Steve Martin, the man in the white suit, has led many lives and worn many hats — some of them actual hats — in his travels through the culture as actor, musician, composer, novelist, memoirist, humorist, playwright, screenwriter, comedy writer, art collector, magician and Twitter star. So busy and so varied has his career been that it is possible to forget, if you ever knew it, that he once was a stand-up comedian, a pursuit he pretty much abandoned at his rock-star height, some 30 years ago.
A dispatch from that lost time comes this week in the form of a three-DVD set, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff (Shout! Factory). It collects four prime-time specials made for NBC from 1978 to 1981, a nightclub set (from HBO) and a gloriously energetic concert, and a generous assortment of odds and ends spanning five decades.
“I haven’t really had the strength to sit down and watch them,” Martin said recently of the NBC specials, which take up most of the collection’s first two discs. As many have noted, he is in person more a mild and classy than a wild and crazy guy. “I like the third disc, the eclectic part.”
That smorgasbord includes his first television appearance, on a Southern California kids’ show; his short film The Absent-Minded Waiter; a selection of brilliantly skewed mock-solemn speeches delivered at tributes to himself or to others. (From a Kennedy Center Honors broadcast honoring his friend Paul Simon: “I don’t use the word ‘genius’ very often — I just thought I’d mention that.”) There are solo spots from Saturday Night Live, which he has hosted 15 times, and appearances on the Carson and Letterman shows.
“I think some of my best work incidentally has been on these late-night TV shows,” said Martin. “And when I say ‘incidentally,’ I’m not kidding, because you’re always going on these shows to promote something. And you go, ‘I’m going to hold up a record for 30 seconds, and for that I have to have 10 minutes of comedy material.’ I’ve always been really thoughtful about it. I really wanted this stuff on (the DVD) because I didn’t want to be represented by essentially three years of TV specials, while television has been this adjacent part of my career my whole life.”
Martin began his own television career off-camera as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: “The slogan of the day was ‘Never trust anyone over 30,’ so they wanted to hire all young writers and get rid of their really, really good writers, who were older, who had actually written for Jack Benny. And I got hired, mysteriously.”
His greater goal was “to be a regular on a variety show, which was dying out. That’s why I took these writing jobs; I kept having this dream of being hired as a regular on the show. But they always hired somebody else.”
The NBC specials are inevitably a mixed bag. All Commercials, from 1980, which depends on a knowledge of contemporary advertising, is the furthest past its sell-by date. But most of what’s here works perfectly. The live broadcast Best Show Ever, from 1981, amounts to an SNL reunion, and allows Martin and Dan Aykroyd to do their Czech swingers. Its centerpiece is “The Elephant Guy,” with Martin sporting a pachyderm’s ears and trunk, corrupted by his own notoriety into a narcissistic showbiz swinger.