Forgiving Steve Martin

Tom Petty recorded a song called “Money Becomes King” about a music fan who finds disillusiontment when his favorite rock act chooses money over his core audience.  For me, that rock star would be Steve Martin.  (I realize he’s not a rock star, but he still holds the record for performing stand-up for the largest audience in history, so he’s close enough.)

I grew up completely infatuated with Steve Martin’s comedy, especially his movies.  A friend of mine and I used to have “Steve Martin Marathons” where we’d stay up all night watching his movies, sometimes five and six at a time.  I loved his comedy because it was irreverent, goofy, and sharply hysterical.  Even his lesser movies, such as The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid killed me, and I watched them more times than the average Star Wars geek did The Empire Strikes Back.  I especially loved the ones that he wrote himself, Roxanne, L.A. Story, and of course, The Jerk.  Unlike today’s studio comedies, which seem to be riddled with a lot of anger and dissatisfaction, Martin’s movies, while certainly ironic and unrelentingly satirical, had joy to spare.  You know what I mean?  Joyful comedy.  Whether they were miserable experiences for him or not, it sure felt like he was having as much fun making them as I was watching them.  (Something I just don’t feel when watching a Ben Stiller movie, even when I do find his work amusing.)  My first year at college I went to a taping of Saturday Night Live, and when he came out of the elevator and into the lobby filled with throngs of tourists and star gazers, I was compelled to rush up to him.  I addressed him as Mr. Martin, and when he turned around to see who I was, I said, “I just want to shake your hand.”  He cocked his eyebrow, with what appeared to be surprise that I wasn’t asking for more, and then said simply, “Sure.”  He took his hand from around his wife, and gave me a good firm handshake.  I said thanks, and he was gone, and I was completely high off that handshake for a week.  It’s the one and only time in my life I’ve been truly starstruck (and I’m a guy who has danced with Madonna.)  But then the early nineties brought Father of the Bride and then suddenly he was doing Seargent Bilko and Cheaper By The Dozen, which of course were much more lucrative for him than his old stuff.  I felt betrayed, which I realize is ridiculous because Steve Martin has no idea who I am.  But what can I say?  Steve Martin was a huge part of my childhood, fuel for dreams and inspiration for my pursuit of acting.  And in what can only be described as weakness, I grew bitter with the disillusionment.

Years passed, and I gave up on him and his movies, enjoying his occasional bursts of brilliant comedic writing like Pure Drivel.  And then came Bowfinger, which I loved, and I celebrated thinking that the old Steve was back.  But it was just an anomaly.  (For Eddie Murphy, too.)  And the reminder of what I loved about his work became rather depressing.  Again, I know how stupid it is to become so affected by an entertainer’s career trajectory, but I couldn’t help myself.

A couple weeks ago I read his book Born Standing Up.  I was curious.  Would it explain why he felt compelled to make unbelievable sums of money rather than continuing to blaze new trails in comedy?  Well, no, it didn’t.  But it did teach me a little something about being an angry young man, even at the ripe old age of thirty-six.  It’s silly of me.  The book is different than any of his other literary works in that it is a straight-forward relation of facts.  He really doesn’t comment on his comedy trail-blazing too much, he just relates what happened.  It’s a book about comedy, but it isn’t the least bit funny.  He approached goofball comedy from a very academic place, and that very truth explains why he could change the face of it.  He was a scientist of comedy.  He made what should have been unfunny hysterical, turning the whole damn world on its ear, with what Rick Moranis described as “anti-comedy.”  It was gorgeous. 

And it made me realize that even if he doesn’t do it anymore, he did do it.  And he gave that to me.  He made me laugh until I cried, and he made me want to follow in his footsteps.  In my own way, I am continuing his great tradition with my own web series.  Sure, it doesn’t pay very well (read: nothing) but I’m still doing it.  And it’s because of him.  He owes me nothing, he already gave me too much, and if he wants to make bazillions with milktoast movies so he can buy really expensive fine art, who am I to judge that?  Fuck it, the guy must have ripped through a lot of energy doing what he did, so I’m now looking at Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pink Panther as his retirement.  I’m not going to go to see any of those movies, but I think he deserves to do whatever the hell he wants.  He already gave us everything.  I’m not angry at him anymore.  He taught me that irreverence can exist in a fear ruled, money-hungry world.  And I can keep doing what he did.  And I can love it.

Thanks, Steve.

Now, we’ll see how I feel if Chevy Chase ever writes and autiobiography.  I don’t know.

I just don’t know.


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