Martin was kidding, of course, as he had been informed months ago he was receiving the honor. The actor, writer and musician has started in such films as “Roxanne” and “The Jerk” and among his many accolades are five Grammys, an Emmy, an honorary Oscar, a Kennedy Center Honor and a Mark Twain prize. But as Martin Short, his costar in five films, pointed out, “Tonight’s trophy is different. Because tonight’s trophy he really doesn’t deserve.”
The evening opened with a collection of scenes from Martin’s films intercut with clips from classic movies, drawing comparisons to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Humphrey Bogart, among others. The montage was set to banjo music, as Martin’s enthusiasm for the instrument became a running gag throughout the night. Short joked that hanging out with Martin was like the movie “Deliverance” — “It’s all fun and games until the banjo comes out.”
To kick off the tribute, Jack Black arrived to sing the National Anthem (actually “The Thermos Song” from “The Jerk”), which kicked off a parade of A-list presenters paying tribute to the comedian.
Tina Fey was up first, calling Martin “the first rock star comedian” who would sell out stadiums. She also quipped of her “Baby Mama” costar, “I remember the first time I ever saw one of Steve’s movies — it was on the plane ride here today.”
Many presenters spoke of how Martin inspired their own careers. Sarah Silverman revealed that after seeing “Roxanne” at age 16, “I didn’t just love Steve, I wanted to be him.”
Amy Poehler revealed that she would rewatch “The Jerk” over and over, writing down every word. “It remains the best thing I’ve ever written,” she noted.
Many spoke of Martin’s multitude of talents. In a taped segment, Tom Hanks said that if Martin had been around in the silent era, “he would have been a rival of Chaplin.”
Martin was serenaded by everyone from Short to Diane Keaton to Queen Latifah before being presented with the award by 2013 AFI Life Achievement Award honoree Mel Brooks, who said he was presenting “with admiration and a brushstroke of jealousy.”
Martin was both funny and heartfelt in his speech, sometimes at the same time. “I have finally realized what a comic genius is,” he noted. “A comic genius is someone who decides never to go into comedy.”
He added, “I’m so proud to have his honor and I thank the AFI” before closing with a quote from one of his favorites, Jack Benny: “I don’t really deserve this award but I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either.”
TNT will air the tribute on June 13.