It’s hard to believe that Steve Martin had been performing for more than 30 years now, or that he’s hosted Saturday Night Live 14 times. That’s a lot of years, and when it comes to SNL, that means Martin’s witnessed not only the classic era, but also the dark period when SNL seemed to be setting comedy back about 50 years. SNL had a lot of years where it simply wasn’t funny, but the promise of Martin hosting the show was always enough to ignite a flicker of hope.
That’s because Martin’s always been a genuinely funny, intelligent performer, and you got the sense that he probably brought as much to the writers’ table as the staff writers themselves. Even in the “golden years” of the show, the years with names like Belushi, Radner, and Murray, where the skits read like a murderers’ row of modern comedy, some of Martin’s skits stood out. Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber, racked up ghastly body counts with his reliance on Medieval medicine like bloodletting, poultices, and burying patients up to their necks in the swamp overnight. He joined Dan Aykroyd as one of the Festrunk Brothers, a pair of polyester-clad swingers who shimmied and wobbled their way through disco-era decadence. And there was the stuff Martin brought from his white-suited standup routine: the banjo playing, the non sequitur-driven sense of humor, the song about King Tut.
If you were the right age, your sense of humor grew up right along with Martin’s. When this viewer was eight-years-old, an arrow through the head was the height of hilarity, and you couldn’t ask for a more potent parent-torturing catch-phrase than “Well, excuuuuuuuuse meeeee!” When I was a pretentious English grad student, Martin was penning the play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in which Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Elvis Presley (visiting from the future) discuss the nature of genius. All Martin needs to do at this point is devote some material to the ravages and betrayals of age, and there’ll be Steve Martin material to get future generations from cradle to grave.
But what of this SNL stuff? Well, no one emerges from so much exposure to the show without suffering a little. Doubtless, there are tons of unfunny Martin skits that weren’t worthy of this collection (and one good thing here is you can just skip over the bad stuff). But a few that do make the cut are fairly weak. “Quick Zoom Theatre” runs its simple joke into the ground before it finally gets around to shaking things up. The skit about James Bond being a skinflint when spending his own money squanders a fantastic premise (and a cameo by Sting).
But if there’s one thing the set does unexpectedly well, it’s the way it captures that sly, faux egotism at the heart of Martin’s work. He skewered Los Angeles shallowness in L.A. Story, placing himself as a lone, tortured voice of reason in the middle of the madness. But in skits where he hawks a Steve Martin-branded penis cream, agrees to perform at a Hamas celebration because the money’s good, or in a hilarious series of vignettes where he and Alec Baldwin become nemeses because of their competition for the hosting record, Martin displays a deft handle on the vanity that’s an essental part of any performer.
Throughout, this is pretty funny stuff.