Photo: Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live
What Martin wanted to accomplish in the early days with his zany stand-up material — getting “happy feet” on stage or putting his nose on a microphone and just standing there doing his nose-on-the-microphone routine — was to make people laugh without their knowing exactly why what he was doing was funny. “Laughter is the most peculiar emotional response of all,” he told me when we first met. “It doesn’t relate even to joy, as tears relate to sadness and terror. Laughter is really a spontaneous act. It doesn’t even mean you’re happy. It’s a very strange commodity, laughter.”
When Martin turned 50, he said that he thought it would be his last viable decade. “In a way, it was true,” he says now, despite his continued success, “because at this age you just don’t get a certain amount of attention by default. But I’ve had this miracle happen. I just turned 65 and I’m still in show business. I’m still getting offers. I’m busy all the time. This year, I’ve written a novel, cut a record, toured and made a movie. I’m very lucky.”
The success of his record, The Crow, is perhaps what surprised him the most. The album, filled with original banjo tunes, won a Grammy and was No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass charts for 30 weeks. He says he enjoys being on the road performing music with a band because “he’s not constantly on the hook” as he was during his solo comedy work. He still injects humor into his shows, though he says it’s of a gentler sort than his prior routines. A second banjo album is in the works and is expected to be released in February of next year, followed by a summer tour.
Also due out early next year is the movie he made with Black and Wilson, The Big Year. “I really like those guys; we had very good acting rapport,” he says. “It’s a sweet, small film. Definitely not broad humor; the characters are real, the story is real, the relationships are real.”
Martin says he’s more comfortable with his acting today than when he made his early comedies. He feels he learned the craft by working with two “magical” actresses: Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. “What I always marvel at with them is that there’s almost never, in any take, any kind of falseness,” he says. “It feels like they’re saying it for the first time. And not the same way they did it the time before, yet it still holds. It’s a strange kind of spontaneous reality.”
When I mention that, on many fan sites, it’s the films he made before 1990 that are most often listed as favorites, Martin says, “Critics like to say I haven’t done anything [good] since 1990. But my family films are some of the biggest movies I ever made. Like Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House — critics seem to get very upset about those. But they’re not for them; they’re for an audience. I hear a lot about Father of the Bride [from fans]. And Bowfinger is overlooked. The box office for Pink Panther did $150 million. The second one was considered a flop, but it made money. I’m proud of them.”