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 dollars … cash. 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.”