(Shout! Factory) It's always interesting to see a famous comedian in the early stages of their career. The recent documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story shows Izzard – arguably the funniest and most internationally successful comedian of his generation – struggling for years and years to find his voice and his audience. Steve Martin's rise to stardom wasn't quite so fraught with disappointment; his path was closer to that of Woody Allen: starting as a writer for television, moving into stand-up performance, then transitioning into acting and directing. The new DVD box set Steve Martin: The Television Stuff documents much of Martin's early career. It's a time capsule that reveals an energetic young man on his way to becoming a household name.
Martin's television work has largely gone unreleased until now. Included here are the only two recordings of complete performances from his late-'70s stand-up tour; sketch-comedy specials originally broadcast on NBC; his Oscar-nominated short film The Absent-Minded Waiter; and miscellaneous guest appearances, speeches, and music videos.
Two things really come across in the stand-up recordings. First, there's Martin's frenetic energy that jumps from topic to topic, gag to gag, sometimes wringing laughter from a crowd with a mere facial expression or vocal tone. Second, there's his remarkable skill as a physical performer: he juggles, mimes, dances, makes balloon animals, and plays the banjo – all with an amazing fluid dexterity. It's like he's tossing off incredible bits of performance art with a flick of his wrist. The similarity to Izzard is striking; he's a one-man juggernaut of comic energy, relentless and irresistible. He'll try anything just to say he's done it, as when he ends one show by heading out into the street to improv jokes for the people outside the theater.
Martin is reportedly a shy and quiet person in his private life. The tension between that version of him and his “wild and crazy guy” public persona may be what makes him such a fascinating performer. In his early sketch-comedy specials, you can see the two halves wrestling with each other. On stage, he's a consummate showman; performing pre-written sketches, he's more measured, and perhaps a bit unsure of himself. The sketches may feel a little awkward at times, but they're definitely worth watching to see Martin finding his voice in front of a camera – a precursor to the brilliant film work that would follow. Plus, there are bits of undeniable genius peppered in there.
As though Martin himself weren't enough, we also get to see him riff with people like Johnny Cash, Laraine Newman, Lauren Hutton, Lynn Redgrave, Paul Simon, David Letterman, Carl Reiner, Eric Idle, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray. These people's collective work created something very special that could quite accurately be called a golden age of television comedy – maybe not the golden age, but certainly one of them.
Steve Martin: The Television Stuff is indispensable as an historical record of one man's place in an era now gone. However, its greatest value probably lies in its power to seduce you with a ridiculous premise and leave you helpless with laughter, shaking your head at his comic virtuosity and glee.
Why We Like It: captures a genius on his way to stardom, hilarious and proficient physical comedy, wild and crazy notions from the mind of a master