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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Steve Martin: The Television Stuff DVD Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson

Steve Martin is one of the most beloved and iconic talents in American comedy.  Until now, however, his body of work on television has been largely unavailable on DVD. That all changed on September 18, 2012, with the release of Steve Martin: The Television Stuff from Shout! Factory and SOFA Entertainment.  From the stand-up act that made him a comedy rock star (of which only two complete performances were ever recorded, both included in this set) to his four joyfully twisted NBC sketch comedy specials, his Oscar-nominated short film and a jewel box of additional comic bits, The Television Stuff finally delivers one of the most unique and treasured eras in Steve Martin’s celebrated career.  The set was made in collaboration with the celebrated actor, comedian, author, playwright, producer and musician, and will feature never-before seen videos. 

 

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

Before Steve Martin was The Jerk or the go-to guest host for “Saturday Night Live”, and before all of his family movie domination, he was just an off-beat comic trying to refine his act that usually involved props, balloon animals, juggling,and playing his banjo.  His “wild and crazy guy” persona would come later as Martin’s prominence continued to rise as his audiences grew.  His performing career basically started at Disneyland where he passed out maps to guests and later worked in the magic shop.  Bitten by the performing bug, Martin joined the comedy troupe at Knott’s Berry Farm and would later get his big break working as a writer for “The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour” (for which he won an Emmy).  From there he would also write for “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour”, and then “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.”  As time went on, Martin was allowed to appear in the variety show sketches he wrote for and his popularity started to grow.
By the mid-1970s, Martin was starting to become successful as a stand-up comic and he attracted the attention of “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson (one of his appearances is in this set).  He was very popular and he even became a frequent guest host of the show which was an odd but funny fit.  If you haven’t seen his awkward yet real and hilarious interview with Richard Pryor, then you should check it out on YouTube.  It was during “Saturday Night Live’s” second season that he first appeared and was on the show so many times that many people still believe that he was part of the original “Not Ready for Prime-time Players.”  By this point, Martin was one of the biggest (if not the biggest) stand-up comedians working.  He was no longer doing clubs as he was filling arenas and stadiums and putting out Platinum-selling comedy albums that won him back-to-back Grammy Awards.  Growing up in the seventies, I remember Martin primarily from his many entertaining appearances with The Muppets and also from his hit single “King Tut” which was not only funny but very catchy too (and also included in this set).
It’s the shows during that period that this set from Shout Factory covers, as we get his many appearances on television and a couple of his stand-up shows during that decade.  Some of these appearances are from the time before he hit the big time and some of them occurred after he was already starring in his own movies.  In addition to his specials, we also get to see his many short television appearances where he was either a guest on a show or he was receiving an award.  These are also a lot more recent than the television specials which gives the viewer a nice breadth of work to enjoy.
Here are the specials and appearances that are included in this set:
On Location with Steve Martin (Originally taped October 31, 1976) – This first special was recorded at the Los Angeles Troubadour theater for HBO.  This special is one my favorites in this set because it’s funny and fascinating to see Martin at the beginning of his career.  At this point, he was still working out the kinks of his set and testing out his unique brand of non-conformist comedy on his audience.  It’s his approach to comedy that sets him apart from other comics.  As he once said, ”What if there were no punch lines?  What if there were no indicators?  What if I created tension and never released it?  What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax?  What would the audience do with all that tension?  Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime.  But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.”  By twisting the joke, or ignoring the punchline, Martin kept audiences at first puzzled and then appreciative of seeing someone try something new and different.  His proclamation that he was a “professional” comedian who was anything but was what was so funny.  This special set up the mainstays of his future shows as it contains props like bunny ears, funny noses, balloon animals, along with magic tricks and him playing the banjo. Henry Winkler even makes a guest appearance here.
Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy (Originally aired November 22, 1978) – Instead of doing another stand-up special, Martin changed gears for his next special and instead offered a bunch of sketches.  They kind of reminded me of “Saturday Night Live” sketches but they are little bit more surreal.  Skits like the one where he’s a turtle riding cowboy or one about ballet parking showed how far Martin was willing to go to get some laughs.  Most of these sketches are really funny and they include the introduction of his “love god” persona, buying an upside-down car, a public service message about dump preservation, talk of parental abuse and money littering, scenes from “Famous Doorslams,” tennis and skiing scenes, as well as seeing Martin as a boy scout leader, and more.  This special also features appearances by Johnny Cash, Philip Baker Hall, and Rance Howard.
Steve Martin: Comedy Is Not Pretty (Originally aired February 14, 1980) – This time around, the setup is a look behind the scenes of his special where an abusive director (Peter Graves) angers his underling named Igor (Marty Allen) who then decides to swap the special’s script with one of his own.  Of course his script is crazy so the humor in this special is a little more out there than the earlier specials.  This time the skits include Martin acting out the song “El Paso” with a bunch of chimps, an overzealous dry cleaning fanatic, a drunk steamroller driver, a homeowner that’s found a way to beat inflation, the return of the “love god” (along with Joyce DeWitt), a challenged Olympic diver, an investigative reporter who is doing a piece on “60 Minutes,” and more.  This special offers a lot more star power than the earlier ones since this one has Carl Reiner, Richard Deacon, Regis Philbin, Meredith MacRae, and a very young Paul Reubens before he became Pee Wee Herman.
All Commercials (Originally aired September 30, 1980) – This special is all about parodying commercials and it’s easily the weakest special in this set.  As someone who hates watching commercials, the last thing I want to do is watch a special filled with them even if they are parodies.  Not only that, but these aren’t that funny overall although there’s a few exceptions in here like Martin as an advertising executive trying to see Okra Cola and a commercial for a vague woman’s product.  Martin is barely even in this special although he wrote a lot of it.  The other skits include ones for flesh colored toilet paper for shaving cuts, a bra that unhooks really quick, an unusual motivational book, Truman Capote jeans, and more.  In one aspect, this special was ahead of its time since it featured some real life commercials and served as the precursor to later shows that followed the same concept.  There’s also a performance by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a stand-up routine by Robert Klein.  The guests for this special include George Scott, Paul Reubens, and Avery Schreiber.
Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever (Originally aired November 25, 1981) – Since many of the earlier specials were very similar to “Saturday Night Live” it made perfect sense to do it right by having all of the SNL performers and writers work on this special and have it produced by Lorne Michaels.  It was a fantastic decision, since not only does Martin work well with the cast, but they are so good that they make it even better than Martin trying to shoulder the weight alone.  When you’ve got Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, and special appearances by Gregory Hines, Eric Idle, Lauren Hutton, Lynn Redgrave, and Tom Davis.  The skits include Martin and Aykroyd reprising their “Wild and Crazy” guys who are on the hunt for chicks, including John Belushi in drag, Aykroyd plays his game show host, the American String Quartet has to contend with Martin trying to spice up their segment with his lasso and banjo, Martin’s take on The Elephant Man, Eric Idle as a television host investigating whether or not dinosaurs built Stonehenge, and an amazing dance routine between Martin and Gregory Hines.  Another highlight is Martin’s closing segment just what he is thankful for.
Homage to Steve (1984) – This special opens with the very funny and Oscar nominated short film “The Absent-Minded Waiter” which stars Martin as the world’s worst waiter with Buck Henry and Terri Garr star as the couple who have him as their server.  The next part is a bit about comedians asking Martin for comedy advice.  The comedians seeking guidance include David Letterman, Alan King, Henry Youngman, and musician Paul Simon.   This segment leads to Martin playing them his live stand-up concert that took place at the Universal Amphitheatre on September 18, 1979 to show them how it’s done.  That concert showed Martin at the apex of his stand-up career and serves as a nice bookend to his early appearance at the Troubadour.  Unfortunately, most of the comedy routines in the 1979 concert are the same as the ones from the Troubadour.  In the three years from that earlier show, Martin had continued to do the same act that included the juggling, balloon animals, happy feet, banj0-playing, and the props, but had included a few new ones such as leading the audience in reciting crazy things, his musings on cats, and best of all, his closing performance of “King Tut” where he is once again joined by Henry Winkler.  By this point, his audience was huge and far more enthusiastic about his routine than the one at the Troubadour, but I think I still prefer the early performance more.  It was fresher then and you could sense that he was still taking risks and it was groundbreaking at that point.  By the time this concert at the Universal Amphitheatre occurred, it was old hat and he knew the audiences were going to respond to the routines since he had been doing it for years with little variation. The new  ”King Tut” addition was fantastic though.
Disc 3: Bits and Pieces – This is about an hour of various snippets of footage of Martin as a guest on other shows or getting an award that spans between 1966 to 2005.  I really enjoyed many of these performances.  In fact, some of these are even better than the specials!  I especially liked his acceptance speeches where his dry sarcastic delivery and utter lack of humility are always hilarious.  I also loved This bit on “The Great Flydini” on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and his “Holiday Wishes” sketch on “SNL”.  I wish we would get more of that Martin in the movies.  In addition to these snippets, we also have an option to hear Martin talk about each one which was filmed recently.
  • Steve’s Lifetime Achievement Acceptance Speech  The American Comedy Awards (2000)
  • Steve Plays the Banjo in his 1st Television appearance -  Dusty’s Attic (1966)
  • Music Video: “What I Believe”  from The Steve Martin Brothers Album (1981)
  • Music Video: “Freddie’s Lilt”  from The Steve Martin Brothers Album (1981)
  • Las Vegas Act Parody  The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson (9/19/74)
  • Jean-Pierre Louey: The French Johnny Cash The Johnny Cash Christmas Special (1978)
  • Steve Martin’s Holiday Wishes Saturday Night Live (12/6/86)
  • Ode to a Loved One  Saturday Night Live (5/20/89)
  • Steve’s Penis Beauty Créme  Saturday Night Live (9/24/94)
  • Steve’s Tribute to Gene Kelly  AFI Lifetime Achievement: A Tribute To Gene Kelly (1985)
  • Best Actor In A Comedy Acceptance Speech  The People’s Choice Awards (1992)
  • The Great Flydini  The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson (5/6/92)
  • Steve’s Paul Simon Tribute  The Kennedy Center Honors (2002)
  • The Making of The Steve Martin Appearance  The Late Show With David Letterman (12/1/95)
  • Steve’s Acceptance Speech  The Mark Twain Prize For American Humor (2005)

Video (2 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

For those people who have only grown up experiencing high definition broadcasts, they are going to be shocked to see what footage from the seventies and eighties looks like.  The video quality for this set is all over the place with some parts looking very rough and others very good, but all of them have been presented in their original aspect ratio which for almost all of them is 1.33:1 full screen.  The newer the program, the better it looks but even at its worst, it looks decent and I’m just glad that Shout Factory has made this missing footage available.  The snippets on Disc 3 are window-boxed for a 16:9 frame.  Expect the usual defects from old footage like trails, grain, noise, bad lighting, and colors that bleed together and they’re here but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars) 

Steve Martin: The Television Stuff’s Dolby 2.0 track fares better than the video, with clean and clear sounding dialogue throughout the set.  Even the really old clips from the sixties sound good.  This set doesn’t offer any closed captioning or subtitles so be aware of that if you are in need of those.  Much like the video, the quality of the audio improves as the material gets more recent.  The audio helps take the sting out of the rough video parts.

Extras (2 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

All of the footage on Disc 3 could be considered bonus features, including Martin’s retrospective thoughts.  Shout Factory seems to only view “Steve’s Comments” and the included essay, “Dare to Be Silly: Watching Steve Martin” by Adam Gopnik as extras for some reason, so I’ll base my score for this section per their wishes.  Martin’s comments for each of the clips is interesting but a little dry.  He warms up a little as time goes on but he seems a lot more reserved nowadays yet just as funny if he decides to be.   

Summary (3 out of 5 stars) 

As a longtime fan of Steve Martin, I was very happy to watch this release from the Shout Factory.  They went to a lot of effort to find a lot of obscure Martin material that spans decades and they did a great job with it.  While the video and audio could be better, they did the best the could with the source material they could.  There’s a lot of funny bits in this set and it’s been attractively packaged as well.  Audiences today are no longer exposed to the kind of variety shows that were so popular in the seventies so this is a time capsule of sorts of a different time.  There may still be HBO comedy specials but none of them have the same kind of loose and improvisational feeling as these early ones do.  If you only know Steve Martin from his films from the nineties onward where he is either a family man or Inspector Clouseau, then you should do yourself a favor and see “the wild and crazy guy” from his youth.  His non-conformist anti-comedy approach was revolutionary and yet still funny at the same time.  Not all of these bits work, but there is still plenty in here to make you laugh quite a bit like I did.
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