DVD Review: Steve Martin – The Television Stuff

For anyone who only knows Steve Martin from movies like Cheaper by the Dozen, Pink Panther 2 and Bringing Down the House, it’s probably hard to believe that he once ruled the world of standup comedy.  By the late 1970’s his standup act was so popular, that he was playing large, sold out arenas usually reserved for rock stars.

Steve Martin left standup comedy behind back in 1981 in favor of film work, meaning there are a couple of generations of people largely unaware of the Wild and Crazy Guy in the white suit who made  “Well, excuse me!” a national catchphrase. Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, Steve Martin fans, old and new alike, can relive his early years on television.

Steve Martin - The Television StuffThe new 3-DVD boxed set “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff” collects a treasure trove of material that Martin made for television in the 1970s and 1980s, including five full-length specials. None of the included material has been available on DVD before. Included are: On Location With Steve Martin” (1976), “Steve Martin: “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978), “Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty” (1980), “All Commercials: A Steve Martin Special” (1980), “Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever” (1981), and “Homage to Steve” (1984), including his full performance at the Universal Amphitheater in 1979—and a selection of appearances on “Saturday Night Live”, award dinners, “Late Night With David Letterman” and other odds and ends. Originally, the 1979 Amphitheater performance was integrated into the   “A Wild and Crazy Guy” special, but here, they’re shown separately.

After years of working as a writer on such shows as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Steve stepped out front, becoming the opening act for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Carpenters and others. In 1976, HBO was just gaining their footing as a national network. One of their first original shows, “On Location,” featured a standup each week. Filmed at the Troubadour in L.A., this special really shows Steve Martin on the cusp of superstardom. The first ten minutes or so, go by quickly, as Martin riffs about this and that, arriving on the small stage with a banjo, throwing out jokes. He plays a few notes on the banjo, makes fun of the audience for paying to see this. He makes fun of his own set, plays with the mic; he’s a frenetic ball of energy. Giving his writing background, it’s no wonder that Martin’s show is a bit like a variety show, mixing jokes, music and philosophy to create a hysterical brand of comedy.

Filmed in 1978, “A Wild and Crazy Guy” finds Steve Martin at the height of his fame. He had graduated from 600-seat clubs to stadiums. Shot shortly before Martin would begin filming The Jerk, you can see inklings of Navin the imbecile, as Martin buys an upside-down car, demonstrates “Ballet Parking” and plays a Tortoise-riding “turtleboy.” Other highlights include “The Steve Martin Variety Show”—a special-within-a-special featuring guest appearances by Johnny Cash and Muhammad Ali, Martin ten years in the future as a drunkard whose hit hard times and folks who make all sorts of excuses as to why Steve can’t come into their living rooms.

The remaining specials follow a similar formula, with Steve performing sketch comedy, along with a bevy of celebrity guests. The best special of the set is “Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever.” Produced by Lorne Michaels, it features Saturday Night Live” stars Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Laraine Newman and Bill Murray. This was 1981, just a year after the not-ready-for-prime-time players had checked out of “SNL,” so this was a welcome reunion.

A fool one minute and a talented banjo player the next, the material spread across these three DVD’s shows just what a diverse talent Steve Martin is. Reportedly, a shy and quiet man in his personal life, which makes his public persona, that of the “Wild and Crazy Guy” all the more fascinating; onstage he’s the consummate showman, never letting his foot off the gas. When receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Comedy Awards, he said, “We’re here tonight because of a common love: me,” with a straight face and well known sardonic wit.

Steve Martin is a master at physical comedy—who wouldn’t want happy feet?—but his true talent lies in the fact that he can make the ordinary hilarious and laugh at himself for the sake of a joke. If you only know Steve Martin from his recent films, pick up this box set now, you have a lot of laughing to do!

Presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, much of this material is more than thirty years old, so it looks a bit fuzzy in places. Nonetheless, Steve’s white suite looks marvelous and there are no real digital anomalies to complain about.

Presented in mono, the audio track is nothing special but allows you to clearly hear what’s going on throughout “The Television Stuff.”

The three slimline DVD cases are housed in a heavy matte finish box, with a 22-page booklet of archival photos and an essay written by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

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