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Steve Martin's Journey to Happiness

Star opens up about his return to comedy

spinner image Steve Martin
Robert Trachtenberg

 TRY FOR A MOMENT to imagine the horror of being Steve Martin's manager in 1981, the year he abruptly quit stand-up comedy: "You're the most famous comedian on the planet, Steve. You're filling 45,000-seat stadiums every night, and you're just going to — what? What are you thinking, Steve?" Imagine, too, what the world would look like if Martin had chosen to grow his "brand," as they call it now: King Tut souvenir shops, Wild & Crazy Menswear stores, a three-decade residence on the Las Vegas strip, his own streaming TV channel.

His friend the writer Dave Barry still marvels at Martin's willingness to gamble. "Here's a guy who was the No. 1 nonmusical live act in the world. He could easily have kept that going till today," Barry points out. "But he's a restless guy."

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Of course, Martin didn't exactly vanish when he ditched the throngs lining up to see his arrow-through-the-head bit. He went on to try his hand in movies — as one of the preposterous ¡Three Amigos!; as a frantic father of the bride; as a heroic modern-day Cyrano. He has also written novels, recorded bluegrass albums with Edie Brickell and toured the country playing banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers band. Oh, yes, he's written plays, too — including a new comedy about marriage, Meteor Shower.

But recently, Martin decided to return to his roots. He has been touring the country with his longtime friend Martin Short — a fellow Amigo — in a show called An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life: stand-up comedy, banjo music and sharp frenemy ribbing onstage. The actress and comedian Catherine O'Hara describes the act as "a children's show for adults." Crowds love not only the nostalgic jokes and characters but the new, sometimes improvised material that Martin and Short bring to the stage. It's the first time in all these years, Martin says, that he has truly loved performing. He and his old friend have an understanding: "We have very similar boundaries with each other, which are none."

spinner image Steve Martin
"I worried all these years that I was going to die, and I never did. So why waste all that worry?"
Robert Trachtenberg

Even after five movies and countless evenings together, Short is still tickled by Martin's combination of wit and silliness. "We were going to a party after the Oscars together, and Steve was tweeting, and I said, 'C'mon, what are you doing?' And he'd just tweeted, 'I'm going to the Vanity Fair party, and I hope to meet Cher so we can be on a first-name basis.' " (The joke is a bit inside as well as being silly: Even before his hair turned prematurely gray, Martin was a writer and bit player on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.)

So this longtime master of reinvention has reinvented himself right back into a comedy tour. But this time, he seems to have found a new kind of fulfillment.

MARTIN IS RESERVED by nature, so talking to him is not easy, and he doesn't try to make it easier. When I meet him at the Louisville Palace theater in March, during his Evening You Will Forget tour, he bypasses the comfortable green room set aside for performers. Instead, insisting he likes the quiet, he leads me up several flights to a tiny, bare garret that has all the warmth of a police interrogation room. I am out of breath, but, at 71, he is not. Martin looks virtually the same as he did 30 years ago — "the charm," says Short, "of looking 70 when you're 30." Tall and slim, Martin moves like a much younger man. "I do exercise, but gently," he says. "I go on a treadmill and listen to a novel or watch television. I lift weights, but I just do my chest and arms." Having a younger wife, and a child — his first — still in nursery school, is to Martin a responsibility as well as a pleasure. "I do it for myself," he says, "but I do it for them, as well." One senses he was more than ready for fatherhood, as he wrote not one but two kids books before his daughter was born.

Performing was always stressful, he recalls. The memory of his stand-up days makes Martin cringe. "I was in clubs. And they're seedy, and there's cheap wine and talking and noise."

Also, in his youth he suffered from panic attacks and hypochondria. But in recent years, those feelings stopped. As he jokingly puts it, "I worried all these years that I was going to die, and I never did. So why waste all that worry?" Many of us become more anxious as we age. Martin has gone in the other direction. "And you know, you absolutely do become wiser — if you're watching and listening," he adds.

spinner image Steve Martin
"Often when I'm standing onstage, I believe I'm trying to get my father's attention"
Robert Trachtenberg

Along the way to wisdom, he has also collected accolades: everything from an Emmy for television writing to Grammys for his music and comedy albums to the Kennedy Center Honors for being, well, Steve Martin. His (often humorous) writing was published in the New Yorker, and his musical played Broadway. He has also become a serious art collector, and he excels there, too. In fact, he can move markets. Since he championed the Canadian painter Lawren Harris by co-curating a show that traveled the U.S., prices for the artist's work have skyrocketed. Martin himself once sold an Edward Hopper painting for nearly $27 million. He sells pieces, he says, so he can buy more art.

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"I WAS BORN a poor black child."So begins one of Martin's many meme-worthy lines and the opening to his first major film role, The Jerk. It's a joke, of course — he was not born black, nor was his family poor. The Martins, of Waco, Texas, were middle class. His father wanted to be an actor, so when Martin was 5, his parents moved him and his older sister to Hollywood. The acting plans didn't work out for Martin's dad, Glenn, who went into real estate and seemed to take his frustrations out on his son, alternately ignoring and criticizing the boy.

Wanting to get out of the house, Martin found his first job at age 10, selling guidebooks at Disneyland. He gravitated toward Merlin's Magic Shop in Fantasyland, where he learned tricks as "a way to get onstage without having to sit down and write an act," he says. In college he majored for a time in philosophy, which should come as no surprise to fans of his bizarrely cerebral comedy. Martin developed his onstage persona with the goal of doing comedy where there were no punch lines — no way for the audience to release the tension of the joke. This makes for a certain absurdity that cracks you up for no definable reason.

Though he's been lauded as a comedy genius — Comedy Central once ranked Martin sixth among history's 100 greatest stand-up comedians, with Richard Pryor at the top — Martin says his success came not from innate talent but from dogged effort, honing his material night after night. "I always divide the world up into people like Picasso or Oscar Wilde, who seemed to have been born with their gifts, and the rest of us, who work at what we do," he says. "For me, it wasn't a gift. It was working."

As Martin's star rose, his mother enjoyed his success. He writes about the time they were driving through Beverly Hills and she said, "Get out and walk down the street so I can watch people look at you." But Martin's father simply didn't find him funny. After attending the premiere of The Jerk, Glenn commented, "Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin."

It was only in the 1990s, when Martin wrote his first full-length play, that his father became a fan — perhaps because as a nonplaywright, he didn't feel threatened by his son's success. "He was very proud of the play Picasso at the Lapin Agile," Martin says. He pauses and smiles ruefully. "If my father had always said, 'Oh, everything you're doing is just wonderful,' would I have become an artist? Often when I'm standing onstage, I believe I'm trying to get my father's attention."

Until he was 40, Martin dated an eclectic list of actresses and artists that included Bernadette Peters, the late Carrie Fisher and the artist Cindy Sherman. He married the actress Victoria Tennant, who starred with him in L.A. Story, in 1986; they were divorced about eight years later. In the mid-2000s Martin met his current wife, Anne Stringfield, while she was a fact checker at the New Yorker assigned to check one of his comedy pieces. "We talked on the phone for a year before we even met," Martin says. Stringfield is the kind of small-boned, alabaster beauty Wordsworth must have had in mind when he wrote that whole "violet by a mossy stone" thing — not immediately noticeable, and then you can't stop looking. Plus, friends say, on first acquaintance she is deeply shy, a trait that perhaps felt familial to Martin. As an introvert who was nevertheless a celebrity, he was the one used to being drawn out; he may have found it intriguing that with Stringfield, the drawing out was his to do.

Martin and Stringfield married in 2007 and now have a 4-year-old daughter. Having a young child at 71 is "fantastic," Martin says. "I think if I'd had a child earlier, I would have been a lousy father  because I would have misplaced my attention on my career." He is determined not to make the same mistakes his own father did, although the squishy language of parental love doesn't come easily. "I am very forthcoming with her, and it's great," he says carefully. "She's giving me way more than I'm giving her."

He is no longer shy, he says, but he's no glad-hander, either, which makes some people think he's aloof. "People used to say Johnny Carson was aloof," Martin says. "I knew him. He wasn't aloof — he was normal." Like Carson, "I don't become instant friends."

But the circle of friends Martin does have is large, loyal and long-standing. He and his wife are known for their vibrant dinner parties, which mix old friends and luminaries from art, literature, music and theater, including Lorne Michaels, Sean Connery and Eric Fischl. "He gets together people who really like to talk," says one friend, "because he doesn't want or need to be the center of attention at all times." Another friend recalls a party where Dwight Yoakam and Martin jammed. "Music transports him, and he becomes his truest self when he's playing," she says.

Asked to describe his life now, Martin does not hesitate: "Very, very happy. I mean, it's actually the perfect shape of a life. Except for the hard parts in the beginning — the disharmony, panic, pain, with occasional moments of great affection and comedy success." He says it took him a while to figure out that fame doesn't make you successful. Not as a human being, not in any real way. Since that lesson, he says, "it's been a gentle uphill slope to a real, real happiness."

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