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Actor, Comedian, Author Steve Martin MAG
Listen to the interview with Steve Martin.
Steve Martin is a Grammy- and Emmy-winning actor and comedian whose humor has remained sharp and relevant for decades. While he is best known for his acting and standup comedy, he is also a successful writer and musician. In 2000, Martin received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy in recognition of his influential career. More recently, his memoir, Born Standing Up, was one of Time magazine's Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007. His new movie, “The Pink Panther 2,” opens Feb. 6.
I am very critical of movies, and I was laughing hysterically during the screening of “The Pink Panther 2.” That being said, what legacy do you wish to leave?
I try not to think about legacy because it is all folly. If you study history, even recent history, you'll find many people who were quite significant in their time but are completely forgotten now. For example, I am surprised that even the stars I grew up with, like Humphrey Bogart, are not well known to young people anymore, and it seemed like they were going to be famous forever.
As far as my legacy, I hope people find my movies funny and will watch them years from now. And, in terms of writing, I hope that something remains that will not seem old-fashioned, that will still have a vibrancy to it 50 years from now.
It is so interesting to hear you speak after seeing the movie, since you speak so differently in “The Pink Panther 2.” What is the most gratifying moment you've had as an artist?
One of the most satisfying nights I ever had was at the premiere of my play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” I had never written a play before and it was a successful night, so I was thrilled. When we make something like a movie there's always some dissatisfaction, but as I watched the play that night I thought, I couldn't have done this any better.
Do you treat writing as a form of personal release? As a way to entertain others? Or as a means of self-expression? Or even something else?
I think it's all of those. It's definitely self-expression. You have to keep an eye on the reader, try not to be so smart that you bore people. These things are meant to be read. But mainly I get a thrill from writing because it's one of the few things I do that's not collaborative. Acting is collaborative because you are working with another actor, and it's almost like a two-man juggling team. You have to really be in sync. But writing is extremely personal, and that's the joy of it for me. I also love expressing complicated ideas clearly.
Many teenagers shy away from comedic writing. What makes comedy so difficult?
First, I am not aware that teenagers shy away from comedy writing. Most of the writers for shows like “Saturday Night Live” come straight from college. But maybe it's something they pick up or that develops a bit later, because there are plenty of young comedy writers.
The teen years are extremely serious and everything matters and every insult really hurts. I know there are cliques and bullying. And you don't yet understand that it will all go away. I always think back to my high school days and realize all the people who were so popular then are nowhere now and all the people who were steadfast and steady-going are somewhere. So high school doesn't necessarily translate to later in life.
I am very interested in writing. What advice do you have for people who are just trying to create original material?
Write as much as you can. And at this point I wouldn't worry about submitting it, but I would give it to those you trust and get their feedback. I would show it to friends and adults. For my book, I hired an independent editor so I could get an opinion from someone who wasn't a friend.
Many teens have already experienced tragedy or major difficulties in their lives. What would you consider your biggest challenge or regret?
Well, I haven't had any major tragedies, fortunately. I think probably the most difficult challenge was just the climb and rise in show business because I went through my entire twenties with some success as a comedy writer but not much as a performer. And you have to be kind of informed and naive at the same time. You have to be naive about how badly you are doing because if you were smart about it, you would quit. So the most difficult thing was to have perseverance.
What movies do you think every teen should see?
I haven't seen many recently. There is a very touching film called “Sixteen Candles,” written by John Hughes and starring Molly Ringwald. It's about a 16-year-old's birthday, and it handles the difficulties of teen life really well. And it has a beautiful thought to it. I always go back to the Bob Dylan line, “For the loser now will be later to win,” and I always think that relates to high school.
Well, the times they are a-changin', aren't they?
Yeah, right. I'd like to say to teenagers in high school, “Believe me, the social structure now that might make you unhappy will change. And even the most popular, or the most academic, or the smartest kids, will undergo changes as they get older and mature. So you haven't landed anywhere yet.”
Other than just being funny, what is the most important quality for an a comedian to possess?
I would say confidence, even if it is false.
Have you become any less inhibited due to your time performing?
Yes, but it's taken a long, long time. I was always very shy – I guess I still am a bit – but as I get older I think, What am I being shy for? You just grow weary of your own hang-ups.
Do you think that performing comedy over the years has helped you to better understand human nature, behavior, or the way people work?
Performing comedy has not, but acting has. Even though some of my movies are comedies, they have a heart, like “Father of the Bride” and “Roxanne.” Acting has helped me understand people, not only because you are acting as a character, but also because you are watching other actors work. That really helps you identify in life when someone is acting, not being true.
Is there one thing you would like audiences to walk away with after having seen “The Pink Panther 2”?
Yes. I would like them to feel happier than when they went in. [Laughs] I really mean that. I want them to have had a good time and laugh, and they might discuss a few jokes on their way home and say, “That was really funny when that happened.”
You are a comedian, an actor, a playwright, producer, author, artist, art collector, special commentator and more. So truly, you are a renaissance man. Which of these interests means the most to you?
What means the most to me changes through the years. There was a time when movies meant the most. But when I'm concentrating on a project, that's what means the most to me. Right now I'm doing an album – banjo songs I have written – with some really great performers like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Mary Black, and Tim O'Brien. And I'm writing a book about the art world. I think that's why I do so many different things – because I get very focused and interested in one thing at a time.
How do you think the original Pink Panther series differs from the movie?
Well, certainly because Peter Sellers is taller than me. [Laughs] I think my character is a little warmer. You know, he falls in love and gets his heart broken. I don't think they did that much in the original. It was just a different style. I can't say whether it is better or worse.
When you were a child, did you display any inclinations for comedy or acting? Was there a “eureka” moment when you knew you wanted to pursue this for the rest of your life?
When I was a child, I loved watching comedy on television. There were mostly old movies on with comedians like Laurel and Hardy, and that's what made me love comedy. But eureka moments … I can't say. There were so many. It was a gradual thing. I grew up with a general love of comedy.
What books do you think everyone should read while in high school?
That's a very hard one because what was right for me when I was a teen probably wouldn't fit. You know, I grew up on Catcher in the Rye …
I love that book.
It's a great book. But I don't know, I only remember that when I was in high school I was assigned to read Silas Marner by George Eliot. I can't remember if I read it or not … I wasn't a very enthusiastic student in high school, but I was in college.
When I read it years later I thought, This book is great! But it was too complicated for me when I was a teen, and I wish they had given me Charles Dickens, which was lively, funny, and understandable, and the writing was still elegant and complicated. There are so many classics that are entertaining and will suck anybody in. I mean, if you read A Tale of Two Cities, you are going to ask, “What happens next?”
What is the best advice you've received about writing?
There are couple of things. One, I have to tell an anecdote. I was sitting with Martin Amis, the writer, when I was just starting my prose writing career. It was the early '90s, and he was commenting about another writer and he said, “He is a good writer, but I think he is sloppy.” And I said, “What do you mean by sloppy?” And he said, “Repetition of words and unintended alliteration.” And I thought it was so practical because you can write a paragraph and look back and you will find a word like “sunshine” three times in eight sentences, little things like that to watch out for. They are very telling. I felt pleased because I've caught those in my own writing. And unintended rhymes was another one.
The second thing is to write what you know. Right now you could probably write a pretty good book about high school.
After all these years in the limelight, how do you deal with critics?
I was very vulnerable to criticism for many years. I could read a bad review and remember it my whole life. One day, in the early '90s, my play was opening for the third time in Chicago. This free press paper gave it a terrible, terrible review, saying, “It's horrible this type of play gets put on and keeps other good writers from getting their play put on.” And I looked at the review and thought, You know what? I wrote a play and he wrote a review and that's the difference between us. And I was never bothered by it again.
How do you feel when you watch yourself on screen?
Depressed. [Laughs] I don't watch myself generally. I do something, see it once, and then I'll probably never see it again unless it's an accident. It's spooky to look at yourself, because you are never quite what you think you are. And you are never as good looking as the person you are acting with, or something like that. So I learned to stay away from it because it was giving me more negative feelings than positive ones.
Mr. Martin, I think you are hysterical. Do you think you are funny? Can you laugh at yourself?
Thank you. Yes, if I write a joke or something, I might think, That's a really good joke. I can't wait to perform it. Or if I am writing something, I might come up with a line that will make me laugh. It's embarrassing to say because it means you are sitting there alone laughing at something you wrote, but I have heard other writers say that. I think that's always a good sign. You are not patting yourself on the back. You are just enjoying one of the accidents that happen when you are creating something artistic.
Are there any mottos or sayings you live by?
I have never found one that applies to everything. You can't really conduct your life by one or two phrases.
What do you think is the most important challenge facing teens today?
Rising above the portrayal of mass culture as frivolous and making sure you become educated … realizing that what is presented in the media represents probably five percent of American life.