Steve Martin isn’t someone who’s expecting to live on in posterity.
“I think it’s misguided if you actually believe you’re going be remembered,” he says. “There’s so many great artists, so many great writers filling up the shelves consuming essentially airtime and people fall by the wayside as time goes on. I don’t have any pretensions to any of that.”
The comedian, actor, writer, producer and banjo player was speaking by phone the morning after his final visit to “Late Show With Letterman” and before he began filming Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” — and about a month before he receives the 2015 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award.
Given the list of film luminaries who have accepted AFI’s highest kudo before him — including Spielberg, Scorsese, Welles, Streep, Streisand, Hoffman, et al — he said he was “surprised” when learning he was following in their footsteps. “It just wasn’t (something) I was thinking about or thought I had even qualified for.
“Comedy is often looked down on as a serious art,” he adds “but they have certainly honored comedy with Mel Brooks and other people. I think (the AFI is) aware that everybody in comedy works just as hard as everybody in drama.”
Martin rose to recognition for his inventive standup, donning a white suit, bunny ears and the fake arrow through his head. He was often “Saturday Night Live’s” secret weapon, writhing almost menacingly in checkered bellbottoms and loudly printed shirts as one of the Czech playboys with Dan Aykroyd, and proclaiming himself as “a wild and crazy guy!”
But he also distinguished himself as a prolific scribe, winning an Emmy in 1969 as part of the “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” writing team.
Martin’s career as a screenwriter, playwright and author is often overlooked. And yet Tom Hanks, introducing Martin when he received an Honorary Oscar at the 2013 Governors Awards, likened Martin to the “great wits of the past” Voltaire, H.L. Menken, Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker, as well as such iconic moviemaking comic minds as Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Preston Sturges.
Thinking about it now, Martin appreciates that the proverbial envelope has been pushed since his early standup days.
“Comedy has definitely changed, especially in terms of permissibility on television,” he says. “I was watching Amy Schumer’s show last night and I thought it was just fabulous and sharp. It’s discussing things that we wouldn’t even have thought of 30 years ago.”
He also is aware that today’s comedians have to deal with the added scrutiny that social media brings. Hanks suggested he get on Twitter years ago because he said it was good for promotion, but Martin says he’s not been all that active on it lately because “it takes a lot of time out of your life to try to craft (a Tweet).” But he followed the scandal that erupted when old Tweets written by incoming “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah were uncovered and then deemed offensive.
“People really do like to pile on when they can … I mean, with Trevor I read some of those lines and thought they were standard lines from a nightclub act and suddenly he can’t say them on Twitter,” says Martin. “Nobody cared about his comments in a nasty way until he got his latenight job. It’s like the comedians who become political candidates. Pretty soon they’re going to have their income tax returns posted.”
Martin’s film resume, which ranges from “Bringing Down the House” and “Cheaper by the Dozen” to “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Jerk” and “L.A. Story,” has allowed him to enjoy both commercial and critical success. And no, he doesn’t find it ironic that a Los Angeles institution is honoring him for films that highlight the city’s flaws.
“I feel ‘L.A. Story’ was a love letter, so it doesn’t feel like a contradiction,” he says. “I’ve lived in L.A. since I was 17. I have a long experience with it.”
Martin is also not put off by Hollywood’s remake culture — after all, “Father of the Bride” was a remake, and he dared step into the legendary Peter Sellers’ shoes as Inspector Clouseau in the 2006 “Pink Panther” reboot. The 1987 comedy “Roxanne,” for which he starred and wrote the screenplay, is an adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
Martin does say he’s too busy with projects such as “Bright Star,” the
bluegrass-tinged musical he wrote with musician Edie Brickell, to take on another Hollywood trend: Getting A-listers to star in TV series like Billy Crystal on FX’s “The Comedians.”
“I have my plate very full with music,” Martin explains. “I’m not looking to take on a 14-hour-a-day job … yet.”
What: 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award
When: June 4
Where: Dolby Theatre, Hollywood