A Stand-Up Guy
Steve Martin's picking out a tune for you
Growing up with a frustrated comedian for a father, I recall Steve Martin's Comedy Is Not Pretty! (1979) as one of the first albums I heard as a kid. In those early routines, Martin often seems like a child himself, the youth at the back of the class doing impressions of the teacher and snapping bra straps. As an adult, it's easier to see him as one of those comedians who's highly intelligent but draws you in with the rubber chicken. Five decades after starting his comedy career at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm in Los Angeles, Martin hasn't forgotten what it is to be a frustrated comedian.
"I still am one," he laughs, calling from "an island in the Caribbean."
If he's frustrated, he's certainly channeled well. Martin's career highs include such still-quotable gems as The Jerk, L.A. Story, and My Blue Heaven, in addition to several books, stints on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and more recently, a cameo on 30 Rock and co-hosting the Oscars.
Seems like that would leave the 64-year-old little time to play music, and yet last year he released The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo (Rounder), which features a wealth of talent, from country stars Vince Gill and Dolly Parton to bluegrass legends Tony Trischka and Earl Scruggs, and won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.
Martin's love affair with the banjo began in high school in the early 1960s, when A Mighty Wind-style cardigan folk was all the rage. He later incorporated it into his stand-up acts and live comedy albums of the late 1970s and early 1980s, giving his conceptual characters and awkward ruminations appropriately upbeat accompaniment. His 2001 collaboration with bluegrass pioneer Scruggs on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" – the instrumental from Bonnie and Clyde – eased him back into playing live again. When Trischka asked him to appear on his 2007 LP, Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Martin accepted, and The Crow started coming together.
The 16 songs span close to four decades – some written when he was in his 20s, some in the last few years – and while the result has its comical moments ("Late for School"), it's mostly a traditional bluegrass LP, down to its song titles. Appropriately, he met the Steep Canyon Rangers, his backing band for this tour, which arrives at the Long Center on Sunday, April 25, after doing an episode of A Prairie Home Companion last year.
In his 2007 autobiography, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, Martin writes, "My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next." It illustrates precisely why Martin stepped away from stand-up but also how he managed to circumvent the spotlight and still be funny in other ways.
George Saunders, in his book of essays The Braindead Megaphone, relates that after reading Slaughterhouse-Five, he realized that its author, Kurt Vonnegut, was funny: "Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to."
"Well, it's certainly something you have to learn," Martin remarks. "I mean, it changes your personality. That's character, the distance between when you first realize the truth and when you speak it. It doesn't make you a better character; it just clarifies it."
Austin Chronicle: You were born in Texas, right?
Steve Martin: Yes, in Waco, though I don't remember much. Oh wait, I remember a tornado.
AC: Do you still have an affinity for the South?
SM: I do. My wife is sort of Southern, and I played a lot in the South when I was first starting my comedy career, touring with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and I play what could be considered Southern music – the banjo and bluegrass – although, you know, they play that in Canada and Germany, too.
AC: When did you find the banjo?
SM: I was 17. In Orange County, California, in the early 1960s, there was a big folk craze. There were groups like the Kingston Trio, which was very collegiate and commercial, but it was sort of inauthentic folk. Then there was the more authentic folk that was played by Pete Seeger. All these folk clubs sprang up and brought in acts like the Dillards, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs. Seeing them got me interested.
AC: Bluegrass is a genre that seems to invite storytelling, even in the absence of words. Is that part of what attracts you?
SM: Well, I was interested in the banjo as an instrument, not so much as a singer. I think the banjo is a very evocative, narrative instrument, though not a verbal instrument. The sound of it makes you think of stories, think something's happening. It's very emotional, whether the tempo's fast or slow, which can lead to great feelings of happiness or sadness.
AC: Over the years, how often were you going back to the instrument?
SM: I never stopped playing, but I never quite advanced on it. About 10 years ago, I started getting serious again, writing more songs, trying to remember the old ones. And it was a good thing, because I couldn't really remember how to play the traditional songs I'd learned, so it made me write new ones.
AC: How did it feel going back to the older songs?
SM: It was fun. I had to sit down with my old record, the one I recorded in 1974, to remember how I played them. I thought it would be impossible, and a couple I could just not remember.
AC: And what about Earl Scruggs, how did that collaboration happen?
SM: I was invited, and that's really what got me back into playing the banjo. He asked me to play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on his record with a clump of other people. I got there and played and said, "I'm really rusty." I could hardly keep up, but I started playing again. Then Tony Trischka called and asked me to play on his Double Banjo album. I said, "Well, I've got my own songs, and other people can play those traditional songs better than me." He came over and picked out "The Crow," and we recorded it, and it became a bit of a hit. So I thought, why not do a record?
AC: Are you in a "zone" when you're playing? Is it a respite from acting and writing?
SM: Well, I'm getting there. At first I was in a zone of worry, but once you do it every night, it can start to be fun and the nerves go away.
AC: Do you feel like you've mastered comedy?
SM: The great thing about comedy is you can't. No matter how well you do, you have to think of what's next, what's the next joke, and is it funny. Once you feel like you've mastered it, you're dead, dead in the water.
AC: Do you still enjoy performing comedy?
SM: I do, yeah, and doing the banjo show has really brought me back around to live comedy. I like doing what I call the interstitial material between songs, because it's not as demanding as doing a show of all comedy. I like playing the songs and doing the funny intros, and if I have something new to do, it's always in the back of my head. I can't wait to deliver that line. Now, having five guys on stage with me, they can pick up the slack. It's almost like a comedy team, when the comedy actually happens.
AC: They all get in on the act?
SM: Well, it's not like Abbott & Costello. They're a bit more sober, and they're serious musicians, so I don't make them do big comedy routines; I don't think that'd be appropriate. But there's a little bit of that.
AC: So, no pyrotechnics or lasers? No one getting shot out of a canon?
SM: No, I don't think so.
AC: Music and comedy share elements of timing and pacing. Do you see any common ground?
SM: Well, comedy timing is much different. Musical timing is exact, even when it's delayed or syncopated. Comic timing can [the phone cuts out, and he returns a few seconds later]. Hoo-boy, that plane literally flew right over my head. ... What I meant to say is, comic timing is inexplicable. It's really a mystery.
Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers ramble into the Long Center on Sunday, April 25, 7pm.