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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today on FRESH AIR, one of our favorite interviews from our archive - Terry's conversation with comedian, actor and writer Steve Martin. He's also an accomplished bluegrass musician and has been posting occasional videos on social media playing banjo in the woods. Last month he visited CBS's "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert in a special socially distanced comedy bit with Colbert sequestered inside his house and Martin with his guitar, strolling in a forest, determined to sing a song that Colbert is just as determined not to hear.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW")
STEPHEN COLBERT: So we go now live to Steve Martin in the middle of the woods. Hi, Steve.
STEVE MARTIN: Hey, Stephen. Thanks for having me on.
COLBERT: Well, Steve, you're certainly welcome.
MARTIN: You know, Stephen, I was thinking that something we as people need to remember right now is that we are all one.
(Singing) We are the world.
COLBERT: Hey, Steve. Sorry to interrupt you there. I was just curious. How are we seeing you on video so deep in the woods?
MARTIN: Oh, that's interesting. My doorbell cam has a four-mile range, which reminds me, even in these uncertain times, when neighbors can't come to our door, we are still part of a global neighborhood.
(Singing) We are the world.
COLBERT: That's great, Steve. But I was really just hoping to talk with you and just enjoy some human connection.
MARTIN: Well, that is so important, Steve, and I was just talking about human connection with my good friend Alexa, and she had some interesting things to say. Mainly, it's important to remember that (singing) we are the world.
COLBERT: Steve, that is just a beautiful message, but if you could just hold on...
BIANCULLI: Steve Martin has been making people laugh, often with highly conceptual humor, since the 1960s, when he was a staff writer on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." In the '70s, he became a major stand-up comedy star, filling arenas with his fans. He rose to fame along with a then-new TV show called "Saturday Night Live," on which he made many memorable appearances as a wild and crazy guy, a medieval barber and a fan of King Tut.
Eventually, the fame that brought him huge audiences also made it impossible for him to do the kind of comedy that made him original. He starred in movies from "The Jerk" to "Parenthood" and in recent years has also written plays, essays and books and toured with both his bluegrass band and with friend and fellow comic Martin Short. Steve Martin won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2005 and was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2007. Terry Gross spoke with Steve Martin in 2008 about his memoir "Born Standing Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Steve Martin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love your new book.
MARTIN: Great to be here. Thank you. Thank you very much.
GROSS: I'd like you to open with a reading from the beginning of the book, and we've edited this slightly to make it just a little shorter for the broadcast.
MARTIN: Great - be happy to. (Reading) I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. 10 of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct. The course was more plodding than heroic. I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented. I didn't sing, dance or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back until now.
A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life, which inevitably touches upon my personal life, and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away. In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true. Yet sometimes they seem to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for 25 years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Steve Martin reading from his memoir "Born Standing Up," which has just been published in paperback. And I guess I didn't realize how much you'd closed the door on your comedy years, how much there was, like, a before and after. It ended. You were done, and that was it.
MARTIN: Right. I - it was about 1981. I still had a few obligations left, but I knew that I could not continue. But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And, you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show. And I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.
GROSS: Why would you have had to create an entirely new show?
MARTIN: Like I say, the act was really - there was a passage in the book which I cut because it was so hard to explain. But the act essentially, besides all the jokes and bits and everything, was conceptual. And once the concept was understood, there was nothing more to develop. It's like painting the same blank canvas over and over and over and over and over. Once the concept is known, you don't need to see two. And that was in the back of my head - that I was really done artistically with what I had created or pastiched.
GROSS: You know, in the reading that you just did, you described herself as not being naturally talented. Did you think of yourself as naturally funny?
MARTIN: I didn't think of myself in that way, no, although I just loved comedy. I was raised with "Laurel And Hardy" and "I Love Lucy" and Jerry Lewis, and I just loved it. And I had a friend in high school, and we would just laugh all day and put on skits. And, you know, it's the Andy Kaufman thing or the Marty Short thing where you're performing in your bedroom for yourself. And I loved magic, and so I would practice my magic tricks in front of a mirror for hours and hours and hours because I was told that you must practice. You must practice. And never present a trick before it's ready. And - but I was just inclined towards show business, but I didn't know what. I just liked being on stage.
GROSS: Now, you got your start working in Disneyland. You were living in southern California. And when you were 10, you were selling guidebooks there. Then you later worked for a magic shop, demonstrating magic tricks. And I get the sense from your memoir that demonstrating those magic tricks, you know, hours a day and really getting them down because you were doing them so much - that that gave you a sense that performance required a great deal of craft, that even comedy wasn't just a question of going out on stage and saying funny things, that there was enormous amounts of work and practice and thought that would have to go into it.
MARTIN: Well, that idea that you really had to work at this stuff didn't necessarily come from Disneyland. It - I mean, yes, in terms of presenting a trick, but having it so well-honed in your mind was really giving me a sense of security. It was, I don't want to go out there half-baked. And, you know, you'd learn that through the years. You know, you do a magic show with a friend, and you rehearse it a couple of times. And, yes, every - all the timing has to be exactly perfect. But while you're out there, it's a different world. It's not your mirror.
MARTIN: So you have to make on-the-spot adjustments. But that's just, you know, what every entertainer does. But actually, working at the magic shop really gave me a sense of comedy because it was all jokes. We did the tricks, but we had all these jokes. I had a friend, Jim Barlow (ph), who, you know - he was the guy I worked with there. But he had patter worked out, you know? He would go up to customers and say, may take I your money - I mean, help you?
MARTIN: And, you know, call them suckers. And it was really funny and kind of friendly rude.
GROSS: What was your patter?
MARTIN: Oh, I just took all of Jim's patter.
MARTIN: I'm trying to think of other ones. Oh, yeah. I'd say - somebody would buy something and would say, and because you're our 100th customer today, you get a free paper bag.
MARTIN: You know, it's little silly things like that, but at Disneyland and I'm 15.
GROSS: Right. Now, your early act was a combination of banjo playing, juggling, magic tricks and comedy, and some of that stayed in your later act, too. But it sounds like a vaudeville act.
MARTIN: Yes. I was very interested vaudeville. It was the only sort of discipline that was a five-minute act on stage, which is what I really enjoyed and saw myself doing. And I bought books on it. I went to the Long Beach Pike, which was a carnival fair, you know, for - it was really a place for drunken sailors to get tattoos. But there was also side shows. I was very interested in that. You know, there was these - oh, and there were these short acts. There was - one of the employees at Disneyland that I worked with was named Dave Stuart (ph), and he worked in vaudeville. And he did his act for me one day on the floor of the magic shop, and I - he had a couple of great gags. One was - that I actually used, and I asked him if I could use them because I was very strict about using any material that wasn't mine or that was taken from somebody else. Well, let's put it this way. I became strict. I wasn't strict at first.
There was one trick that - one joke that Dave Stuart did where he said, and now - he had a glove, white glove in his hand, a magician's glove. And he said, and now the glove into dove trick. And he threw it into the air, and then it hit the floor. And he just looked at it and, you know, said, for my next trick, and he went on. And it was the first time I saw comedy created out of nothing, of nothing happening. And I glommed on to that.
GROSS: But what you were doing, I think, is not only making comedy out of nothing but making comedy out of people's expectations, which you were going to fail to fulfill.
MARTIN: Well, yes. Exactly. And I really started that when I became a semi-professional, meaning I was working the local folk-music clubs, going around either working for free or for a week. And I quickly decided that - you know, the material was, you know, good or weak or whatever. But I decided whatever it was, I was going to pretend like it was fantastic. And how great am I? How great is what you're seeing? And I think that's what, really, the audience tuned into because they couldn't believe that someone actually was that confident.
GROSS: With such weird, like, bad material because some of the material was, like, consciously not funny.
MARTIN: Right. Well, I had one bit that I opened with. I'd say, and now I would like to do the nose on microphone routine. And I would lean in and put my nose on the microphone and then stand and, you know, hold my arms out like, ta-da. And the laugh came not then but when I said, and next - you know, because nothing had happened. And, you know, I found that that you could laugh at something that happened 30 seconds ago now only because you changed the subject. And at one point in my show - these are the local folk clubs around Orange County. I had trouble figuring out how to end, so I just dragged the ending out walking through the audience. I started saying goodnight. It was so great. Thank you so much. I have to leave. I have to leave. I'm sorry I have to leave. I have to beg off. And it went on for, you know, five minutes. And eventually, I could never end it. And I ended up taking the audience out into the street and walking around with them.
GROSS: Well, you tell the whole genesis of that. I mean, it started off - you were performing in a class in...
MARTIN: Yes. I was...
GROSS: ...Vanderbilt University. Go ahead.
MARTIN: Yes, Vanderbilt University. And, you know, you perform in all kinds of odd performing situations. It's - you know, you might be outdoors, indoors, on a riser, no riser. But this was at one of these college theaters for - it wasn't an actual theater. It was a practice theater. So it had a stage, but it had no wings and - or had little, small wings, but there was no exit from the wings. You had to exit through the class.
And so they - we did this show in this classroom. And I ended, and I said, you know, whatever I did to end. I mean, this is just when I was - you know, I don't remember how my act ended, but I ended. And I went off, and the audience just sat there. Now, there's no way out for me except to go through the audience. So I actually went out, and I said, it's over. It's actually over. And they still sat there. And I packed up my stuff, and then I thought, well, they're just not leaving. So I went - this was the first time I ever did this. I went through the audience, and I just started talking. I have no idea what I was saying - but talking. And then they followed me out into the hallway. And, you know, I had a little repertoire of lines and stuff, things that I was saying. And then we ended up outside and there's, like, 200 people and me.
And there were - I came across an empty swimming pool. It was drained. And I said, everybody get into the pool. And so they all got into the pool. And I said, now I'm going to swim over the top of you. And they all, you know, stiff-armed me over their heads. But anyway, you can imagine it was a, you know, kind of a wild night, at least for then. This would be the early '70s. But I went home that night and I thought, oh, something happened that was good.
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Steve Martin. Terry Gross interviewed him in 2008. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE MARTIN AND THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS' "CALIFORNIA")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with Steve Martin. They're discussing his memoir about his early career in comedy titled "Born Standing Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: This is - I think it must have been around '68 or '67. You had a really bad experience. You were going to see "The Producers," the Mel Brooks movie.
MARTIN: Oh, right.
GROSS: Yeah. And you got high, smoked marijuana beforehand...
GROSS: ...And had a panic attack in the theater but didn't know what a panic attack was, so had no idea what it was that you were experiencing. What were you experiencing that was so terrifying in that movie theater?
MARTIN: Well, I had just gotten my job on the Smothers Brothers. And, you know, pot was a daily ritual - never at work, you know, at night or something. And I was a cowardly drug-taker. But actually, I view this as a positive experience, even though it was horrifying. It was an anxiety attack. And for those who have them or had them - I don't get them anymore; thank God - but it's a terrifying experience of disassociation from your own self, and it's a morbid sense of doom. And you feel like you're dying.
But what it did was it kept me from drugs going into the late '60s and early '70s because I never - I couldn't take aspirin I was so afraid of this event happening again, which it did for several years, and then it finally calmed down. But it kept me from, as I say in the book, the scourge of cocaine, which was common - and never took LSD, never took anything after that.
GROSS: When you had that first anxiety attack after smoking marijuana, did you ask yourself, is it the marijuana that's transforming me and creating a false feeling in me of this panic or is the marijuana bringing out something that is genuinely me that's just been hidden from my sight...
GROSS: ...And marijuana's bringing out this, like, really larger truth about who I am and what the world is?
MARTIN: Well, I believe the latter, that - first, I believe, for some people, they can smoke marijuana and have no bad physical reaction. But I noticed that, you know, in the first two months of smoking marijuana, it's fantastic. It's the greatest thing in the world. You're laughing. You're - you know, I could play the banjo for hours and hours and hours and practice the banjo and get into music. It's very good for the senses. But eventually, for me and other people I've talked to, it produces paranoia.
And I don't mean - paranoia was a big word then, and people kind of intended it to be about the police. Oh, we're going to get busted. But I believe the word was subconsciously being used because people were becoming paranoid, meaning that they're a little out of touch with the world around them and feeling that there's something going on that I'm not in on. And it got so severe with me, and I believed that it was actually happening, this kind of paranoia that people didn't like me and they were whispering - you know, really looking back, kind of extreme. But it was only related to marijuana. And then it led into this state of anxiety which could come over me then. But I never smoked pot again.
But I would still get these anxiety attacks for several years, until I finally understood them. And that was a big moment, when I did research on it and found out what they were because, for some reason, no doctor told me what it was, that it was harmless, essentially, because I thought it was damaging me every time it would happen. But I believe it was a nervousness created from my new job at "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." I was 21 years old. I stumbled into this next level of show business, and I was insecure. But I could not afford to be insecure, and so I had buried that insecurity. And of course, it came out physically.
BIANCULLI: Steve Martin speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. After a break, we'll continue their conversation, and I'll review the recent Broadway.Com 90th birthday salute to Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMBLIN' MAN/THEME FROM RAMBLIN' MAN")
MARTIN: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Well...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Hey; this guy's good.
MARTIN: (Singing) I'm a ramblin' (ph) guy. Well, I'm ramblin', ramblin' 'round. I'm a ramblin' guy. I ramble out to San Francisco, rent a car, get a hotel - oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, no. Ramblin' guy - hey - R-A-M-B-L-I-N apostrophe. Oh, ramblin'.
MARTIN: Come on, sing with me.
(Singing) Ramblin' guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)
MARTIN: What's the matter? You people uptight or something? OK, ladies only.
(Singing) He's a ramblin' guy - oh, oh.
OK, now the men.
(Singing) Ramblin', ramblin', ramblin'.
This half of the room. OK - now this half. Beautiful, this two-fifths of the room. Now this three-fifths. OK. Two-sevenths, five-sevenths. OK - in Chinese now.
(Singing in non-English language).
(Singing) Well, I'm ramblin', ramblin, ramblin', ramblin', ramblin', ramblin', ramblin', ramblin', ramblin'.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of Terry's 2008 interview with comedian, actor, author and musician Steve Martin. He's been honored with both the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and by the Kennedy Center, and he's also a member of the five-timers club, along with Tom Hanks and Alec Baldwin, for being a frequent guest host on "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR RECORDING)
GROSS: On your first album, "Let's Get Small," you do a bit about the spotlight. And before we actually hear the recording, I want you to tell us about the first time you did it.
MARTIN: Oh, I just had this - I - when I worked at Disneyland, I worked with a woman named Irene who was from Biloxi, Miss. - Missouri - Mississippi. And she had an expression that she used all the time. She said, well, excuse me for living. It was just kind of funny, and it always stuck in my head. So I thought, I think I could use something - do something with that. And so I told the spotlight operator - I said, whatever I say, do not change the spot. I'm going to ask you to change the spotlight to blue. Do not change it to blue. I had a friend that night up in the - next to the booth, John McEuen, whom I still work with. We're recording a banjo album, as a matter of fact. And I started telling the spotlight operator change the spot and...
GROSS: This is - on stage, you're telling him this.
MARTIN: On stage...
MARTIN: I started telling him. And at one point - this was the first time ever I ever did it on stage. And at one point, he was so convinced that I was sincere, he started to reach to change it. And John said, no, don't. I don't think he wants - anyway, so this is the bit.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. So...
GROSS: This is the spotlight bit. And this is Steve Martin, and he has a new memoir...
MARTIN: I don't stand behind any of these routines 40 years later, but go ahead.
GROSS: OK, so here's Steve Martin.
(SOUNBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTIN: Can I have a little mood lighting on this, please? I'd like to do a thing now that's kind of a departure for me. It's kind of been more under the - it's mood lighting, like a blue spot or something like that. Hello? Nobody back there - that's OK. I thought there might be somebody back there. OK, I guess I figure closing night, you know, what the heck? Doesn't make any [bleep] difference.
MARTIN: I'm kind of pissed off about this because it's been going on all week, and I think by now they would have it under control. But I don't know. Just - you see; this club has been in business about five or six years. It was first, actually, The Troubadour at first, and then it became The Boarding House. And, you know, they still have a lot of hippies working here. And...
MARTIN: You know, and I can understand the drug thing, you know? So they feel that it's more important to take the drugs than to do a good show for the people.
MARTIN: You know, I'm really up to here with this. Is this the matter that - you know, I am on stage, and it's my ass out here. You know what I mean? And I come out, and I'm giving, and I'm giving, and I'm giving. And I keep giving, and I give some more. And I make a simple request. I say, hey; could I possibly have a blue spot? But I guess the lighting crew feels they know a little bit more about show business than I do although I've been in the business a few years and I think I know what works best. I'm sorry, but I am angry. I come out here, and I can't get a little cooperation from the backstage crew. Excuse me.
GROSS: That's Steve Martin from his first album, "Let's Get Small." Now, people seem to be with you throughout this. I mean, were they already hip to what you were doing?
MARTIN: They were in San Francisco because that was a home base for me, and I was really stupid in that it took me a while to figure out, oh, this act doesn't work everywhere. I was just reading in the book before we started the passage about the Hub Pub Club in Winston-Salem, N.C., which was a members only, bring your own booze, you know, club that - I just died. I just died so badly, and I was just rereading it. I remember one night I was onstage getting no laughs, and a guy said to his date, I don't get any of this, really loud. And I heard it. The audience heard it. It actually made me laugh because I didn't either. At that time, I was - it was going so badly.
But then I would go to San Francisco and - where the audience was younger and more with it and more stoned, and it would go great. It took me so long to figure out, oh, it's a different type of audience. I shouldn't be playing these other places. They're soul-killing to me. So The Boarding House and The Troubadour in LA were very good and The Icehouse and different clubs around the country.
GROSS: When you started in comedy, it was before the comedy club era, so you couldn't play...
GROSS: ...The comedy clubs. There weren't any, but there were a lot of, like, folk music clubs. Did the fact that you had the banjo in the act give clubs the opportunity or the excuse to hire you even though you weren't a conventional musician?
MARTIN: Well, looking back, I never thought of that. But I think they - the clubs would hire comedians. They were always the opening act unless there were big names. But, you know, I put the banjo in. I put the magic in to fill time because I didn't have enough comedy material, and all that just stayed. And looking back - I remember I was playing a club in Los Angeles called Leadbetter's (ph), and some very funny people were working the clubs, too. They weren't comedians. They were in folk groups, but they were just funny. And I did my act, and I always closed with a magic section - like, a five-minute magic - little mini-magic show. And my friend came up and said, hey; I've got a line for you. I said, what? He said, oh, I know what you're thinking. This is just another banjo magic act.
MARTIN: And, you know, I never thought of it that way. But looking back on that, what was the banjo doing there? But I liked to play the banjo, and it - like I said, it filled time. And I could get - eventually, I worked out bits with it.
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Steve Martin. Terry Gross interviewed him in 2008 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE MARTIN AND THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS' "ALWAYS WILL")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with comic, actor and author Steve Martin. His memoir "Born Standing Up" had recently been published.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: There's a terrific photo - there's a bunch of photos in your memoir (laughter). My favorite is the one where you're standing with - holding your banjo. And your hair is really kind of long...
MARTIN: Oh, right.
GROSS: ...And scruffy. You have a beard. You're wearing a shirt with a big collar that's open, and you have, like, a necklace of shells that you're wearing.
MARTIN: No, it's a squash blossom turquoise necklace, which was very...
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. Excuse me.
MARTIN: ...Popular at the time. Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: (Laughter) But at some point, you decided to cut your hair, shave the beard and wear a suit onstage.
MARTIN: That was another...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
MARTIN: Oh, go ahead. It was another crucial - I mean, it sounds so frivolous now, but it was a crucial decision then. I - you know, the Vietnam War was raging, but it was winding down. The - America was very politically conscious. There were protests. You know, there was political humor everywhere. And I just sensed that the era was ending, that it - you know, it was a kind of - I don't like this word, but an implosion because, you know, you just can't keep taking drugs and have a philosophy live on. I mean, people are dying. And, you know, the - you know, Charles Manson came on the scene and besmirched everyone with long hair. And so I decided, OK. I'm putting on a suit, I'm putting on a tie, and I'm cutting my hair.
And as I say in the book, rather than being at the tail end of an era, I was at the beginning of a new one. So I had kind of poised myself to announce, OK, and also - and I cut every political reference out of my act, which was a staple for comedians at the time because it was such an easy laugh. You just mention the word Nixon or something, everybody would cheer - I mean, meaning because they didn't like him. And so that was, at that point, the difference between me and them.
GROSS: So did you feel like you had kindred spirits in the performance world when you were getting started who had a more, like, conceptual or avant-garde approach to what they were doing? Like...
MARTIN: Well, I'm trying to think. I just respected comedians, whether they were or they weren't - you know, from, you know, new or old. Bob Newhart I loved, and George Carlin was hilarious at the time, and Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. And there was a comedy magician who's still alive, Carl Ballentine, who did a act of all magic tricks that didn't work. And it was - was - still is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. And, of course, there was influence there, too, because, you know, he was already doing it. And I took that concept - I don't know if I took it from him, but I took that concept into gags and comedy routines.
But talk about kindred spirits, I thought I was alone, and that was uplifting. I thought, I'm the only one doing this. And then I saw "Saturday Night Live," and I thought, oh. Oh, no (laughter). There's somebody else doing it (laughter).
GROSS: But think of how that worked out for you. I mean, you found your people there and your audience and fellow comics who were on the same wavelength.
MARTIN: Well, yeah, right. And I was so fortunate to have been invited into that group, too, because now, we were all one - or at least I - you know, they were on a roll. I was lucky to be accepted. Lorne Michaels has been a longtime friend. But I - you know, I went in there, and then my career exploded.
GROSS: I love the review that your father wrote (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Of your first "Saturday Night Live" appearance. And this was in a - in his newsletter - in his column in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors. He was the president...
GROSS: ...Of the association. And - do you want to quote the line, or should I read it?
MARTIN: Oh, you can go ahead.
MARTIN: And I'll comment on it.
GROSS: He wrote, (reading) his performance did nothing to further his career.
GROSS: Of course, nothing could be further than the truth. But did that - like, what was your reaction when your father gave you a bad review?
MARTIN: Well, you know, first, he felt terrible about it later.
GROSS: Well, he couldn't figure it out beforehand that that wasn't...
MARTIN: You know...
GROSS: ...The thing to do?
MARTIN: Well, that's - that was my father. But - he always thought he had to, you know, speak the truth. But, you know, when I was a kid and I would listen to, let's say, Little Richard - and I'd listen to Little Richard and say, God, he's great. But - and I'd see photos of him and everything, and I'd think, what does his mother think when...
MARTIN: ...He sings (singing) wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom? Is his mother proud or embarrassed? Well, I think my father - you know, he couldn't quite be proud of an unconventional showbiz act that he didn't quite understand. And I think he was kind of embarrassed by it among his friends. And I think this was a, you know, misguided effort to say to his friends, look; I know it's not very good.
You know, but by that time, I had been so kind of alienated from my father that these negative comments and reviews were actually my encouragement. Like, I talk a moment in the book about being - I was a writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and I was going to - I had moved on to "Sonny And Cher" and different - I just decided I'm going to quit this because it's keeping me from my performing career. I'm going to go on the road.
And I went to an agent in Hollywood, my agent - my writing agent. I said, I'm going to do this. He said, stick to writing. And - but I didn't take it as an insult or discouragement. I took it as encouragement because I saw it as, oh, this is that classic showbiz moment when you say, Joley (ph), you're never going to be a singer.
GROSS: It's good you'd seen all those movies (laughter).
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So was it hard for you to change your image from, like, you know, the wild and crazy guy of the stand-up years when you decided to give up stand-up and devote your life to - professionally to movies?
MARTIN: Well, it took a long time. But I did know this - that one day, it will be forgotten. And so I just did what I was going to do. And there was this, you know, hangover effect of wild and crazy guy, wild and crazy guy. And now it's a dim memory. And I was able to transition into whatever it is I'm - you know, I'd say three different transitions I've been in in my professional life. And it was actually with the film "Roxanne" that I wrote and performed in, and I sensed something new. Before, there was kind of celebrity - it's not worship, but it's the celebrity effect. But I sensed something new with that movie, which was respect. And...
GROSS: That was like your Cyrano de Bergerac film.
MARTIN: Yes, exactly.
MARTIN: And I thought, oh, I like this better (laughter).
GROSS: It has been so great to talk with you. I really want to thank you a lot.
MARTIN: Thank you very much. It's really fun to talk about myself.
GROSS: Thank you, Steve Martin.
MARTIN: OK. Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Steve Martin speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. His memoir "Born Standing Up" was published that year. Last year, he costarred in a Netflix special titled "Steve Martin And Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life."
Coming up, I review the recent 90th birthday salute to Stephen Sondheim presented by and still available on broadway.com. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. I've watched many broadcast and streaming specials since the coronavirus began affecting our lives, but one in particular really got to me. It was the recent 90th birthday salute to Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, featuring performances from an array of musical theater stars. This is Donna Murphy.
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DONNA MURPHY: (Singing) Isn't it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in midair - send in the clowns.
BIANCULLI: Nothing I've seen on TV since the pandemic hit has impressed me quite like "Take Me To The World," the star-studded 90th birthday salute to Stephen Sondheim. It was shown April 26, is still available for viewing and will be for some time. Aimed to raise funds for a favorite charity of his, Artists Striving To End Poverty, "Take Me To The World" was presented on YouTube and Broadway.com. It began as a technical fiasco, with Stephen Schwartz playing piano from "Follies" while the evening's host and producer Raul Esparza and others accidentally spoke over the music trying to make sense of the wayward audio and video feeds.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. (Unintelligible). Paul, can you see Raul on the screen?
RAUL ESPARZA: Can you see me? Were you able to see me?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. We can see him in the bottom right - left of the screen.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's happening? It's lagging.
BIANCULLI: Nothing worked, and the whole thing crashed for more than an hour. But then the pre-recorded sequences minus the planned live hosting bits started rolling out, one sequence after another sent in by a talented friend colleague or admirer of Sondheim and his work. The performances in total ran for the length of an average Broadway musical but were much better than average.
As a TV show, it was up close and very personal. These people were singing for the most part in isolation with minimal musical accompaniment, and sometimes none at all, unless you count the birds in the nearby stream that could be heard as Mandy Patinkin stood in his spacious backyard and sang an acapella version of "Lesson #8," a song from "Sunday In The Park With George."
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MANDY PATINKIN: (Singing) George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George, too, may fade, leaving no mark, just passing through, just like the people out strolling on Sunday. George looks around. George is alone. No use denying George is aground. George has outgrown what he can do. George would have liked to see people out strolling on Sunday.
BIANCULLI: Most people sang to piano tracks recorded for the occasion, and that austerity only added to the emotional weight. The singers ranged from Lin Manuel Miranda and Neil Patrick Harris to Josh Groban and Kelli O'Hara. Victor Garber and Jason Alexander told stories about Sondheim but didn't sing.
And there were some relative rarities. Brian Stokes Mitchell did a haunting song that had been cut from "Assassins." And four singers from a 2017 production of "Pacific Overtures" did a beautiful rendition of "Someone In A Tree" that required them to pretend to look at each other in various quadrants of the screen Brady Bunch-style. It was one of the two most ambitiously visual presentations of the evening, not counting the finale. The other was an all-out dynamic diva moment - splitting the screen three ways to give Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald the chance to take on "The Ladies Who Lunch" individually, then collectively.
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CHRISTINE BARANSKI: I'd like to propose a toast. (Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh, lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. After the gym, then to a filling, claiming they're fat then looking grim because they've been sitting choosing a hat - does anyone still wear a hat?
BIANCULLI: Each of them wore a comfy bathrobe and had a drink in hand.
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BARANSKI: (Singing) I'll drink to that.
MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Here's to the girls who stay smart - aren't they a gas? - rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing it would pass. Another long, exhausting day; another thousand dollars; a matinee; a Pinter play; perhaps a piece of Mahler's - I'll drink to that. And one for Mahler.
AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Here's to the girls who play wife. Aren't they too much?
STREEP: (Laughter) Yeah.
MCDONALD: (Singing) Keeping house, but clutching a copy of Life just to keep in touch...
MCDONALD: (Singing) ...The ones who follow the rules and meet themselves at the schools...
MCDONALD: (Singing) ...Too busy to know that they're fools - aren't they a gem? I'll drink to them. Let's all drink to them.
STREEP: I'm already drinking, dear.
BIANCULLI: "Ladies Who Lunch" is a show-stopper from Sondheim's "Company," the musical I saw as part of a visiting high school theater group on the first night of my first trip to New York and to Broadway. Fifty years later, on the second Monday in March of this year, I saw "Company" again, this time in previews with Katrina link playing a female Bobbie. She was terrific, by the way, so was the production. But the lights went out on Broadway that Wednesday. And I feel very lucky to have seen it.
In between those two "Company" productions, for me, is a lifetime of lovely Sondheim-related memories, not only seeing "Follies" and "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday In The Park With George", and getting to interview Sondheim onstage a few years ago, but taking my kids to their first Sondheim show, which was "Into The Woods," starring Bernadette Peters. On the Sondheim 90th birthday salute, Peters had the final solo number, acapella like Mandy Patinkin, and sang a song from that musical. It made me cry the first time I saw it in the theater. And watching it on my screen at home, with my kids all grown up with kids of their own, all of us sequestered in our respective homes, it got to me all over again.
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BERNADETTE PETERS: (Singing) Hard to see the light now - just don't let it go. Things will turn out right now. We can make it so. Someone is on your side. No one is alone.
I thought this might be just the perfect song right now.
BIANCULLI: It is - and the perfect TV show, too.
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show - we've already seen disruptions and delays in primaries across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. We'll look at how voting in November could be affected by the pandemic, and at the financial and political obstacles that may prevent people from voting by mail. We talk with Emily Bazelon, whose article "Will Americans Lose Their Right To Vote In The Pandemic?", is appearing in The New York Times Magazine. Hope you can join us.
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