I owned two copies of Cruel Shoes when I was nine years old. It was the late nineteen-seventies and Steve Martin was approaching the peak of his significant, practically unprecedented stardom as a stand-up comic. Absolutely everyone within my pint-sized orbit knew he was someone who I considered an absolute favorite, largely thanks to his multitude of appearances on daytime talk shows, where he routinely indulged in goofy, absurdist, highly creative comedy bits that worked swell for someone still able to convey his age with nothing more than the fingers of two hands. There may have been a touch of irony to Martin’s appropriation of joke shop schtick, but he also prospered from the genuine giggles that could be elicited from a grown man (old enough to have white hair, for heaven’s sake) with a phony arrow through his head. By this time, hoary gags trailing a vaudevillian aura took on an nonthreatening audaciousness, a welcome sense of unabashed silliness that served as its own brand of counterculture celebration. Like all the finest practitioners of the comedy of cognitive chaos, Martin undergirded his material with a sneaky amount of control. The bits that seemed like extemporaneous frivolity were instead honed into shape, the words and syntax developed to artfully meld the perfectly logical with the zippily unexpected. Wild and crazy like a fox.

My fandom was pronounced enough (and tirelessly promoted by me) that both sides of my fractured family made sure that a copy of Cruel Shoes, Martin’s first book, was under their respective Christmas trees. Instead of feeling that the double gifting wasted a precious present in the cold childhood calculus of my holiday bounty, I was overjoyed to get two copies, as if my redundancy offered proof of greater devotion to Martin. In a way, I guess it did. One copy stayed at my usual home, and the other resided at my grandparents’ house, where I spent most weekends and school breaks. Before long, both copies were worn and battered, like they’d been used to pave a driveway instead of serve the needs of a kid anxious to give himself regular doses of comedy in the days before YouTube could deliver whatever a funny bone desired at the speed of a few successive clicks.

I remained completely committed to Martin for a long time, especially appreciating it whenever his sensibility was clearly coming through, as with his various collaborations with Carl Reiner. And the first time he took a sole screenwriter credit, it was arguable his finest representation onscreen. In some ways, the most unfiltered expression of his whirring mind seemed to manifest in his late night talk show appearances, with Martin largely refusing to treat them as bland promotional vehicles when he could instead experiment with mocking the form, pretending he was too busy to stay on panel with Johnny Carson only to tearfully admit the ruse moments later or unfolding the previously unknown hide-a-bed in the studio couch to watch a clip from his movie. Martin had given up stand-up by this point, correctly judging that he had nowhere to go but down once he was filling stadiums, and these little vignettes of network time became his one avenue to still play with that part of his creativity.

As Martin’s movie choices–perhaps by the necessity of the business–have largely gotten less interesting, he’s managed to tap into the best of himself in other ways: as a skilled playwright, as a crack songwriter, even as an inspired Twitter wielder, responding artfully to the inherent limitations of the form (I’m especially find of his series of tweets that imagined turning over his account to monkeys in a modern follow-up on the old infinite typewriters and Shakespeare theory). He’s also been a novelist of some acclaim, though I’ll confess that I never did crack one of those books. It wasn’t until he delivered a memoir that I reacquainted myself with Martin the author. Interesting enough, memoir isn’t usually a form I care for, but something about Martin’s Born Standing Up drew me in. Maybe it was because the book so clearly focused on the era when he was my unquestioned favorite, or maybe I simply trusted him to deliver something that was true and unsentimental. Whatever the motivation, it was a wonderful read. It will never be as dog-eared as my old copies of Cruel Shoes, but satisfaction isn’t always measured by the gradual tattering of pages.

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow

9 thoughts on “My Writers: Steve Martin

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