“There Was Little Evidence Anybody Was Ever Going To Care”: How Steve Martin Overcame Doubters To Reach Comedy Heights – Contenders TV: Doc + Unscripted

“There Was Little Evidence Anybody Was Ever Going To Care”: How Steve Martin Overcame Doubters To Reach Comedy Heights – Contenders TV: Doc + Unscripted

The success of the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building has exposed a new generation of viewers to the comedic brilliance and appeal of Steve Martin. But the actor-writer has been appearing onscreen since the late 1960s – and performing even before that, to smaller audiences, as a kid magician at the newly opened Disneyland.

His journey from shy, showbiz-obsessed youth in Southern California to stand-up sensation and (probably still shy) comedy legend is told in Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces, directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville.

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“For years, people had asked Steve about doing a documentary. He always had said no,” Neville commented during an appearance at Deadline’s Contenders: Documentary + Unscripted virtual event. “I think a combination of having a daughter and of Covid, perhaps, made him, like all of us, kind of think about everything in our lives. And I think it just cracked the door enough that he was like, ‘Maybe, maybe I’ll do a documentary.’”

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Directing the Apple TV+ project gave Neville a chance to spend time with a creative mind he had loved since childhood.

“I, like many people, grew up a fan of Steve Martin. … I was of the generation of kids that memorized his albums, and The Jerk was a huge film that came out when I was 12,” the director said. “I convinced my dad to drive me to Las Vegas to see Steve do stand-up when I was 12, but that’s just part of his career. Then [came] the movies. But then I’ve always admired the fact that his career has taken all these twists and turns — playwriting and novel writing and movies and music and art. It went in all these directions that I thought were really interesting and not that of a conventional actor or comedian.”

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Part 1 of the documentary, subtitled “Then,” is devoted to Martin’s upbringing, his fraught relationship with an emotionally distant father and Steve’s slow ascent to stand-up stardom. Fame was a long time coming; he patiently waited for audiences to “get” his comedy – pointless, silly bits with “happy feet” and an arrow through the head.

“What he had was an incredible amount of perseverance. And the thing that spoke to me as a creative person was seeing somebody stick to their convictions for more than a decade where there was little evidence that anybody was ever going to care,” Neville observed. “But that perseverance is the thing that made him him, that a lot of other very talented filmmakers and comedians and everybody else — they can’t survive that decade, or in Steve’s case, almost 15 years of struggling before he finally starts to connect with the culture.”

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At the height of his stand-up success, when he was filling arenas, Martin abruptly gave it up, sensing it was time to pivot to movies. Part 2 of the documentary — subtitled “Now” – picks up with Martin’s life in the present, writing, creating, acting, playing the banjo, hanging with his pal and Only Murders in the Building co-star Martin Short. The Steve Martin of today is a father and happily married man, with deeper emotional connections to those around him than he could seemingly accommodate before.

“You as a viewer have to ask a lot of questions,” Neville explains, “about how did the guy from the first [part] become this guy in the second [part]?”

The answer comes back, again, to dogged determination.

“I really think it was the perseverance where he said, well, the ultimate puzzle’s me,” Neville remarked. “How do I figure out how to be happy?”

Check out the panel video above

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