Stand-Up Rewind: Steve Martin’s Farewell to His Wild-and-Crazy Guy Act
In September 1979, Steve Martin was on top of the world, selling out shows at stadium-style venues at a time when most comics would kill to play to a few hundred seats at the Comedy Store. Carl Reiner called him “the first rock-star comedian.” He’d hosted Saturday Night Live six times, making him a virtual cast member when that was actual cultural currency. And yet, he was absolutely miserable.
Martin had grown tired of his act, a mainstream meta-comedy sensation that lampooned the idiocy of hackneyed show-biz routines. “It’s not that the arrow through the head is funny, it’s that someone thinks the arrow through the head is funny,” he told Playboy. “Kids like my act because I’m wearing nose glasses. Adults like my act because there’s a guy who thinks putting on nose glasses is funny.”
Martin was ready to move on. He figured that stand-up was just something he had to do until, like Woody Allen, he could dump the act and focus on movies like his just-about-to-be-released The Jerk.
His performance at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre is one hell of a swan song. It’s a lot of the same material that made up his 1978 A Wild and Crazy Guy album, meaning the audience could “sing along” just like at a rock concert. The album was a monster, not just for a comedy record but for any record, going double platinum and reaching number two on Billboard’s Pop Album Chart. The goofy novelty hit “King Tut” sold an additional million copies.
Watch the special — this bad boy ran on NBC, the network that aired Martin’s second-home SNL — and that album’s crazy popularity is bewildering, considering how much of Martin’s comedy needed to be seen as well as heard. The show is jam-packed with goofy props, including an arrow-through-the-head (the professional German version), a banjo, nail clippers for when he got bored, a flashcube camera, bunny ears, oranges for juggling (until one splits and becomes a citrus muppet), a rubber fish, balloons for twisting into animals and the aforementioned fake-nose glasses. The fact that all of this somehow translated to vinyl gives you some idea of Martin’s late-1970s popularity.
But when you’re performing for 20,000 paying customers, it absolutely helps to be visual. Martin’s physicality here is broad; he’s playing to the cheap seats (and making fun of the people who bought them). Hey, tickets were $9.75 — these people deserved a show!
Unlike the painfully personal storytelling of Richard Pryor or the manic free association of Robin Williams, his hottest late 1970s contemporaries, Martin delights with non-sequiturs and foolishness. Out of nowhere, he might grab his banjo, croon “Grandpa bought a rubber” and then move on to his next bit of nonsense.
The bits come rapid-fire, no connection from one to the next, unless you count the ubiquity of cats. First, he’s juggling cats. Then Martin’s own cat is embezzling from him, writing phony checks and cashing them disguised as Martin himself before buying thousands of dollars worth of cat toys. Then the reversals fly fast and furious as Martin marvels over his girlfriend’s wondrous “pussy.” When the crowd explodes, he chides them for their dirty minds — he meant her cat! There’s a pause before he adds, “That cat was the best fuck I ever had.”
How do you perform successful stand-up for a stadium? Martin evokes the power of the mob, engaging the throng in play-along bits like the Nonconformists Oath: “I promise to be different.” (Crowd: I promise to be different.) “I promise to be unique.” (Crowd: I promise to be unique.) “I promise not to repeat things other people say.” (Crowd: Mass hysterics.)
If he’s cynical about his stand-up, it doesn’t stop Martin from playing the hits. Any lull in the action is jump-started with the random shout of a catchphrase. An out-of-nowhere “Happy feet!” inspires Martin to skitter around the stage to raucous applause. Blurting “I am a wild and crazy guy” is Martin’s equivalent of playing “Freebird” — as soon as the audience hears a hint of the familiar riff, it goes completely bonkers. And Martin dons Egyptian headwear for a King Tut encore, a note-for-note recreation of the single that the audience gladly devours. Just in case you forgot it’s 1979, Henry Winkler inexplicably appears behind Martin, a straight-face swinging plywood pyramids.
There’s more doofus attitude than actual jokes throughout the show. For every set-up/punchline (“Do you mind if I smoke? No, mind if I fart?”), there are 10 bits of goofball physical shtick, from pretending to be electrocuted to fruit juggling to sculpting venereal diseases out of balloons. It’s as if Martin is taunting his paying customers — can you believe I’d be this stupid? Of course they can. And they can’t get enough.
Martin also looks like he’s having the time of his life. If there’s a hint of the bitterness that comes out in print interviews around that time, it’s at the concert’s end when he addresses fans who might be upset that he hasn’t performed more material from his comedy albums. You don’t like it, audience? Well, EXCUUUUSE ME! (Which, of course, served as both a middle finger and another surefire crowd-pleaser. WOOOOOOOOO!)
Shortly after recording this show, Martin was done with stand-up comedy. Like done-done. His attention was on movies, and the arrow-through-the-head days were over. What else was there left to do? “I can look back (on the summer of 1979) and say, ‘I did the impossible. I did what one in a million do. Or one in 10,000,000 do,’” he said shortly after leaving the game. “Even for a moment, to be on top. That’s all on top is, a moment, no matter who you are, even if you’re Elvis, you’re on top momentarily in terms of time.”
Martin just didn’t see a way the show could go on. The touring was exhausting, but even worse, Martin thought his act was just as tired. He’d made his satirical point about dumb stand-up comedy, and once you’ve told that joke, it doesn’t bear repeating. “I think it’s a dead end, you know,” he told Judd Apatow some 35 years later. Why is that, wondered Apatow, because it runs out of gas? “Yeah,” Martin replied. “I mean, I’m still around, but I couldn’t have kept doing that act.”
So he didn’t. In his new book, Number One Is Walking, Martin confesses that his enormous popularity was the very thing that allowed him to escape stand-up. “My job was to get off the stand-up train and throw my bags and myself onto the movie train,” he writes. “And I knew I had to do it while I still had some clout.”
For a comic who reveled in stupidity, Martin was smart enough to get out on top.