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Martin recounts rise and collapse of standup career

Steve Martin told a UB audience that it had been a long-time dream of his to perform at the university. Photo: Steve Morse


Published May 2, 2013

In a personal, amusing and hour-long address to a sold-out crowd in Alumni Arena on April 27, comedian-actor-banjo player Steve Martin related his struggles as a gullible youth trying to break into show-business, his ecstasy at reaching the pinnacle of standup comedy, and his reasons for walking away at the height of his fame and success.

“It has been a long-time dream of mine to speak in this beautiful arena here at the University at Buffalo, and tonight I feel I am one step closer to that dream,” Martin deadpanned to roars of laughter and appreciative clapping. “I looked online at the university's website and I saw a photo of myself; across it are the words ‘sold out’ and I thought: ‘How rude!’”

Conceding that most speakers invited to the distinguished speaker series usually talk about science, politics or business, Martin made it clear his presentation would be different.

“Tonight I am talking about myself and how I got from nowhere to somewhere—from a vacuum to a big bang—in the world of standup comedy, which is the single most important moment in my now weirdly lengthy show-business career,” he said.

“So if you don’t enjoy my talk tonight, you’re wrong,” Martin said. “After the show, I suggest you go home and take a good look at yourself in the mirror and ask, ‘What can I bring to the show as an audience member, for the next time?’”

Steve Martin kept the audience entertained with the story of his standup comedy career. Photo: Steve Morse

Born in 1945 in Waco, Texas, Steve Martin moved to Los Angeles when he was 5 years old. His first exposure to comedy came during that long drive to LA when comedy routines were playing on the car radio.

As a 10-year-old, Martin began selling guidebooks at Disneyland. During his eight-year tenure there, he also worked in the Adventureland theme park, in a shop selling cowboy hats at Frontierland and in a Fantasyland magician shop, where he entertained tourists by performing magic tricks all day.

The joy he got out of performing led him to an epiphany.

“I knew by age 15 that I loved show-business, but I have the problem of having absolutely no gifts. I couldn’t sing, dance or act.” Martin said. “But I did have the one element necessary to all creativity: naiveté, a fabulous quality of not knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.”

Regardless, Martin went on to develop a hillbilly act with high school classmate and future Elvis Presley back-up vocalist Kathy Westmoreland. It failed miserably.

“At age 18, I was a conventional act consisting of magic, juggling and bad banjo tunes with gags I got out of joke books and materials stolen from acts on television,” he said.

A lucky encounter with a girl, Stormie Sherk, who made Martin read Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” motivated him to enroll in Long Beach State College and take classes in philosophy.

“These classes were introducing me to the world of thought, and they were teaching me that everything could be examined, and I began applying it to comedy,” Martin said. “Over the next 10 years, I had three important breakthroughs.”

The first breakthrough was originality. All the classes Martin took brought him back to a book he remembers from the magician’s shop, “Showmanship for Magicians,” that stresses the importance of being original above all else.

While Martin would steal ideas and gags with impunity as an amateur/adolescent/magician-comedian, his philosophy, literature and poetry classes cultivated a new performer’s morality.

“I realized I would have to write everything in the act myself. I could never take or copy from anyone,” he said. “I did not know how to write comedy, but I did know I would have to drop some of my best gags.”

His second breakthrough came from a college psychology class where he read a comedy treatise explaining the mechanics of a conventional joke. Tension—created from set-ups—is released through the punch lines. Audiences recognize the punch line and laugh.

Martin despises this formulaic, automated response, comparing it to applause given at the end of a song performance—irrespective whether the audience liked it or not. Instead, he wondered about the comedy we experience at home or with friends, laughing our heads off—often without knowing exactly what we are laughing at.

“There is a term for that,” Martin said. “You had to be there.”

This notion revolutionized his thinking about comedy, and he began writing jokes without punch lines, creating tensions but never releasing them.

“Theoretically, it had to come out sometime. The audience just could not sit there all tense,” Martin said. “The audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation, but they would be laughing at something they chose, and the laugh would be genuine.”

While Martin had yet to find success as a standup, his first big break came at age 21 in 1966, when his then-girlfriend, Nina Goldblatt, a dancer on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” helped him secure a job as a writer on the show. He would go on to write for “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” and “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” and make his first television appearance on “The Steve Allen Show.”

By 1972, the idea of “flower power” and “love was going to save the world” was still prevalent. But drugs were killing people, Charles Manson was killing people and Vietnam was dividing the nation, Martin said.

And so his third breakthrough came. Cutting his hair, shaving his beard and putting on a suit, Martin decided to leave a lucrative Hollywood career and perform standup on the road.

By distancing himself from comedy charged with political energy and the hippie culture of free love in LA, Martin was “no longer the tail end of an old movement and the head of a new one.”

“The nation was—plain and simple—starved for comedy,” he said.

After some well-received performances accompanied by glowing reviews, Martin was invited to perform on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where a candid, unplanned shot of Carson laughing at Martin’s performance symbolized an official endorsement.

Martin was invited to appear on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976, a year after it premiered, and it launched him onto the national stage. He toured relentlessly, filling arenas and coliseums with tens of thousands of people, and would be booked for shows two years in advance.

As Martin’s fame grew and his fan base ballooned, the responsibility of not letting people down weighed on him, he said. “Arenas are no place to experiment new materials,” and he could not walk away from the multi-zeroes income, which he had worked so hard for his entire life.

After every show, he would be led by security personnel from the stage, only to be greeted by the blunt interior of a hotel room. He was exhausted, isolated and at a creative ennui, Martin said, labeling it “the cliché, loneliest period of my life.”

During a sold-out show in 1981 in Atlantic City, his electric guitar failed to amplify when performing “King Tut,” leaving him stranded on stage. When the act ended, Martin exited the stage and exploded in rage, swearing out loud and ripping off his coat, throwing it at the wall.

“Of course, my fury was not because of a failed ‘King Tut’ routine,” Martin said. “Over the last year, I had lost touch with what I was doing and I was suffering an artistic crisis that I didn’t know I had a capacity for.

“After that night, I never did standup again.”

Martin successfully parlayed his career into motion pictures for the next 35 years, beginning with “The Jerk,” a box-office hit originating from a standup routine in which Martin claims to have been born a poor black child.

Martin concluded his speech with his signature line.

“I’ll leave you tonight with an opening line I used for years in my career,” he said. “Good evening, I’m Steve Martin, and I’ll be out here in a minute.”