"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.
The Video and Audio