Shout! Factory // 1976 // 390 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // August 29th, 2012
"My name is Steve Martin. I'll be out here in just a moment."
Steve Martin has been many things throughout his career: magician, juggler, musician, TV writer, stand-up comic, actor, author, and playwright. The sum total of these creative endeavors has earned him a well-deserved place in the pantheon of comedy. Even so, I bet a lot of young people don't know about Martin's early career. During the late-1970s, he was the biggest name in comedy, playing to sell-out stadium crowd who knew his monster hit records by heart. He was a staple of late night television, from The Tonight Show to Saturday Night Live. Martin's blend of the absurd and the entertaining was as much a part of his time as ahead of it. Plenty of comedians gain popularity by casting the widest net. Steve Martin did it by jumping out of the boat. Determined to make his own way, Martin rethought the nature of stand-up. He got rid of punchlines. He moved faster than the audience and didn't wait for them catch up. His groundbreaking style of comedy may have left early audiences scratching their heads, but once it caught on it vaulted Martin into the stratosphere.
There were plenty of reasons for Steve Martin's success. He was visual. He had catchphrases. He peppered his performances with magic and music. He was really, really funny. But the thing that makes Martin's stand-up work even today is the way he makes the audience feel like they're in on the joke. He respected his audience by not talking down to them, and by giving them enough credit to let them decide when to laugh. Plenty of modern comedians play to the audience by keeping it real. Martin did it by playing a "wild and crazy" character. Adopting the kind of artifice used for decades by professional entertainers, he straddled the line between old and new. His early training as a performer and magician enhanced the surreality to create a stage show that felt both fresh and familiar.
As the 1970s moved into the '80s, Steve Martin abandoned his stand-up act, transitioning to writing, acting, and everything else that has kept him relevant for the last three decades. It was the end of an era, not the end of a career. Although fans had access to Martin's early material in the form of comedy albums and SNL home video releases, much of his '70s and '80s output fell to the wayside -- until now. Shout! Factory, with Martin's help, have compiled a three-DVD collection of essential TV specials and appearances, under the imprecise-yet-accurate title, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff.
Disc One begins with the 1976 HBO stand-up special (back when the network was still "H.B.O."), On Location With Steve Martin (55:16), recorded live at The Troubadour. The Los Angeles hot spot had seen many a Martin show before he hit it big. This show from the beginning of his showbiz explosion is full of iconic bits -- many of which ended up on his albums, and in early SNL monologues (this special was filmed just over a week after his first time hosting the show). The jokes and timing may be familiar, but this special finds Steve Martin on the brink of stardom, before he traded small crowds for stadium seating.
In 1978, NBC gave Martin his first television special. Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy (34:13) is made up of comedy sketches, interspersed with bits from his stand-up act (which have been cut here for time, but included as the complete Universal Ampitheatre performance form on Disc Two). Martin's sketch comedy is surreal, closer in spirit to Monty Python than Saturday Night Live. Highlights include Martin buying an upside-down car, "Ballet Parking," playing a Tortoise-riding "turtleboy," and "The Steve Martin Variety Show" -- a special-within-a-special featuring a guest appearance by Johnny Cash.
1980's Comedy is Not Pretty (48:49) follows the same formula as Martin's first special, minus the stand-up segments and with celebrity guests like Peter Graves, Regis Philbin, and Paul Reubens. Sketches include Martin as an "Evangelical Dry Cleaner," a PSA against drunk steamroller driving, unconventional Olympic diving finals, and the pantomimed Old West ballad "El Paso," as performed by Steve Martin and an all-ape cast.
Disc Two begins with All Commercials...A Steve Martin Special (48:58), also from 1980. Even though Martin broke new conceptual ground with this hour devoted to funny commercials and ad parodies, this special is the worst of the lot. All Commercials oozes with '70s network variety show cheese -- from the opening song and dance number to the copious winking to camera. It also has the least actual screentime for the star, trading Martin's mug for an endless parade of long-forgotten celebrities. The special also includes a performance by the comedian's longtime pals The Dirt Band, and a stand-up set from Robert Klein.
Martin came back the following year with the aptly named Best Show Ever (49:37), which aired the night before Thanksgiving in 1981. Recorded live from Studio 8H, produced by Lorne Michaels, directed by Dave Wilson, and co-starring Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Larraine Newman, and Bill Murray, it feels like a lost episode of Saturday Night Live. In addition to the requisite Festrunk Brothers sketch, Martin shows off the tap dancing skills he'd learned for the film Pennies From Heaven, keeping up with Gregory Hines in a rousing rendition of "Fit as a Fiddle (and Ready for Love)." Also included: the Eric Idle short film "Did Dinosaurs Build Stonehenge?" and the Aykroyd-hosted game show "Irving Mainway's Sucker Showcase."
The set's final entry, 1984's Homage to Steve (56:33) is a bit of a grab bag, originally released on VHS and laserdisc under the title Steve Martin Live. It begins with Martin's 1977 Academy Award-nominated short film The Absent-Minded Waiter. Co-starring Buck Henry and Teri Garr, this short was made as a proof of concept to help sell The Jerk, and was shown before Martin's live show. It's followed by "The Comedians Segment," a two and a half minute sketch with Paul Simon, David Letterman, Alan King, and Henny Youngman as acolytes looking to Steve for comedic advice. The remainder of the special is the complete Universal Amphitheatre performance from September 1979. Even though there's a lot of overlap with the On Location Troubadour show, it's worth having both for comparison. Martin is playing to a crowd that is not only larger, but also much savvier. They know his jokes before he tells them, anticipating the arrow through the head gag as though it were a hit song. I'm not sure the rock concert vibe is the ideal setting for comedy, but it's a fascinating time capsule from the peak of Martin's stage prowess.
The set's main bonus feature is a series of "Comments from Steve" recorded especially for the set and divided across all three discs. Disc One's comments (13:04) cover Martin's early career as performer and television writer, and his transition to stand-up star; while on Disc Two (13:34) he talks about his influences, later TV specials, and his decision to stop performing. The comments on the first two discs can be watched individually or all together.
Disc Three is comprised of an hour of TV Bits and Pieces, from 1966 to the present, which can be viewed with or without Steve's comments (around 15 minutes' worth) in-between each segment:
* "Lifetime Achievement Speech" from the American Comedy
Awards (2000): "We're here tonight because of a common love: me."
* "Steve Plays the Banjo (First TV Appearance)" was on a 1966 episode of the kids' show Dusty's Attic.
* Music Videos: "What I Believe" and "'Freddie's Lilt." Martin's last album, The Steve Martin Brothers (1981), was a mix of new comedy and banjo tunes he wrote and recorded earlier in his career.
* "Las Vegas Act Parody": a famous fast-talking bit from the 1974 episode of The Tonight Show that marked a turning point in Martin's career.
* "Jean-Pierre Louey: The French Johnny Cash": a Martin guest spot on Cash's 1978 Christmas Special.
* "Steve Martin's Holiday Wishes" (1986), "Ode to a Loved One" (1989), "Steve's Penis Beauty Creme" (1994): Three iconic solo bits from his many SNL appearances.
* "Steve's Tribute to Gene Kelly" from the AFI Lifetime Achievement special in 1985.
* "Best Actor In a Comedy Acceptance Speech" from the 1992 People's Choice Awards.
* "The Great Flydini" (1992). When Carson asked Martin to come on during his last week on The Tonight Show, he brought out this brilliant bit of magic comedy.
* "Steve's Paul Simon Tribute" (2002) at The Kennedy Center Honors. Keep an eye out for a quick shot of Mitt Romney laughing his pre-nominee butt off.
* "The Making of the Steve Martin Appearance" (1995), "Dave & Steve's Gay Vacation" (1998): Two of Martin's many memorable moments on The Late Show With David Letterman.
* "Steve's Acceptance Speech" for The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (2005): In which Martin accepts "the only significant American award for comedy, except for money."
Presented in full frame (except for the Mark Twain Prize speech, and the interview segments) with 2.0 stereo sound, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff looks and sounds as good as the limited, mostly video, source material allows. Even so, it's a handsome set. The three slimline DVD cases are housed in a heavy matte finish box, with a 22-page booklet of archival photos and an essay written by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.
As one of the biggest names in comedy for the past forty years, there's plenty of Steve Martin material out there. Now there's even more. Steve Martin: The Television Stuff collects about six hours of rarely seen TV specials, appearances, and stand-up performances, along with nearly 45 minutes of new interviews recorded by the comedian especially for this set. The Television Stuff is required viewing for comedy aficionados, and the perfect companion piece to Martin's 2007 memoir Born Standing Up. The days of network variety shows and sold-out arena comedy shows may be over, but Steve Martin is as fascinating and funny as ever.
You are excuuuuuuuused! Not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 390 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: On Location With Steve Martin
* IMDb: A Wild and Crazy Guy
* IMDb: Comedy Is Not Pretty
* IMDb: All Commercials... A Steve Martin Special
* IMDb: Steve Martin's Best Show Ever
* IMDb: Steve Martin Live
* Official Site