Steve Martin says he ‘has no talent’ – but no one has ever been more wrong

Got it licked: Steve Martin in ‘The Man with Two Brains’  (Warner Bros)
Got it licked: Steve Martin in ‘The Man with Two Brains’ (Warner Bros)

There’s a contradiction to the phenomenon of Steve Martin. On the one hand, the now 78-year-old American comedian is the epitome of what showbiz people might call “The Big Time”. He made what was once the highest-selling comedy record ever, had a string of hit films and TV shows, and coined catchphrases that pretty much everybody could recite (“Well, excuuuuse me!”). But then there are the other parts of him. Offstage, his passions lie far outside the mainstream sensibility: he’s an obsessive and knowledgeable fine art collector with a rare, professional-level skill at the banjo and a lifelong, almost quaint, fascination with close-up magic. Success of his magnitude was never going to be a garment that fit comfortably.

A new three-hour documentary on Apple TV+ attempts to reconcile the myths and realities of Martin, both as a performer and as a man. STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces is, as its title suggests, split into two feature-length instalments – titled “Then” and “Now”. It’s the latest in a run of in-depth, contemplative comedy retrospectives. (Garry Shandling and George Carlin are among those to get similar treatment recently.) For younger fans who may think of Martin primarily as the star of the pulpy Disney+/Hulu three-hander Only Murders in the Building, STEVE! is a considered lesson in what made a younger Martin such an electric, unmissable talent. For those who were there, it’s a warm and somewhat illuminating chance to relive the greatest hits.

“He’s up there with the most idolised comedians ever,” says Jerry Seinfeld – a man who knows a thing or two about the comedy pantheon. Yet Martin himself is almost laughably self-effacing. “I guarantee you, I have no talent,” he says in the doc. “None. So I had to do a workaround to get on stage.” This is patently untrue, though you can almost see what he’s getting at. Martin’s early stage routines would often subvert comedy norms – not quite anti-comedy, but a sort of zany irony that exposed the absurdity of live performance, almost like a more accessible Andy Kaufman. He would deliberately botch supposed punchlines, use clownish props, and incorporate pseudo-vaudevillian spectacle – and, sometimes, the aforementioned banjo – into his live act. It was also the tail end of the Sixties, when comedians were long-haired and anti-establishment by default. Martin, silly and timeless, was an aberration.

And then, of course, he hit the mainstream. After years of slugging away with gradual success on the circuit, he shot to national fame with Saturday Night Live. While he was never a regular cast member on the buzzy US sketch show, he hosted regularly during the series’ early run, appearing alongside stars such as Chevy Chase and John Belushi. In 1980, he stopped performing his stage act entirely, pivoting instead to motion pictures.

The JerkThe Man with Two BrainsPlanes, Trains and Automobiles: Martin was responsible for a slew of the 20th century’s most popular and zeitgeisty comedy films. In The Jerk, he was wacky and clownish, very much the Martin fans were familiar with from the stage, while Planes, Trains and Automobiles proved his aptitude as a straight man. There were plenty of misses – Pennies from Heaven got a thorough drubbing, for instance – but many of his later films, such as the moviemaking satire Bowfinger, remain sharp and hilarious.

If Steve were just a humorous guy without being a highly decent, admirable man, then it would be a different kind of relationship. But Steve is a very loyal, wise, kind, smart person to hang out with

Martin Short, actor

STEVE! steers just clear of hagiography, painting Martin as a man who, for much of his life, kept other people at an almost icy remove from his anxious inner life. (Some have claimed worse: Miriam Margolyes, unsurprisingly absent from the documentary’s who’s who of talking heads, alleged last year that an “unlovely and unapologetic” Martin had hurt her while filming a violent scene on Little Shop of Horrors. Martin has categorically disputed the account.) What changed, it seemed, was meeting his second wife, the writer Anne Stringfield, and having a child. Martin, in his “Now” iteration, is happy and forthcoming.

An under-discussed moment upon which Martin’s life pivoted was the time he went from a solo act to a team player. Until SNL, he had been on his own – both artistically and interpersonally. On the show, he discovered kindred creative spirits, and from this point on, he was a formidable collaborator. Martin Short would become his most enduring collaborator, with the two forming a firm and winning double act on stage and screen. But there were others – John Candy, Michael Caine and Eddie Murphy. Pair Martin with whoever, and it seemed he could make it work. “If Steve were just a humorous guy without being a highly decent, admirable man, then it would be a different kind of relationship,” Short told The Guardian in 2021. “But Steve is a very loyal, wise, kind, smart person to hang out with.”

A modern-day Steve Martin, as seen in the new documentary (Apple TV+)
A modern-day Steve Martin, as seen in the new documentary (Apple TV+)

Despite his continued success, there is maybe a lingering doubt over whether Martin has really been given his dues by the critical establishment. He’s never been nominated for an Oscar (though was given an honorary award in 2014. Films such as The Man with Two Brains are sometimes written off as being too broad, too lowbrow, to merit canonisation. (In the world of music, he’s arguably had greater success, winning five Grammy awards for his country and bluegrass records.) And yet, the biggest testament to Martin’s “genius” may lie in the myriad of comics who’ve borrowed from him. “I have spent the majority of my life doing a pale imitation of Steve Martin, and I resent him for this,” Steve Carell once said – and he’s not alone. There’s something about Martin’s shtick, however – earnest but flippant, confident but bashful – that’s impossible to replicate.

STEVE! feels almost like a eulogy, the kind of awed career celebration usually reserved for the giants that have already passed on. But Martin is alive, and with a grin on his face. Seeing him now, finally content, is the most enjoyable aspect of the whole documentary. He’s a living reminder that what’s popular need not be bland or fawning – that “selling out” is often just a state of mind.

‘STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces’ is streaming now on Apple TV+