I met Steve Martin when I was a kid. We were at a party, and I shadowed the poor guy all afternoon, waiting for him to crack me up, to slip into character. He never did.
Where was the Wild and Crazy Guy? Where was The Jerk? Where was King Tut?
Years later, he granted me an interview about his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. In a dumb attempt to catch him off guard, to give my readers the Steve Martin I was sure they really wanted, I asked him if he preferred boxers or briefs. I don’t recall his good-sport answer—only that he uttered it earnestly, artlessly. It seems I’d finally located The Jerk; it was me.
It’s easy to forget that entertainers aren’t always entertaining, and that they’re deeper—and sometimes duller—than their onstage personas.
Though Martin once wore a gag arrow through his head, in real life he’s far more the reticent sophisticate of It’s Complicated than the inane pratfaller of The Pink Panther. But he’s more than those, too: He’s also a successful playwright, Grammy-winning banjo player, and avid art collector who just published a novel, An Object of Beauty, set amid New York’s high-brow art scene.
Audience assumptions about Martin’s character—and, presumably, his “characters”—made for an uncomfortable and much-blogged-about evening recently, when the comedian-cum-aesthete agreed to be interviewed by an art scholar at New York’s respected 92nd Street Y. Devoid of zany antics or wacky props, the off-the-cuff interview touched on Rembrandt, the origin of the term “Renaissance man,” and even, um, tax law before an organizer actually walked onstage and asked them to instead discuss Martin’s wild-and-crazy career. Afterward, the venue called the whole event “disappointing” and offered refunds to the 900 audience members who bought $50 tickets.
Martin has since conceded that the talk was dull, but he called the Y’s response “discourteous,” which is a nice way of saying, “Seriously? I show up, unpaid, to discuss my passion, and you declare it worthless?”
All of which brings up an interesting question about what we expect of our favorite artists: What do they “owe” us, and what do we owe them?
Notoriety sells tickets. It sells books. Heck, I’m hoping it’ll sell this column. But it also complicates the value of such things. If we pay just to sit in a room with a celebrity and hear him talk, should we be allowed to dictate what he talks about? On the other hand, if an artist trades on his name (and I wouldn’t read a novel about art if Steve Martin didn’t write it, would you?), then should he deliver what that name implies?
I asked someone who wrestles with these questions for a living. As executive director of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, Celesta Billeci hears from ticket-buyers when a performer doesn’t meet their expectations. She understands completely.
“There’s an assumption of a public persona, who they are on- and offstage, and I’ll be honest: I’m disappointed when someone is not as wonderful in person as I thought they would be,” she said. But that’s the thrilling nature of art—and of live performances. “There are no promises.”
Sometimes they flop. Sometimes they fly.
By all accounts, Steve Martin’s recent banjo show at the Granada Theatre was just what you’d want it to be: a blend of outstanding musicianship and audience-tickling jokes making fun of Martin’s high-brow life.
“I try to write songs based on personal experience,” he quipped to the crowd. “This one is called ‘I Think My Masseuse Is Too Chatty.’”
And guess what? He encored with “King Tut.”