Steve Martin Roasted by Tina Fey, Martin Short at Hilarious AFI Tribute

AP/Invision
Steve Martin

As the 43rd recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award, Martin confessed, "When I was a kid I used to get all dressed up and play AFI Life Achievement Awards."

The American Film Institute has been known to take itself and its rituals just a tad seriously, but that was impossible on Thursday night as it presented its 43rd Life Achievement Award to Steve Martin.

There was plenty of praise offered for Martin’s many talents as a comedian, actor, screenwriter, playwright, banjo player, art collector, husband and father. But as if taking its cue from the recipient himself, the evening was mostly devoted to pure silliness: One-liners, non sequiturs and throwaway jokes ruled as performers from Tina Fey to Martin Short stepped forward to gently roast Martin before then testifying how much they both admired him and treasured him as a friend.

To get the proceedings rolling, Jack Black was introduced to sing "the anthem" and then proceeded to belt out "The Thermos Song" from Martin's first film, The Jerk.

Fey deadpanned, “Steve donates all his old white suits to lesbian commitment ceremonies.”

“He is the whitest man on earth,” testified Queen Latifah. “In college, he majored in white studies.”

Before she even mentioned Martin, Amy Poehler urged the room full of studio chiefs and bold-faced names to support "the new president of FIFA, Queen Latifah."

Short, pointing to the beginnings of Martin’s career, developing a magic act, offered, “Steve Martin began as a young boy turning tricks at Disneyland — that doesn’t sound right, let me rephrase that.”

Even the august Howard Stringer, chair of the AFI board of trustees, kicked off the evening by wearing an arrow through his head, a callback to the look that Martin made famous back in his stand-up days. Martin, seated at the head table with his wife, Anne Stringfield, with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels on one side of them and Diane Keaton on the other, kept the jokes coming at the end of the evening at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood when he rose to accept the honor.

“When I was a kid I used to get all dressed up and play AFI Life Achievement Awards,” he confessed.

He continued, “Lorne is really responsible for my being here tonight — Lorne, thank you for driving.”

He recalled how at one point in his career, when he was represented by agents Marty Klein and John Gaines, he got a call from then-superagent Sue Mengers, who began her pitch by saying, “I don’t like the movies John Gaines is putting you in.” Martin responded, “But, Sue, I wrote those movies.”

And he concluded his remarks by citing a vintage quip by Jack Benny: “I don’t really deserve this award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.”

To be sure, Martin also allowed himself a few serious moments onstage, saying, "I'm so proud to have this honor. And I thank you, the AFI, I deeply appreciate this. And I thank the AFI for having a short name to engrave on silver gift boxes — it saved me a lot of money."

And, in between the jokes, Martin's fellow comedians also slipped in a few serious sentiments.

Fey, who shared the screen with Martin in Baby Mama, testified, "I learned so much from you, Steve. I can't tell you how grateful I am," adding that Martin married "a woman who is a younger, slimmer, smarter version of me."

Dan Aykroyd credited Martin for giving the Blues Brothers their start by hiring them as an opening act. "I owe you a living, man," he said.

Sarah Silverman said, "Steve Martin has taught us that comedy isn't pretty — it's art. He is an inspiration, my inspiration."

Lily Tomlin, who shared a body with Martin in All of Me, added that "working with Steve was like taking a master class in physical comedy."

Breaking away from her scripted remarks, Keaton enthused, "He's so great — it's stupid."

And Steve Carell admitted, "I have spent the majority of my life doing a pale imitation of Steve Martin — and I resent him for that."

Conan O'Brien was on hand to deliver a reading from one of Martin's comic writings, A Public Apology.

Short provided the evening's most extended comic riff, beginning, "I'm going to make this short because my Uber is waiting — and you know how testy Randy Quaid can get." Of Martin's early days at Disneyland, he suggested, "One of his fondest memories was strolling through Disneyland with Uncle Walt, playing Walt's favorite game of Jew or non-Jew." And he continued, "People sometimes ask me how do you duplicate Steve Martin's longevity in show business, and my advice for them is try to look 70 when you're in your 30s."

But even Short served up a sentimental moment, singing "Friend of Mine," a tune Martin wrote with Edie Brickell. Just moments later, Keaton also was moved to serve up her own a cappella version of the song.

The evening came full circle when Carl Reiner, who directed several of Martin's films, rose to speak. Earlier in the evening, there had been a film clip of Johnny Carson cracking up at one of Martin's appearances on The Tonight Show. Reiner said Carson's spirit was in the room, since he was wearing a tie he claimed to have stolen from Carson. Showing off a monogrammed "JC" as evidence, he added, "and we all know Jesus Christ never wore a tie."

Mel Brooks, the 41st recipient of the AFI Life Achievement Award, did the honors by presenting the award to Martin, all the while pretending to be threatened by Martin's accomplishments. "He's literally built a wall, a giant wall of multitalents that no one can climb," Brooks complained. "The wall keeps getting higher and higher." Turning to Martin, Brooks exclaimed, "Mr. Martin, will you tear down this wall!"

Also, as part of the evening, Bob Gazzale, AFI president and CEO, presented the 25th Franklin J. Schaffner alumni medal to cinematographer and director Caleb Deschanel, a member of the first class at the AFI Conservatory.

The gala will be broadcast by TBS on June 13, followed by an encore presentation on TCM on July 30.

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