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Fri September 28, 2012
Steve Martin: From Standup To Movie Star And Writer
Steve Martin went from performing in an empty San Francisco coffee house to hosting the Oscars. In between, he spent 18 years as a stand-up comic — four of them, by his account, successful years.
In his memoir Born Standing Up, Martin chronicles those stand-up years, the childhood (including a brief career at Disneyland) that came before them, and the perils and pleasures of celebrity.
He was the star of such films as The Jerk, All of Me, Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood, LA Story, Father of the Bride, The Spanish Prisoner, Bowfinger and Bringing Down the House.
Martin has also established himself as a novelist. Shopgirl, the novel he published in 2000, was a best-seller.
He talks about why, at the height of his stand-up fame, he put that life behind him to take up acting and writing. He calls the book not an autobiography, but a biography of a guy he used to know.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Steve Martin has a new DVD set of some of his television work featuring standup and variety specials dating back to the '70s, as well as some more recent guest appearances, speeches and music videos. Here's Martin in a 1974 appearance on "The Tonight Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")
STEVE MARTIN: See, this is not a Vegas act. You know, I'm not Vegas. Places I play usually cost like $3 to get in, you know, and people are going: Gee, I've got $3, I think I'll throw it away.
Oh, I can come in here for $3? Oh OK. But in Vegas, it's like $15 to get in, you know, and there's a reason for that because the acts are really good. You're like, you go in, you pay the money, you sit down, and the opening act is usually like a singer, you know, and they really keep it moving. That's what you're paying for. You'd never - you can't understand what they say because it's going so fast, you know, but you're just entertained.
You're sitting there going - you know?
And they introduce you, they say: Hello, the (unintelligible) hotel here in Las Vegas is proud to introduce Johnny Duke(ph). Let's bring him out. Hey, (unintelligible).
(Singing) I gotta be me, I gotta be me.
DAVIES: The new DVD collection is called "Steve Martin: The TV Stuff." Martin started doing standup in the '60s. His first big break on TV was as a writer for the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." His career took off in a big way with his appearances on "Saturday Night Live." Steve Martin has also established himself as a screenwriter, novelist and playwright and an actor. His starring film roles include "The Jerk," "All of Me," "Roxanne," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Parenthood," "Father of the Bride" and "It's Complicated."
Terry has spoken to Steve Martin several times on FRESH AIR. This is from their 2008 conversation after the publication of his memoir, "Born Standing up."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Steve Martin, welcome back to Fresh Air. I love your new book.
MARTIN: Great to be here. Thank you. Thank you very much.
GROSS: I'd like you to open with a reading from the beginning of the book, and we've edited this slightly to make it just a little shorter for the broadcast.
MARTIN: Great. I'd be happy to.
(Reading) I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. 10 of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product.
(Reading) The course was more plodding than heroic. I did not strive valiantly against doubters, but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented. I didn't sing, dance, or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive.
(Reading) I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back until now. A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life, which inevitably touches upon my personal life and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away.
(Reading) In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes, they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream.
(Reading) I ignored my stand-up career for 25 years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Steve Martin reading from his memoir "Born Standing Up." You know, I guess I didn't realize how much you'd closed the door on your comedy years, how much there was like a before and after. It ended. You were done, and that was it.
MARTIN: Right. I - it was about 1981. I still had a few obligations left, but I knew that I could not continue, but I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to. But I did have something to go to, which was movies. And, you know, the act had become so known that, in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.
GROSS: Why would you have had to create an entirely new show?
MARTIN: Like I say, the act was really - there was a passage in the book which I cut because it was so hard to explain. But the act, essentially, besides all the jokes and bits and everything, was conceptual, and once the concept was understood, there was nothing more to develop.
It's like painting the same blank canvass over and over and over and over and over. Once the concept is known, you don't see - need to see two. And that was in the back of my head, that I was really done artistically with what I had created or pastiched.
GROSS: Now, you got your start working in Disneyland. You were living in Southern California, and you, when you were 10, you were selling guide books there. Then you later worked for a magic shop demonstrating magic tricks.
And I get the sense from your memoir that demonstrating those magic tricks, you know, hours a day and really getting them down because you were doing them so much that that gave you a sense that performance required a great deal of craft, that even comedy wasn't just a question of going out on stage and saying funny things, that there was enormous amounts of work and practice and thought that would have to go into it?
MARTIN: Well, that idea that you really had to work at this stuff didn't necessarily come from Disneyland. It - I mean, yes, in terms of presenting a trick, but having it so well-honed in your mind was really giving me a sense of security. It was, I don't want to go out there half-baked, and, you know, you'd learn that through the years.
You know, you do a magic show with a friend, and you rehearse it a couple of times, and, yes, every - all the timing has to be exactly perfect, but while you're out there, it's a different world. It's not your mirror. You have to make on-the-spot adjustments, but that's just, you know, whatever your entertainer does.
But actually, working at the magic shop really gave me a sense of comedy because it was all jokes. We did the tricks, but we had all these jokes. I had a friend, Jim Barlow(ph), who - you know, he was the guy I worked with there, but he had patter worked out, you know. He would go up to customers and say, may I take you money - I mean, help you? And, you know, call them suckers, and it was really funny and kind of friendly rude.
GROSS: What was your patter?
MARTIN: Oh, I just took all of Jim's patter.
MARTIN: I'm trying to think of other ones. Oh yeah, I'd say - somebody would buy something and would say, and because you are our 100th customer today, you get a free paper bag. You know, it's little silly things like that, but I am at Disneyland and 15.
GROSS: Right. Now your early act was a combination of banjo playing, juggling, magic tricks, and comedy, and some of that stayed in your later act, too, but it sounds like a vaudeville act.
MARTIN: Yes. I was very interested in vaudeville. It was the only sort of discipline that was a five-minute act on stage, which is what I really enjoyed and saw myself doing. And I bought books on it. I went to the Long Beach Pike, which was a carnival fair, you know for - it's really a place for drunken sailors to get tattoos. But there was also side shows. I was very interested in that. You know, there was these - oh, and there were these short acts.
There was - one of the employees at Disneyland that I worked with who was named Dave Stuart(ph), and he worked in vaudeville. And he did his act for me one day on the floor of the magic shop, and I - he had a couple of great gags. One was - that I actually used, and I asked him if I could use them because I was very strict about using any material that wasn't mine or that was taken from somebody else. Well, let's put it this way, I became strict. I wasn't strict at first.
There was one trick that - one joke that Dave Stuart did where he said and now - he had a glove, white glove in his hands, a magician's glove, and he said, and now, the glove into dove trick, and he threw it into the air, and then it hit the floor, and he just looked at it and, you know, said, for my next trick, and he went on. And it was the first time I saw comedy created out of nothing, of nothing happening. And I glommed on to that.
GROSS: But what you were doing, I think, is not only making comedy out of nothing but making comedy out of people's expectations, which you were going to fail to fulfill.
MARTIN: Well yes, exactly. And I really started that when I became a semi-professional, meaning I was working the local folk-music clubs, going around either working for free or for a week.
And I quickly decided that, you know, the material was, you know, good or weak or whatever, but I decided whatever it was, I was going to pretend like it was fantastic and how great am I, how great is what you're seeing. And I think that's what the audience tuned into because they couldn't believe that someone actually was that confident.
GROSS: With such weird, you know, like, bad material because some of the material was, like, consciously not funny.
MARTIN: Right. Well, I had one bit that I opened with. I'd say, and now, I would like to do the nose on microphone routine. And I would lean and then put my nose on the microphone and then stand and, you know, hold my arms out, like, ta-da.
And the laugh came not then but when I said, and next - you know, because nothing had happened and, you know, I found that you could laugh at something that happened 30 seconds ago now, only because you change the subject.
And at one point in my show - these are the local folk clubs around Orange County - I had trouble figuring out how to end, so I just dragged the ending out walking through the audience saying goodnight. It was so great. Thank you so much. I have to leave. I'm sorry. I have to leave. I have to beg off, and it went on for, you know, five minutes. And eventually, I could never end it, and I ended up taking the audience out into the street and walking around with them.
DAVIES: Steve Martin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2008. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2008 interview with Steve Martin. There's a new DVD box set of his television appearances over the years, it's called "Steve Martin: The TV Stuff."
GROSS: When you started in comedy, it was before the comedy club era.
GROSS: So you couldn't play the comedy clubs; there weren't any. But there are a lot of - like folk music clubs. Did the fact that you had the banjo in the act give clubs the opportunity or the excuse to hire you, even though you weren't a conventional musician?
MARTIN: Well, looking back, I never thought of that, but I think they - the clubs would hire comedians. They were always the opening act, unless they were big names. But, you know, I put the banjo in, I put the magic in to fill time because I didn't have enough comedy material, and all that just stayed.
But I liked to play the banjo, and it - like I say, it filled time, and I could get - eventually, I worked out bits with it. I love doing my surreal sing-along that had words that no one could follow.
GROSS: Let's play an example of that. And this is the one, be courteous, kind, and forgiving. Before we here it, tell us about writing it. Yeah.
MARTIN: Well, there's absolutely. As much as I remember, I just thought, I want to sing a song that starts normal and ends crazy, and that's all that was.
GROSS: Not only starts normal. It starts so kind of like - aphorisms. It's just like...
MARTIN: Yes, yes, tender. It starts tender.
GROSS: Tender and aphoristic, and then it gets, it gets nuts. But let's hear it because you recorded this on your first album. So this is Steve Martin from his first recording, "Let's Get Small."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MARTIN: You know, folks, when I was a kid, I was very close to my grandmother. And she used to sing a song to me when I was just so high, and it's always meant something to me. I'd like to do it for you right because it does have meaning in today's world.
Even all these years, you know, this - even during the hip drug days, you know, when everybody is listening so cool and everything has double meaning, it's a little simple tune, would keep coming back to me. I think it kind of guided me through those years.
MARTIN: I'd like to do the song for you right now. I think it might have a little meaning for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: (Singing) Be courteous, kind and forgiving. Be gentle and peaceful each day. Be warm and human and grateful, have a good thing to say. Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike. Be witty and happy and wise. Be honest and love all your neighbors. Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.
MARTIN: (Singing) Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus. Be dull and boring and omnipresent. Criticize things you don't know about. Be oblong and have your knees removed.
MARTIN: (Singing) Be tasteless, rude, and offensive. Live in a swamp and be three-dimensional. Put a live chicken in your underwear. Get all excited and go to yawning festival. OK, everybody.
GROSS: That's Steve Martin from his first album "Let's Get Small." He's written a memoir about his days as a standup comic, and that's called "Born Standing Up."
On your first album, "Let's Get Small," you do a bit about the spotlight. And before we actually hear the recording of it, I want you to tell us about the first time you did it.
MARTIN: Oh, I just had this - when I worked at Disneyland, I worked with a woman named Irene(ph) who was from Biloxi, Mississippi - Missouri - Mississippi. And she had an expression that she used all the time. She'd say, well, excuse me for living. It was just kind of funny. And it always stuck in my head, so I thought, I think I could use something - do something with that.
And so I told the spotlight operator, I said, whatever I say, do not change the spot. I'm going to ask you to change the spotlight to blue. Do not change it to blue. I had a friend that night up in the - next to the booth, John McEwan, whom I still work with, we're recording a banjo album, as a matter a fact. And I started telling the spotlight operator to change the spot. And...
GROSS: This is on stage you're telling him this?
MARTIN: On stage, I started telling him.
MARTIN: And at one point - this is the first time I ever did it on stage. And at one point, he was so convinced that I'm - was sincere, he started to reached to change it, and John said no, don't. I don't think he wants you - anyway. So this is the bit.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. So this is the spotlight bit, and this is Steve Martin, and he has a new memoir...
MARTIN: By the way, I don't stand behind any of these routines 40 years later, but go ahead.
GROSS: OK, so here's Steve Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
MARTIN: Can I have a little mood lighting on this, please? I'd like to do a thing now that's kind of a departure for me. It's kind of more into this - it's mood lighting, like blue spot or something. Hello?
MARTIN: Nobody back there? That's OK. Thought there might be somebody back there. OK, I guess, I figured, closing night, you know, that that does not make any (beep) difference.
MARTIN: Kind of pissed off about this because we've been going on all week, and I'd think, by now, we'd have it under control. But I don't know, it's - you see, this club has been in business about five or six years. First, actually, the Troubadour at first, and then it became the Boarding House. And then, you know, they still have a lot of a hippies working here. And...
MARTIN: And I can understand the drug thing, you know. So they feel that it's more important to take the drugs than to do a good show for the people.
MARTIN: You know, I'm really up to hear with this - it's just a matter that I am on stage, and it's my ass out here, you know what I mean? And I come out, and I'm giving, and I'm giving, and I'm giving, and I keep giving, and I give some more, and I make a simple request. I say, hey, could I possibly have a blue spot? But I guess the lighting crew feels they know a little bit more about show business than I do.
MARTIN: Although I've been in the business a few years. And I think I know what works best. I'm sorry. But I am angry. I come out here, and I can't get a little cooperation from the backstage crew. Excuse me.
GROSS: That's Steve Martin from his first album "Let's Get Small." Now, people seem to be with you throughout this. Were they already hip to what you were doing?
MARTIN: They were in San Francisco because that was a home base for me. And I was really stupid in that it took me awhile to figure out, oh, this act doesn't work everywhere. I was just reading in the book before we started the passage about the Hub Pub Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a members only, bring-your-own-booze, you know, club that I just died. I just died so badly, and I was just rereading it.
I remember one night, I was on stage getting no laughs, and a guy said to his date, I don't get any of this, really loud. And I heard it. The whole audience heard it. It actually made me laugh because I didn't either.
At that time, I was - it was going so badly. But then I would go to San Francisco and where the audience was younger and more with it and more stoned, and it would go great. And it took me so long to figure out, oh, it's a different type of audience.
I shouldn't be playing these other places. They're soul-killing to me. So the Boarding House and the Troubadour in L.A. were very good and the Ice House and different clubs around the country.
DAVIES: Steve Martin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2008. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's 2008 interview with comedian, actor and writer Steve Martin. There's a new DVD set of some of his television work, featuring standup and variety specials dating back to the '70s, as well as some more recent guest appearances, speeches and music videos. It's called "Steve Martin: The TV Stuff." Terry spoke to him when his memoir, "Born Standing Up," was published.
GROSS: Did you feel like you had kindred spirits in the performance world when you were getting started, who had a more, like, conceptual or avant-garde approach to what they were doing, like you?
MARTIN: Well, I'm trying to think. I just respected comedians, whether they were or they weren't, you know, from, you know, new or old - about Bob Newhart, I loved, and George Carlin was hilarious at the time and Bill Cosby. And there was a comedy magician, Carl Valentine (ph), who did an act of all magic tricks that didn't work. And it was, still is, one of the funniest things I've ever seen.
And of course, there was influence there, too, because, you know, he was already doing it, and I took that concept. I don't know if I took it from him, but I took that concept into gags and comedy routines.
But talk about kindred spirits, I thought I was alone. And that was uplifting. I thought, I'm the only one doing this, and then I saw "Saturday Night Live," and I thought, oh, oh no. There's somebody else doing it.
GROSS: Good thing how that worked out for you. I mean, you found your people there and your audience and fellow comics who were on the same wavelength.
MARTIN: Well, yeah, right, and I was so fortunate to have been invited into that group, too, because now, we were all one, or at least I - you know, they were on a roll. I was lucky to be accepted. Lorne Michaels has been a long-time friend, but I went in there, and then, my career exploded.
GROSS: I love the review that your father wrote of your first "Saturday Night Live" appearance, and this is in his news column in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors. He was the president of the association. And you want to quote the line, or should I read it?
MARTIN: You can go ahead, and I'll comment on that.
GROSS: He wrote, his performance did nothing to further his career.
GROSS: Of course, nothing could be further than the truth. But did that - like, what was your reaction when your father gave you a bad review?
MARTIN: Well, first, he felt terrible about it later.
GROSS: Well, he couldn't figure out beforehand that that was a bad thing to do?
MARTIN: That was my father. But he always thought he had to speak the truth. But, you know, when I was a kid, and I would listen to, let's say Little Richard, and I'd listen to Little Richard and say, God, he's great but - and I'd see photos of him and everything, and I'd think, what does his mother think when he's singing, wop-babalu-bop-doo-wop-bam-boom? Is his mother proud or embarrassed?
Well, I think my father - you know, he couldn't quite be proud of an unconventional showbiz act that he didn't quite understand. And I think he was kind of embarrassed by it among his friends, and I think this was a, you know, misguided effort to say to his friends look, I know it's not very good.
You know, but by that time, I had been so kind of alienated from my father that these negative comments and reviews were actually my encouragement. Like, I talk a moment in the book about being - I was a writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and I was going to - I had moved on to "Sonny & Cher," and I decided, I'm going to quit this because it's keeping me from my performing career.
I am going to go on the road. And I went to an agent in Hollywood, my agent, my writing agent. I said, I'm going to do this. He said, stick to writing. But I didn't take it as an insult or discouragement. I took it as encouragement because I saw it as, oh, this is that classic showbiz moment when you say, Jolie, you're never going to be a singer.
GROSS: It's good you'd seen all those movies.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So, was it hard for you to change your image from, like, the wild and crazy guy of the stand-up years when you decided to give up stand-up and divert your life to - professionally to movies?
MARTIN: Well, it took a long time, but I did know this: that one day, it will be forgotten. And so I just did what I was going to do, and there was this hangover effect of wild and crazy guy, wild and crazy guy.
And now, it's a dim memory, and I was able to transition into whatever it is I'm - you know, I'd say three different transitions I've been in my professional life. And it was actually with the film "Roxanne," that I wrote and performed in, and I sensed something new. Before, there was kind of celebrity - it's not worship, but the celebrity effect. But I sensed something new with that movie, which was respect.
GROSS: That was your, like, Cyrano de Bergerac film.
MARTIN: Yes. Exactly. Oh, I like this better.
DAVIES: Steve Martin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2008. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry speaking with Steve Martin. There's a new DVD box set of his television appearances called "Steve Martin: The TV Stuff." This is from Terry's 2003 interview with Steve Martin, when he'd published his novel "The Pleasure of My Company." She asked him about one of his essays, which had appeared in the New Yorker.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to mention an essay of yours that I particularly liked, and it was a personal essay about your late father.
GROSS: And, you know, it was about how he had wanted to act and had done some amateur acting when he was young and how you had, you know, kind of a rocky relationship. And one of the things you talk about is how you decided to take your parents out to lunches every Sunday so that you could get to know them better, and you realized that they were bickering all the time when you took them out to lunch, so you really weren't getting anywhere.
MARTIN: Right, they were contradicting each other. So I decided I would take them out alone, each - you know, one at a time.
GROSS: And that worked.
MARTIN: Without the other person there, I could get stories and, you know, anecdotes and opinions and attitudes that I never would have gotten if they'd been there together.
GROSS: I thought that was so smart to think of that. And then you also wrote about how your father, when he was basically on his death bed, said to you: You did everything I wanted to do.
GROSS: I thought: Wow, that's - what a zinger for...
MARTIN: Well, it's quite a moment, really.
GROSS: Yeah, did you ask yourself - did you ask yourself whether he would think it was OK to say that, you know, to write that? I guess one of the questions I'm asking is: Do you think the standard does or should change when someone is no longer with us about what's too private to say about them? Do you know what I mean?
MARTIN: Well, I did not feel that that was too personal. I was very particular about what I said. In fact, I ran the essay by my sister to get her opinions, anything that might be too personal, but I didn't think that was too personal because he was really demonstrating a kindness there at that moment.
GROSS: Because he'd been so critical, comparatively, in the past of you.
GROSS: Right. You haven't written a lot of personal stuff. Most of your stuff is, most of your writing is fiction or humor. And there's something that you wrote in an essay in the New York Times that really meant a lot to me. I mean, I wrote it down and stuck it in my computer so I could refer to it.
GROSS: I've mentioned it in a talk. And this was in the context of talking about why you decided to have a show of art from your art collection, something you used to be very, very private about. And you said: Being a celebrity can cause an accidental cheapening of the things one holds dear. A slip of the tongue in an interview, and it's easy for me to feel I've sold out some private part of my life in exchange for publicity.
I really thought that was so well-put, and I'm in the position, you know, of asking the questions, usually, and I know that that's always a possibility, do you know what I mean, that both the interviewer and the interviewee risk cheapening things. At the same time, I don't - I mean, I don't want that to happen, that's like the unintentional occasional result.
But, you know, I think you try on both ends to be really sensitive to that, but I thought you just put it so well.
MARTIN: Well, I think - you know, the problem with, you know, being interviewed as a celebrity is that for example you and I are talking now, we're talking on NPR, and it's a very special circumstance. It's much more detailed. It can be way more personal than, say, I would be on "Entertainment Tonight."
But - and so I'm willing, much more willing to talk about the private things in this circumstances, but what happens is this I might pay for three years from now in an interview on "Entertainment Tonight" because they will bring up something maybe, something I said that's personal.
Now actually that's kind of diminished because I'm on a nice stage of my career where, you know, I can get around, and there's no sort of, you know, crazy invasion of privacy or - and I also learned to keep relationships to myself because I realize that that kind of - I mean, I realized this a long time ago, that kind of focus on your personal life actually damages it.
GROSS: You know, at the same time, I'm sure when you're doing an interview, even if you just see it as a promotional interview, you want to be as interesting as possible. So then again there's the kind of tradeoff between, well, this will make it more interesting, on the other hand, it's personal, I'd just as soon not talk about it. So does that equation play out in your mind?
MARTIN: No, it doesn't.
MARTIN: It doesn't because there's almost no way for me to make an interview about a movie interesting, I've realized that. You know, I've listened to Howard Stern, and he always plays celebrities' interviews, and we all just sound ridiculous. And, you know, and I know that as I'm giving these interviews, I am that person who will be mocked because there's just - you know, it's just not ultimately that interesting, you know.
So you have to kind of make up things. And, you know, it's just a funny, funny business. It's like the worst day of your life, you know, when you have to go talk about the movie you've made.
GROSS: Oh, you're making me feel terrible.
MARTIN: Pardon me?
GROSS: You're making me feel terrible because...
MARTIN: No, no, it's not you. I'm talking about the soundbite industry.
GROSS: Do you get obsessive about things, where you really, once you get into it, you're into it?
MARTIN: Yes, but I think that's - there's other terms for that.
MARTIN: Well, yeah. Well, I remember an article in the New York Times years ago called "In the Zone," and he talked about when, for example when a basketball player is hot, and he's just sinking these, you know, baskets one after another. And they talked about people who are in the zone losing consciousness of time and that - or if you're - I mean, we've probably all been stuck with a computer problem, and you looked, and suddenly four hours have gone by while you're trying to solve it.
And that to me is what writing is. It just is so absorbing that time goes by. Time goes by quickly, or it stops.
GROSS: Yeah, but the problem is with writing, if time goes by quickly, and you don't like what you've written in that time, you feel like you've lost something. Maybe that doesn't happen to you.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I don't write unless I'm ready. So usually I find if you're in the zone, you usually like what you've written. And if I'm not in the zone, I generally don't write, I will edit at that point, using the - what we call the monkey mind.
GROSS: What do you mean?
MARTIN: Somebody gave that to me years ago, it was like the monkey mind. It was - you know, there is your creative mind, and then there is your monkey mind, and your monkey mind was really consciousness. You know, and the monkey mind should do the editing. It's the one that's not original. It's the one that's imitative. And that's just, you know, a term for doing the slave work of writing.
GROSS: Boy, the editor community is going to be very angry at that description.
MARTIN: No, I rely heavily on editors.
GROSS: You know, when you're very funny onstage and onscreen, as you are, people expect that you're just going to be, you know, a laugh riot when you speak in person, too. And did you have to deal with the expectation that you were just going to be, you know, a real cutup in person?
MARTIN: Well, you know, I guess a little bit, but sometimes I can be a cutup. You know, there's a...
GROSS: Oh, yeah. Right. No. I realize that.
MARTIN: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, I couldn't do in private what I did onstage. People would not want to be around me. You know, that hyper all the time. And, you know, I've kind of worked it out now, kind of figured out how to be.
GROSS: Well, you had the responsibility of having to be funny at the Academy Awards when you were hosting right after the start of the war in Iraq.
GROSS: How did you work through in your mind how to handle that?
MARTIN: I'll tell you. It goes back - I was working - 1963, I was working at a theatre doing comedy show at Knott's Berry Farm, California and, that day, Kennedy was assassinated and everyone was stunned and shocked and, of course, we weren't going to go on. And then the owner said, we're going to do the show, anyway. And we just couldn't believe it. We didn't even know how we'd get through it.
Well, to my surprise - I said, this is going to be the worst show ever. To my surprise, the audience was riotous that they wanted to laugh or something took hold of all of us and this memory of this tragic day stuck in my head and I knew somehow that this could be overcome once the show started and all I needed to do was to acknowledge in some way with exactly the right tone and then get on with it.
And it was a tough day because I remember, just before the show began, it was - I had just turned on the news for three minutes and turned it immediately off because it was one of the worst news days for our troops. And I - you know, I didn't want to be infected or know until later. And we went on and did some acknowledgements and then went through with the show and I really did feel - at one point, I think one of the writers - I had some great writers with me - said, they will be watching, meaning the soldiers will be watching. And that's when I thought, if I were they, I'd like to see a good, funny show.
GROSS: So how did you decide what your opening line should be? Because that's the real ice breaker.
MARTIN: Oh, that was - it was a line about - I looked around at the, you know, Oscar set, which is always, you know, really overblown and I think I said something about - well, I'm glad they cut back on all the glitz. And, you know, it was just that simple little release and then I just went on with the show. You know, just something you think of and it seems like the appropriate moment. It's not hilariously funny or anything, but it sort of gets you over that hump.
GROSS: Listen, thank you so much for talking with us.
MARTIN: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Steve Martin, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. There's a new DVD box set of his television appearances called "Steve Martin: The TV Stuff." Coming up, David Bianculli on the return of two Showtime series this weekend, "Homeland" and "Dexter." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.