Ed. note: This interview is reprinted with permission from rooftopcomedy.com.
I remember watching Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy on a crinkly VHS tape, while sitting on my parent’s bedroom floor. I was just a little fat kid at the time. My parents were at work, as they often were, and my older sister, my only sibling, had just married her high school sweetheart and moved two miles away.
I lived in a lonely latchkey world of Eggos and Legos and sitcoms and cable tv. My surrogate parents were the Huxtables. My siblings were Pee Wee Herman, Weird Al, and ALF. My best friend: laughter. It was my security blanket, my safety net, and my secret weapon. And when I wasn’t watching people creating laughter on tv, I was creating it myself. I’d dress up in my dad’s clothes and fall down a flight of stairs, blast arm pit farts, run around with my weiner out. I’d do anything to get a laugh. I was that kid.
So there I was, a little lonely clown huddled in front of the Magnavox, watching this man in a white suit with a fake arrow through his head play the banjo in front of thousands of people. I remember thinking to myself, “This guy is just like me! The type of guy that runs into his room, grabs a bunch of props, and starts running around to make people laugh. I’m a wild and crazy guy, too!”
And so my obsession Steve Martin began. I memorized his albums, watched all of his movies, stayed up to watch him on SNL, read Cruel Shoes. Twice.
I loved this man. I started emulating him. I’d dress up in a suit for Thanksgiving and recreated scenes from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the Jerk for my family. I even put talcum powder in my hair so I’d look more like him. I’d break into the “wild and crazy guys” voice and get sudden bouts of “happy feet.” I wanted to be this man, because he was silly and smart like me, and he made everyone around him so happy.
Not until years later would I realize, that this guy was lonely, too, and that being funny is how some people react to the world, and that laughter is the glue that holds it together.
I, along with a few other writers, had the great pleasure of speaking with Steve over the phone from his Los Angeles home the other day. He has a new banjo record out and a tour he’s promoting, but I managed to sneak in some comedy related questions. He was as nice and thoughtful as I imagined him to be, and, of course, very funny.
Your memoir Born Standing Up has a little bit of a melancholy tint to it. It also gives off the impression that you were generally unsatisfied with stand up at a certain point. However, when it comes to your banjo music, say in the song like “Late for School,” you sound so satisfied and joyous. Can you describe the satisfaction you get from making music and how it satisfies you differently from performing and writing comedy?
Well it’s very clear difference, almost everything else I do involves words. And the music doesn’t so it’s automatically a different – I think it’s a different part of the brain and it’s a way to be emotional in an, you know, in an utterly different way than you would normally. You’re actually bringing it out through an instrument rather than, you know, telling someone you love them you can play it.
If you’re trying to express like a subtle emotion, you can call it melancholy just for example, you know, you can do it by playing. And you can adjust it by playing. You can play the same song after you play the same song sad. So it’s really just a different expression. And I like the relief of it. You know, instead of finding the right word you’re plucking the right note at exactly the right time.
Do you feel it’s an easier way for you to express yourself than you do, say, with your writing or acting?
I don’t know. I always doubt that phrase “expressing yourself” because I’m not sure if that’s what it is. It might just be the love of the music or the love of being on stage or it may have nothing to do with self expression at all. But let’s put it this way, I don’t know why I’m expressing if I’m expressing something through music, whereas with words I know exactly what I’m expressing because you can read it. But I don’t know if it’s really expressing myself. It’s just being creative, I think.
A lot of the songs on this album like “Banana Banjo” or “Pitkin County Turnaround,” you originally did on your 1981 comedy album, The Steve Martin Brothers. Was there some catharsis in getting to redo these songs?
Yeah there was. And the amazing thing was, you know, although the songs were released in 1981, they were really recorded in 1972. So they were already ten years old. So I was happy to get them out then but, you know, that was sort of a dead record. So I was – when we started to rerecord them, first I had to relearn them because I – some of them I couldn’t even remember how to play.
But I was pleased to hear that they still worked and they still work onstage. So like Saga of the Old West, you know? And it’s really fun to play that onstage. And that’s actually the bigger thrill now. It’s like wait until you hear this. You know, you get that feeling. It’s sort of a feeling I had when I first started in comedy and thought I was really good, although I wasn’t. But I think wait until you see this. And I have that feeling onstage. I’m very happy that the songs are working.
What are the biggest differences between the collaborative process of making music and the more solitary process of creating comedy?
Well, you know, comedy is a collaboration between your own head and the audience. And I mean – but it’s very solitary. And your music is initially a collaboration with your own head.
And then it becomes a collaboration with, you know, other musicians and people’s suggestions.
And it’s really nice to be in a group of five people and hear everybody operating without ego, and saying I think this and you’ll take a break there, and you’ll take a break there.
And then we’ll all come together here. And, you know, when I was onstage I was alone when I was doing comedy. And here I’ve got five other people. And it’s really, in a nice way, less pressure.
What it’s like for you to perform live as a musician versus what it was like performing as a standup comic?
If I were performing comedy on this tour, I mean exclusively, I would be much more nervous than I am. Because, you know, a song lasts three minutes and the joke lasts six seconds. So you’re really, you’ll always thinking when you’re doing comedy it’s what’s next, what’s next, what’s next and I always did that alone, I was always performing alone.
Here you’ve got a band, you can chat with people, it’s – get into a song, lose yourself in the song. So I actually view it as easier to do music than to do comedy for me.
Does performing in front of a live audience ever make you want to try stand-up again?
I don’t really have a reason to. It’s strange, I just don’t have a reason to do stand-up. I do enjoy the comedy little bits we have in the show, I enjoy that and – but I – that’s – it’s such a tough job. It would always be a blend of banjo at this point, I think.
Steve Martin is hitting the road to promote his new album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. Click here for upcoming tour dates near you!