Comedian, actor, author, banjo-player, Wild-And-Crazy-Guy— Steve Martin is as iconic a figure in American humor as anyone. With a cinematic range running from the broad (The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains) to the wry (Plains, Trains & Automobiles, L.A. Story) to the dramatic (The Spanish Prisoner, Shopgirl) to the ill-advised (the Pink Panther remake and its sequel), Martin’s past as a stand-up comedian and hip ‘70’s hero seems to have vanished into the ether. Sure, he’s been ubiquitous on TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” having hosted the show 15 times (right behind Alec Baldwin), but with the exception of a handful of record albums, it’s been hard to capture Martin’s live performances and TV specials except on old bootleg tapes and the occasional laserdisc— until now.
Shout! Factory has just released Steve Martin: The Television Stuff, a packed-to-the-brim collection of all of Steve Martin’s televised concerts, variety shows and other ephemera, including award-show speeches, music videos and selected appearances on “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With David Letterman.” It’s a treasure trove for the Steve Martin completist and the decision to have Martin comment on-camera about each special and individual appearance makes for a fantastic retrospective. You see Martin turn from being a stand-up comic so hyperactive that it’s amazing he was practically a teetotaler in the hedonistic 70’s to a dry straight man and it’s a stunning transformation.
The three-disc set is broken down into three parts, starting with his stand-up specials, including “On Location With Steve Martin: Live At The Troubadour, 1976,” recorded by HBO at the legendary West Hollywood club just a week after Martin’s first appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” His performance — pre-trademark white suit — is funny but incredibly manic; he has fun with his audience, but shoots from one bit to another so quickly that the jokes barely have time to register. Look for a surprise appearance by “Happy Days” alum Henry Winkler in the audience and also in “Homage To Steve,” a hodgepodge that includes “Live At The Universal Amphitheatre, 1978” on the “Wild And Crazy Guy/King Tut” tour. “Homage To Steve” also includes The Absent-Minded Waiter, a short that Martin wrote and starred in along with Buck Henry and Terri Garr that was basically an audition for Paramount, the studio originally backing The Jerk.
The TV specials on Discs One and Two are a mixed bag. 1978’s “A Wild And Crazy Guy” has its moments, but lacks much in the way of cohesive laughs; the original broadcast contained more footage from the “Universal Amphitheatre” concert that’s shown in its entirety elsewhere. The second special, 1980’s “Comedy Is Not Pretty” is funnier but still very uneven; highlights include a rendition of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” filled with chimpanzees and a skit involving Martin drunkenly driving a steamroller with tragic results. Worst of all is “All Commercials… A Steve Martin Special,” a mish-mash of commercial parodies co-starring Paul Reubens and Antonio Fargas (“Huggy Bear” on TV’s “Starsky And Hutch”) which is undercut by a relentlessly phony laugh track. Things improve exponentially, however, with “Steve Martin’s Best Show Ever,” a 1981 special packed with “Saturday Night Live” players like Dan Akyroyd, John Belushi and Bill Murray. For once, the skits are funny and not just silly — the highlight is an Elephant Man parody where Martin wears floppy ears and a trunk— and Martin seems to be having a good time and not just mugging for the camera. Fresh off his dramatic debut as a dancer in Pennies From Heaven, Martin tap-dances with Gregory Hines and does a shockingly good job.
Disc Three is the odds-and-sods disc filled with the “Saturday Night Live” bits and various other appearances. It’s odd that Martin’s classic early “SNL” sketches (what? no Theodoric Of York, Medieval Barber?) aren’t on here, but it’s likely to due to licensing issues. The Steve Martin in the majority of these segments is the dryer, wryer Martin of later years, the one who makes fun of his fame and seems wholly aware how ridiculous his celebrity is. He’s not trying so hard, which sometimes disappoints (Cheaper By The Dozen 1 & 2, anyone?) but still feels more genuine than the spastic desperation of some of the early material. No matter what, this box set is essential for both Steve Martin completists and casual fans alike. The early material is hit-or-miss, but there are enough classic jokes and gags to satisfy across the board.
Also out today from Shout! Factory is the long-awaited full two-season box set of the 1990-1992 cult sitcom “Get A Life.” Starring Chris Elliott as a 30-year-old paperboy who still lives with his parents (played by sitcom veteran Elinor “Father Knows Best” Donahue and Elliott’s real-life father, comedian Bob Elliott), the show is both cynical and sweet and decidedly surreal— Chris encounters aliens, travels back and forth in time and dies repeatedly.
Best-known for its anything-goes approach to comedy —thanks to showrunner David Mirkin, later of “The Simpsons,” and writers that included future “Mr. Show” and “Breaking Bad” star Bob Odenkirk and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind/Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman — "Get A Life" was relegated to “Best-Of” DVDs from Rhino in the early 2000s. After being tied up in disputes over rights issues (including the use of the theme song, R.E.M.’s “Stand”) for years, the show has finally been released in a deluxe set. In addition to the full, uncut episodes, the set is packed full of featurettes, commentaries and even the option to watch certain episodes without laugh tracks. On the downside, the picture quality of the episodes is a little shaky and it’s odd that Chris Elliott doesn’t make a appearance on any of the commentary tracks or featurettes. But put away those dusty homemade VHS tapes— “Get A Life” is on DVD!