Interview: Two brains? More like four, and counting

Hollywood's lovable, crumpled master of comedy has put his collected, surreal, thoughts into print. The result? Unfilmable, but unmistakably Steve Martin. Interview by John Walsh
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"At the time of this writing," writes Steve Martin at the beginning of Pure Drivel, "I have not worked in a movie for three years. During these years, in which I vowed to do nothing and leave myself alone about it, I accidentally produced several plays, a handful of sketches, two screenplays and a re-organisation of my entire self." It wasn't his first attempt to leave a lucrative career in the movies. In 1993, shortly after splitting up with his wife Victoria Tennant, he told The New Yorker he had "gone as far as I could in light comedy", after Housesitter with Goldie Hawn, and was postponing all movie projects in order "to see if I can accomplish something new".

The perennially restless Martin has long been the resident intellectual aesthete among Hollywood's acting community. Born in Waco, Texas, he studied "symbolic logic" at Long Beach State University, began writing sketches for the Smothers Brothers, appeared with a troupe of dogs on Johnny Carson's Tonight show, and hit fame and stardom on Saturday Night Live in 1976. The one-time wild and crazy guy has starred in a score of hit movies, including The Jerk, All of Me, The Man With Two Brains, Roxanne, Father of the Bride, Grand Canyon, Parenting, LA Story and The Spanish Prisoner. He has won Emmys for his television writing.

Pure Drivel, however, does represent a new beginning for the silver-haired comedian: a mix of urbane wit and surreal extrapolations of serious ideas. Think Douglas Adams-meets-Flann O'Brien. In these pieces, many first published in The New Yorker, Socrates has a dialogue about privacy with two paparazzi photographers, the five-times-married Lolita Haze is discovered selling real estate, the author realises that his bird-bath is an original Raphael, a new drug turns furious installation artists into painters of dogs playing poker, and a sudden shortage of full stops causes a run on question marks. Steve Martin lives in Los Angeles but has a house in New York, where I spoke to him.

John Walsh Where do the pieces start from? I have a picture in my head of it being 9am and you're in your Chinese silk robe sipping a decaffeinated latte when you read something in the paper about post-modernism, and your eyes narrow ...

Steve Martin: No, it's very very early in the morning, it's about 6.30am and I'm still in bed with sleepy eyes and my mind starts roaming around a little bit. Sometimes the same thing happens at night. Or sometimes, in mid-conversation, something will pop into my head - which I think creates, in the people I'm around, a feeling of being absent.

They mention it to you, do they?

Either they mention it, or else they just assume I hate them.

Are you a fan of SJ Perelman? He dealt in the comic riff based on something in the papers ...

Right. I think he originated the idea. And now we all use it as if it was our own.

Do you scan the papers for inspiration?

I don't search for anything to write about. I just wait until it hits me. I don't think of myself as a writer, just as a person who gets an idea. I'm not driven to write. I don't have to earn a living from it. I just wait. Something usually comes every couple of weeks. At night.

You seem entranced by certain words. Your characters go into paroxysms of suspicion about words like "feldspar" and "eponym". You throw Frenchified adjectives around, like "frappe" and "moire". You savour words like "fo'c'sle" and "cahoots". Do you have a fetish about $10 words?

Would you consider cahoots a $10 word?

In that few people use it in ordinary conversation. Like the word "irks" that you use in ...

Irks?

"Irks" is terribly Edwardian. Nobody in England has said "irks" in years.

Maybe not in England. To me they're just common words. I don't use $10 words unless, as with feldspar, they're used as $10 words. Or eponym in the piece about the love affair between members of Mensa. I thought, Oh yeah, that's a word the Mensa people would throw around.

Do you ever feel guilty about being paid $3 a word by "The New Yorker", even for words like "teapot" or "potato"? Or "the"?

That's where we get even with them.

Do you have favourite words that you over-use in conversation?

Absolutely. Because I'm a California boy, I use a lot of "like" and "beautiful" and "great". I over-used the word "epitome" for a while. And "esoteric" I like because it applies to so many things in my life.

I can't imagine how a Steve Martin novel would work. Have you tried to write one?

I've been writing a longer piece. Like all the others, it started out as a short piece, but then I wrote 50 pages ... I realised it was about character, and it couldn't be as dense as the smaller ones. And I'm kind of waiting until it tells me how long it's going to be.

Is it a real novel?

I don't know. I may not even finish it. Pardon the cliche, but it was something I had to write, about a personal experience, and I didn't really care how it came out. It's very much about character.

Have you a desk drawer full of your early attempts to write novels when young?

No. But I did write something when I was young and got it published in a book called Cruel Shoes. If you read them now, you realise I was ... young.

Your way with crackpot theorising reminds me of the Irish writer Flann O'Brien. Do you know his stuff?

I've never heard of him.

Whom do you admire among funny prose writers?

I just read some Thurber and ... You know, comedy dates, we're kinda stuck with that fact. Among contemporaries, there's Bruce McCall, who writes for The New Yorker, who's very funny. There's a young actor called Jon Stewart, who's just published a book called Naked Portraits of Famous People and is very good, and there's Dave Berry, who's syndicated in the Herald Tribune.

How about novelists?

I love Martin Amis. I loved Money. I've read three or four of his books and I like them all. I think he's great.

He's very influential in the UK. Seventy per cent of younger English male writers and journalists have been trying to write like him for 20 years.

I wanted to write like him, too, but I'm not good enough, so it comes out like my own style. [Laughs].

You have fun with serious ideas. When you make jokes about Schrodinger's Cat, does the LA media circuit understand what you're on about?

[Suspiciously] When you say "media", do you mean actors?

I suppose I mean the kind of people who sat around chatting in fashionable restaurants in "LA Story".

But I don't know those people. I do have a lot of friends who completely understand what I write. I think the general perception of Hollywood is probably accurate, but the specific perception of it is probably wrong.

Does the idea of being "well-read" have any currency in LA? Or has the film script taken over completely?

It doesn't come up much, put it that way.

If you alluded to Goethe or Proust, would it be understood by the people you deal with?

It depends on the people. In every industry, there's a swaff of people who you would call "well-read" - I don't consider myself well-read, by the way - and then there's the mass of people who aren't. But I find actors in general to be among the smartest people I know, I don't mean learned. I mean smart and learned enough.

The concept of "dumbing down" has been washing around in the UK for three years. Are you alarmed by "the strip-mining of American culture"?

I don't think the people themselves have dumbed down, but I think that what's shown on television is dumbed down. But I don't know if it's really happening, or is just what we call Old-Fartism.

Is there anything that strikes you as unusually gross?

I think The Jerry Springer Show is bad for us. It shows a sad part of our society and gives it message-access. And I often think a lot of it is created. People go on the show with ideas of what they're supposed to be, and fulfil those expectations. But it's hard to talk about dumbing down when amazing things still get accomplished, that take incredible brains to do them, including flying to Mars.

The longest and most serious piece in "Pure Drivel" is called "Hissy Fit", about a New York writer coming to check out LA and make fun of it. It ends with you saying, "One should not ridicule one's foolish, fun, poetic cousin." Do you really think of California as a poetic cousin to New York?

Los Angeles represents to New York this, uh, bad naughty cousin that they can't quite control or tame or instruct in the proper way to behave. But a lot of good things come out of Los Angeles.

The word "poetic" tripped me up a bit.

Yeah. It's the home of dreamers.

Let me ask you about art. You write a lot about galleries and collectors and you're obviously familiar with Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi and the BritArt bunch. Do you admire their stuff or are you a sceptic?

Yes, I do admire it. But I'm friendly with Charles Saatchi and Damien Hirst, so I'm not a good person to talk about them. I do like the good installation stuff. It's very compelling. It's the result of people being unable to paint, not because they don't have the talent but because it's a bit of a dead end right now. It's been so done, by such great masters, that everyone's searching around for something else. I've seen some beautiful video shows, I was very sceptical of that, too, at first, but I've seen some very powerful shows, like Bill Viola at the Whitney last year, and Rachel Whiteread.

How's your collection of Pop Art? Is it flourishing?

No, it's morte. It's not something I really like to talk about because it just creates all kinds of problems. I still have paintings, but ...

Let me ask about your play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" [about an imagined meeting between the painter and Albert Einstein in a Paris cafe in 1904]. Did it ever get produced in the UK?

Sure. It was produced once in England, in Leeds.

You planning any more dramas?

I've written three other short plays, and had them published. They're harder to do, because they're one-acts. One's called Wasp, and there are some other short ones, based on magic tricks, called The ZigZag Woman and Patter for the Floating Lady.

We must get them put on in Britain as soon as possible.

Fine with me. Actually Wasp was done at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, and was very well received.

What drew you to write about Picasso in Montmartre?

Several things. I started to think about what artists are like just prior to their great discoveries, when they're just churning. And it was prompted by the painting Au Lapin Agile, that Picasso did in 1904. I saw it hanging in the Metropolitan Museum, when it had just been sold for $40m. The frame itself probably cost $25,000-$35,000. I saw, in John Richardson's biography of Picasso, a photograph of this painting hanging in the real Lapin Agile cafe, unframed and unstretched, just hanging on the wall. That got me thinking about The Journey. And, lastly, I grew up in bars and nightclubs when I was first doing my act. I used to hang out in the Troubador Bar in LA. The Eagles were there, Linda Ronstadt was there, Jackson Browne was there. People were just hanging out in the bar, talking about what they were going to do with their lives.

There could be a research thesis here. Steve Martin writes a play about Picasso, Sondheim writes a musical about Seurat called "Sunday in the Park With George", Paul Simon writes a song called "Rene and Georgette Magritte With their Dog After the War". Why should an American, actor, singer and musical composer all turn to 20th-century European painters for inspiration?

I don't know if it has to do with Europe, but it certainly has to do with greatness. Anyone who is a thinking artist, I guess, is going to be motivated by these great people, whether they're American or European.

If you could choose one figure, dead or alive, from the 20th-century arts or literary world, who would it be?

I've found that, when you meet your heroes, you don't have anything to say to them except flattery. So I would like to meet Jack Benny, who was a great comedian but I'd be able to talk to him about our mutual interest, which is comedy, rather than just say "I think you're great."

What did you admire about him?

He influenced me a lot. He had a beautiful spareness about what he did. He had what we call perfect timing. He had the courage to wait ...

How did you come to call the collection "Pure Drivel"? You're just asking for trouble, aren't you?

I think you're asking for trouble in publishing anything. Or doing anything. But if somebody wants to attack me, the connection is so obvious I figured they wouldn't have the courage to use it.

There was an American man of letters called Logan Pearsall Smith who lived in England most of his life, and wrote short pieces and epigrams, which he published under the titles "Trivia" and "More Trivia".

That's probably the title of my next book. More Drivel.

Your introduction suggests that you hit some kind of wall about movie- making in 1995. Were you disillusioned with movies generally or with the roles you were getting?

I didn't like this movie I did, Sergeant Bilko. I didn't like what I was doing in it, I felt I was going downhill rather than uphill, so I wanted a break. It's not a bad movie, it's a nice movie for kids, but I felt I was somehow letting myself down. I was getting a little lost about what I wanted to do.

Some of your fans thought, after "Father of the Bride II", "Can't he stop being Mister Rumpled Domestic Nice Guy now, and go back to being surreal? Just a bit? Just slightly crazy?"

I know what you mean, but I like those movies. I liked Father of the Bride, both of them. I think they're kind of touching, though I know they're not exactly avant-garde. And I have another movie with Goldie Hawn that I know is not avant-garde. It's The Out-of-Towners. But I love working with Goldie, and I love physical comedy, and these pieces of writing that are being published now supply that part of me which identifies me, I guess. I just finished a movie with Eddie Murphy called Bowfinger's Big Thing, and that's going to be out in the summer. I wrote it a year and a half ago, when I was collecting myself and re-thinking things, so we'll see how that fulfils the desires of my so-called fans.

Do you still play the banjo?

Yes I do. Still play the banjo, still juggle and I still do magic tricks.

The launch party should be a riot.

Thank you

Steve Martin's `Pure Drivel' is published by Viking on 25 February, price pounds 9.99

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