Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Steve Martin Once Really Pissed Me Off"

Comedy genius Steve Martin came to mind, because I recently saw him costarring in The Big Year, where his low voltage performance conjures the image of a world-class jockey who retired and now rides the merry-go-round.

Steve Martin in The Big Year was uncharacteristically tame. Which reminds me of the time when I was working with him where he really pissed me off.

Oh, yeah. I was steaming!

(My sarcasm comes only in hindsight. At the time, I was legitimately upset.)

I was consulting on a show called the George Burns Comedy Week, (1985) toiling two days a week fixing scripts for an anthology comedy series, hosted by legendary comedian George Burns. (Who I got in a fight with, but that’s another story.)

An anthology series is a series, like, say, The Twilight Zone, in which, unlike a regular TV series, every episode is stand-on-its-own distinct, like an individualized, twenty-two minute movie. A comedy anthology series is an anthology series that, unlike The Twilight Zone, is funny.

The Executive Producer of the George Burns Comedy Week was Steve Martin. Steve supervised the show, his celebrated name and track record most likely getting it on the air. Comedy anthologies on TV are extremely rare. The last one before George Burns that I remember was the Damon Runyon Theater, and that was in the fifties.

Comedy anthologies are excruciatingly difficult to pull off. Every week, you are starting from scratch – a new concept, and an entirely new cast (all of whom require network approval.) The George Burn Comedy Week lasted just fourteen episodes.


So we are at a rewrite meeting, struggling to repair a script that was about to be shot. A bunch of ideas are tossed around, including a few from yours truly, the Creative Consultant.

Our progress is painfully slow. Then, I hear Steve Martin say this:

“I’m hearing a lot at this meeting, ‘The character wouldn’t do that.’ Let’s make the character do that.”

At this point, I reflexively groan and roll my eyes. Well, not exactly “roll my eyes.” The way my eyes function, my right eye rolled, while my left eye watched, thinking, “I wish I could do that.”

Given my training as a writer – specifically by the gifted practitioners on the Mary Tyler Moore series and Taxi – “Rule Number One” was

“The character must always behave in character.”

Well, maybe that wasn’t “Rule Number One.” But it was “Rule Number One” after

“The star must get the most lines.”

My training drummed into my brain that “character” was sacrosanct, and must, at all costs, remain consistent with its acknowledged parameters. Otherwise, it was stupid. For a character to do anything the writers made them do – “The Three Stooges” are suddenly college professors (without accidentally falling into a vat full of “Smart Juice”), and the audience is supposed to buy it? That’s Laverne and Shirley talk!

Steve Martin was saying, “Let the character do whatever’s funny, whether it’s in their ‘natures’ to do thing that, or not.”

To which, I outragedly rolled my eye.

Afterwards we were outside, with me, still fuming over this calumny to the “Sacred Rules of Riting.”

Suddenly, Steve Martin appears, he heads down the stairs, and walks straight over to me.

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” he says, either sincerely or mock sincerely, with Steve Martin, I am never able to tell. I memorably responded, “That’s okay”, and that, undramatically, was that.

Later, when I rethought things with a cooler head, it occurred to me that Steve Martin’s entire career was premised on his characters’ behaving “out of character.” That’s what he did for a living – the thing I had groaned at. And a very good living it was.

In The Jerk (1979), Martin’s deceptively brilliant stupid movie, Martin’s character, “Navin R. Johnson” – a white man raised as their own by a poor, black family – is all over the place, acting throughout the movie in no way predictable to anyone familiar with regular, normal, human behavior.

And it works!


I don’t know for sure. But it seems to relate to Martin’s visceral commitment to the integrity of that character, as bizarre and unlike a regular person as he is.

At his comedic best, Martin’s characters – be it his “wild and crazy guy”, or “The Great Flydini”, where Martin produces a series of objects out of his fly, from eggs, to a telephone to a lovely bouquet of flowers – are reflective of an identifiable character type, but they’re presented in an exaggerated form, outlandishly and hilariously larger than everyday life.

(At a party I once attended at Steve Martin’s house, I noticed a number of actual Picasso paintings hanging on his wall. After wondering how much they were worth, my next thought was, “This painter preference is entirely consistent with Steve Martin’s surreal {comedic} vision of the world.)

Years later, I constructed an answer to

“...the character wouldn’t do that. Let’s make the character do that.”

My answer was,

“We can do that. But only if the actor playing that character is you.” (Or perhaps the equally brilliant Peter Sellers, who realistically would have been fired if he’d bumbled as catastrophically as Inspector Clouseau, a character, not coincidentally, also portrayed by Steve Martin.)

The vast majority of actors – and writers – cannot play – or write – things that emanate from somewhere other than their actual experience. An exceptional few, like Steve Martin, can.

As a rule, it is best not to set down conditions that apply only to those exceptional few.

Unless those exceptional few are participating.


Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; you were mad then, but I just don't see the anger on the page here. Mayhap I need to be initiated into the secret society of writers, as all I see here is a classic case of boss v. worker. You know, the age old tale of clueless boss wanting their subordinates to carry out a fantastic new idea (totally clueless, can't possibly work) they've had?

Except it seems that Mr. Martin was asking you to do something he could do and you could not.

You don't strike me as an angry or quick to anger person, so I'll guess you were very frustrated at the spot the script was in when this meeting took place.

As always, I enjoy reading your tales.


PG said...

There's funny and there's funny. It all depends.....
In a naturalistic comedy, like the old MTM ones, or the newer ones like Big Bang or Modern Family, it would not be amusing for the regular characters to behave in a way inconsistent with their personalities. It would be distracting and only serve to remind the audience that this is 'just a TV show'. I find this sort of thing very annoying. Going for the gag no matter what.
On the other hand.....Perhaps that is why when Mary dissolved into inappropriate laughter at Chuckle's funeral, it was precisely the 'out of characterness' of it that was so funny. But, she only did that ONCE!
Lately, I am also getting terribly annoyed at the preponderance of humungous manes of hair dangling from the scalps of actresses on all kinds of TV shows. They require a great deal of tossing and flipping during even the most dramatic moments. Talk about distracting!

Mac said...

I'd be glad to have Steve Martin piss me off, at least you got to work with the guy. I like to think he was sincerely apologizing, but who knows?
I suppose it does come down to whether you're watching "the character" - whose behaviour is strictly defined, and even "out of character" still has to be within the parameters of how he'd believably behave. Or if you're watching "Steve Martin," or some essence of him in the part. "The Jerk" is a great example; he's so unpredictable, you can't tell where it's going.
"Bowfinger" is one of my favourites (of any film, not just his) although it didn't seem to be a big success. I wonder if that's why he "dialled it down" and went onto more PG/Family films, (apart from the 'Panther' films which were an existing character, so didn't seem like much of a stretch) or to less manic performances like 'The Big Year.' Which seems a shame; going by his twitter feed he strikes you as the same inventive comic mind he always was. I'd love to see him go all-out comedy again.
Anyway, great post Earl; always love your stories from the comedy wars.

Andy said...

And naturally, we'd like to hear about the George Burns tiff.