Steve Martin on Whether 'The Jerk' Would Work in Today's PC Climate

Joe Pugliese
Steve Martin

As AFI honors him with its 43rd Life Achievement Award, the actor offers up his own memories about some of the signature roles of his prolific film career and opens up about donning his old King Tut costume for 'SNL's' 40th anniversary and why he's cutting "way back" on Twitter.

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

During his nearly 50 years in show business, Steve Martin, 69, has morphed from stand-up comedian to Saturday Night Live host, from banjo player to author to art collector. But it's because of his prolific film career that the American Film Institute is honoring him with its 43rd Life Achievement Award. (Mel Brooks, the 41st recipi­ent, has been tapped to present the honor.) Martin — who currently is filming his 44th feature, playing a fictional owner of the Dallas Cowboys in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee's look at the Iraq War's impact on the homefront — spoke with THR about how he successfully navigated the transition to film.

By the late '70s, you were selling out stadiums as a stand-up, had platinum albums and were making frequent TV appearances. How easy was it to segue into movies?

As my stand-up act matured, I started looking around for outlets. Film comedy was just obvious to me. Once you did it, it was done. With stand-up, you had to do it again every night. With film, you could actually perfect something and secure it. I had a lot of momentum, so it wasn't too difficult to get into the movies. But looking back, it actually was a little bit of a struggle. We had The Jerk at Paramount. They decided not to make it. We went to Universal, and [producer] David Picker's idea was to make this short film I wrote, The Absent-Minded Waiter, to show in front of the movie so the audience could get used to me as a movie person. So there was a lot of finessing.

Often a comic will develop a persona, then play variations of it in movies. Instead, you took on different characters. Why?

The only character I really did in the movies that was similar to my act was in The Jerk. I had just exhausted it in my brain, so there was no effort to do the same thing. It seemed natural that in the movies, you played a character.

In The Jerk, you played the white son of black sharecroppers who doesn't realize he's adopted. Could you get away with that in today's era of heightened racial sensitivity?

I haven't looked at The Jerk in a long time. But looking back, everyone was treated with such respect, and we had that fabulous opening with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee singing on the porch, two very well-known blues artists. You might get a kind of knee-jerk reaction, but it would be hard to get a verdict in court against it.


Parodying Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" in 1984.

Is it trickier for younger comedians today — like The Daily Show's incoming host, Trevor Noah, who was called out for tweets he posted?

It's hard, but that's the Internet. When you put something on TV or in a club, it doesn't seem to have the same shock value that it gets on the Internet, which is really a good reason to stay off the Internet.

But you use Twitter. Have you ever felt like you're giving away jokes for free?

I've cut back, way back, on Twitter, but when I was doing it, I really enjoyed it. I didn't feel like I was giving anything away for free. But there's a lot of grief on Twitter and the Internet, and I just cut back to do other things.

What was it like returning to SNL for the 40th reunion?

It was so fantastic. There were how many generations of comedians there — four, five? And everybody had great respect for each other and was very warm to each other. There was something very magical about it, and the audience picked up on it, too.

Any trepidation about donning your old King Tut costume?

No. At first, I said no. But then Lorne [Michaels] called me, so I said, "OK, it doesn't matter."

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