Guest: Steve Martin
TIM RUSSERT, HOST: Welcome again.
And our guest, a celebrated writer, actor, performer. His generation’s greatest standup comedian, who gave that up in 1981. He now chronicles his rise to fame as a comic in his new book, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.”
Our guest, Steve Martin.
STEVE MARTIN, COMEDIAN: Thank you for having me.
RUSSERT: Why did you write “Born Standing Up”?
MARTIN: I’m always searching for something to write because I enjoy it. And I realized that I had this period of my life where something very unusual happens, meaning that I became a popular standup comedian. And I thought this was a unique experience, and I wanted to write it down. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but I just wanted to write it down before it was—you know, I was...
RUSSERT: You say, “It’s writing about someone I used to know”
MARTIN: Right. In looking back at your life, which would have been 27 or more years ago, there is a feeling that it is someone you used to know. And going through my memorabilia, it was like investigating someone else’s life. I see he was here on this date and he was here on this date and he wrote this letter and here’s what he said, but it—only sometimes can I say, oh, that was me.
RUSSERT: It was extraordinary for me to read about the amount of preparation and hard work that you applied to your craft. You say that you spent 10 years learning, four years refining, and then four years of wild success.
MARTIN: Well, I think that in any case of any job, if someone beforehand told you, by the way, it will take 18 years before you have a success, you’d go, oh, I think I’ll do something else. You’re never forewarned. I think in everybody’s life, in everybody’s job, they’re unprepared to the amount of work that it is.
RUSSERT: But you began when you were just a little boy.
MARTIN: I was interested in show business. I liked comedy. I watched Laurel and Hardy on television and I learned magic tricks, and I put on shows for my parents and the school. I was just somehow inclined toward it. I don’t know why.
RUSSERT: You say that magic is a poor man’s way into show business.
MARTIN: Yes. Not to insult magicians, but, you know, if you’re not a singer, dancer, actor, you don’t have some kind of natural gift, you can actually go to a store and buy a trick. And it has instructions and it even often tells you what to say. You can say—you know, I was six years old and saying, I just came back from he Orient, where I—you know. And if you get five or six of them, you’ve got an act.
RUSSERT: Mysto Magic.
RUSSERT: Mysto Magic.
RUSSERT: You bought that.
MARTIN: I had several Mysto Magic sets. And they’re still kind of collectible now. They’re rarities. You can find them on eBay.
RUSSERT: You listened to Abbott & Costello, Jack Benny...
MARTIN: Right, on the radio.
RUSSERT: ... Bob Hope, Amos & Andy.
RUSSERT: You remember that?
MARTIN: Loved them.
RUSSERT: What did you learn from them?
MARTIN: Well, I think I learned to love comedy. I don’t know if I learned anything specific. Certainly from Jack Benny you—I—would watch his timing. He was unafraid to take a pause, let something drag out to -- he’d take 10, 15 seconds, which in comedy is an eternity, and trust that the laugh was going to come. He could just stare at the audience.
I remember someone told me—I never saw this—he was playing in Las Vegas and he does a very slow walk from the wings to center stage, Jack Benny. And he walks out very slowly, goes like this, gets to the microphone and goes—walks all the way back off to get his violin.
RUSSERT: You write that you preferred Laurel & Hardy over The Three Stooges.
MARTIN: Yes, I did. Something was very sweet about Laurel & Hardy, and I found them to be very clever. And the Stooges, nothing against them, but it was very basic—basic punching, which after a while, OK.
RUSSERT: I grew up with Amos & Andy and now it’s been banned.
MARTIN: I know, it has been banned. And I don’t know what to make of it, really, because I bought some shows on DVD and watched them. They were very funny. The quality was so poor, unfortunately. I mean, the visual quality.
And on the radio, to me they were just voices. You know? I didn’t know what color they were and I just...
RUSSERT: But you appreciated the humor.
MARTIN: I understand the—yes, I appreciated the humor. And I understand the sensitivity to it, but I always think these were just kind of smart con men, or dumb con men, or whatever, but they weren’t black, white, red or green.
RUSSERT: Steve Martin’s first stage debut in kindergarten, Rudolph.
MARTIN: Yes, I played the role of Rudolph.
RUSSERT: Hoping for the big...
MARTIN: I was promised that I would receive a red ping-pong ball for my nose, and this got me very excited, that I was going to get the red ping-pong ball. And so I was put into the—you know, the Rudolph suit and the antlers and everything, and I said, where’s the ping-pong ball. And they said, oh, it’s a—we don’t have a ping-pong, but we’re going to use lipstick.
And that mortified me. And I had lipstick applied to my nose and I felt demeaned. And of course it doesn’t wash off. So afterwards I’m walking around with this faint red nose, walking back to our house. It was a—but I survived.
RUSSERT: Also as a young boy, the first time you understood the whole notion, phrase, knees knocking.
MARTIN: Yes. That was a surprise. I did another, you know, adolescent show. I might have been 6 or 7. And I went on the stage and just felt my knees, you know, going like that.
I didn’t know what was going on. And as I say in the book, I think I would have preferred knees knocking to that sometimes pre-show anxiety you can get that’s just sort of a chilly coldness that you fee.
RUSSERT: Did you feel as a little boy that, this is what I want to do with my life?
MARTIN: I didn’t know anything about anything, so I didn’t know I wanted to do it. I didn’t know you could do it. I just liked getting up in front of people.
And eventually—you know, when you hit your teens, 15 and 16, and you’re thinking, oh, I’ll do a show for $5, or—I explain in the book it’s a complicated path, but do a show for the Qantas Club or do a show for the Boy Scouts. And I’d do my magic act, and slowly it dawned on me that, gee, they really like it when the tricks don’t work. And I started thinking more and more about comedy.
RUSSERT: You were so meticulous, you would go back and write down which jokes worked, which didn’t, which got big laughs, which didn’t, which tricks were best received.
MARTIN: Right. Well, this came from a book I found called “Showmanship for Magicians.” And I studied this book and it gave all this advice which I think was—it’s important to any young entertainer’s life. You need—there’s a couple of good books out on performing, on forming a band. A friend of mine wrote it, actually, Pete Warnack (ph), great book on forming a band.
This was, you know—yes, you’ve got to write anything down, have everything in order, check everything in twice, get paid. You know, have a contract. And I’d sit up and type up on my little typewriter a contract for $5, and then I was too embarrassed actually to ask anybody to sign it.
RUSSERT: We’re going to take a quick break.
We’re talking to Steve Martin. He’s the author of his new book, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.” And he got his start in Disneyland.
We’ll talk about that and a whole lot more after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARTIN: Excuse me!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RUSSERT: We’re back talking to Steve Martin. His new book, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.”
Viewers all across the country will see the arrow through the head, “Excuse me!” You acquired both those at a very young age.
MARTIN: Right. I worked in the magic shop at Disneyland. I had many jobs at Disneyland. I started when I was 10 selling guidebooks. And I was told by a neighbor, a boy, he said, they’re hiring people, kids, at Disneyland.
And I was 10. And I said, “What?” And so I got...
RUSSERT: You were paid per book.
MARTIN: I was paid per book. We sold guidebooks, and I bicycled up there and got a job somehow. And I was given a straw hat and a little candy stripe shirt.
RUSSERT: A boater (ph)?
MARTIN: Yes. And a vest. And I stood out there and said, “Get your guidebooks.”
RUSSERT: And you hustled a lot of books.
MARTIN: I sold a lot of books.
RUSSERT: But at the magic...
MARTIN: And then at the magic shop. Sorry. Go ahead.
RUSSERT: No, no. You saw this arrow that you could put through your head.
MARTIN: Right. I mean, after I left the magic shop I actually thought—something struck me ironically funny about it because it was so stupid. And also bunny ears. They had fake vomit.
I think George Carlin had a line, I can’t remember it. Something, they sell the arrow to the head because they ran out of the fake vomit. Something. I don’t know.
And that was my, you know, briar patch. So, I kind of grew up in this world of store-bought jokes and tricks. And later I turned it into an asset, I guess.
RUSSERT: And tell me about Irene.
MARTIN: Irene—oh, yes. Irene—I worked at a shop called Tiki’s (ph) Tropical Traders, which is still there. And she was from Biloxi, Mississippi. And she kept saying—she had a phrase. She was very bouncy, very lively. I don’t know what happened to her.
She had a phrase. She would say, “Well, excuse me for living.” And always said it in fun.
And I just remembered it years later. It always stuck in my head. I thought it was a great phrase, and I just shortened it and put it into my act somehow.
RUSSERT: Just file it away. File it away.
MARTIN: I’ll file everything away. Carl Reiner told me—he said, “You never let anything go.”
RUSSERT: And Johnny Carson told you you’ll use everything you’ve ever learned.
MARTIN: Yes. Yes. I was on the show one night and he did an impression of Goofy or something, something like that. And we went to commercial and he said, “You’ll use everything you’ve ever learned.” And it proved to be true.
RUSSERT: When you were working your way through Disneyland, you encountered some people in your life who really had huge influences on you—Eddie (ph)?
MARTIN: Eddie Adamack (ph) was a cowboy trick-roper, and he worked in Frontierland selling these little ropes. And he taught me how to trick-rope with a big rope.
I actually worked for him for a little while doing the little trick-roping, and then he taught me how to jump through the hoops and do the butterfly and thread the needle. And I can still do it. And then—but mainly the big influence was Wally Boge (ph), who worked at the Golden Horseshoe Review. And I think they did—you know, it’s one of those records, 87,000 shows. You know.
And he was very funny. He made balloon animals. He crafted them very well. And I later did not a parody of it, but something similar.
And he turned his wig around backwards. He just brought the house down. He was fantastic. And I sat and memorized everything he did.
MARTIN: Well, memorized it in my head. I never did it, but I kept wishing that, “Oh, Wally (ph)’s sick. Is there a 14-year-old boy who can take his place? We don’t know what we’re going to do.”
RUSSERT: It seems to me reading the book, Steve Martin, that at an early age you understood that in your mind, humor was both verbal and physical.
MARTIN: Yes. I found that as I went off—this was definitely after the 10-year period of experimentation—that I could express a line—you know, a line physically as well as say it. And I started bringing those two concepts together.
It’s not, you know, an outstanding thought, it’s what actors do all the time. But in comedy it wasn’t much being done. People just stood and talked.
RUSSERT: You write that switching high schools was an important moment for you because you were able to go to your new high school and cast yourself as a nonconformist.
MARTIN: Yes. Well, this would have been I guess about 1960, and that’s when the beatniks were just—you know, the message of the beatniks was coming to us, which was nonconformity.
I thought, that sounds great, I’ll be a nonconformist. And so I felt I had already established my conformist personality at my old high school, and I couldn’t really suddenly change. It would be too—they would recognize it. So I was very excited to go to a new high school and be a nonconformist, which was I think that much different from my own personality.
RUSSERT: If you try to change your personality at your current high school, you’d be like a presidential candidate.
MARTIN: Right, exactly. It’s like flip-flop.
RUSSERT: Eighteen, the banjo.
MARTIN: Yes. I heard Earl Scruggs play and I was just transfixed by the five-string banjo. And I didn’t know the difference between a five-string and a four-string, which the difference is big, believe me. And my girlfriend’s father had a four-string banjo.
So I got that and I was trying to learn that. And I—and then someone said, no, what you want is a five-string. So I got one and I just started practicing.
I used to practice at night. I couldn’t practice in the house. As a courtesy, you can’t practice the banjo in the house.
RUSSERT: But you taught yourself to play the banjo.
MARTIN: I did. A common method I found—I thought it was unique to me, but a common method then was to take a 33 RPM record and slow it down to 16, and then down-tune the banjo so you’re in tune with it, and then pick out—pick every song out note by note. That’s the kind of obsessive personalities banjo players have.
RUSSERT: But it is successful.
MARTIN: It worked.
RUSSERT: Steve Martin is our guest and the author of “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.”
We’ll be right back with a whole lot more of Steve Martin’s extraordinary career.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARTIN: Oh, no! Happy feet!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RUSSERT: Where did the happy feet come from?
MARTIN: Well, there—from two sources, really. One was just an idea that I wanted to look like I was out of control. And I though, OK, I’ll just do a dance.
My actual thought was to appear as though I was being controlled by someone else. I don’t know why. I thought that was funny. But—and then there was a—but I got the term “happy feet” from a postcard I saw stuck up backstage at Disneyland, and it was a naughty postcard, and there were two feet, two going up and two going down, or whatever it would be, like that, and they were called “Happy Feet.”
RUSSERT: I get the image.
MARTIN: Yes, you go it.
RUSSERT: Did you get it back then?
MARTIN: I had it explained to me. I’m like, oh, really? Oh.
RUSSERT: Now I got it.
Tell me about Knott’s Berry Farm.
MARTIN: Knott’s Berry Farm was—when I first started working there—at first they had a theater called the Bird Cage Theater. And Knott’s Berry Farm in those days—Disneyland cost money to get in, Knott’s Berry Farm was free. And Knott’s Berry Farm was a true park with grass and with manmade lakes and old ghost town buildings that Walter Knott had brought there.
And the Bird Cage Theater, it was a very charming place. And it had peacocks, you know, strolling around. It was very religious. They had chapels, and there was a chapel where you could go in and they would dim the lights, and there would be a portrait of Jesus and his eyes would magically open as the lights—I think it was an ultraviolet light.
And there was a theater there that did melodramas. They’d put on four shows a day. They charged 25, 50 cents to get in. And at the end of the melodrama they had the actors come out and do—and perform their specialties.
And I got a job there. I auditioned with my magic act, which I—you know, I had five minutes material. And somehow got the job, and I started—I was—at age 18 I started doing four shows a day for three years. I worked there. And there’s nothing...
RUSSERT: Four shows a day.
MARTIN: Four, or five on Sunday.
RUSSERT: And how much per show were you paid?
MARTIN: Two dollars per show.
RUSSERT: Two bucks.
MARTIN: And believe me, when they told me it was $2 per show, I went, “Oh, that’s $8.”
RUSSERT: In front of Knott’s Berry Farm was a sign, “World’s Greatest Entertainment.” Except...
MARTIN: Yes. There was a beautiful sign—I saw a photo of it recently, actually. It’s sort of a villain—a villain/hero type thing. And he’s holding a card up and it said—and it was written in script—“World Greatest Entertaiment.” And they had left out the “n”. And the sign stood there for 10 years and no one ever noticed this until a friend of mine pointed it out and said, “You know, the ‘n’ is missing.”
RUSSERT: You write that you mispronounced the word incomparable.
MARTIN: Yes, I was on—it was my first night—it was a folk music club called The Prison of Socrates in Balboa—on Balboa Island. And I invited some of my college friends out. It was my first paying gig outside of Knott’s Berry Farm, my first sort of solo act. And that’s—all I remember is the squeaking chairs and they’d come up and say, “It’s incomparable, not incomparable.”
RUSSERT: And you’ve never missed it again.
RUSSERT: E.E. Cummings.
MARTIN: Yes. I was enchanted with—when I went to college, I went to college for four years. I never graduated but I—because I changed my major from, you know, philosophy to theater toward the end when I realized exactly what I wanted to do. And I became enchanted with E.E. Cummings’ rhythmic poetry.
I actually used to read him in my act. I used to read T.S. Eliot in my act. Can you imagine a comedy act where they’re reading T.S. Eliot?
RUSSERT: But you have a wonderful quote from Cummings. You say, “Like the Burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”
MARTIN: Yes. This is something he said at a lecture. And when he was asked why he was a poet, and he said, like the Vaudeville comedian or Burlesque comedian. And I didn’t know what he meant.
And for years I thought about what he meant. I was a comedian, in a way I was a Burlesque comedian. And I was trying to figure out what he meant.
And then finally, you know, years later I’m on stage and I understood that it was—and my act was so known to me that it was precise. And I knew that precision was actually leading it forward, was moving it forward, like a poem is very precise. And you move forward as you read it because of its own precision.
RUSSERT: And Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland.”
MARTIN: Lewis Carroll was a logician, as well as author of “Alice in Wonderland.” And he wrote some very comic—they weren’t really syllogisms, but we’ll call they syllogisms.
And I wish I had an example. We should read one from the book, because they’re hilariously silly, and yet they were completely logical. And it just sent my mind to thinking, what can we do here? How can we change what’s going on? How can I rearrange some of the standard jokes and the forms of the jokes?
RUSSERT: And taking from all of these people and incorporating it into your own thinking and to eventually your own act.
MARTIN: Right. Well, I was majoring in philosophy, and philosophy taught me that everything could be examined. And I said, what about my act, rather than the nature of the universe.
So I sort of was thinking, how can I stir things up a bit just internally in my own little act? And I had several revelations—or call them natural revelations, not spiritual revelations. And I applied them to my act and eight years later it worked.
RUSSERT: We’re talking to Steve Martin—“A Comic’s Life”—“Born Standing Up.”
We’ll be back with more of his career after this.
RUSSERT: And we’re back talking to write, actor, performer Steve Martin. His new book, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life” is out. It captures his extraordinary career and the precision and preparation he brings to his art.
Smothers Brothers, you were a writer.
MARTIN: Yes. I was very lucky to get that job. I was 21 years old, never had a professional job. I was in college. I mean, I was doing my act around town, so I had a little reputation as a comedian. And my girlfriend, Nina (ph), was -- my ex-girlfriend, I should say—was dating the head writer, Mason Williams.
And the Smothers Brothers sent out a call for young writers. This would have been about 1965, ‘66. And the sort of slogan of the day was “Never trust anyone over 30,” which is a self-defeating—because one day you’re going to be over 30.
But they wanted to try some young writers. And so I submitted some material, some stories I had written, and I went down and auditioned with my act and I was hired as a writer. It was an amazing—it was like, oh my god, how did this happen?
RUSSERT: It’s interesting you talk about girlfriends and the influence they can have—they had on you. Sunny (ph) is the one who gave you a book, “Razor’s Edge”?
MARTIN: Stormy. Yes. She’s around today, too. Her name now is Stormy O’Martien (ph), and she’s a Christian writer, has—very successful.
Anyway, then she was Stormy Sherik (ph), and she suggested I read “The Razor’s Edge” by Somerset Maugham.
RUSSERT: It opened your mind.
MARTIN: And it was, you know, about—a very romantic book and a quest for knowledge and truth, and I thought, this is what I want to do, the quest for truth. So I changed my major to philosophy and went to Long Beach State College and really got into it. It really changed my life.
RUSSERT: The Smothers Brothers very political in some of the humor. And then the show was canceled by CBS.
MARTIN: Right. It was—I think it was a very political show. We’ll call it a left wing political show. And the war in Vietnam was its big target. And Nixon was a big target.
And I really believe that the government said to NBC—or CBS, excuse me—no more. And I think—but they had a lousy excuse—oh, an episode was a day late in being delivered. You know, that’s not a reason that you cancel a hit show.
I think they were really caught. I think CBS was caught between the government and the—you know, business, in a sense.
RUSSERT: You never learned anymore about that?
MARTIN: No, I never did. I don’t know if there’s ever been a book written about the inner workings of what really went on. But I found out driving to work that it was canceled. It was on the radio.
RUSSERT: At that time, a lot of younger viewers will not remember, but there were a lot of daytime shows on the air like Dick Van Dyke, and Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, Virginia Graham, Steve Allen.
MARTIN: Yes—Steve Allen.
RUSSERT: He was the only comedian of that group.
RUSSERT: But you were on those programs...
MARTIN: There were tons of talk shows.
RUSSERT: ... 50 times you went on.
MARTIN: Yes. I would. Because you could only have so much material to supply those shows that—they were usually on in the afternoon, like 2:00 or 3:00, like Wednesday or Thursday or—you know, five days a week. And I would go on one, and then I’d think, OK, I did that bit on this show, but the other show, Virginia Graham, comes on at 2:00 p.m. and it’s on a Friday, so there’s not going to be—and I just—it was like a math problem trying to sort out what material you could do. There were, you know, six or seven shows.
RUSSERT: Was there a crossover audience, or could you repeat a lot of the jokes?
MARTIN: I have no idea. I was trying to kid myself that there wasn’t.
RUSSERT: You tested them.
MARTIN: Yes, so they wouldn’t see the same jokes twice.
RUSSERT: I love this. You were asked to open for Ann Margaret at the Las Vegas International Hilton.
RUSSERT: And you encountered someone...
MARTIN: Oh, right.
RUSSERT: ... after that performance.
MARTIN: Yes. She was hired for five weeks. That’s a long gig in Las Vegas. And I opened the shirt for her. And I’m still grateful to them for hiring me.
And I was standing backstage after the show and I saw this figure in white, a beautiful woman come walking down the hallway. It was like this. And then she moved aside and there was Elvis. It was Priscilla Presley and then there was Elvis, all dressed in white with this big belt.
And he walked by me and he had just seen the show and he said, “Son, you have an oblique sense of humor.”
RUSSERT: A quotable and memorable line.
MARTIN: Yes. And then he said, “Want to see my guns?”
MARTIN: And we said, oh, yes. And he took out three guns.
He had an all loaded Deringer in the back, or something or other. I’m afraid to touch guns. But before—he took out all the bullets and he showed them, let us handle them, and then he put them back in.
And then he had his sort of, you know, sidekick come over and say, “Elvis, we have to go now.” And he went, “It’s all right.”
I think he had somebody always come up to him and say, “Elvis, we have to go now,” just in case...
RUSSERT: Oh, sure.
Did you ever see him perform?
MARTIN: Yes, I saw him at the Hilton.
RUSSERT: You did?
MARTIN: Yes. It was very exciting.
MARTIN: He followed us in—Ann Margaret. So I stayed an extra night to watch him. Oh, he was great. And he was also—he was very funny.
He kept explaining, I have a sense of humor, too, but nobody gets it. And I’d watch him and say he was very funny.
RUSSERT: Johnny Carson...
RUSSERT: ... you write about him—probably more about him than anybody else that you appeared with on television. You write that you thought if you went on there it would be instant fame, you learned otherwise. He had very high standards to a point where he didn’t want you on unless there was a substitute host.
MARTIN: Right. I had done the show maybe three times. And of course you—when you go on first you use your absolute best material so you are able to score. But then you go, what do I have next?
And so after three or four times, I was either running out or some of the ideas weren’t working, I guess. And then I went on with guest hosts and I was able to score with the guest hosts. And then a couple of shows later—I still have the note they wrote me, and they said Johnny agrees that you’re read to come back on.
And then I went back on, and the first show back I did really well. It was great.
RUSSERT: Sammy Davis, Jr. was on the couch.
RUSSERT: Johnny at his desk.
RUSSERT: And you could see the reaction.
MARTIN: Well, there was kind of a miracle. I was doing my act and I was actually doing a bit, a satire on a Vegas act. So I was speaking very quickly and singing. And it was a Vegas act compressed to one minute, something like that.
And they just happened to cut away to Johnny as he was swirling up out of his chair laughing. He wasn’t even lit. He was just a shadow. But it was a like a moment of endorsement, kind of subtle endorsement from this one accidental cutaway that Johnny was laughing.
And then Sammy fell off the chair. And—Sammy Davis fell off the chair. And then we realized later that no matter what it was Sammy fell off the chair. He was always—he was always laughing so hard that he would fall off the chair.
RUSSERT: And then Sammy hugged you.
MARTIN: He hugged me.
RUSSERT: And you said, but he hugged Richard Nixon, too. But Johnny Carson became someone that you developed a friendship with.
MARTIN: Somewhat. I mean, we used to play poker together. And I think we had dinner once, twice.
He was a very sweet guy. And misunderstood, I think. A lot of people thought he was aloof, but my view is, no, he’s just polite.
You know, people come over and go, “Hey, what are you doing?” And he’s not that way. He gets to know people, like you do normally if you’re a normal person.
RUSSERT: From Nebraska, who also started with magic.
RUSSERT: Often parties would become private and do magic...
MARTIN: And even later in his life he took lessons again. He got very excited being off the show. He took his life seriously and he took trips, he learned things. He was great.
RUSSERT: He told you that timing like Ali was important.
MARTIN: Well, that was—I compared him to Ali in that he was perfect at kind of setting you up. Not to kill you, but to deliver timing to you. He could bail you out of a bit.
He had a great appreciation of all kinds of entertainers. And he also had a great appreciation of, you know, grannies who sewed log cabin (ph) quilts. You know? So you don’t really get that much on television, real people.
RUSSERT: You’re all nuts and you’re all welcome.
RUSSERT: We’re going to take another quick break.
Steve Martin is the author of “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life,” is the book.
We’ll be right back.
RUSSERT: “Saturday Nigh Live” had a profound impact on your career.
MARTIN: Right, it did. I actually had a record out when I first went on there. I think that’s why I was able to be hired on to the show as a guest host. A lot of people think I was a member of the cast. I wasn’t.
RUSSERT: Did you ever think about joining?
MARTIN: No. No, I was on the road. I was out—I was—you know. I really liked doing it. But it was a time, it was a special time that it was a new show, it had captured the nation in a strange way.
And we were all very hot. And we loved to be funny. And so everybody was thinking the same thing. Everybody on the cast was thinking, let’s kill them, let’s get it, let’s do it. And there was a great energy that fueled creativity, really.
RUSSERT: You talk about comedians and comics murdering the audience.
MARTIN: Yes. And that was actually—I thought of a title for the book before I came up with “Born Standing Up” which was, “I Killed, I Murdered, I Died.” All terms for comedians.
RUSSERT: But you say a comic’s death is worse than a normal death.
MARTIN: Yes. Well, it might be an exaggeration, but it feels like worse than regular death.
RUSSERT: After “Saturday Night Live” you had—your album was out, as you mentioned. “King Tut,” a huge, wildly successful song. On the road, and suddenly the audiences were no longer just crammed in a small club. There would be 2,000, 3,000, 6,000.
RUSSERT: Nassau Coliseum, 45,000 people.
MARTIN: Well, that was over three shows.
RUSSERT: Three shows.
MARTIN: Yes, because I think it only seats 16,000. But, yes, things just started going crazy. And, you know, I’m happy it did, because I think that’s what makes the book a real story.
If it had just been a kind of mild success, it would be OK. But because it had this huge ending, I think it makes the book into a kind of novel in a strange way about the beginning, middle and end.
RUSSERT: In 1981 you said, that’s it, I’m done with standup.
MARTIN: Yes. I was entering movies. I had done “The Jerk.” And I found the world of movies so social.
And standup was very isolating and lonely, and it involved travel, a kind of serious kind of travel. You know, like every day a different town, which was very romantic for a while. But then I started to get tired of it.
RUSSERT: There’s a very important point in your book how you would go to, what, 85 cities, just on the road. You’d walk out to an audience of 15,000 people, but you were alone. There was no band, no one else helping you. You said you basically lost any opportunity to have a normal conversation.
RUSSERT: Back in the bus, on to the next city.
MARTIN: Right, or back to the hotel room. And it was very difficult to go out because it would attract attention. You know?
And it’s—I know most people think, oh, it would be great to attract attention, but—and it is great after a while. But when it’s so intense it’s not. It’s—you can’t really have a normal conversation with anybody except trusted friends.
RUSSERT: And your act, people were showing up more for a party. And you saw yourself as a party host rather than as a comic.
MARTIN: Right. Well, I kind of missed the boat on that. I realized later that I had become a party host. The audience was there for a party, and I kept thinking, what about my timing, what about my precision, what about my jokes and the setup?
You know, but it was really, really wild. And I actually just lost interest. You know? There was—the feedback had kind of stopped. It was a different kind of thing, but it was also very repetitive. In the movies I was doing something new every day.
RUSSERT: You would perform as the “wild and crazy guy,” but you yourself were not a wild and crazy guy.
MARTIN: No. I mean, yes, in certain moments with friends. But not like wild and crazy like John Belushi was, to the point of self-destruction. He was a very sweet guy, by the way, but he had this kind of streak.
I always say when people say, oh, why aren’t you funny, or, you know, that funny that way now? I say, because if I was that way all the time, I would have no friends. It would be unimaginable. It would be an ego out of control.
RUSSERT: It was written that you kept an intimate distance from your audience.
MARTIN: Well, I don’t know who wrote that, but I—I’m not quite sure what they mean, because an act is an act. I mean, what are you supposed to do? You know?
RUSSERT: But it was—yes.
MARTIN: Cut your wrists in front of them? I don’t know.
RUSSERT: Let it all pour out.
RUSSERT: You write that you went to a movie theater one time and had smoked some dope and had an anxiety attack...
RUSSERT: ... and from that day forward, no more movie theaters for a long time.
MARTIN: No more movies, and certainly no more dope.
RUSSERT: No more dope. That was it.
MARTIN: I had a college student’s affair with marijuana, but I think I was actually lucky that I had a bad experience, because it kept me away from everything. And you can’t perform comedy, at least the kind of comedy I was doing, high, drunk, on anything. You just can’t.
RUSSERT: You drank at one time and went back and played the tape and said, I’m slurring my words. No more.
MARTIN: Yes. I was on stage and I was doing a bit—a guy, a cocky guy at a cocktail party, and talking like this and meeting girls. And the waitresses would bring up a glass of wine.
I’d say, oh, OK. So—and they’d keep bringing them up. And then I played the tape back one day and I heard—I was a little bit of this. And I said, oh, I’m not doing that anymore.
RUSSERT: How long before you went back to a movie theater?
MARTIN: It was about 10 years.
RUSSERT: Ten years.
MARTIN: Now they’re just too dirty to go in.
RUSSERT: We’re going to come back and talk about your family, because you write about it in such an extraordinary way, I want to give you a chance to talk about your mom and dad and sister.
Steve Martin, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.”
We’ll be right back.
RUSSERT: And we’re back talking to Steven Martin. His new book, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.”
But this book is so much more than just a comic’s life. It’s also I think the deep reflections of a son.
RUSSERT: And you write very emotionally about your dad, Glenn, and your mom, Mary Lee. And I’d just like to read this at the end of your book when you’re with your dad.
“I was alone with him in the bedroom. His mind was alert but his body was failing. He said almost brilliantly (ph), ‘I’m ready now.’ I sat on the edge of the bed and another silence fell over us. Then he said, ‘I wish I could cry. I wish I could cry.’”
“At first I took this as a comment on his condition, but am forever thankful that I pushed on. ‘What do you want to cry about?’ I said. ‘For all the love I received and couldn’t return.’ I felt a chill of familiarity.”
“There was another lengthy silence as we looked into each other’s eyes. At last, he said, ‘You did everything I wanted to do.’ ‘I did it for you,’ I said. Then we wept for the lost years. I was glad I didn’t say the more complicated truth, ‘I did it because of you.’”
That’s an amazing exchange.
MARTIN: Oh, thanks. And it’s verbatim.
RUSSERT: Your dad and you had—you didn’t talk much growing up.
MARTIN: No, it was...
RUSSERT: He wanted to be an actor.
MARTIN: He wanted to be an actor. But I really didn’t—I wasn’t aware of that until later. He was, you know, a Texan. We were a Texas family raised in California.
And I think there was a style of parenting then, as you can watch movies from the ‘40s and see it, where the dad is very strong and silent, a strong, silent type. And the wife is very obedient in a certain kind of film, not in all films of the ‘40s, where certainly Katharine Hepburn or any of the major stars. But there was this image of what a family was.
And I can—I can still remember hearing in the ‘50s or ‘60s my mother wanted to go to work just because she wanted to work. And he said, “No wife of mine is going to work.” And that’s a real throwback to a certain philosophy of an era, I think.
RUSSERT: When you were on “Saturday Night Live,” he wrote something which was critical of your going on.
RUSSERT: And even after “The Jerk” he said, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplain.”
RUSSERT: It took a long while for him to...
MARTIN: He was sparing on the compliments, yes.
RUSSERT: But in the end he recognized.
MARTIN: Yes. He—it’s cheap psychology, but I kind of think—you know, I wrote a play in the ‘90s called “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” and that, for some reason, he could latch on to and praise me for.
RUSSERT: Picasso and Einstein.
MARTIN: Well, I think it’s because it was writing and not performing. I think he always saw me as a performer that couldn’t be proud with his friends because it was too different.
RUSSERT: Your mom, on the other hand, would say, “Get out of the car and walk down the street so I could watch people look at you.”
MARTIN: Yes. It was very hard to explain to her that—why I didn’t want to do that. Are you watching, ma? You know.
RUSSERT: But she thoroughly enjoyed it.
MARTIN: She loved it. She loved it because she—you know, she told me once—she said, “I was in the supermarket the other day and when they found out I was your mother they went crazy.” And I come out, “How did they find out you’re my mother, except that you told them?”
RUSSERT: Or she was wearing...
MARTIN: Yes, I don’t know.
RUSSERT: You also write this about your sister—“Our father’s sickness reunited me with my sister. When we visited our ailing parents, we did something we had never done in our lives, talked. We had something uniquely in common and each conversation turned to our past as though we had a found a mind was rich thing.”
MARTIN: Yes. We -- my sister is four years older than I am, so we were always in the different schools and we always had, you know, kind of different friends. And I thought my experience was unique to me, my version of what happened. And when I talked with her, I realized, oh, no, she saw it the same way I did.
And it sort of confirmed because, you know, I wanted to be very careful when I write this down. This was about my father and my mother, and I wanted it to be accurate. And so I was able to confirm things with her, not so much facts as feelings about the family.
RUSSERT: When your dad uttered the words, “I love you,” you actually wrote him a letter back.
RUSSERT: Pretty touching.
MARTIN: Well, we’ll talk about that. It’s in the book.
RUSSERT: What are you working on now?
MARTIN: Well, I’ve just finished “Pink Panther II,” which was a delight with a great cast, including Andy Garcia and Alfred Molina and Lily Tomlin and Jeremy...
RUSSERT: Coming to the big screen.
MARTIN: Yes, coming to the big screen, but it’s a ways away.
RUSSERT: Two thousand...
MARTIN: Who knows. It’s scheduled for February of 2009.
RUSSERT: And are you going to keep on writing?
MARTIN: I hope so. I have some ideas and I love to write.
RUSSERT: And we hope so too.
MARTIN: Thank you.
RUSSERT: You really have a gift of extraordinary ability to write things in an understandable, meaningful way. And we thank you for it.
And thanks for joining us.
MARTIN: Thank you very much for having me.
RUSSERT: And we’ll see you next weekend.
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