September 4, 2021

FTV: That Wild and Crazy Guy – Part 2


     At the end of Part 1, we found Steve Martin winding down a three year job at Knott’s Berry Farm where he performed in melodramas with a small troupe at the Bird Cage Theatre.  He also worked on his magic/comedy act during the olio intermission segments.  In his book, Steve Martin – Born Standing Up – A Comic’s Life (Scribner Books – 2007), Martin says he was doing well in his college classes, but the Bird Cage performances made him want to put more time into his solo act.  Passing a Monday night ‘perform for free’ audition at a music club called The Prison of Socrates in Balboa, CA landed him his first real gig outside of Knott’s Berry Farm.  Steve had to furiously search for more material to expand his five to ten minute Bird Cage routine.  He was not used to performing that long.  His job was to keep the paying customers happy for twenty minutes before the main star of the night, folk singer Tim Morgan, took the stage.  He admits his act was certainly no show stopper at this stage, but most opening acts in the small clubs were equally second rate.  Truly a trial by fire, he survived his first gig and thereafter took to writing copious notes after each performance to help him refine and improve his act.

     The next venue on his list of intermittent jobs was at the Ice House in Pasadena followed by more free Monday auditions and call back gigs.  Martin recalls he was trying to put together a showbiz career without a clue:  “Having no agent or any hopes of finding one, I could not audition for movies or television or even learn where auditions were held.  I didn’t know about trade papers – Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – from which I might have gathered some information.  I lived in suburbia at a time when a one-hour drive to Los Angeles in my first great car – a white 1957 Chevy Bel Air, which despite its beauty, guzzled quarts of oil, then spewed it back into the air in the form of white smoke – seemed like a trip across the continent in a Conestoga wagon.  But local folk clubs thrived on single acts, and, as usual, their Monday nights were reserved for budding talent.  Stand-up comedy felt more like an open door than chasing auditions.  It was possible to assemble a few minutes of material and be onstage that week, as opposed to standing in line in some mysterious world in Hollywood, getting no response, no phone calls returned, and no opportunity to perform.”  It wasn’t a great plan, but at least it was a plan – a way for him to not become a truck driver or have to wait on customers in a shop like he did at Disneyland.

     As he researched new materials, Steve began dissecting comedy albums by Tom Lehrer, Lenny Bruce, and whoever else’s work he could lay hands on.  Martin had read a book called Showmanship for Magicians and was horrified when he realized one of the keys to stand-up comedy was ‘originality’- he had to get away from the habit of recycling material and jokes that made the audience feel like they weren’t seeing something utterly new.  Steve said, “This realization mortified me.  I did not know how to write comedy – at all.  But I did know I would have to drop some of my best one-liners, all pilfered from gag books and other people’s routines, and consequently lose ten minutes from my already strained act.  The thought of losing all this material was depressing.  After several years of working up my weak twenty minutes, I was now stating from almost zero.”  He began to assemble bits from real life, things that happened to Steve Martin and not just, ‘a guy walks into a bar’ stuff.  Abstract ideas like a dramatic reading of the Periodic Table came and went – some worked and some didn’t.  Again, it was all trial by fire and Steve eventually gave himself until age thirty to either have a show business career or find some other calling.  The thought of returning to the world of ‘real’ work was not the preferred option.

     With more and more of his stand-up work happening in Westwood, he decided to transfer to UCLA.  The change in college found him scrambling to catch up and continue his studies in philosophy so he changed his major to theater.  It was clear that he was now investing his entire future to show business.  His former girlfriend, dancer Nina Goldblat (now known as Nina Lawrence), called about the time Martin’s finances were reaching ‘crisis’ levels.  He was sharing a small apartment with deadpan musician/comedian Gary Muledeer in the Palms area located between Santa Monica and Culver City.  I know the area as the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau was located in Palms for eight years between stays in UCLA grad student housing and later relocation to Eugene, Oregon.  Nina was a dancer on the surprise CBS hit series The Smothers Brothers Show and dating their head writer, Mason Williams.  She told Steve that Williams and the Brothers wanted to, “Exercise the slogan of the day, ‘Never Trust Anyone over Thirty,’ with an experiment.  They planned to hire some new young writers and Nina had suggested Martin.  Having no experience writing for television, Steve none-the-less dropped out of college without realizing the material he had submitted to the Smothers Brothers show had been rejected.  Williams saw something in Martin that perhaps Steve himself didn’t and in an act of artistic generosity, hired him anyway.  Williams  paid Steve’s salary out of his own pocket to keep him working on the show.

     In typical Martin style, he was now going to learn another showbiz skill the hard way.  “If I was asked to write an intro for the folk singer Judy Collins,” Steve recalls, “I would write, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s folk singer Judy Collins!’”  Tommy Smothers challenged him to write an intro to a bit about television.  Martin panicked and his mind went totally blank.  He finally remembered a line his roommate Gary Muledeer had written, so he called to ask if he could borrow it.  Gary said, “Sure,” and when the Brothers asked Steve if he had written the joke, Steve simply said, “Yes.”  The joke (“It has been proven that more Americans watch television than any other appliance”) saved Martin’s neck in the short term (“If I had been hooked up to a lie detector at that moment, it would have spewed smoke”), and in the long term.  Steve later said, “The event must have been cathartic, because afterward, I relaxed and was able to contribute fully to the show.”  

     During this hectic period, Martin experienced what he later learned was an acute anxiety attack.  He was not sure what triggered the event, but the anxiety attacks continued as he tried to piece together what was causing them.  He found ways to work around them fearing if he took time off from the show, he would lose his job.  It took a year for these episodes to fade and in his book he states, “I suppose I was too practical to have such an inconvenient phobia.”  Looking back at the ‘I’m a wild and crazy guy’ part of Martin’s career, one sees none of the anxiety he endured to get to the top.

     In addition to the long hours he spent writing for the Smothers Brothers show, Martin continued to work his stand-up gigs.  If he was bombing, he remembered the advice of an old time stand-up guy:  “If the audience wasn’t laughing, he would listen to hear if the waitresses were laughing – after all, they saw the show night after night.”  What Steve noticed at his shows kept him going – the waitresses were laughing.  During his time working on the Smothers Brothers show, LA was a hotbed of flower power.  Laurel Canyon was populated by the likes of Joni Mitchel, Carole King, Kenny Loggins, Frank Zappa, and a host of others.  Steve met none of these people, but he did reconnect with his banjo playing buddy John McEuen’s older brother Bill.  Bill would be to Martin what Colonel Parker was to Elvis.

     When the Smothers Brothers were finally fired by CBS for constantly pushing the envelope to see what they could get by the censors (see FTV:  The Smothers Brothers – Parts 1 & 2 {2-24-21 & 3-3-21}), he heard news of their sacking on the radio driving to work.  CBS cited the late delivery of one show but Martin knew the inside story better than most:  trickle down anger from President Nixon about the show’s anti-war content put political pressure on CBS and eventually it wore the network down.  The Smothers Brothers were deemed ‘expendable’ in the fray.

     Political content found a home with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, and Steve Martin who found even the mention of Nixon’s name got laughs with college audiences.  He and fellow Smothers Brothers alum, Bob Einstein (Officer Judy on that show and faux stuntman Super Dave Osbourne later in his career) formed a solid writing team on Sonny and Cher as Martin continued to criss-cross the country doing stand-up gigs.  He killed time between gigs by visiting art museums, antique stores, and libraries.  Martin notes his art collecting bug stems from this period although the first piece of ‘great art’ he bought, a John Everett Millais painting from the nineteenth-century, turned out to be a fake.  Afternoon talk shows hosted by the likes of Della Reese, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and Steve Allen were becoming vogue and Steve was able to land his first TV appearance as a stand-up on Allen’s show. 

      Allen had a his own quirky sense of humor and his introduction of Martin shows Allen did indeed ‘get’ Steve’s comedy:  “This next young man is a comedian, and . . . (Allen tended to stammer between sentences like he was searching for the right words) . . . at first you might not get it – but then you think about it for a while, and you still don’t get it – then you might want to come up onstage and talk to him about it.”  After Martin thought he had ‘killed it’ as they say, another comedian on the show that day slammed Martin with back-handed compliments.  Morey Amsterdam, a veteran of The Dick Van Dyke Show and himself an old school comic, did not get Steve’s offbeat comedy.  Of the encounter, Martin said, “I bore no grudge;  I was so naive I didn’t even know I had been insulted.  The Steve Allen credit opened a few doors, and I bounced around all of the afternoon shows, juggling material, trying not to repeat myself.”

     The TV appearances spawned even more work, including an invitation to do a five week engagement opening for Ann-Margret at the International Hotel in Vegas.  Relaxing in his dressing room with Bill McEuen after the show one night, he noticed Priscilla Presley pass his open door.  A moment later, Elvis himself popped in and made the ‘Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor’ comment mentioned in Part 1 of this article.  After he and Priscilla had visited with Ann-Margaret, Elvis popped in again to tell them that he, too, had an oblique sense of humor that his audience didn’t get.  Then Elvis added, “Do you want to see my guns?” as he emptied the bullets into his hand and passed them his two pistols and a derringer.

     The plum of all TV appearances for comedians in the late 1960s was The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  If one managed to get Johnny to laugh, it was considered a career enhancing golden moment.  Steve did not realize it took multiple appearances on Johnny’s show to gain traction in the public’s eye.  Carson’s people eventually let Martin know Johnny was not thrilled with some of the more offbeat stuff he did.  Even though he kept getting slots on The Tonight Show, he was booked when there was a guest host in Johnny’s chair.  After much road work as an opening act at clubs like The Troubadour in LA, Martin talked to frequent Tonight Show guest host David Brenner.  Brenner gave him the advice he needed to hear:  “Tell the club owners you will take the door (in other words, get paid whatever people paid to get in to see him) and they can have the bar take.”  It sounded like a winning formula to Martin and at that point, he had nothing to lose.  No more opening slots.  He will be the headliner from then on.  Back when he played frequently in LA’s Westwood Village, he asked nattily attired folk singer Fats Johnson about his wardrobe to which Johnson replied, “Always look better than they do.”  The long hair, beard and hippie stage outfits were soon replaced with a more professional, almost banker-like outfit.

     His first appearance with his new battle plan was at Bubbas in Coconut Grove, Florida.  It was a slow night as openers sometimes are, so at the end of his show, he walked through the audience making wisecracks and they followed him out into the street.  Martin ended the evening by getting into a taxi and leaving.  A review in the local paper the next day mentioned this ‘parade of hilarity right out into the street’ and ended with, “Steve Martin is the brightest, cleverest, wackiest new comedian around.”  The schtick worked and the favorable reviews were passed to Johnny via his staff.  They booked him on a show with Carson in the chair in September 1974.  Sammy Davis, Jr. was a guest that night and both he and Carson were doubled over in fits of laughter at Steve’s rapid fire bit called ‘Vegas nightclub act in two minutes’.  Sammy gave him a hug and there was no one more ‘Mr. Las Vegas’ in those days than Sammy Davis, Jr.

     The combined notoriety from appearing on Carson, an article in Rolling Stone, a one man show on a new network, HBO, and word of mouth about Martin’s live performances began growing his fan base.  Doubt and anxiety still crept in when he would flop some nights.  An extended engagement at The Boarding House in San Francisco seemed to finally put him in front of an audience that ‘got it’.  His catch phrase, “Well, escuuuse me,” can be traced back to that particular gig.  When Saturday Night Live took to the air in October of 1975, Martin figured he was on to something because so many elements of that show reflected his own offbeat material.  All of a sudden, Steve Martin was a hot property.  The last time he dared conga-line his audience out of a theater was in Dallas where he realized how dangerous it was to have two thousand people milling about on the street outside the venue.

     The concerts were booked into larger and larger digs.  A show in Milwaukee before three thousand fans made him rethink his wardrobe.  He opted for a three piece white suit for visibility from the back of the house and a vest to help keep his shirt tucked in during his physical bits.  It was a practical decision and he hoped no one would remember John Lennon (and others) wearing a similar outfit.  In the bigger arenas, Martin would perform his opening trick;  “The magic dime trick – where I would claim to change the date of a dime – then I would ask the back row how much they paid to get in.  They would shout it out, and I would laugh hysterically, implying they were getting cheated.”

    After hosting SNL in October of 1976 (the first of many host and guest appearances), things really got out of control.  As the audience sizes increased in the wake of the SNL appearance (six thousand in Madison, WI – fifteen thousand in Toronto – twenty-two thousand in St. Louis), two things became apparent.  First, major adjustments had to be made for the act to play in such large venues.  Second, his massive success was beginning to wear Steve down.  Martin wasn’t just physically wearing down as witnessed by his statement, “I was now famous, and the normal rules of social interaction no longer applied.”  He was doing shows on autopilot and found being on the road to be a tiring and lonely experience.  Fame, it seems, ain’t always what it is cracked up to be.

     Before he laid stand-up comedy aside, Martin parlayed his popularity into film work which will have to be a chapter for another day.  The last word about his stand-up career surely applies to many celebrities:  “Time has helped me achieve peace with celebrity.  At first I was not famous enough, then I was too famous, now I am famous just right.  Oh yes, I have heard the argument that celebrities want fame when it’s useful and don’t when it’s not.  That argument is absolutely true.”  Steve Martin is still ‘that wild and crazy guy,’ just not THAT wild and crazy guy.


Top Piece Video:  Steve Martin proves comedy, music, and history can mix!