The Foundation For Humor
Born in Waco, Texas, on August 14, 1945, Steve Glenn Martin was the son of a homemaker and a Realtor with aspirations to become an actor. Steve’s father had temper and was not emotionally supportive, although he was proud of his son, Glenn Martin was also very critical. The two had a strained relationship almost until the end of Glenn’s life. It was likely this cold relationship that drove Steve into his later career, as he sought approval from others where he could not get it at home.
When he was five years old, Steve’s family moved to Inglewood, California and at ten years old, the family moved to Garden Grove, the same year Disneyland opened. Steve ended up getting his first job at the park selling guidebooks, but his fascination with magic tricks eventually earned him a place in the Main Street Magic Shop where he was able to perfect his tricks, which would later come in handy in his routine. Years later, he paired with Donald Duck to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Disneyland for a video played inside the park called Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years.
Around this same time, he heard an Earl Scruggs record and fell in love with the banjo. He started playing the record at half speed and taught himself to play along with the music. Again, this would come in handy in his later career.
By the time Steve graduated high school, he was already honing his act by performing magic tricks, jokes and playing banjo music at Knott’s Berry Farm and a few small local venues.
The Philosophy of Anti-Humor
It wasn’t long before he put his performance career on hold for a while and enrolled in CSU Long Beach, where he studied philosophy. As he studied philosophy and logic, he came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as logic, which led to the non-sequitur comedy routine he became known for later on.
He later explained in a magazine article he wrote for Smithsonian Magazine:
“In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song. These notions formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if I created tension and never released it? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. The audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.”
Image via Jim Summaria [Wikipedia]
On And Off The Small Screen
In 1967, Steve transferred to UCLA and switched his major to theater, but this didn’t last long and he dropped out of school at the age of 21 after he appeared in an episode of The Dating Game and started performing at local clubs regularly.
That same year, an ex-girlfriend of his helped him land a writing job on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Although the show only lasted one season, it did rather well and he and the other writers won an Emmy Award for their work in 1969. He also appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, while he got off on a good start, he didn’t have much material and eventually was demoted to only appearing on the show when there was a guest host.
Rather than stick around Hollywood, Steve decided he would be better off touring around this time, which allowed him to hone his craft without fear of destroying his non-existent reputation. “In this netherworld,” he explained, “I was free to experiment. Everything was learned in practice, and the lonely road, with no critical eyes watching, was the place to dig up my boldest, or dumbest, ideas and put them onstage.”
Although he had a hard time at first, all of this intense practicing and experimenting eventually allowed him to perfect his career. He started off with audiences that didn’t get it and eventually got to the point where they would follow him out the theater. At one point, a college audience continued following him until he arrived at an empty swimming pool. He instructed them to get inside so he could “swim” across them all. He started bringing an increasing level of physicality to his act, which gave it exactly the right amount of humor that the non-sequitur jokes needed to resonate. “My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh,” he said.
During this time, he went from being a hippy-looking kid with a weird act to being a straight-laced freak. With strange gags such as sing-a-longs that the audience couldn’t actually sing along to and his “happy feet” routine, which resulted in his dancing uncontrollably around the stage without being able to stop himself, he developed a unique style that his friend Rick Moranis aptly characterized as “anti-comedy.”
Image via Towpilot [Wikipedia]
The Golden Days
Eventually he got to a level where Carson was proud to have him back on the regular show and he started regularly appearing on Saturday Night Live. His regular tv appearances led to him being able to release a comedy album that was a smash hit and led to the popularity of the expression “well excuse me.” His appearances on SNL also led to the trend of people using finger movements to indicate quotation marks.
Contrary to popular belief though, he was never actually a cast member on SNL, he has guest-hosted 15 times though. His Festrunk Brothers character with Dan Aykroyd led to a popular catch phrase and recurring sketch though, “Two Wild and Crazy Guys.” This phrase was also used on his second hit comedy album, titled “Wild and Crazy Guy.” The album also resulted in a disco single that reached #17 on the US charts called “King Tut.”
These albums won him Grammys for Best Comedy Recording two years in a row. His popularity became similar to that of a rockstar and he was soon filling up whole rock arenas.
The End of An Era…And A New Beginning
As his TV performances and positive reviews started allowing him to perform to much bigger audiences, he simultaneously stopped wanting to tour. These huge audiences prevented him from being able to walk out of the theater with the crowd and he loathed it when audience members started showing up with balloon animals and rabbit ears. He also started to suffer from physical exhaustion, collapsing onstage on multiple occasions.
So Steve retired…from stage that is. And he started acting in movies. His first role was in a short film called the Absent-Minded Waiter. Next he played small roles in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Ban , The Muppet Movie, and The Who documentary, The Kids Are Alright. That’s when he stepped up as the lead in a movie he co-wrote, The Jerk. The piece included a number of bits from his stand up act including my favorite part where he leaves his mansion saying “I don’t need anything at all, well, except for this ashtray.” Steve got $500,000 as star of the movie, $100,000 as writer and he made 50% of the profits, which was well over $100 million. Needless to say, it made him a movie star in no time flat.
He soon tried his hand at his first serious film, Pennies From Heaven, but the movie bombed, mostly because people didn’t want to see Steve in a serious role. After that, Steve went ahead and acted in a few more movies with the director from the Jerk, including Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and All of Me.
Because he’s been in so many successful films, I’m just going to add a few interesting tidbits about some of his more famous performances:
- The Three Amigos! was originally slated to be called “The Three Caballeros” and instead of Martin Short and Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were supposed to be the stars.
- Martin’s writing in Roxanne won him a Writers Guild of America, East award.
- In 2003, Steve was the 4th highest-ranked star in America, after staring in Bringing Down the House and Cheaper By the Dozen.
- In 2005, he starred in Shopgirl, a movie based on his novella of the same name. The film was surrounded in scandal before it came out as Wynonna Ryder’s excuse when she got caught shoplifting was that she was researching for the lead female role in the film. Claire Danes got the part.
- In 2009, he was included in the Guardian’s list of the best actors to have never received an Oscar nomination. He has, however hosted the awards three times, twice alone and once with Alec Baldwin.
Image via David Shankbone [Wikipedia]
Writing For the Sake of Writing
Throughout the 1990’s Steve started writing various pieces for the New Yorker. He also wrote an autobiography called Born Standing Up, the aforementioned novella, Shopgirl, and another novella called The Pleasure of My Company. In 1993, he wrote a play called Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and when a school board refused to let their students perform the piece in 2009, he offered to pay out of his own pocket to allow them to do the performance off site.
His Music is No Joke
While the banjo has played a minor role in Steve’s comedy routines, he is very good at playing the instrument and actually a well-respected musician. In fact, in 2001, he won a Grammy award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for his remake of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and this year, he won the Grammy award for Best Blue Grass Album for his work on The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.
These days, Steve is largely focused on playing with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. Even so, he has still found time to keep his comedy relevant in our digital world by releasing some of the funniest blog posts on the net, the best of which involve mocking himself. While many comedians fade out of the limelight, it seems likely that we will be laughing with Steve all the way to the end.
Image via Kata Rokkar [Flickr]
Sources: Wikipedia, Smithsonian Magazine, NY Mag and Talk Talk.