4/5/12 - steve martin quits stand-up

In today's excerpt - in the late 1970s, comedian Steve Martin, who had labored for years in obscurity, reached a level of success with his stand-up act that was unprecedented in comedy. But he was unprepared for the crush of this success, and left stand-up at the peak of his popularity:

"In his peak years of 1978 and '79, Martin played outdoor amphitheaters and twenty-thousand-seat coliseums, sometimes two shows a night. He was outdrawing even the top rock groups of the era. His opening acts, frustrated at having to perform for thousands of Martin fans with arrows through their heads, sometimes left the stage in tears. The intensity of his fans often bothered Martin as well; people in the crowd would yell out his punch lines, throwing off his timing. (Martin needed structure in his act; he hated to ad-lib.) 'It was a very serious job to him, and it became very stressful,' says Maple Byrne, his road manager during those years. 'He had created a monster. It had gotten past the point of where you could do what you were there to do well.' Lorne Michaels thought Martin's manager was partly to blame, trying to squeeze too much out of him. 'Bill McEuen kept him working, [telling him,] 'If you stop, you'll lose everything,' says Michaels. 'I remember one Tuesday night, late, he called me. This was like 1979. I said, 'Where are you?' He said, 'Terre Haute, Indiana.' I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Tertiary markets.'

" 'It burned me out,' Martin acknowledges. 'But in order to keep your chops up, you gotta keep doing it, and if you take six months off, you go, where was I?' But the stress was getting to him, and he began to feel his act had peaked creatively. 'The responsibility becomes so great. I just recall thinking, it's not a show; it's another animal, and it's about being a success. I would be a little bit depressed. Something was getting to me. I kept thinking comedy was in the delivery, and the delivery was being controlled by the mass hysteria in a way. And I realized later—what I should have seen—was that this is not a comedy show; this is an event. And if I regarded it as an event, I might have come out of it happier.'

"Martin looked enviously at the relatively stable world of movies. He took a single nonsense line from his stand-up—'I was born a poor black child'—and built it into a screenplay, about the imbecilic adopted son of poor black sharecroppers who tries to make his way in the world. The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner, and released in December 1979, made a surprising forty-three million dollars at the box office and opened the door to his film career. 'I knew that while I was hot, I had better switch to something,' Martin says. 'I had no intention of turning over my act and getting a new act. I knew it was over when it was over. And I thought, now's the time. I'm hot enough to make a deal. You're on a train and it's going one way and another train passes and it's going another way, you gotta leap onto that other train when your paths are crossing.' Martin fulfilled the last of his road engagements and released one more less-successful album, The Steve Martin Brothers, in 1981. Then he quit stand-up for good."


Richard Zoglin


Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America


Bloomsbury USA


Copyright 2008 by Richard Zoglin


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