Steve Martin Revisits His Wild and Crazy Past

"Comedy is the ability to make people laugh without making them puke." -- Steve Martin

There is now an entire generation of people for whom Steve Martin is the white-haired guy who plays lovesick middle age architects, befuddled dads and bumbling French detectives in the movies. They have no clue about his secret past as the wild and crazy guy in an ice cream suit with an arrow through his head, and his absurd, sardonic approach to comedy.

Steve Martin: The Television Stuff, being released on September 18, ($34.95, Shout! Factory) brings that guy back in what is really a treasure trove of footage -- much of it rare, unreleased and only seen on its original broadcasts -- over three DVDs and more than six hours of material, including Martin's own very interesting commentary.

However, the set does not include any of his hosting episodes of Saturday Night Live, to which NBC has the rights locked up and has rerun and packaged on their own. Sorry, fans of "Theodoric of York: Medieval Barber."

Disc One features "On Location with Steve Martin" (1976), an early HBO special which shows Martin -- clad in a dark suit -- honing his standup act that's a combination of wandering commentary and performance skills he honed as an amusement park entertainer (balloon animals, banjo playing, card tricks). It's fascinating to view in light of what would come later.

Also here are his first two NBC specials, "A Wild and Crazy Guy" (1978) and "Comedy Is Not Pretty" (1980). The former is a combination of live footage (excised here as the show is in its entirely on Disc 2) and sketches, most of which fall flat. The all-sketches "Pretty" is much stronger, with bits featuring Martin as Socrates -- who doesn't know hemlock is poisonous, an Olympic diver whose signature jump is the cannonball, a Marlon Perkins-style world explorer who stumbles across a tribe of ancient hippies, and a drunk driver who steamrolls a child in a PSA about steamroller safety.

Disc Two opens with "All Commercials...A Steve Martin Special" (1980), which is fairly cringeworthy to watch as a sparingly used Martin and cast attempt an ironic send-up of the advertising industry which comes off like a third-rate episode of Laugh-In, and the same sort of bad variety show it's supposed to be spoofing.

Wiser heads prevailed in the next special, "Steve Martin's Best Show Ever" (1981), because it lives up to its title. Mainly because it's shot like an episode of SNL, in the same studio, with many of the same writers and cast (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray), producer Lorne Michaels and even announcer Don Pardo. Highlights include a return of the swinging Festrunk Czechoslovakian Brothers, a tap-dancing segment with Gregory Hines, and Martin as a seduced-by-fame Elephant Man...with the face of an actual elephant.

Finally, "Homage to Steve" (1984) combines his witty Oscar-nominated short The Absent-Minded Waiter with the full concert of his 1979 Universal Amphitheatre show. That segment shows Martin at the peak of his standup comedy powers, playing before a raucous crowd with all his best material, props, and -- yes -- happy feet.

Disc Three includes standalone bits and pieces, including a 1966 appearance on a black and white children's TV show, promotional videos, speeches honoring Paul Simon and Gene Kelly, as well as his own acceptance speeches for the Mark Twain Prize and American Comedy Awards. There's also later appearances with Johnny Carson (as magician "The Great Flydini") and David Letterman ("Dave and Steve's Gay Vacation").

So while his career today exists mostly on the silver screen (and the odd written page), in The Television Stuff we see that earlier, experimental Steve Martin whose greatest comedic creation may have been the "Steve Martin" character. And if you don't agree..well excuuuuusee me!

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