With his buoyant musical “Bright Star” up for five Tony Awards this Sunday, we caught up with Steve Martin to talk about his creative process onstage, on screen, and on the page.
In a career built on one wild and crazy move after another, the inspired procession vaulting brilliantly, if a touch surrealistically, from amusement park entertainer to graduate school philosopher to cat juggler to balloon animal executioner to global stand-up comedy phenomenon to high-wattage movie star, then critically heralded playwright, bestselling novelist, children’s book author, high-end art collector, and Grammy-winning banjo recording artist, Steve Martin at the age of 70 has decided to try something new. Now that’s wild and crazy.
No, Martin hasn’t finally thrown in the towel on being one of the world’s preeminent entertainers to become a casino dice inspector or a professional stand-in bridesmaid. Nope, this wild and crazy guy has gone and written a Broadway musical that was just nominated for 5 Tony Awards. And he did it with 1980s granola-folkie Edie Brickell (sans the New Bohemians, her former backing band). Bright Star is a warm, poignant, sepia-toned, bluegrass love story set in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1920s and ‘40s. Rather than feeling like homage, a 21st century mastermind’s stab at replicating the era’s tunes, the work of Martin and Brickell feels like an object of enormous magic and wonder that was lost almost a century ago and just discovered.
Were it not for that Broadway musical juggernaut about a certain “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Bright Star would undoubtedly be the unrivaled toast of the town.
Even as a melancholy-soaked man of 70 writing musicals about lost loves from a century ago that are then lost again every night on a New York stage, there remains about Martin an air of the wild and crazy. Martin has always been an intellectual heavyweight, his 1970s stand-up comedy, existed on the spaghetti-wobbly wire that fails to connect the Cause and Effect human beings gravely and ridiculously claw at, a razzle-dazzle-huh? cocktail of Groucho Marx, Immanuel Kant, and Salvador Dali. His early ‘70s live act merged a Harold Lloyd-ish facility for physical comedy with a verbal balderdashery that swung frantically between idiocy and irony and longing. Much like the oeuvre of Woody Allen, the films of Steve Martin started off rambunctious, ridiculous, and irresistible (The Jerk and, say, Bananas), then became infused with a palpable romanticism and a dollop of magical realism (LA Story and Manhattan), then became occasionally earnest (Grand Canyon and Another Woman, then became paychecks and placeholders (um, there were a lot of them in the ‘90s; care to rewatch Sgt. Bilko or Curse of the Jade Scorpion, friends?), then briefly pristine amalgamations of the silly and the sublime (Bowfinger and Midnight in Paris), and then . . . Well, if your Steve Martin, that’s where things get really interesting.
With the 1993 play Picasso At The Lapin Agile, Martin imagines an encounter between Einstein and Picasso and meditates, lyrically and uproariously, on science, faith, magic, and art. The former university philosophy major then buffed his prose chops, publishing in The New Yorker a series of elegant, dense, soufflés on the elation of angst and the sadness of bliss and the ennui we assume to conceal from ourselves that the light is galloping away and our legacy will be, even if we accomplished great, great things, about as significant as the 89th of 529 holes in a grade school ceiling tile. A novella (Shopgirl) and two novels (The Pleasure of My Company, The Object of Beauty) that brim with sorrow and aspiration, the laughs tangled in slow exhales, optimistic, lyrical laments all three.
And then Steve Martin goes and writes a hit Broadway musical, a wistful quixotic, tender piece woven of idyll and homesickness, a marrow-deep pining for a time and place – the time and place from which we emerged long ago that no longer exists on this earth, and maybe never did at all. If you’re wearing Steve Martin’s Cruel Shoes, you can click those heels all you want, you can never, ever go home again, but of felines and G-strings, whimsy, wit, and tomfoolery you can certainly pave a stunning yellow brick road.
The protagonists you’ve written in the last 20 years, they all struggle (and sometimes suffer) with enormous misperceptions of themselves and haven’t a clue as to where they belong in the world. Does that resonate for you?
Absolutely. I would agree with you. I think each of the things I’ve written since Shopgirl – well, maybe since the beginning – is a sort of progression from the last one, and hopefully an upward one. It’s a long leap from my old comedy act in the ‘70s to a guy like Daniel Pecan Cambridge (in Pleasure of My Company). But the connection between these guys, like Navin Johnson (in The Jerk) and someone like Ray Porter (in Shopgirl) – the sort of intellectual connection – is that they are characters whose own perceptions have made them the center of their world. As wrong as they might be about that. In the stand-up, the tone was certainly a comic exaggeration. In Pleasure Of My Company, it appears to be more true or real. It’s almost refining that stand-up character down to actuality, to poignancy, to humanity. In the stand-up routine, of course, there’s absolutely no sympathy for that egocentric character. I hope there’s a lot of sympathy for the characters in the novels.
The Steve Martin universe is, in the final analysis, a pretty Romantic one. These are quixotic characters, dreamers who tilt at windmills despite their neuroses and foibles.
Right. Definitely. It’s hard to say where it comes from, but when I did this movie called Pennies From Heaven years ago the thing that affected me most about this character I played was his longing and his wishing. If you remember the film, the lyrics of the pop songs made him want so desperately that kind of idealism, that kind of romance, that kind of love. So desperately. That’s what I found to be so heartbreaking about it – and about other characters I liked to read about and to play (in movies) – it’s the longing. That’s the human condition, I think. Well . . .It’s maybe my human condition. Here I am analyzing these things for the first time! In Pleasure of My Company, Daniel Pecan Cambridge has transformed his longing into an impenetrable defense, and he’s done it willfully. Since he has done it intellectually and willfully, that’s how it’s able to be undone. He’s not a psychotic. He has transformed himself by will. That’s what I believe that to be.
Many readers are on treasure hunts for the roman a clef, the salacious autobiographical details that may be buried in celebrity fiction. What do you think those readers can mine from your prose and plays?
Oh, that’s always off-putting. I really don’t think this stuff is a mirror or a reflection of me and my life any more than any writer appears in his or her book. Of course, it is the writer’s perception and life and experience, but it’s altered, changed, made into something new. Otherwise, you are writing an autobiography.
So the “real” Steve Martin does not exist inside of this work?
For the most part, these characters are way, way, way far removed from any specific traits of mine. They’re really works of emotional fiction, and all the clichés of writing about a character as he appears in your brain and then demonstrates some interesting behaviors and then starts saying things and then starts saying them to other people who just appear in your brain . . .And the only thing consistent about these characters is that, just like the “characters” in our real lives, they behave inconsistently a lot of the time. I think the greatest magic that a character holds for a writer is the lesson that the inconsistent thing that he or she just did is actually quite consistent. I would almost say about reading novels: you don’t need to know an artist, and maybe you should try to know an artist as little as possible. In fact, sometimes knowing the artist obscures everything. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve talked with artists and they’ve been so wrong about their paintings. They think it’s one thing and everyone else in the world sees it another way entirely. But that’s what creates mystery about art.
The subject of language itself comes up a lot in your work, from the stand-up through the films, prose, plays. In “Writing Is Easy” (a comic essay in Martin’s bestselling collection, Pure Drivel), language is a plaything in a garden; in your play The Underpants, language is power, currency, toy; in Pleasure, it’s a prison for the protagonist. I’m wondering your thoughts about language. Maybe it’s all of those things?
Well, this is not a new statement, but language has subconscious power. I was thinking about poetry, and how poetry takes the external meanings of words and replaces them with the internal meaning of words. I hope that’s not too . . .Well, I like those feelings that the right word rouses. There’s no explaining it, why one word is the right word and one is the wrong word. It’s ineffable. Sometimes the right word just appears and other times you have to really struggle for it. And I was thinking about metaphor, because I really like those too, when they’re appropriate. I was thinking you have to be so careful with metaphor because they can become so silly, so lengthy, and I thought that the right metaphor – while being poetic – actually clarifies more than a pure description does. Once I understand that, if I ever really do, I’ll think, ‘Aha, I can be more clear with a metaphor than I can be with terse language.’ And until then, I’ll just keep practicing. Anyway…
You once said that a lot of comedy is simply based on silly words. By your estimation, what are some of the silliest words?
You know I don’t know when I said that, but I was probably very young. Silly words keep changing – and, of course, they’re only silly in a particular context. I mean you can always say something abstract: “chicken” or something like that. But that kind of funny is just too abstract for me now. The right silly word only appears to me now in context. I don’t think I go for the silly word so much anymore.
Let’s go back to the beginning of your writing career. You started in stand-up and writing sketch comedy for the Smother Brothers and many others.
Yeah, I did a stand-up act, so I had some pretty good material. But I wouldn’t call that writing exactly; that’s more like “remembering what you ad-libbed and making it funnier.” Then I got a job writing for The Smothers Brothers TV show. I was writing comedy sketches, which I had no previous experience doing. I learned a lot there. I think the lesson from writing sketch comedy is how to be spare. You also learn a lot about timing and language. For example, um, put the punchline at the end. That obvious lesson actually applies in what I’ll call more serious writing, too, whether it’s an emotional punchline or a thought or the right word. The punchline helps you close the paragraph or the thought or the chapter.
From the stand-up routine, which made you an enormous celebrity, came the opportunity to make films. You made The Jerk, The Lonely Guy, The Man With Two Brains, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – very funny films that were largely in keeping with audience expectations. Then the next film you wrote, Roxanne, was a very different creation – still very, very funny, but with a very vulnerable romanticism.
It wasn’t a difficult thing for me at all as a writer. I never really knew who I was with those early comedies or what exactly I wanted them to be, so by the time I got to Roxanne I wasn’t thinking, “How dare I?” It was more like, “Oh, this’ll be really good.” I have, stupidly sometimes, never been afraid of moving on. In fact, most of the time it’s all I’ve been able to do.
Roxanne is an updating of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac. What attracted you to this material?
I was looking at my career in movies so far and I thought, “What is it that my movies so far have not had?” And then I answered myself, “Aha! Story!” Cyrano is one of the great stories, one of my favorites. I figured, “If I have a story that I can go along with, I think I can write the jokes.” So that’s what made me pick it. I felt like it had a great skeleton.
J.P. Dunleavy once said, “Writing is a way of turning your deepest pain into money.” You don’t strike me as a man wanting for money or necessarily drowning in deep pain. Why write at all, let alone in so many different styles and arenas?
No, no. I don’t do it for money at all. And I don’t think I’ve got any more “deep pain” than anyone else in the world. (Laughs) I do it because I deeply enjoy it. It’s really a way for me to enter a fantastic world. It’s private. It’s something I can do anywhere. I really believe the time to write a novel – or to write anything, that you’re not earning a living from – is when you have something to say. The joy of writing Shopgirl is that I had something to say. The joy of writing Pleasure Of My Company is that I had something to say. That’s true for all of these things. When I say “something to say,” I mean it very loosely; I couldn’t even tell you exactly what I was trying to say with these things. There’s no secret message or anything specific, but there is a wellspring of thought, an idea that I somehow tapped and made flow easily.
Your stand-up was very often about the absurd elasticity of words. Your films and plays are, necessarily, very dialogue-driven. Your prose? Very little dialogue.
(Smiling) I know.
The smile tells me this is a very conscious choice. So . . .?
It’s the strangest thing. When I’m writing a novel, I always think to myself, “I’m really not very good with dialogue. Blah blah blah . . .” Then I think, “Wait a minute! You wrote three plays.” (Laughs) I don’t know what the difference is. I guess I find long passages of dialogue in a novel to be . . .I know I get lost when I’m trying to read them. I forget who’s speaking. And then, dialogue’s either got to be real – which can be boring, the way people really talk – or it has to be seriously edited into paragraphs – which is artificial. I mean I know some writers are masters of dialogue, but that’s not me. I kind of go around dialogue as much as I can. I like the prose aspect of writing in a novel. That’s what appeals to me.
What are some challenges you face as a writer?
One of the hardest things to write – maybe not the hardest, but always problematic for me (and a lot of writers, I think) – is a happy ending. You have to be so careful that it doesn’t ring false. I mean the point of my novel Pleasure Of My Company is the ending, but that ending can never be, “Oh, thanks for reading the book; here’s your happy ending.” The ending is implied throughout the entire book, and maybe it’s not the happiest ending, but it’s a good one. Things turn out if not well, then at least good. In Shopgirl, I thought, “I just cannot end this book with Mirabelle so sad and depressed, or there’s no point to the book.” With a sad ending, it would have just been a poem to sadness, and that’s not something I wanted to write. So I thought about what does happen in life is that you get hurt in love and then someone finds you or you find someone else and things hurt a little bit less for a while, but life always goes on. Usually, you find someone more appropriate, which is what happens in Shopgirl and, even, Roxanne. That’s what feels true to me, and what I like to write about.
But there is sadness in your work. Going back to where we started, these are characters who are looking to belong somewhere they probably never will because they haven’t a clue as to who they really are themselves or what they need. There always will exist for them “a space between.” Have you lived in that space too, or is it merely something you’ve observed?
I think that there sometimes is just sadness in being alive. Even when you’re ecstatic, there is still – somewhere in your mind – the awareness that even this will be short-lived, that if the greatest joy you ever know somehow endures, it’s still going to end. So that sadness just seems to drop on you in quanta. How do you deal with that? I remember when I was getting divorced many years ago, I was really depressed and I had some advice for myself finally: “Look, take a half-hour every day and just feel sad.” So I thought, “OK, that’s what I’m going to do.” And the rest of the advice was, “The rest of the hours in your day, just shove it out of your mind.” “OK, that’s what I’m going to do.” So it’s 5 p.m., and I sit down and I’m letting this sadness kind of come over me and I’m settling in for a solid half-hour and then not five minutes have gone by and I’m thinking, “Boy, that picture over there on the wall’s crooked.” You can’t just will sadness – will it away or will it to appear. Sadness is often delayed. Sadness often arrives unexpectedly. You can’t control it.
It’s been a decade since you were front and center in a film, since there’s been “A Steve Martin Movie,” rather than a movie that Steve Martin appears in or lends his voice to. How much of a hold does film acting have for you these days?
Well, acting is fun. It’s difficult, the process of making a movie, but I don’t want to give up acting. I enjoy it. The only battle is to keep the hours down. If a studio had its way, they’d have you working 14 hours a day, every day. As you get older, your life actually becomes more important than your career, believe it or not. But I like doing comedy. It’s a real and genuine and satisfying creative process, and as I become sort of less interested in acting, I believe I’ve actually gotten better at it. I just don’t worry about all of it as much as I used to. Sometimes when you let all of that stuff go, you actually start to get really good. We’ll see…