Steve Martin: A Wild–Yet Inspirational–Guy

Like many men around my age (41), I was influenced—no, molded by Steve Martin. (And if you were, too, then you know exactly the inflection I used in that last sentence.) Although he was a non-stop presence on TV and in film in the late 70s, it was his LPs that really schooled me in comic timing. It was the ability to re-play those albums endlessly that made them so important for me and my ilk. Simply put, when I was a kid, Steve Martin was the embodiment of pure comedy (summarized beautifully in the still to the right, which came with his 1978 album A Wild & Crazy Guy.)

As I got older and his output mellowed some, becoming a steady stream of a film or two a year, with the occasional (brilliant) appearance on Carson or Letterman, I became more discerning. Some of his films worked (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), some didn’t (The Lonely Guy 1). One that’s always worked for me—perhaps my favorite of his films (after The Jerk, of course)—is Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). I think it’s definitely the most clever film he’s been in, structurally.

The other day I wrote a post about this film and Oz’s DVD commentary for it, a commentary which is a primer on “How to Direct a Comedy.” He worked hard on this film to keep us on our toes, collaborating with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus to maximize every shot, scene and plot twist.

Here’s a fine example of how he made a scene work. The set up: rookie conman Freddy Benson (Steve) has been jailed in the South of France for plying his trade, and he thinks his one-time meeting with local lothario Lawrence Jamieson will give him the clout he needs to be released. In this clip, the scene is followed immediately by Oz’s commentary for it…

He constantly elaborates like this on what went into making a joke click, whether it was in the writing, acting, shooting, editing, scoring or in the sound effects work. But the real treat in the commentary is Oz’s insight into working with Steve Martin. Repeatedly, the director describes how Steve would contribute a scene-saving gag or punchline—always at Oz’s request. Although Steve doesn’t get a writing credit on the film, you’d think he deserves one. Here’s a short list of what he brought to the table, which includes some of the film’s most memorable moments:

       • Freddy’s character-defining costume touches such as his Speedo and flip sunglasses.
       • Freddy’s Super Glued hand. According to Oz, prior to Steve contributing this sight gag, the scripted scene had no punchline.
       • Ruprecht “going to the bathroom,” perhaps the most quoted joke from the film. (It was actually a joke Steve used to do onstage in the early 70s.)
       • The film’s legendary teaser trailer!

And here’s my favorite of Steve’s contributions. Midway through the film, Lawrence and Freddy are knee-deep in their competition over Janet (Glenne Headly) and her money. Freddy’s angle is to be psychosomatically crippled, while Lawrence claims to be a doctor who can heal him. In this scene, Freddy is perched at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs that lead to a beach. Thanks to Lawrence’s insistence that Janet ignore Freddy, she won’t help him down the stairs. It leads to this…

In the original script, however, it was different: Freddy really does lose control of the wheelchair and careens wildly down the steps. Oz wanted to show this in a single shot, and the stunt supervisor began assembling an intricate rig with a pipeline running the length of the steep steps. It wasn’t going smoothly, and the producer told Frank Oz that it would cost $150,000 to make the gag work. In dismay, the director approached Steve… (At this point, I’ll let Frank finish the story in his commentary.)

I remember seeing this film in ’88 and the ten seconds where we can’t see him—but only hear him—we were laughing because we thought he had fallen, which makes the reveal get another, bigger laugh on top of that (as Oz explains “Sometimes you want to…imagine what’s happening”). But there’s something else that happens here, something plot-wise, that Oz doesn’t even mention: Steve’s suggestion allowed another transfer of control in the ongoing cat-and-mouse between Freddy and Lawrence. As scripted, Freddy gets Janet’s attention because he mistakenly falls down the stairs; as filmed, he wins back her attention by his own devices.

So let’s summarize. With Steve’s one-sentence suggestion—“Well, I’ll just pretend I’m out of control”—he: saved days of work and $150,000 of the film’s budget; inspired a great multi-level gag; and added a brilliant extra twist to the film’s plot. What more could you ask from an actor?! 2

I guess the thrill for me—as a fan of the film listening of the commentary—is that it validated my long-standing appreciation of Steve Martin. He really is the embodiment of pure comedy.

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I was lucky to field produce this commentary in the summer of 2001, and I was going to share some stories from that wonderful experience. However, it’s just gonna have to wait for another post. Sorry!

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BACK TO POST 1 Ignoring, of course, Charles Grodin’s perfect, toupée-free performance as Warren.

BACK TO POST 2 For the record, there are plenty of Steve’s films I haven’t seen, and although I give him all this credit (he’s brilliant, changed my life, etc), many of them I wouldn’t see even if you put a loaded pistol in my mouth. But, based on what Frank Oz says, I wonder if even the dumbest-sounding of his films have some moments of genius, moments that scream…Steve.

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14 Comments

Filed under Film, Humor

14 responses to “Steve Martin: A Wild–Yet Inspirational–Guy

  1. Believe it or not, I’ve never been a fan of this movie. Now that I’ve read your post I think I’ll revisit it again.

    • I used to have Roxanne high on my list, too, but when I revisited it a few years back, it was a pretty dull drag (to me at least).

      And I didn’t think of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a “Steve” film like, say, Sgt. Bilko or another where he was the only face on the poster.

      But, pound for pound, his chemistry with Michael Caine is great stuff. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to call the 80s a Golden Age of comedies, but I’d put Scoundrels up there with Trading Places.

      And, yeah, if I haven’t flogged this horse enough, Frank Oz’s commentary is about as listenable a commentary that you’ll find (for those who don’t frequently listen to those things) since it makes the jokes even funnier. Or at least it deepened my appreciation for the humor. (Truthfully, on the downside, Oz does go on a bit about how great it was to shoot in the South of France and is sometimes a little Vegas in his praise, but those are minor quibbles.)

  2. I enjoy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but it has one major flaw that keeps me from thinking of it as a great movie: Glenne Headly’s performance as Janet.

  3. Navin R. Johnson

    Great post. DRS has always ranked high on my list without having seen it since it came out. Same goes for Roxanne (I see a double DVD feature on the horizon as soon as the wife is out of town). Your appraisal of Steve’s influence on me/us was not in the least bit overstated. I have a photo of myself, taken by my sister, as I’m listening for the first time to Let’s Get Small, and my face is practically peeling away from my head, I’m laughing so hard. It remains my personal Shot Heard Around the World. (A.L.)

    • That sounds like a great picture! Once I got to college, I discovered a whole slew of guys my age that all had the same dry pauses, wide-eyed stupid faces, smug false inflated egos, etc. (it’s really hard to verbalize all the tics and mannerisms he has, but I just tried).

      I’ve always said that he’s one of the only two comedians who can make me laugh just by smiling. (The second was Phil Hartman.)

      I still have fond memories of my nuclear family sitting in the living room listening to Let’s Get Small. We all laughed so much. I’m sure we looked like a family listening to Jack Benny’s radio show in the 40s. Because we weren’t literally watching anything, it freed us up to connect even more. Kinda nutty.

  4. Frank Oz and Steve Martin: Both of ’em geniuses. Which doesn’t mean they’ve always created genius work. But, in the spirit of your analysis, yes, if one of them is attached to something, even something I’m highly doubtful of, I’ll think it has hope.

    I have a huge admiration for Martin without being a wildly devoted fan. (I don’t have any of his routines memorized. I’ve never seen all of The Jerk. Etc.) For my money, two of the greatest examples of his rare gift are Parenthood and Father of the Bride, a pair of films that thrive on his ability to be really, really funny and really, really caring and emotionally available (being funny often keeps people out, rather than letting them in).

    Anyway, if you haven’t already read his recent autobiography … don’t. Instead, download the audiobook. It’s a fascinating story and it’s even better in Steve’s own voice.

  5. Jansen

    I don’t remeber if we ever discussed Mr. Martin back at school, but reading this episode reminded me of his impact. To me there are two Steve Martins. The wild and crazy surealist from his records and the post ” Jerk” Hollywood Martin. Both worthy, but it was the guy with the arrow through his head that made me feel it was not only ok to be a freak, but maybe a really good thing. I too internalized much of his style without maybe even realizing it and used it daily to try and offset much of the horror and banality that school and growing up can inflict upon the soul. Thanks for the reminder.

    As an aside, if you’ve never seen it Check out ” Shop Girl”. Martin in ” serious” mode. ( for lack of a better word ) based on a book he wrote. I don’t know if it actually is, but it feels autobiographical. It’s one
    of the few movies I would put on a short list of ” perfect ” films. ( that might be an interesting post subject for peel ) My definition of a perfect film is one that stays absolutely true to itself. That, given whatever it is doing, it has no false moments, and achieves it’s intent. Of course this is subjective, but I find Shop Girl exposes a side of Martin we rarely see. I’ve always suspected that even more than a comic he is an intellectual. He’s often said his take on comedy came from his study of philosophy. He always felt that the standard joke-punchline format was limiting in that it told
    you when to laugh. He wanted to create stand up that didn’t tell
    you when to laugh. His early Surealist stuff ( though full of punchlines ) achieves that, especially through his use of bizarre visuals. His serious demeanor while wearing ridiculous objects. The still you include is a perfect example ” best fishes”. It’s so corny it’s almost lame. What makes it hysterical is his Vegas demeanor and the way it looks like he dosn’t even know the fish is there. It makes me think of another joke.
    Q:How Many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
    A: FISH!

    • Jansen

      Please excuse all the typos.. iPhone

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right: the movies definitely took away Steve’s edge. He freely admits this in his book, too. Though I think his first handful of films had some charm and nerve (up to and including Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid).

      I’ve read Shop Girl but haven’t seen it. Great book. I really need to check out that flick.

      • Jansen

        wouldn’t say it’s one of the greatest ever, but it’s just right on the money, tone wise. Visuals, music. etc.

  6. Jansen

    That ad lib in the jail cell is priceless. Have to revisit. Saw it in the theatre and havn’t since. Michael Caine always says it was the best experience he ever had on a film. Besides Martin, etc. It was on the French riviera and he stayed at his buddy Roger Moore’s pad while shooting.

  7. Pingback: What Happens When You Meet Grover and He Curses? « Peel Slowly

  8. Hello

    I am 40 years old, and yes I DO hear the inflection you used in your first sentence up there: “NOoo (stop) mmMOlded…” I memorized his comedy records at the age of 8 and 9. He is hilarious, and though I am not a comic, but rather a poet and spoken word performer, very influential. Thanks for this.

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