four times a day. Here he learned many secrets of the stage — lighting, theatrical presence, how to work the curtain. He started assembling his own fifteen-minute act. Things seemed promising.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it stopped, and he encountered what was to be the first of several soul-wrenching disruptions to his career. Steve Martin fell in love. Her name was Stormy, another member of the Birdcage revue. "She was beautiful," said Martin, wistfully brushing his hair back with a serving fork. "She wore this long, old-time dress. I remember we were at Knott's Berry Farm, sitting in front of the old-time church, on the old-time grass, by the old-time lake, and she told me about the importance of knowledge and the romance of intellectualism."

Sold, Martin enrolled at Long Beach State, majored in philosophy and for the first time in his life earned straight As. He studied existentialism and advanced logic. He made friends with a colleague named Ron Barnett, now head of the philosophy department at Valdosta State College in Georgia. They spent long hours together discussing philosophical stuff. But then things sort of got out of hand.

"I remember sitting in a laundromat — this was in 1965 or '66, I think — and we finally figured … everything … out. Everything became pure semantics, nothing had meaning. It was like losing your mind. We could no longer talk to each other and we just started laughing. At that point it was over for me in philosophy."*

*For some reason Steve Martin seems to have a rough time at laundromats. Here's one story he often likes to tell his audiences:

"Jackie Onassis has always been one of my favorite people. I've always idolized her from afar and I've always wanted to meet her cause she's real elegant and everything. But, fat chance I'm gonna meet Jackie Onassis, right?

"Well, I was in a laundromat in Tucson, Arizona … and I looked over, and there she was. Jackie Onassis, my idol. I couldn't believe it. And I went up to her and she was very friendly, so I asked her out for lunch. And — I couldn't believe it — she accepted.

"I took her to this great restaurant. And I was very proud cause I always thought she was just the greatest thing. And the waiter brought the food …

" … and she was a pig! Unbelievable! — she didn't use a knife and fork. [Here Martin leans over and bites the air, as if be is gulping swill from a through.] I had two fried eggs and she takes them and goes … [he slaps the eggs to his chest]. She thought it was funny, you know? And the waiter would come by and she'd lift up her dress and go, 'Hey!"'

(Martin gazes at the audience in bewilderment, his eyes pained and confused.)

"What a letdown!"

Once the world of logic no longer made sense to him, Martin decided to pursue the structured nonsense of another world, a magic kingdom all his own, Bananaland, ("In Bananaland only two things are true: one … all chairs are green. And two … no chairs are green.") He changed his major to theater and enrolled in a television writing course at UCLA.

"I started to become aware that in order to be funny, I had to write my own material. And it had to be based on a person, the totality of a person, and not just a bunch of jokes."

Whatever that meant, the television writing course proved to be another false start. One day Steve simply walked into the classroom and quit. He told the professor he was sorry but unfortunately he'd gotten a job writing for television.

It was for the original Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour show. He did real well at it and later went on to write for Glen Campbell, Ray Stevens, Pat Paulsen and Sonny and Cher. He made more money than he'd ever seen before. Now he could afford such Hollywood luxuries as a good psychiatrist and a nervous breakdown, thus deftly avoiding the draft.

Then, around 1972, Martin had another revelation. Not only did his material have to be based on a person, but that person had to be him. As a performer he was better than the jokes he was writing and he knew it. He quit television writing and started working onstage wherever he could. Always he opened the show for somebody else. Often it was for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John McEuen, a member of the band, had taught him to play the banjo. Bill McEuen, John's brother, became Steve's manager and most loyal fan. Opening shows was a pleasant arrangement, but it didn't pay so hot and ultimately it left Martin unsatisfied. He yearned to be a headliner, a draw, a star, preferably a rich one.

By the beginning of 1975, Martin was ready to quit show business. Everything seemed to be falling apart. He'd already appeared on Johnny Carson several times, but then he got the word: "Carson doesn't really think this is totally ready." According to two former Tonight Show staff members, Steve was told he could be on the show only when they had guest hosts. It was Carson's way of sending him back to the minor leagues. That was about the time he bombed at the Playboy Club and squandered his last fifty bucks denying himself in North Beach.

Brokenhearted, he returned to his home in Aspen and contemplated desperate acts. He grew more depressed, almost manic. Somehow it improved his material. He kept performing here and there, but instead of acting funny in the traditional sense, he acted funny, in a bizarre and often disarming way that few had seen before. He insulted the audience. He made obscene gestures. He imitated Sammy Davis Jr., performing his entire Las Vegas act in one minute. They loved it.

At Vanderbilt University he led an audience of 300 to a local McDonald's and ordered one french fry. In Georgia he led them to an empty swimming pool, told them to climb in, then swam across their bodies. His comedy, he boasted, included the traditional and the far-out, or, so to speak, the shallow and the deep end. Whatever it was, the swimming pool audience knew one thing for sure: here was some ad-libber.

Finally, in the fall of '75, Steve Martin hit pay dirt. Carson asked him to come back to the majors. He was a smash. TV columnists started remembering his name. He sold out the Boarding House for two solid weeks in August, and again the following January, and again the following August. He's now appeared on Johnny Carson twenty-two times as a guest and eight times as a guest host. He's hosted NBC's Saturday Night Live three times. Last month Warner Bros, released his first album, Let's Get Small, and it's already gold. He's written and starred in a demented short feature, The Absent Minded Waiter, for Paramount Pictures and he's putting together two feature-length films. And he's currently touring fifty American cities, playing major sized halls.

Still, it's been a long, painful climb to success, and one wonders what peculiar inner strength has enabled him to pursue it — what, in short, drives a man like Steve Martin. Perhaps there is an answer in the following original song he often sings onstage. It is a simple song, accompanied by one difficult chord on the banjo:

We're having some fun
We've got music and laughter and wonderful times
We're having some fun
That's so important in today's world, oh yeah
It's so hard to laugh
It seems that short of tripping a nun nothing is funny anymore
But you know I see people going to college for fourteen years
Studying to be doctors and lawyers
And I see people going to work at the drugstore at 7:30 every morning
To sell Flair pens
But the most amazing thing to me is I get paid
For doing
This

II The Bunny Who Died for Our Sins

Well, enough biographical comedy jokes — you paid a dollar for this magazine, you're expecting to see a professional article, so let's not waste any more time, here we go with Professional Journalism, let's go, hey! Steve Martin, rising young comedian, died last week during an interview at a dark and stormy nightspot on the fringes of San Francisco's North Beach when the microphone he was eating lodged in his throat as waiters of mysterious origin furtively looked on. He was ninety-five.

Naw, just kidding. But you are expecting a professional article. I am a professional writer, so let's move on to the really … big important questions (say it with me) "big important questions." I think you know what I'm talking about: what is Steve Martin really, like? And what makes him so special? Oh yeah, and (I forgot — this is Rolling Stone) what drugs was Steve using when he dated Linda Ronstadt?

Of course, I guess there are no easy answers, not in today's world with so many trick noses and latex novelties running around. Well, actually the third question's pretty simple: Steve doesn't use drugs. Which is partly the answer to the first question: Steve doesn't use drugs, liquor, tobacco or meat, lives quietly alone in Aspen inside a brand-new, solar-heated house, collects pleasant nineteenth-century American art, listens to obscure ethnic folk music, does calisthenics in the morning, skis in the afternoon, gets plenty of rest and occasionally hangs out with John Denver. It is this safe and sane, well-regulated, high-principled life that gives Steve the power to control innocent minds.

Which is partly the answer to the second question. Sure, Steve's jokes are funny — not just funny but, you know, different, weird, "out there." Like his description of all the world's religions: "And the fourteen invisible people came down from the sky with the magic rings that only Biff could read."

Sometimes they're shocking: "Not too many people smoking out there tonight, that's pretty good: it doesn't bother me when I'm in a sleazy nightclub like this, cause I'm used to it, but if I'm in a restaurant, and somebody says [low moron voice, sort of like Skelton's Clem Kadiddlehopper], 'Hey, mind if I smoke?' I'll say [righteous but cool, like a salesman], 'Uh, no, do you mind it I fart? … one of my habits … yeah, they got a special section for me on airplanes now … I quit once for a year, you know … but I gained a lot of weight… it's hard to quit; after sex I really have the urge to light one up."'

Sometimes they seem to con the audience, with a little sting at the end: [sighs with indulgent self-pity] "I'm depressed! I'm thinking about my old girlfriend, that's what it is. We were together for three years, we went every place together and — I shouldn't even talk about this, but … well, she's not living anymore, and… … and I guess I blame myself for her death. We were at a party one night, and we were arguing. And she started drinking quite heavily. Finally we had this big screaming argument, and she went out to the car; and she asked me to drive her home, and I refused. I didn't realize how much she'd been drinking. She asked me again, she said, 'Please drive me home!' I didn't want to … so I shot her."

Sometimes they're highly structured, like a whole routine that parodies a common theme by substituting one word: "A lot of people think, 'Hey, Steve, you're a ramblin' guy; you must meet a lot of girls when you're on the road.' And I'd like to dispel that rumor, it's just a myth about entertainers, and it's really kind of a … lonely life; I spend a lot of lonely nights back at the old hotel and … well, after so many lonely nights, you develop some, uh… well, let's say … pretty weird, uh, sexual outlets [grimaces with embarrassment]. I think we better drop this right now! [With confessional courage] No, I'm gonna talk about it for a change. I'm tired of hiding this thing! I have, uh, developed some, uh [under his breath], weird sexual, uh [smirks], outlets. I like to, uh … I like to, uh … I like to wear men's underwear! And, you know, I'll come into a town like this, and, uh… … I'll resist for a couple of days … then I'll start getting that, uh…feeling. I'll go down to Sears or somethin'; I'll wander in — first I go over to the stereo department, 'How much is that? Is that a hi-fi?' Then I'll wander over to the undergarments department, and uh … …buy some … …men's underwear; you know, I'll tell 'em it's for a friend of mine … take it back to the hotel, and I'll … put it on. And then sometimes I'll… I'll put it on …under my clothes. And I go out to a restaurant or some place — nobody knows I have it on! [Snickers erotically] It's wild! I'm wearin' it right now! Naw, just kidding."

Sometimes they're totally spontaneous, like the way he handled a heckler last year at the Boarding House; "You're not the Zebra Killer, are you? 'Cause if you're not, I'd like you to meet him."

And sometimes they're just really dumb: "I gave my cat a bath the other day. And I'd always heard that you weren't supposed to give cats baths. But my cat came home and he was really dirty, and I decided to give him a bath, and it was great — if you have a cat, don't worry about it, they love it — he sat there and he enjoyed it, it was fun for me … …the fur would stick to my tongue, but other than that…."

And sometimes they're not jokes at all: "Here's something you don't see every day. [Steve leaps into the air several times, stretches his mouth open with both hands and roars like a raving lunatic.] Aarrrgh!"

But jokes or not, traditional or far-out, these foolish bits and pieces have two things in common: one, they are utterly without redeeming social importance; they're like little pills you swallow that make you laugh — no message, no ulterior motive or purpose. And two, Steve doesn't really need them to be funny. It's true, I've seen it happen many times — Steve walks onstage and in thirty seconds, without telling one joke, reduces his audience to a state of helpless giddiness that lasts for the rest of the show. Sometimes they start laughing even before he comes out because he has this habit, as the club announcer is introducing him, of clowning around in the wings just enough to make the first few rows go nuts. Then he walks on with a superconfident air about him — Las Vegas Professional — wearing maybe a handsome white suit or a handsome dark one, an expensive-looking banjo strapped to his ever-so-nonchalant body, and with a voice as corny and mellow as Mel Torme's he says something like this:

"Well, welcome to the show, ladies and gentlemen. My name's Steve Martin. I'll be out here in just a minute, and uh … let's get goin', we're gonna have some fun tonight, huh? [Laughs like an imbecile] How much was it to get in? Four dollars? [Laughs arrogantly, like the joke's on you] Okay, you paid the money, you're expecting to see a professional show, so let's not waste any more time, here we go with Professional Show Business, let's go. hey! [Steve steps back and starts timing his banjo: he is consumed by the process, pawing at the pegs, fretting over the frets, Finally he looks up at the audience, beams, strides forward and hangs his head into the mike.] Okay, we're movin' now, eh folks? Yes, these are the good times and we're having them, ah ha ha ha."

I mean, what is this shit? Here's one of the hottest comedians in the business, certainly one of the best looking, best dressed, quickest witted, most poised, most imaginative and most accomplished in such varied arts as magic, juggling, banjo playing and fun balloon animals — and he's standing up there acting like a jerk, an idiot, a fucking asshole! And that's the whole point. It's like … …Steve Martin basically has one joke and he's it. And it drives the crowd wild, not just during the show but long afterward. For example, here's something you might try the next time Steve plays your town — and I'm not saying this for shock value or anything like that — the next time Steve plays your town, don't go to the show; just drive by the place as the show lets out. What you'll see is something out of the movie King of Hearts, a funny farm with the gates ajar, an exploding circus busload of clowns and raving crazies, completely harmless but giggling, goofing and drooling down the streets and into the night. It's hard to imagine another comedian whose personality, whose likability, whose finely timed sense of nonsense, of pregnant silence, could create such mayhem. The late Jack Benny had many of the same things going for him; he could tear the house up with a glance, a hand to his cheek or a well-placed "Well!" The difference is that Benny's style, his imagination and delivery, was a little more, you know, even-tempered. For instance, Benny probably never said anything like this:

"Hey, let's be somebody tonight, huh? [Subversively] You wanna do something really weird? [Steve's audience goes "Yeah! Yeah!"] Let's go murder someone!"

Or if Benny did, the audience could be certain he was only kidding.

Hey — remember three paragraphs back I said that thing about "and that's the whole point"? Well, that's really not quite true, because the whole point about Steve Martin, what makes Steve Martin so special (remember fourteen paragraphs back when I said that thing about "what makes him so special?"), is that eventually, maybe a day or two after the show, his audience stops laughing … and they start acting … really… weird. They start acting like Steve Martin; they start talking like him, moving like him, wearing some of his corny trick-shop props. Some writers, you may have already guessed, start writing like him. They simply can't help it, and quite frankly, I'm not sure they'll ever be able to stop.

It took me over a year to figure all this out. Then suddenly, just last Easter — do you mind if I get kind of personal for a moment? Hey, I'm not trying to be the center of attention or anything like that. I'm not one of those, you know, first-person diary writers like Hunter Thompson or Lillian Hellman whose private lives are so interesting they never have to write about anything else. But I do think this one incident, when I rented the bunny outfit, illustrates something we all can learn from. And that's so important in today's world. What happened was, on April 8th of this year, Good Friday, Steve appeared at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, in what he would later describe as the greatest moment of his career. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is one of these modern, superelegant opera houses with lavish chandeliers, thick-pile rugs, many balconies and mainly 3200 seats, every one of which was filled that night with Steve Martin fanatics. (At one point during his performance, Martin looked up at the chandeliers, the balconies, the 3200 fanatics who'd paid up to seven-fifty to get in, and asked bitterly. "When are they gonna get me out of these toilets?")

I knew these people were fanatics because I met some of them in the box-office line before the show. Three guys were wearing trick arrows through their heads, a favorite Martin prop. Another person wore bunny ears. And one of the arrow guys was saying, "Hey, I'm not trying to be the center of attention or anything like that." See, that's another thing about these people; they keep quoting these dumb one-liners of Steve's that are so corny and pompous they fit into all kinds of real life situations. Here's some others:

"We're having some fun now."
"I'm a ramblin' guy."
"Say it with me."
"Well, enough comedy jokes."
(Slyly) "I think you know what I'm talking about."
(Said with blissful abandon) "Oh, I love good comedy!"
(Sung with blissful abandon) "I'm a neat guy."

And of course his currently most popular expression, which he bellows with his whole body after a slowly building rage against the backstage crew: "Well, excuse ME!"(During a Rolling Stone editorial meeting a few months back, the editor, a short, pudgy man with an iron fist, was balling out members of the Art Department. Suddenly, as one person, they shouted, "Well, excuse ME!")

Talk about fanatics — when Steve opened the show and walked onstage (actually the show had opened with a preview running of The Absent Minded Waiter), they applauded for the better part of a minute, not just applauded but screamed, stomped, whooped and whistled. It was like a rock audience. Finally Steve walked up to the mike and said just one word, a phony, Fonzie-like Las Vegas "Hey!" And the audience broke out again, clapping and shrieking with laughter.

And I'm thinking, what gives? These nuts must have all seen Steve at least once before; why would they return to see mostly the same jokes, the same punch lines? Then I remembered a card trick I saw Steve do at the Boarding House in which he fanned the deck in his left hand and asked the audience for a volunteer with a loud voice. A woman stood up. "What's your name?" he inquired.

"Kelly," she said.

"Okay, you never met me before, right?"

"Right."

"Ever talked to me before?"

"No."

"Then how do you know it's me?" Steve laughed smugly to himself. "Oh, I love good comedy," he said with blissful abandon. Then he got serious. "What's your sign?" he asked.

"Taurus."

"Okay, let's see … I'm a Feces … I'm taking from the deck the King of Hearts and replacing it backward just like this." He inserted it in the center of the fan so that just the top inch of the King could be seen. "Kelly?"

"Yeah."

"When you feel the vibes are just right, I want you to say out loud, 'King of Hearts come down and dance.' All right? Now, everyone has to concentrate on the King of Hearts, I wish you would all get into this, because this will be… oh … …something to do. So you got it? — 'King of Hearts come down and dance' — anytime you're ready, nice and loud so the King can hear you."

The audience was silent. Kelly waited maybe three or four seconds, then, with a trace of embarrassment, shouted, "King of Hearts come down and dance!"

At which point Steve simply plucked the King from the fan with his right hand and made it do a dumb little dance down the length of his left arm and onto the microphone, all the while singing, "Do do do, doodle doodle do, do doodle do do, woe woe woe … …"

Get it? It's like … Steve plays with his audience, he makes them part of the joke; he sets them up and slaps them down, and by acting like an asshole, he lets them do the same to him. This isn't comedy; it's campfire recreation for the bent at heart. It's a laughalong for loonies. Disneyland on acid.

Like at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he started out by asking, with apparently sincere concern, "Can you see up there in the balcony all right?" "No!" shouted the top balcony, nearly four stories high. To which Steve replied, his palms raised in an exaggerated, rough-shit shrug, "Seven-fifty, five-fifty." Think the top balcony was insulted? Hell no, they loved it, screaming, laughing and applauding at their own misfortune. And Steve rubbed it in, clearing his throat and saying, "Uh, you'll be able to see all right … …I'd like to open up with the … … magic dime trick." And he held up this tiny coin you could hardly see from the orchestra section.

In other words, Steve Martin totally breaks down the barrier between performer and audience, and a few minutes later he broke it down literally by announcing, "Hey, I know it's a lot of money to get in here, and uh, I want you to feel like you're getting your money's worth, so … what I'm going to do is … massage every member of the audience." With that he leaped from the stage and began rubbing the shoulders of a half-dozen lucky fans in the front row. Then he spotted a windbreaker someone was holding, grabbed it, held it up to the audience and screamed indignantly, "Do you realize how many polyesters had to die to make this coat?" Then he fooled around a bit more, climbed clumsily back on the stage and rewarded the audience with what was — judging from their shrieks and shouts of "Awright!" — one of their favorite bits:

"Uh oh, I'm getting… … happy feet!" And suddenly his legs began dancing wildly out of control, carrying his body helplessly around the huge stage, his arms shooting out from his body like he was a member of some spastic chorus line. Maybe it doesn't sound that great on paper, but it was funnier than shit to watch.

But clearly the high point of the evening occurred when some poor soul in the front row left to go to the bathroom. Martin turned to the audience and said, under his breath, "Tell ya what … when he comes back… we'll play a joke on him. I'll go into this really dumb monologue … with no punch lines … and you just laugh like crazy … like they're the funniest jokes you've ever heard. And he'll think that he's wrong. [Moron voice] 'Gee, must be good, I dunno.' So when he comes back, I'll give you a cue like this" Here Steve made a little secret wave of the hand by his thigh. The audience was ready.

In the interim, Steve did a few more bits, including another favorite laughalong — the song his grandmother taught him. Sung to some icky Mouseketeer Melody, it goes like this:

Be courteous, kind and forgiving
Be gentle and peaceful each day
Be warm and human and grateful
And have a good thing to say
Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike
Be witty and happy and wise
Be honest and love all your neighbors
Be obsequious, purple and clairvoyant
Be pompous. obese and eat cactus
Be dull and boring and omnipresent
Criticize things you don't know about
Be oblong and have your knees removed
Be tasteless, rude and offensive
Live in a swamp and be three-dimensional
Put a live chicken in your underwear
Go into a closet and suck eggs

Now frankly, I've always felt that song, by itself, was much too stupid and too long to be funny. But what makes it a hilarious theatrical experience is that after Steve finishes singing it, he shouts, "Okay, everybody!" And he leads the entire audience through the song, first reciting each line, then singing it along with the crowd. And the crowd goes wild! Think of it — 3200 people singing this ridiculous piece of shit. And it's not just the dumb words, it's the anticipation of singing those really insane ones in the last half of the song.

Only on this particular night, the anticipation was infinitely increased by the thought of that innocent fucker about to return from the John. Which apparently happened during the grandmother song, because as the last golden echoes of 3200 voices singing "suck eggs" evaporated into the chandeliers, Steve made the secret sign, and the audience — it was like a dam had broken — they cheered for forty seconds. And the scam hadn't really even started yet. Then Steve told his first fake joke:

"Wouldn't it be funny if you went home to repair your TV, and there was a banana in it?"

Now get this — the audience didn't just laugh like crazy, as Steve had instructed, they gave him a standing ovation! This was not a spontaneous ovation: whether as individuals or as a mob, they had, with premeditation, improved on Steve's idea.

The same thing happened with the second fake joke — they didn't just laugh at the end, at the punchless line, they laughed all through it. Here's the joke, and to give you an idea of how revved up this crowd was, I'll indicate where the laughter came and how long it lasted:

"Fella comes home [ten seconds of laughter], opens his refrigerator [four seconds], and there's a clown in his refrigerator [six seconds]. Well, he looked at the clown, the clown looked at him — the fella says, 'I didn't expect to see you in there [twenty-five seconds of laughter]!"

Again the audience had gone further than Steve expected. And I think that's an important point. At that very moment, 3200 fans were funnier than Steve Martin. This is the effect he has on people.

And, as I mentioned earlier, it's not the only effect. You know how when you go to a really loud rock concert, sometimes the next morning you wake up and your ears are still ringing? Well, the next morning I woke up, and it was like my mind was still ringing. I got up, got dressed, opened the refrigerator — naw, just kidding; I started repairing the TV — no no no no; I got up, got dressed, opened the yellow pages — this is the absolute truth — opened the yellow pages, and started calling every costume rental shop in Hollywood. I wanted a bunny suit. I just felt like it. Naturally most of the shops were clean out of bunnies, it being the day before Easter, but finally one guy told me he might have one my size if I rushed right down. Which I did. And he did — a white woolly one with floppy pink ears and a dumb round tail. And I wore it right out of the store, got in the car, drove down Hollywood Boulevard … and this amazing thing happened. People began staring at me, and instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt … I don't know … …strengthened, more confident, healthier. And my brain started exploding with one-liners. I'd roll down the window and shout, "Tomorrow's Easter? Shit, I gotta get going!" Or, "What's the matter, you never seen a practicing Christian before?"

I had to pick up some stuff from this drugstore at Hollywood and Vine, so I parked near there, got out … …and strangers on the street would wave, smile, talk to me. I no longer feared them, nor they me. I asked this one guy, "Hey, tell me the truth — does this look dumb or something? Be honest." And I explained to a sales clerk in the drugstore, "I'm trying to get my girlfriend to take me seriously."

Which actually was sort of true. I'm sorry, I shouldn't even talk about this, but … well, we'd been arguing a lot recently … and I guess I figured if I surprised her in a bunny suit, well, maybe it would break the ice. And it worked. I drove back to the place we were staying, and I found her by the pool, tanning herself in the hot Los Angeles sun. It took her about three seconds to put it all together. And then she laughed and laughed and laughed. I can still hear it — this delicious, hysterical laugh she has that sounds something like a rusty swing. Of course … she's not living with me anymore.

But that's not important. The important thing is I felt this great release, this power, this joy. It wasn't something corny like "feeling like myself" or anything like that — it was better than that. And it was a feeling I could transmit to others. I wore the outfit to a big party that night, and the next morning, Easter, I wore it to visit my kids. And it was really great. It's more than being the center of attention, which is fine in itself; it's the thrill of taking a risk. Most of us fear the thought of being an asshole; maybe the best way to overcome that fear is to act like one.

I mean, I know Steve hates religions and maxims and Gurus and all that junk. But he does have this higher insight. He breaks down barriers. He allows us to see the comedian in all of us. And I believe that really is important in today's world. In his own way, Steve Martin is a light, a source, an inspiration and a leader.

It's just that… … well… … you'd be an asshole to follow him.

III Part Three

(Various parts of the following interview took place at various times and places during the last year and a half. However, for the sake of simplicity, cohesiveness, artistic license, my ego or whatever, I've crammed it all into the end of last March and Steve's hotel room at the Continental Hyatt House on the Sunset Strip. But hey — let's keep this between you and me, okay?

(Basically we talked about his writing, his stage techniques and — oh yeah [Rolling Stone] — Linda Ronstadt. For the most part, Steve was courteous, good-humored, thoughtful and instructive. Occasionally he was asleep.)

Steve, since you're a professional entertainer, you've probably been interviewed hundreds of times, and no doubt some of these questions will seem —
(Smugly) Yeah, I make a lotta money. And that's why I can afford this arrangement I've suggested. You say the editors won't go for it, but really, who gets hurt? You get five grand, I get the cover, and — oh, are we in the magazine now? I'm sorry.

As I was saying, some of these questions may sound a little old or clicked but … …
That's alright. Don't worry about it.

Okay, how did you get started?
What a stupid question!

Well then, where do you get your ideas?
That's a good one. Let's see … actually I got one of my first ideas in college. I can remember sitting in an astronomy class, looking at the periodic table of the elements — I was taking speech and drama simultaneously — and thinking, I'll do a dramatic reading of the periodic table of the elements: (pronounces the table's abbreviations phonetically) "Cud, mud, zum," you know, "ah, oh, bum, pum" … which was never that funny, but it was, like, an early joke. And at that point I decided to take out every derivative joke from my act. Instead, I started writing my own; any time I'd laugh, in public or with friends or something, I'd take a note of what it was that made me laugh and make it into a joke if I could.

Today I get my ideas from three places: one, I sit down and write something on a piece of paper. Two, I'll be out in public and I'll say something, and I'll say, "That would be good in the act." Three, someone else will say something, and I'll say, "That would be good in the act." Like, Bill McEuen has thought of things, you know. That one joke about "mind if I fart?" — he said that one night at a dinner table.

How would you describe your comedy?
You know, I can't answer that cause I can't describe it. It's like … if I describe it, it'll be wrong. Don't you ever think about how your approach to humor is different from somebody else's? I don't know. I hardly ever think about that, you know? I think ultimately, when I'm at my best, it's a total, um, presentation … … of a human being, onstage, being vulnerable, being afraid, being confident, fooling myself, you know, lying to myself. I feel I'm at my best when things are flowing — the pieces may not be logical, but they're threaded together by the fact that they're logical to me. I don't do bits. Like Albert Brooks will go from a bit to a bit to a bit. And that's one way. I identify more with a guy like Jack Benny. I mean, at my best, what I'd like to be is a character onstage one hundred percent of the time. The different little jokes and things are held together by an attitude of that personality.

So how would you describe yourself?
I'm not fat.

No I mean this personality, this character? I think you once said something about your act being built on anxiety.
Yeah, a lot of the routines are the distorted thinking that a person who has anxiety has to come up with in order to make an event logical. You're nervous about something, so you come up with a lie, to yourself, to smooth it out. Because I think the normal state of everyone is nervous — not nervous, anxious — the fear of "don't know what." So finally you adjust your thinking to make excuses for everything. "That guy's an asshole, that's why he doesn't like me."

It's sort of a West Coast thing. Like the East Coast is the neurotic, self-deprecating, never-can-get-ahead attitude. And the West Coast is like, "Hey, I'm really makin' it." Only I'm not, I mean it's obvious I'm not making it, and it's obvious to me I'm not making it, but I say, "Hey, I'm makin' it." I'm kidding myself. Or it's like … having an opinion for the sake of having an opinion: (moron voice) "Oh no, I don't think the government should naa naa," without knowing the first thing about what you're talking about. And it's a harmless kind of person; I wouldn't hurt anybody.

Here, too, Jack Benny might be a good comparison; I mean, he lied, he'd say he was thirty-nine, but you didn't really consider it a lie because …
Yeah, yeah. Right. And he did such a take that he revealed to everyone that he knew it was a lie but he was still going to stand by his lie — it was a harmless lie.

Of course, your material is a little farther out than Benny's.
Well, you know, it's a strange thing. If you took my stuff and wrote it out, maybe thirty-five percent of it would appear very traditional. Give it to Jack Carter or someone like that. And that's just jokes; I mean, I like funny jokes that will make people laugh. But I think that in the context of everything else, it comes out "far out," or strange or oddball. So I think I give a reality to it, rather than making it sound like a joke. Like the old joke, "My mother-in-law is so fat, when she sits around the house, she sits around the house." Okay? And I think sometimes I get in the mood where I can sort of convince people that my mother-in-law really is so fat she sits around the house. You know, I would never use that joke but … …like, I sort of feel they think I really did give my cat a bath. And the cat joke — that's just a joke I made up … I was sitting in my house in Aspen one time, I was trying to write some material, and my cat walked across the floor. And it was the weirdest experience… it was like this joke appeared instantly — you know, it's not like you had to write it and then think of the ending and everything. It was like a mystical experience, only on the lowest plane possible. It was just such a stupid thought, I mean the image of a human being on the floor licking his cat and really trying to do a good job.

By the way — I don't want to interrupt the flow of this interview or anything like that, but can I tell you something completely off the record?

Sure.
I've always wanted to fuck Nadia Comaneci. At her place.

Hm … …well, let me ask you this — how consistent is the order you do things in your act? Is it always totally unordered?
Let's put it this way. I have a certain idea for the opening of the show, jokes and things, a certain idea for the closing of the show and a certain idea for the middle. And then whatever pieces happen to fit into those things.

Sometimes I've found that it's really good to get completely lost. You know, I'll really search my head for that perfect piece of material. It's like, last night, the first show, I knew too much what I was gonna do. And the second show I hardly planned anything; I went out and I started singing off the top, essentially ten minutes of stuff off the top I'd never done before.

So some of that spontaneity and madness is in a sense real. I mean you're telling yourself to be completely lost.
Yeah. I mean, sometimes I take my notes out onstage? And people don't believe that that's really my notes. You know, I'm sitting there, going over it, and they think it's a joke. I can't remember all that stuff because my bits are too fragmented. They're too short; my bits last thirty seconds, forty seconds.

Onstage I always try to hook into some thing, I can't describe it, it's like latching onto a Poma lift tow, you know, on the ski line. It's just like that; you feel around — your regular material and the far-out stuff.

The first time I saw your show, I really felt it didn't matter what you did after the first minute; by that time there was just such a giddy feeling, and you weren't doing much of anything.
Those are my favorite moments.

And there was this guy just falling off his chair — that really helpless kind of laughter; it was like a party atmosphere. And then after the show you went out into the lobby and you kept performing, and then you went back inside the club — there were about fifteen loyal stragglers — and you kept going on and on, like another forty-five minutes of material. And I thought, you obviously were able to make comedy out of anything.
At certain moments, yeah. It's like when I go outside — there's a perfect example — when I go outside, sometimes I can do twenty minutes of totally made-up stuff, and I'm just really keeping 'em happy, you know? Other times, when I go outside I can't think of a thing; I've gotta be able to recall what I've done before. Another secret trick I've learned is that if the audience is not with it, you can alter the conditions of the performance. You go off mike, or you start walking over here, or you go into the audience or something.

It was a lesson I learned one night in Thibodaux, Louisiana. I was performing at a rock concert in this gymnasium, and the audience was gone. They were dancing and sweating and screaming — they were just wild. And suddenly the sound went off and all the lights went off, except for the spotlight, which was evidently plugged into a different circuit. Just suddenly the room changed, and everybody got quiet and paid attention. I started yelling, it was great.

Usually the lighting for your show is very subtle. It doesn't seem to change at all.
It actually doesn't. I tell 'em not to change it. 'Cause I found that — this is a weird thing, and it's gonna sound like, you know, I'm exaggerating, but the amount I go over can be influenced by the temperature in the room; if it's too hot, it's terrible. The colder the better. And lights — the darker the worse. I need a lotta light.

One night a guy used a pink spot on me and hurt the show horribly. Even a cough can kill a joke, a noise, a glass, a cough. On certain jokes if a guy coughs at the wrong time, it's just enough to distract. And sometimes a line will get a laugh that is totally unexpected, that you wouldn't think would get a laugh. And you say (muses under his breath), "Ohhh … there's a laugh there." And then you spend a little more time with it, set it up right. Like that thing about "How to Keep from Getting Mugged," you know? By acting crazy? And I say, "You wet your pants." And then I say, "You walk down the street with a baby carriage and put garbage in it," and that would get a moderate laugh. And then I'd say, "Now, if you don't want to get that involved" — which was just a set-up for "throw up on your money," right? — the set-up itself would get this big laugh. So I started holding for it. It got a laugh for about three months and then it quit getting a laugh. (He laughs.) And sometimes, the most puzzling thing … …like the Jackie Onassis bit? It's a bit about four years old. When I first did it, it just barely made it, barely went over. So I added another ending: "But she was great in bed." It was just a way to get out of it, it wasn't that funny or anything. Finally I dropped it 'cause it just wasn't making it. Then last year I started doing it again, and it's been going over great. Now I don't have to say that stupid line at the end; I can just go, "What a letdown!" — which was the original ending.

Maybe news events can influence a joke; maybe last year she started getting in the news more.
Well, I think it was because she was too much in the news before; everybody had their own emotions about her. Now she's just an object that can be made fun of.

Jokes will have a cycle like this, isn't that weird? Like, "Well, I think we've had a good time tonight… … considering we're all going to die." Recently it hasn't been working that well, but it was working great, and it's one of my favorite things to say, you know? I get little pet jokes every once in a while.

Pet jokes?
Yeah. In fact, a pet joke can carry you through a whole show — your anticipation of saying it and then having said it. Like the fart joke, "Mind if I fart?" I just can't wait to get to it. And the cat joke.

Is your material expanding at all? Are you going to get any deeper, or …
You know, to me a joke is a joke. If I find a joke that works, that I made up or one of my colleagues made up, it's in. And I don't care if it's meaningful or not meaningful. Like, one time last year in Aspen, I wrote maybe five or six pieces, and half of them are working. One was, "I'm looking for a girl to do this." (Here Steve renders a familiar obscene gesture, forming a circle with his left thumb and forefinger, through which be inserts and withdraws his extended right forefinger several times. I think you know what I'm talking about.) Now that's an interesting evolution, 'cause at first I just did it: "I'm looking for a girl to do this… and then maybe we'll get into some of this … and some of this." (He goes through a series of children's finger games, like making a see-saw with your middle fingers, a pair of upside-down goggles like "Junior Birdmen.") I thought that was the joke — in other words, we're really making hand signals. Then one night I said, "I'm looking for a girl to do — let's see, what's the most decent way I can put this?" — and that became the joke: "What's the most decent way I can put this?" And it may change further. In fact, I've been thinking about changing it to: "What's the most decent way I can put this? I'm looking for a hog that wants to do some of this." And then I was thinking about adding the line — what was it? — oh yeah, "I want to bang it right into the cervix." Or no, "slam it against the cervix," that was it.

I guess what I was asking — let's see, what's the most decent way I can put this? — do you plan to spend the rest of your life writing gags?
No, no. I'm planning and plotting — I mean, the nightclub thing is such a strenuous, impossible task, you know? I do my act for a week; the next time I come here, six months later, I should have a new hour. I can't, you know. Writing it myself, breaking it all in — I can't do it. It's like the Albert Goldman book on Lenny Bruce — he said something I really identify with: a forty-five-minute act is the equivalent of writing a novel. And a new forty-five minutes is the equivalent of writing another novel. It's just really hard to change material, and the hardest thing is to drop material that's working, like balloon animals. I'd love to just drop it, but it goes over, you know? But the movies are the thing — movies are it! If I can break into film, it's like … that's what I've always been going for, since age three, when I first saw Jerry Lewis on the screen.

Well Steve, it looks like we're just about out of space — one last question. What about this thing you had with Linda Ronstadt?
Well it was a strange affair (smirks sardonically). I can't remember what time it was. It was 1970 or something like that, it was before she'd made it. And we'd had a little thing going — kind of "friendly, interested," I'd seen her in the Troubadour bar, here in Los Angeles, a couple of times. And she said she was gonna be playing there, so I went there — I was like a kid in love again, you know? — I sat in the balcony … she came on … in a silver dress, with her tambourine … and I went … ape-shit in my brain. (Giggles) I couldn't believe how sexy she was, and she was a great singer, and the audience was going crazy — it was just like pure groupie, I couldn't believe her.

So after the show I went back, and she was nice to me. I didn't think she'd really remember me, and we talked, and she, like, kissed me! And I went (makes noise like deflating fun balloon animal). Anyway, we had this kind of little affair that lasted a couple of weeks, and I was really moved by it. I wrote poems about it, the whole thing. And then it just kind of … faded out. '

Cause Linda at that time was very … how shall I say … she … fluttered from flower to flower. And I remember, I was writing on the Glen Campbell show, and Kristofferson was coming into town. And I had a date with her after the show, and she said, "I'm gonna go home with Kris. (Steve laughs about it, now.) And I said (dejectedly), "Oh." What a letdown. (Outraged) Hey — what's goin' on? What the fuck is that?

Steve, the story's over, there's no more space.
What the fuck is what?

That ugly double line right there. That's an Oxford rule. It means the story's over.
Well, fuck the Oxford rule. Fuck the rules, man — I got things to say. I mean, we haven't talked about my art collection yet.

Well … …let me call Roger Black, our art director, and see if we can get any more space. (While I'm on the phone, Steve picks up the tape recorder and whispers into it.)
David can't hear me, can he? He can't hear this? Boy, what an asshole, I can't believe it!

Okay, Roger says we can have just a few more inches. So, um… … what kind of art do you collect?
Well, you know my taste in art leans toward nineteenth century American, but not because I love nineteenth century American and I hate contemporary; it's just that it's a field that was open to me, and there's a lot of things unknown about it. And it's not even that great; I mean, I can look at it like you do a mistress or something like that. You like it, know its faults, you can live with it, it's comfortable — it is a very comfortable kind of art to live with. You don't have to think about it. With contemporary art, you sit there and go, "See, the reason this is beautiful is because when he did it, he was standing on a bridge, and he was wearing … different colored socks." But nineteenth century, it's just pretty pictures. It's decoration. It's… something to do.

I mean, I was into contemporary for a while; I had paintings by Ed Ruscha and Ed Kienholz — I like people named Ed. And then conceptual art… … it was really interesting at first — in fact a lot of things in my act came from, you know, that idea of conceptual art, or minimal art, of not doing anything, of making a statement and then negating it.

But then one time, I remember walking into a gallery here on Melrose, and I'm really into contemporary, trying to understand it. And I look on the wall, and there's two sheets of rubber, carved in a semicircle and a square. And I said … …(frowns insightfully) "Wait a minute … I'm being made a fool of."

Well, Steve, thanks very much for your time and everything. It look's like that's just about all the room we have, and —
Hey, don't get me wrong. I don't like to go on and on, 'cause that's the most boring thing. Some of these entertainers, when you interview 'em, they just go on and on and on 'cause they think they're …so… great, ha ha ha. And the amazing thing is that some of these boring entertainers… don't even realize they're boring.

Steve … …
(Stands on his bed) I'm not trying to be the center of attention or anything like that. But I've gone everywhere and I've done everything … I've seen everything there is to see … I've bought hot dogs in France and I've painted a fence… … I've played marbles for hours on end… … I've rolled jellybeans up an incline… … I've put an umbrella in my mouth and opened it … I sat on a lemon meringue pie.

Steve, really …
I've done terrible things to my dog with a fork!

(The phone rings and I grab it. Steve sits down on the bed and starts whistling and singing with blissful abandon.)
Oh, I'm a neat guy.

Sorry to interrupt you, Steve, but Roger Black just called and said we have to cut thirteen lines. So I think we'd better wrap this up and…
(Martin grimaces, gazes at the ceiling and shrugs.) Thirteen lines? Oh, that's okay. (Smiles weakly) You know, what's the difference? — thirteen lines here, thirteen lines there. (Sighs) I mean, uh … …sure, these guys, uh, just cut thirteen lines arbitrarily, what the heck, what difference does it make? They know what they're doing. (He swallows bitterly, his cheeks tighten up as he gnashes his rear molars. His eyes narrow and veins begin to appear on his forehead. Finally he smacks a fist into his palm.) Sure, I've been in the business for ten years, and I've done a few interviews in my time, but, uh … I guess the people in "The Art Department" feel they know a little bit more about what's "good" than I do, a se-mi-pro-fessional comedian.

(Martin storms up to a sliding plate-glass window overlooking Sunset Boulevard and smashes it. He shouts to the world nine floors below.)

I'm sorry, but I'm just a little pissed!

(He kicks in the hotel TV, turns on all the faucets in the bathroom, runs from his room and down the hallway, screaming and banging on doors.)

I guess the fucking (almost gagging) Aarrrt Department (bang) feels an Oxford rule, some faggy little decorative device, is more important (thud) than what I have to say. I guess they feel a plugola excerpt from some bullshit Rolling Stone book on the Sixties deserves more space (pow) than my career.

(Steve bolts into an elevator filled with several matronly old women who eye him nervously with disdain. Rocking impatiently on the balls of his feet, he hits the first floor button and addresses the women.)

Hey, it's my ass that's on the line, you know? So what! I mean, uh … what's a Rolling Stone cover worth anyhow? A few more phone calls from some asskissing record company toady? A few more fans among Rolling Stone's "vast" brain-damaged readership? Hah! Who needs it? I went to college. I got something to fall back on.

(The elevator door opens, Steve races through the lobby of the Continental Hyatt House, out the front door, and jumps into the first passing car on Sunset.)

I don't know what they want. They're getting my best — I'm winging it, I'm working, I'm speaking, I'm talking, I'm goin', I'm movin', I'm creating … and then they want to cut it! Here I've been busting my ass for ten years, and I can't get a little cooperation from the Rolling Stone Art Department?

(Takes a deep breath and shouts from his diaphragm)

Well … …EX —

(Huffing and puffing, Martin turns toward the driver and suddenly recognizes him as Roger Black, the art director, a giggling, red-faced man in a cute bowtie. Black whips out a two-inch Oxford rule and slaps it into place.)

(Black and Martin grapple amid a flurry of Oxford rules, scissors, paste, gallies and felt-tip pens. The car swerves crazily down the middle of the Sunset Strip.)

Steve! What the — put down that copy! Put down that rubber cement!
(Screws up his face like a prune, points at himself with all ten trembling fingers.)

— SSSSSKKKKKKEEUUUUSSSSE ME!