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DVD Review: “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff”

The target audience for the new Steve Martin box set will remember a time when “on-demand” meant tuning into a television program at the scheduled time, or buying tickets to go see a particular event.

As the internet talking heads love to tell you, there was no Youtube and there weren’t convenient portable iPod-like devices that could store hours of video or thousands of albums in a format that you could carry around in your pocket.

Life was indeed hard, looking at the above amenities that we were forced to live without, so thank goodness we had a guy like Steve Martin around to make everything all better.

In a world so jaded by a box set and super deluxe edition for nearly everything you could possibly think of, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff is still pretty unbelievable. Like a lot of things that Shout! Factory releases, this box set feels a little bit too good to be true.

The contents collected within the three DVD set bring together a treasure trove of Martin’s classic television work, a good portion of which you might have even forgotten about. A mention of Steve’s NBC specials, including A Wild and Crazy Guy from 1978 and 1980’s Comedy Is Not Pretty is sure to bring a smile to the face of those who remember them.

The “Bits and Pieces” portion of the set collects a full DVD worth of various television appearances, ranging from his very first television appearance on Dusty’s Attic in 1966 to music videos to choice moments, such as his guest appearance on the 1978 Johnny Cash Christmas Special. The set also includes a selection of Martin’s late night television appearances (including some of his many Saturday Night Live highlights) and moments of tribute, both to Martin himself and others (Paul Simon, Gene Kelly).

But the grand prize of the set is pretty easily identifiable amidst the more than six hours of material included on Steve Martin: The Television Stuff. It’s the presence of goldmine footage of Martin doing stand-up comedy in the ‘70s. On Location with Steve Martin is an HBO special recorded at the Troubadour in 1976 [the set also includes additional footage from 1979] which offers a valuable peek at Martin in his prime, building the bricks for his now legendary career on stage in the smoky club atmosphere of the Troubadour.

It’s here that we get to see Martin in front of a crowd which included a VIP collective of celebs including Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, demonstrating his many unique talents as a young comedian. His early opening remarks from any other comic could be construed as someone who was green, riding the tenuous line between potentially killing and more likely, bombing.

But for Martin, his carefully staged series of wry commentary (“we’ll be starting in just a few moments – we’re just waiting for the drugs to take effect”) was merely his way of lathering his audience up for a genius night of visual comedy that even now, more than 30 years later, largely still holds up without feeling dated.

Depending on the moment, he was either in character (“I get my drinks here….half price) or making fun of the cliched elements of the standard “comedian” one might see on stage. Sometimes, it was both, all rolled into one. Whether he was strumming a banjo (using his nose to reach that seemingly unattainable chord), making balloon animals or sharing one of his many “skills” with the audience, it all worked.

It worked because it didn’t seem over-thought and Martin’s genius comedic skills brought laughter that didn’t require too much thinking, although often (very often, actually), if you were to examine one of Martin’s jokes, you would find another humourous sidebar wrapped into the package as an unspoken bonus for those who were really paying attention.

A sage dissection of the many layers of Martin’s craft comes from the liner notes for the set, in which Adam Gopnik notes that Martin “was working  for the first generation whose experience of entertainment was almost entirely the experience of talk shows and variety shows,” where Vegas entertainers would appear doing abbreviated versions of their act.

The comedic punch of many of those acts was already well past its expiration date. As Gopnik writes, poking fun at those spent elements has long been a part of comedy – the Marx Brothers got plenty of laughs working off of the absurdities of opera in the ‘40s. By looking at the tired routines of the stand-up comedians who had worked the stage prior to his arrival, Martin found a wealth of material to work off of.

Curated with Martin’s involvement (he adds commentary on the tail-end of each disc), Andrew Solt and his production team have assembled quite an amazing set of Martin’s early comedy work which will be enjoyable for those who remember watching it “back in the day” and even more so, for those who have only known Steve Martin as the actor and wished for an opportunity to see him return to the stage where he first started out. Steve Martin: The Television Stuff grants that wish and so many more in a set which achieves “desert island disc” status nearly as soon as you unwrap it.

We’re assuming of course that there will be DVD players on that desert island. Let’s hope so.




  • http://www.facebook.com/pchianca Peter Chianca

    Great review, Matt. Sounds like a must-have. Does it include the sketch where he drunk-drove a steamroller and flattened a kid whose ball rolls out in the road in front of him? Because I saw that as a kid and have to admit that it freaked me out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.lufkin.9 Mark Lufkin

    I must go out and get this straight away. I too grew up with these specials, and was hoping if they ever saw the light of day, that they would hold up as well as when I saw them as an impressionable 12-13 year old.

  • Malchus

    My only disappointment with this set (and it’s a minor one) is that disc 3 doesn’t include his “Billie Jean” parody from Lorne Michaels’ failed variety show, “The New Show.” I’m sure the Michael Jackson estate held up the use of the song, or maybe Michaels just wants to bury any history of that show. Here’s a link:
    http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/dd1afff41d/the-new-show-steve-martin-billie-jean-from-thaffner