New Documentary Shows Steve Martin’s Lonely Art and Happy Life

Steve Martin, July 16, 1978 (courtesy Marianna Diamos, Los Angeles Times, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)



Steve Martin is known for multiple careers: standup comedian, musician, movie actor, art collector, playwright, and author. I was first a dedicated fan of his comedy albums in the Seventies—Let’s Get Small, A Wild and Crazy Guy, and Comedy is Not Pretty!—and deep-down still think of them as his best work. (No: his most important work. His best and more enduring work is his streak of movies from 1986-89: Little Shop of Horrors; Roxanne; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; and Parenthood.)

When I watch the standup act on YouTube now I think, You had to be there—literally. In the video we see Martin cavorting soundlessly, dressed in his trademark white suit, bunny ears on his head, returning to the microphone after a time to intone, “I’m sorry, lost my mind, just for a moment.” When I listened to the album back in the day I had no idea what was going on onstage, or why there were 90 seconds of nothing but audience laughter, but the phrasing of that line cracked me up to no end.

All across the country we slapped our thighs like rubes. Three years in a row Martin’s albums won Grammys for comedy album of the year. Wild and Crazy Guy sold 900,000 copies in pre-sales alone. The album sat for weeks at No. 2 on the charts, just below Saturday Night Fever. Martin played sold-out stadiums of fans who wanted to hear him say, “Excuse me!” Steve Allen said, ““For the first time in the history of comedy, the crowd was reacting like a rock music audience…. [It was] as if he were the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.”

“He’s the most idolized comedian ever,” Jerry Seinfeld says in a recent documentary.

Since I am no longer there—in the Seventies, that is—I cannot quite summon why Martin’s act felt so important. But if I was going to play the game of “which thing would you rather have created?” I would still choose his act and albums, as set in the context of those years, over many other artistic endeavors of that time, including, say, Apocalypse Now.

STEVE! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces, directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and streaming now on Apple TV+, also emphasizes Martin’s standup act as a cultural phenomenon. The two “pieces” (each a 95-minute documentary) hinge where Martin decides to quit standup to make movies.

The first piece is more narratively coherent because it focuses on the rise of that act and shows how it was more important to Martin, personally and professionally, than much of his later work. People interviewed in the doc explain that since he did not work particularly blue and avoided all political material, his silly, surreal act was “a door” that led out of America’s post-Nixonian exhaustion. It is portrayed as part of the zeitgeist.

The second piece is slower, less dramatic, and feels like a mishmash of topics: movies, art collecting, relationships, and his current live show with Martin Short. It also continues to cast back to the standup act.

“My standup career has a real story—beginning, middle, and end,” Martin says. “But movies: it’s just anecdotes.”

Fans of Martin’s will be rewarded for watching more than three hours of documentary about his life. While some of it is well known, such as his start doing magic tricks at Disneyland, even that is recast in the light of his father’s disapproval of him and his career, which still visibly affects him.

“[M]y ‘work’ was really about trying to get approval from him,” he says.

What emerges is a portrait of an anxious introvert acting like an extreme extrovert for fun and profit. Over clips of him appearing repeatedly on the Johnny Carson show, Martin explains in voiceover that his act was born in part of his “hatred of arrogance,” especially in show business types. (This was in the air, as with Bill Murray’s lounge lizard act from Saturday Night Live.) Martin seems to have been separated emotionally from other people for much of his life, wanting but lacking intimacy.

“Back then I wasn’t mean with people,” he says. “I was…removed. I was always somewhere else in my head.”

There is much talk in the documentary of melancholy and longing in his films. A theater director who staged Martin’s play WASP says there is a “deep emotional distance and this chill that’s blowing through [it].”

“How to close the void,” says painter Eric Fischl, a friend, in response to Martin’s family life and long career. “I think that’s the nature of the drive in art; [it] comes from that deep awareness of the void.”

There is much that is interesting and moving. In Martin’s explanation of his collaboration with John Candy on Planes, Trains, he says he and Candy loved each other. He shows a copy of the script he has had bound and rues, angrily, that Candy’s monologue near the end of the film, “an entire explanation of his life,” was cut to a sentence or two. “I was opposite him [in the train station and] I was…weeping as he was performing it,” he says.

Martin begins to read the monologue aloud. Candy’s character says he can take the loneliness in other months, but not at the holidays, so he attaches himself to people, and, “This time I couldn’t let go.” Martin shakes his head, begins to tear up, slams the script shut, and replaces it roughly on the shelf.

Eventually, Martin says, he lost his interest in making movies too. “Goodbye movies, we had a great time,” he says mock-cheerfully.

Despite all this, much of the second piece of the documentary is about the joy and satisfaction Martin has found in his second marriage and in late parenthood. He tells Jerry Seinfeld that his life is impossibly good (Seinfeld agrees about his own), and viewers will likely feel this was no accident. They also may feel, as I do, happy for Steve Martin that he found real happiness in the later part of his life.

Of all this—his life, family, sense of mortality, knowledge of art, being a father—he says, “It’s just…home.” He laughs, softly.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.