Modern audiences exposed only to the likes of the Pink Panther and Cheaper By the Dozen franchises may not know it, but Steve Martin is a very funny man. Recently, his wit and style of goofy comedy found an internet home on his Twitter feed, and the internet responded with 3 million followers and counting -- enough for Martin to turn his Tweets into a book and proving to fans (like myself) that he's still got it, even if they haven't been able to see "it" on movie screens. So, what better time than now for some enterprising studio, in this case Shout! Factory, to release a box set of the TV specials from the 1970s and beyond that helped make him famous?
"Steve Martin: The Television Stuff" consists of six specials -- "On Location With Steve Martin" (1976), "Steve Martin: "A Wild and Crazy Guy" (1978), "Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty" (1980), "All Commercials: A Steve Martin Special" (1980), "Steve Martin's Best Show Ever" (1981), and "Homage to Steve" (1984), including his full performance at the Universal Ampitheater in 1979 -- and a selection of other appearances at awards dinners, on "Saturday Night Live," "Late Night With David Letterman," and other odds and ends. The second special, "A Wild and Crazy Guy," was originally presented with the 1979 Universal performance integrated into the special, but since the special is presented in its entirety during "Homage to Steve," those segments have been edited out.
Personally, the highlights for me are his stand-up material. "On Location" isn't always completely focused, jumping from topic to topic, but it's a nice introduction to his style of comedy. Martin has a background in magic and working as a carnival barker, and his act cleverly jumps between broad physical comedy and his own sharp wit. Martin hits himself with his microphone, plays his banjo with his nose, and gets a spontaneous case of "happy feet," confides to the audience through his performance that it's all a put on, then mocks his own attempts at supposed comic sophistication. "Let's face it," he tells the audience, "some people have a way with words, and some people, uh...not have way, I guess." The best bit is a juggling routine that combines remarkably deft physical comedy with the broad simplicity of an audience member throwing an orange. The later Universal Ampitheatre show, presented on Disc 2, is a nice companion piece to "On Location," featuring maybe 30% of the same material, refined, re-arranged, and polished, with new material worked in around it.
"A Wild and Crazy Guy" was made shortly before Martin would make The Jerk, and you can see the seeds of the movie all over the sketches in this special. The sketch where Martin buys a car that's upside-down only feels a generation of wackiness removed from a gang of thugs dragging a church down the street, and the special ends with a segment where Martin plays himself as a bum the same way he plays Navin Johnson as a bum. Other inspired sequences include Martin as a cowboy who only rides turtles, his quest to stop people from turning dumps into parks, and "ballet parking." Despite having had the stand-up material excised, this special plays pretty smoothly, with the exception of a couple "internal narration" segues designed to cut from the stand-up to the sketches.
Some of the other material is a little more hit and miss. Nothing against the sketches in "Comedy is Not Pretty" and "Steve Martin's Best Show Ever," (and to a lesser extent, "All Commercials") but much of it is just "good" and not "great." Notable exceptions include "The Elephant Guy", co-starring Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, "Drunk Steamroller Driving," and "New York, New York," the musical introduction to "Best Show Ever." Disc 2 also includes Martin's Oscar-winning short The Absent-Minded Waiter, and a funny little bit with Steve teaching comedy to Alan King, Henny Youngman, David Letterman and Paul Simon (last seen on laserdisc). Finally, the odds and ends on Disc 3 are almost all gold, hand-picked from countless television appearances. The stand-out bits include his four awards dinner speeches and "Jean-Pierre Louey," a hidden gem of supreme silliness from a Johnny Cash TV special. Martin's delivery is spot-on and the jokes are absurd perfection ("Hewis, Dewis, and Lewis"); it's of the best clips in the whole set. Some fans will probably be disappointed that there isn't more from his 15 "Saturday Night Live" appearances, but the three clips chosen here, including "Steve Martin's Penis Beauty Creme," are pretty great nonetheless.
In one of his performances, Martin says, "Comedy is the ability to make people laugh without making them puke." Although that's a pretty good definition, there's something about the effort to bring about a positive feeling in the viewer that is compelling and important, and the best comedy always conveys that spirit even during the set-ups and the serious bits. In the middle of "Best Show Ever," there's a number in which Steve and Gregory Hines tap dance together. Although the bit ends with a gag about the music, it's a sequence that captures Martin's full range of skills as a performer: it's sweet, it's moving, it's funny, but more importantly, it captures that spirit of comedy even though the act is mostly played straight, and I'm glad it and many other classic moments have been preserved in this box set.
Shout! brings "Steve Martin: The Television Stuff" home in a nice, thick slipbox with a rubbery finish. Although using TV color bars to accentuate black-and-white imagery is not a stunning lightning bolt of design creativity, there's no denying this set looks very nice. Inside the slipbox are three transparent thinpak cases that utilize one of the same photos of Steve from the front of the box, adorned with a little "arrow-through-the-head" number in the upper right-hand corner and notes on the programs on the back. There is also a glossy 23-page booklet with an essay by Adam Gopnik and a list of chapters for each program.
The Video and Audio
Readers (like myself) who grew up in the video generation need to remember that there was a time when specials like this weren't archived with much care or quality control. Hell, there was a time when material like this wouldn't have even been saved for 24 hours; hundreds of episodes of many long-running daytime soaps, for instance, have been tossed out and lost forever. These specials (largely, if not entirely presented in 1.33:1 full frame with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio) firmly identify themselves as being from the analog era with issues I can't remember ever having to log in a review: comet trails, telecine wobble, overmodulation. The images are soft, with faded and bleeding colors, with some detail and definition just obliterated by the time. Of course, in the case of this box set, the quality of the content trumps the quality of the materials. My one complaint: no subtitles or captions are provided.
It could be argued that all of the content on the set's third disc is "bonus material," but the one specific bonus is a multi-part interview with Steve Martin which is split across the three discs. He starts out a little dry, discussing the old-fashioned nature of TV specials even in 1976, and his entry into the industry, but he starts to get a bit more comfortable on Disc 2, telling more stories and talking about what he likes and dislikes about the material. Disc 3 is formatted differently than the other two discs, switching from a standard interview format to more of an introductory format, and I liked this set-up the best, with Steve offering a few thoughts on each snippet or snippet grouping. All in all, it's a nice little bonus...now, if only someone at Universal would get Martin, Carl Reiner, and Bernadette Peters to sit down and talk about The Jerk and Lionsgate would get out an anamorphic widescreen release of All of Me, we'd be set.
Steve Martin: The Television Stuff deserves a place on the shelf of anyone who likes comedy. It's far from a complete collection of Martin's work (almost no "SNL"), and not all of the material is classic, but this is a fantastic effort and well worth the low purchase price. Highly recommended.
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