Steve Martin, shown here in a publicity shot for his 2010 novel wearing one of the most awful pair of eyeglass frames I have ever seen.

Last night was “A Conversation with Steve Martin” at the Palace in Albany, though for some it was more of an opportunity to clap for catchphrases and ask some of the most confounding questions this side of “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

Martin, who has been a stand-up comedian, movie star, screenwriter, playwright, novelist, musician, and everything in-between, came to discuss his career as an artist and his numerous ventures and forays. He also has a new novel out, An Object of Beauty, which has been well received by most outlets (including the New York Times).

Unfortunately, if you were there last night, you would not have known this book even existed. In fact, you would not have known that Martin was a novelist at all if not for a question from a friend of mine in the audience – Sally Block – who asked him about his decision to take the role of the male lead in the film adaptation of his novella Shop Girl. Instead, the focus was placed on his early comedy (despite Martin’s repeated assertions that he’s been finished with stand-up comedy since 1983) and on his memoir of that period, Born Standing Up.

Part of the reason is that the moderator, WAMC‘s “Roundtable” host Joe Donahue, made no secret of the fact that he was an unashamed fanboy. He practically bounced onto the stage at the beginning of the evening, awkwardly stumbling through bad jokes in an attempt to establish himself as worthy of being in the presence of his image of Martin. He then shared his love of Martin’s comedy work, which made clear from the onset where Donahue would steer the rest of the conversation.

The other reason for the manner in which the evening played out likely has to do with the controversy surrounding Martin’s talk at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan last November. Martin appeared to talk about his book and, after going into an in-depth discussion with the moderator about the New York art world (the setting of the novel), was given a note asking if talk could turn to his earlier work on shows such as “Saturday Night Live” because some members of the crowd had become restless. Martin was obviously perturbed; even more so when the Y refunded money to patrons who bought tickets to a literary discussion and complained that he didn’t walk out with a fake arrow through his head while yelling out “excuuuuuuuuuuse me!”

Such is the blessing and the curse of being Steve Martin. To call him an artist is to minimize how much work he’s put into so many different mediums. As mentioned earlier, he’s garnered acclaim for virtually every venture he’s embarked upon, which is a testament both to his natural brilliance and a work ethic that would be intimidating were he not so blaise and humble about it. A problem arises, however, when faced with a contemporary 21st Century audience that compartmentalizes its entertainment. In their minds, Martin fits into a very small pocket of their childhood memories, and if he deigns to venture outside of it they react with either sarcastic indifference or outright hostility. That’s exactly what happened at the Y, and it is unfortunately what may have happened last night at the Palace had the event taken a different course: one that it should have taken for Martin’s sake, but didn’t for the audience’s.

As a result, no books were mentioned other than Martin’s Born Standing Up; much to his chagrin, as he attempted to give Donahue numerous subtle hints to mention his other works (each time Donahue said “in your book,” Martin would reply with “which one?”). Unfortunately, subtlety doesn’t appear to be Donahue’s strong suit in this sort of environment. Martin’s work as a playwright was given even less time, as I can’t recall it given anything more than a literal brief mention during Martin’s introduction.

After less than ninety minutes, microphones were passed to the audience for a Question and Answer period. Some of the questions were appreciative enough, but some ranged from embarrassing to downright baffling. One audience member asked, verbatim, “if you could do a one man show, who would it be and why?” Martin’s response was the same as mine, as we both responded with a simultaneous “…what?” The audience member helpfully explained, after the fact, that he meant the sort of thing where someone does a one-man show in the role of another character, a la Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight. It did provide for an amusing moment, however, when after explaining that he wouldn’t have interest in such a thing because his strength was never in doing voices or impressions, he thanked the audience member for his question “which,” Martin added, “quite frankly, was just okay.”

Later in the evening, another woman rambled for several minutes and was interrupted (wisely) by an interesting anecdote that Martin was able to pull out of the ether. After her setup came the question “what was the first song you played on the banjo?”

Yet another asked him to assist in reveling in a false sense of superiority over pop culture, a request which Martin sternly refused.

“There are plenty of critics for that,” Martin said. “I don’t think artists should be in the business of criticizing other artists.”

An appreciative portion of the crowd applauded.

There were other frustrating moments, to be sure, but on the whole it was fascinating to hear Martin talk of things like craft and creativity. His description of the difference between the process of writing films and writing novels, the nigh impossible task of writing a “funny novel” in the sense we apply to screenplays (my roommate and fellow writer Stephen Henel rightfully pointed out that only a handful of folks such as Terry Pratchett have been able to approach anything resembling an accomplishment in this area), and other forays into areas other than what was intended were enthralling.

Moreover, even in the most awkward of moments, his reactions came across as nothing less than genuine, which is why an event such as this works well with someone like Martin. With others it would have devolved into a shallow celebration of times past. Martin, on the other hand, has such an earnestness and likability to everything he does that even a subtle jab at a question came across as kindhearted and sincere. It also helps that the man is a genius, and in the way that is intended rather than the manner it is so haphazardly applied in today’s environment of instant gratification with no concern for context or artistic value.

“A Conversation with Steve Martin” simply isn’t enough. A hundred might not be. I am thankful, however, for the one hundred and twenty minutes he spent in our city, and I am glad that we showed him a greater kindness and appreciation than other locales such as the infamous 92nd Street Y.

In short: Steve Martin, you’re welcome, you magnificent bastard.

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8 Responses to Having a conversation with Steve Martin

  1. Marcie says:

    If I were there, I would’ve told him I enjoy his hilarious twitter, and also would’ve mentioned I became a Steve Martin fan when I saw SUNY Albany’s production of Picasso at the Lapine Agile.

    • Marcie - Yay! I had twenty questions for him myself, but unfortunately did not get called on. Hopefully he’ll come back so I can ask them.

      By the by, they’re all about “Bringing Down the House.”

  2. Gray Cat says:

    I would have asked him..”what the hell WAS that thing?”

  3. sandra d says:

    I won your tickets and thanks! I enjoyed the show and took my son who does magic so he was interested in Martin’s comments about his early performances as a magician. Martin has a brilliant mind and his intellect came through. Thanks!

  4. I just read “Born Standing Up” over the weekend and enjoyed it very much. I read “Shopgirl” several years ago (and saw the movie) but have never seen any of Martin’s standup. Despite that, the book was really fascinating – it was amazing to me how HARD he worked at his comedy. He truly treated it as an art form. I’m not sure how true that is of the comics we see on Comedy Central today.

  5. KQ says:

    It was quite an evening. I really enjoyed Martin’s intelligent discussion of his approach to his comedy. He is funny because he is smart and that is certainly refreshing. I personally have no patience for comedians like Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, et al. I just don’t think they are smart-funny.

    Martin’s humility is also gratifying. He would probably dispute my last comment because of his statement that there are enough critics. I understand that the person asking that question was trying to get Martin to look down on others that seemingly have less talent. I was so impressed by his answer to that. That being said, the man asking that question sat right behind me. He ran to the microphone when given the chance and his “superfandomhood” was not all that different from the host. I think it was the best night of his life. This brought me to question who would be that person on stage for me, that would make me jump out of my skin to ask a question. I still don’t have the answer.
    What I took the most away from, that I will probably write more about later, was the journey aspect of his career. While the host and audience couldn’t seem to find their way out of the 70’s, Martin continually referenced the amount of time it took to grow and learn. I often think that I should have accomplished more in my twenties. Martin’s twenties seemed to be a practice run for his thirties and beyond. He was practicing pretty damn hard, but it was practice none-the-less. It inspired me to be more disciplined in my practice and to give myself a break on my expectations (and measurement) of success.

    Other than that, I noticed how shiny his shoes were. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I was there with my father, who a appreciates a well shined pair of shoes, and we both agreed, compared to the host (and his beat up shoes), Steve Martin just shined, shoes and all ; )

  6. Sally says:

    I didn’t want to ask anything until that woman from the book club said she’d read “Shopgirl” a pithy 3 times. You call that dedication? Bah. I’ve read it 12 times! I really wanted to ask if there was anything he’d change about the movie adaptation, but I didn’t want to offend.

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