You were probaby expecting me to post a review of the new AppleTV+ documentary about Steve Martin before it premiered.

Well excuuuuse me!

It took me a few extra days to get around to it, but I have seen both parts of STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces. Part One, “Then,” features his rise from being a Disneyland magician through his break as a young writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. We also see clips showing his progression from experimental comedy misfit to his explosive, rock star-like standup stage successes, culminating in his “wild and crazy” hosting stints on Saturday Night Live.

In Part Two, “Now,” there are plenty of highlights from his movie career, and a brief glimpse behind the scenes of Only Murders in the Building. Don’t blink or you’ll miss that series’ co-star Selina Gomez.

Martin’s private life is more talked about than shown. We meet his wife, Anne Stringfield. They met first over the phone in 2007 when she used to proofread his submissions to The New Yorker. His daughter, born in 2012, is mentioned but only depicted as a stick figure. More time is spent listening to Martin and Short testing out jokes for their live stage shows.

The film is produced and directed by Morgan Neville, who has made acclaimed documentrties about Fred Rogers, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley (“Best of Enemies”) as well as Keith Richards.


For fans of Steve Martin, and I am very much one, there is four hours of a brilliant career to look back on. Much of it is as plugged into the nervous system of any boomer as Beatles music. There is a King Tut clip from Saturday Night Live, scenes from “The Jerk” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” and even shots of Martin and Short riding around on bicycles.

Actually, several minutes of Martin and Short riding around on bicycles. There are also meditations on Martin’s incredible art collection. Many animated panels of Martin’s New Yorker-style cartoons are shown. There is banjo music.

There is also commentary from several of Martin’s comedy peers. Jerry Seinfeld right off the top. Eric Idle from Monty Python. Tina Fey, who recurrs on Only Murders. SNL‘s long-time executive producer Lorne Michaels.

The most penetrating quote, however, is one attributed to Tom Smothers, He once said that “Talking to Steve Martin is like talking to nobody.”

And there hangs the challenge for Neville. Martin is clearly a complicated genius. Who doesn’t love Steve Martin? Well, ask those who used to work with him during the lonely guy stage, which evidently lasted quite a long while. Should we be shocked to learn that a comedian’s life isn’t always funny? Not at all. Neville’s doc, however, gets so dull in spots even Martin makes a joke about it.

Viewers looking for a typical parade of career highlights are in for a deeper dive. This is more like four hours of artistic therapy, a look a comedy superstar who spent much of his life looking (in vain) for approval from his dad and dealing with isolation and anxiety.

None of this should come as a surprise to those who have read up on Martin. He candidly shared his struggles in his 2007 autobiography, “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life.”

I got some second hand insight years ago from Peter Lassally, the legendary late night talk show producer who worked for Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. I asked Lassally if it was true, as had often been suggested, that Letterman, during much of the 30-year run of his show, was only happy one hour a day — the time he was on the air.

Lassally did not try to disuade me of this. Then he told he there was only one guy in comedy who was more screwed up than Letterman — Steve Martin. Lassally had to take a meeting once at Martin’s house and said the minutes felt like hours.

There are parts of STEVE! (martin) that feel that way too. A lot of it is repetitive. I would have loved to have heard from ever insightful and articulate Rob Reiner, who was there with Martin in the hot house known as the Smothers Brothers writing room. I would have welcomed one mention of Rob’s dad, Carl Reiner, who directed Martin in “The Jerk,” “The Man with Two Brains,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and “All of Me.” Movie co-stars such as Diane Keaton weigh in too briefly; Bernadette Peters is seen but not heard.

The good news is that STEVE! (martin) has a happy ending. The comedy legend has never felt more content. For me, however, the best documentary about a comedian remains Judd Apatow’s 2018 film, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. There was another longish look at a complicated clown. We see some echo of Apatow’s doc in Neville’s look at Martin, especially in Part 1 when notes in the comedian’s hand writing are used on screen. Apatow, however, clearly had — besides a treasure trove of incredibly intimate notes — a deep and unfiltered understanding of his subject. It also may have helped that Shandling wasn’t there to loom over that project.

Here is my recommendation: seek out Martin’s episode of Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You’ll take away a breezy understanding of two great comedians and friends sharing a few truths. Watch, if you somehow haven’t already, Only Murders in the Building. There is so much joy in seeing Martin killing it in his seventies. Then go to an art gallery. Go by bicycle. Listen to banjo music. And only then, if you must, watch STEVE! (martin): a documentary in 2 parts.

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