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Wednesday, October 20, 2004
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National Public Radio (NPR)
SHOW: Talk of the Nation 3:00 AM EST NPR
October 19, 2004 Tuesday
Steve Martin discusses life on the stage and the page
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
When tax time rolls around each spring, Steve Martin must need an extra line or two to describe his occupation. Magician, banjo player, actor, comedian, playwright, screenwriter and novelist. His first, called "Shopgirl," is already on its way to the movies. His latest best-seller, "The Pleasure of My Company," has just come out in paperback. Clearly, the next logical step in this long career is reality television.
Later in the program, we'll talk with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman about the latest twist in the widening steroid scandal.
But first, Steve Martin joins us from NPR West. If you have a question about his movies, TV show or his books, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steve Martin, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor; Comedian; Author): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
Mr. MARTIN: And actually, that drug scandal really applies to me. I think writers should be tested for steroid use.
CONAN: We've always wondered. Everybody's always wanted to know, is Steve Martin taking steroids?
Mr. MARTIN: Absolutely. And--but I think a lot of writers are taking vitamins. And I think that's wrong. They're trying to improve their mind. I think that's cheating.
CONAN: So what do you put on your tax form? As little as possible, but other than that.
Mr. MARTIN: The truth is, I don't look at it. I just sign it. So it probably says `actor.' That became the easiest one-word description. Sometimes I'll have to fill out what I do for living, you know, when you're crossing borders, especially when you're doing covert work for the government. And so I just write `actor.'
CONAN: And the covert work for the government, that's--the arrow through the head. That's not a problem with that?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, it breaks down.
CONAN: I see. Oh, it's...
Mr. MARTIN: It breaks down. So it's...
CONAN: ...new technology.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
CONAN: It's coming along all the time.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. And also I noticed earlier you talking about the Chinese political situation. And I coincidentally had my entire dossier on Chinese political, you know, politics here with me. And I'll send it off to you.
CONAN: Oh, the Sino-Soviet split--that passage has got to be fascinating.
Mr. MARTIN: It's one of my areas of expertise.
CONAN: Well, tell us about another area of expertise. I wasn't joking about reality TV. You're working on show called "The Scholar"?
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. I have a television company, a partner with Joan Stein, and it's--you know, we develop shows. And this idea was actually brought to us, it wasn't my own idea. It's not my--again, whereas Chinese politics is my area of expertise, actually the collegiate world right now is not. So, actually, other people are developing it. And I'm contributing to it along with Joan Stein. In fact, I have a meeting right after this about it. And we're--I hate to use these words because everybody says they're excited about things. But it will give away a full four-year scholarship to a deserving youth.
CONAN: And just off the top of your head, I mean, this sounds like a reality TV show for PBS.
Mr. MARTIN: It kind of does, but it's for ABC. And they're fully behind it. And, you know, the toughest part is--because reality television is based on humiliation--not to humiliate our contestants.
CONAN: So there's no questions about Kierkegaard?
Mr. MARTIN: There may be. But, you know, we need that kind of "Jeopardy!" challenges where you're just so impressed with the brilliance of these people as they win money.
CONAN: As long as you don't get Ken Jennings on the show.
Mr. MARTIN: We don't want him.
CONAN: No, you don't want him. He just keeps winning and winning and winning.
Mr. MARTIN: I know.
CONAN: Boy, it's hard.
As we mentioned, your latest novella is out in paperback. Novella--both of your novels, I call them, but they're both, in terms of strictly length, novellas. Is there something about the length, you just couldn't finish it?
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I just stop. That was a joke.
CONAN: I figured it was a joke.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. No, actually, I've thought about this before. And I was especially thinking about it last night because I was talking to a friend and I was mentioning I was going to do the interview. And they said, `What are you going to do the interview on?' And I said, `Well, really, a paperback.'
And, you know, I've done interviews on the hardback a year ago. And now I'm doing interviews on the paperback. And the first thing was, well, what's the difference? And there actually is a difference. And the difference is this: that in the hardback, there were printing errors that, to me, hurt the integrity of the book. And they would be rare had there not been 200,000 copies published.
CONAN: I see.
Mr. MARTIN: They'd be collectible, I should say.
CONAN: Yeah. Like the upside-down airplane or something stamp.
Mr. MARTIN: So the book was--pardon me?
CONAN: Like the stamp that has the upside-down airplane. Yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: Exactly. And--but, in this case, it actually to me affected the tensity and outcome, emotional content of the book. So it was published with errata sheets, and the errata sheets were, you know, hustled out to the bookstores and, of course, no ever got them. So...
CONAN: Can you give us an example of something that changed?
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. In the book, the character is, for lack of better words--and I don't think this quite applies--obsessive-compulsive to a humorous degree, I should say. And one of the things he does to relax when he gets agitated--for example, he can't cross the street at the curb. He finds that illogical, that there's a barrier there. So he can only cross the street where two opposing driveways meet because it makes complete sense to him that there's an opening in the street, for example.
And one of the things, when he gets frustrated, in order to relax, is he makes magic squares. And he goes to the art supply store and buys big sheets of cardboard. And a magic square is, you know, a square filled with numbers that add the same in any direction you add them. And he intuits them. He can close his eyes, picture the square, and the numbers come to him. And he fills out the magic square. And he finds it relaxing because it's so occupying.
And in the opening of the book, his life is very, very closed off, very isolated. But as people start to come into his life, he creates magic squares with people in them. And he's always trying to find the center, who the center of the square is. And it's always empty. And so these change. As different people come to into his life, he puts different names into the squares. And when these were printed, for some reason, a couple of them were substituted with dummy copy, which bore no relationship to the book at all, or it was out of sequence. And I found it quite disturbing. So the errors have been corrected in this paperback version.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, but that didn't even answer your question.
CONAN: Yeah. No, it didn't.
Mr. MARTIN: That's what--I'm trying to fill 50 minutes here.
CONAN: Well, yeah, I mean, that's my job. Your job's just to answer the questions here.
Mr. MARTIN: I just go `yes' and `no'? That's great.
Mr. MARTIN: The reason the books are short is that, one, being an entertainer, I always know that shorter is better. But that's not the main reason. The main reason is that I feel the books are dense and I think--in the sense that the language is--it's not just simple storytelling, which I admire and envy. There's a lot of thought; there's a lot of exploration of mind; there's a lot of language. And there's a lot of, I would call, sometimes more lyrical writing. And I don't think you can go on too long with that kind of writing.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from James in Cleveland, Ohio. `As a writer, I'm always curious how other writers do it. Do you have any rituals? Do you keep journals, pen and paper, before you go on the computer?'
Mr. MARTIN: I work only when I'm inspired. I find that that daily grind is not the way I do it. I deeply believe in a subconscious process, that when you're not working or when you're--let's use the word `blocked,' although I don't really run up against that because I don't try to write if I'm not in the mood--I believe that the subconscious mind is forming ideas, forming ideas, and then suddenly they're ready. And you sit down and that's when they start to come. So, you know, I don't punish myself.
CONAN: You don't stare at that blank screen?
Mr. MARTIN: No. I was going--nothing. Yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
CONAN: So that's interesting. Let's get some calls...
Mr. MARTIN: God, it better be. Woof. Phew.
CONAN: Yeah, let's hope so.
Mr. MARTIN: Tough interview. Yeah.
CONAN: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
And we'll talk first with Steve. Steve's on the line from Berkeley, California.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh. Oh, it's great. Same name.
STEVE (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call.
Mr. MARTIN: My pleasure.
STEVE: Steve, a pleasure to speak with you, sir. Just wanted to say "Let's Get Small"...
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah?
STEVE: ...my favorite comedy album of all time, bro. Wondering when you might be getting back out on the road and getting back into that vein, whatever.
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, yes. I will be out on the road never. So you can mark--you put that on your calendar. Well, thank you. "Let's Get Small" was my first comedy record, and it was recorded in such a homemade process. I had a manager named Bill McEuen who followed me around. And actually on the record--it was all nightclubs. And then the next album was "Wild and Crazy Guy," which was all concert arenas. And so the difference is, you know, that sort of nightclub sound with the sporadic laughter. And you can actually hear my manager, you know, sometimes the only one laughing. But we used to drive around to these what they were then, folk music clubs, coffeehouses, and record me.
CONAN: And you say never because it was such a wonderful experience?
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. You know what it--I'll tell you. It's a complete experience and it's a younger person's experience. You know, a different town every night is not the way I live now. It's just not.
Mr. MARTIN: And also, to be a stand-up comedian, to be sharp, you have to do it all the time. That's what I've found. When I was doing my stand-up act, and I'd be, for example, going on "The Tonight Show," I always tried to work the night before. If I took even a day off, I felt a weird kind of timing slip. It's like maybe a dancer or--it was that kind of feeling, that I just really needed to stay sharp.
CONAN: OK. Steve, thanks for the call.
STEVE: Thank you.
CONAN: OK. Bye-bye.
Let's go to Laura. Laura's calling from Oakland, California.
LAURA (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Geographic diversity here. Go ahead, Laura.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
LAURA: Hi, Steve Martin. I just wanted to say that my three-year-old son enjoys your balloon skit from the old "Muppet Show."
Mr. MARTIN: Aha. Good. Good.
Mr. MARTIN: That's about the right age, I would say.
LAURA: Well, I do, too, but I guess I shouldn't admit that.
Mr. MARTIN: You should give him my book.
LAURA: You know, he's...
CONAN: He'll probably need four or five copies.
LAURA: He's been tossing around this copy of Dostoyevsky. So maybe he'd be ready for your book.
Mr. MARTIN: OK. Well, he should get through that book first, I think, before he attempts mine.
LAURA: OK. I have a BA in philosophy. And I understand that you have a PhD in philosophy.
Mr. MARTIN: (Laughs) You know, this is one of those, you know, things that gets out there that is absolutely not true. I do have a PhD...
Mr. MARTIN: ...an honorary PhD from the school I went to, Long Beach State. But I studied philosophy in college. I went to college for four years. I changed my major in my last year from philosophy to theater, and I was taking a television writing course, and I, through a weird sequence of events, got a job writing for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." And I quit school. So I don't even have a BA.
LAURA: Oh. So we should then just drop out and replace philosophy with TV.
Mr. MARTIN: I guess that's the message I'm trying to deliver to your son.
LAURA: OK. Well, that totally changes my entire life.
Mr. MARTIN: There's also another rumor that I'm a Mormon, and that rumor was created--which I'm not. But that rumor was created because I was in a movie and I wore, like, a T-shirt underneath that had a scooped neck. It was just the kind of T-shirt I wore at the time. And it looks like garments, which is something that Mormons wear, I think, during a period of their induction into the church. So that rumor is a false one, too.
CONAN: Laura, thanks very much for the call, and take care of that little philosopher we hear in the background.
LAURA: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Steve Martin, your answer...
Mr. MARTIN: Why am I here? I'm humiliating myself. I'm letting all these, like, great rumors about me die out here. I like the idea of a PhD in philosophy. I wish.
CONAN: But now we get it. "The Scholar"--you're going to be a contestant.
Mr. MARTIN: (Laughing) Exactly. Try to get that BA.
CONAN: We're talking with Steve Martin. When we come back from a break, we'll take more of your calls. Our number, if you'd like to join us, is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking with actor, writer, banjo player and novelist Steve Martin. His latest novel, "The Pleasure of My Company," is just out in paperback. You're invited to join us: (800) 989-8255, if you have a question for Steve Martin. You can also e-mail us: email@example.com.
And you mentioned your days of performing on the road in the last segment. Here's some tape of you performing at The Boarding House in San Francisco in the late 1970s. In this bit, you're having some trouble with getting the light crew to fulfill your request for a blue spotlight.
Mr. MARTIN: All right.
(Soundbite of tape)
Mr. MARTIN: You know, I'm really up to here with this. It's just a matter that, you know, I am on stage, and it's my ass out here, you know what I mean? And I come out and I'm giving and I'm giving and I'm giving and I keep giving and I give some more, and I make a simple request. I say, hey, could I possibly have a blue spot? But I guess the lighting crew feels they know a little bit more about show business than I do, although I've been in the business a few years and I think I know what works best. I'm sorry, but I am angry. I come out here and I can't get a little cooperation from the backstage crew? Excuse me!
CONAN: Steve Martin at NPR West. Except for moments, occasions like this, do you ever go back and listen to any of that stuff?
Mr. MARTIN: Never. Never. You know, in fact, you know, I was listening to satellite radio in my car. And there's a comedy channel. And somebody came out and I said, I thought to myself, this guy is doing me. I can't--he's got the same exact speech pattern. And then I listened--oh, I mean, I don't know, he must have been listening. And then I realized it was me. I didn't remember the routine or the sound of my own voice.
By the way, who played that banjo? Was that broadcast, that banjo song?
CONAN: Well, member stations around the country may have given traffic and weather over that banjo...
Mr. MARTIN: Those idiots. Anyway, that was a nice banjo playing.
CONAN: Well, let's talk with...
Mr. MARTIN: But I'd really like to know what the traffic and weather is around the country. I really...
CONAN: Well, your satellite radio can tell you that probably as well.
Mr. MARTIN: OK.
CONAN: Michelle is with us now on the line from Syracuse, New York.
MICHELLE (Caller): Yes, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.
MICHELLE: And, Steve, I heard that banjo music. It was wonderful.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, that's not me playing.
MICHELLE: That's why I'm calling.
Mr. MARTIN: OK, but that wasn't me playing.
MICHELLE: I want more banjo music from you.
Mr. MARTIN: Say that again?
MICHELLE: I want to hear more banjo music from you. When are you going to put out a CD or a DVD or whatever they call them now?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, get your pen and write this down: Never.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARTIN: No, I love to play. I'm an amateur player, sometimes. In fact, I recently won--this is the equivalent of my PhD--I won a Grammy for best country instrumentalist last year or year before last. And the reason I won that is Earl Scruggs put out a record, a 75th anniversary record, and they asked different people to play on it--"Foggy Mountain Breakdown." So I played on it. And we all got when he won--and he won--we all got these Grammys, but they're marked best country instrumentalist. So I guess I have to accept it, that I am the best country instrumentalist.
MICHELLE: Yes. Yes, you are. I love banjo. And with bluegrass, like, it's going crazy because all this other music that's out there--more and more people are incorporating the banjo into music. And it's such a happy instrument. You can't be sad with it, like you say. And it's just wonderful. And I really wish you would continue to do that.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I do play a lot. I do play a lot. In fact, I'm having a little bluegrass party next week with this...
MICHELLE: Oh, great.
Mr. MARTIN: ...beautiful banjo player named Pete Wernick.
MICHELLE: That's wonderful to hear.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. And--but also, the banjo is happy, but it also can be very, very melancholy, which is a quality I love about the banjo.
CONAN: Michelle, thanks very much for the call.
MICHELLE: Yes. Thank you for taking my call again. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
You also did win a grammar award for best comedy syntax. But...
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you very much. That's another...
CONAN: But you mentioned earlier...
Mr. MARTIN: I wish I could win a grammar award.
CONAN: You wrote for the Smothers Brothers back in the '60s, I guess it was, or early '70s.
Mr. MARTIN: Late '60s and early '70s. Yeah, well--yeah. Sorry.
CONAN: At the time, now, that was the most political show on television. In fact, they got canceled a couple of times for being too political.
Mr. MARTIN: Right.
CONAN: And you've gone the rest of your career sort of determinedly apolitical. How come?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, a couple of reasons. One, I like being a comedian and I like if the public sees me--they're not making, you know, political connections to what I do, what I write, what I say. So I keep my politics to myself. Also I think, you know, I'm not learned enough to debate politics, to present those ideas in a sophisticated way. And I think that's actually a problem, is that there's almost too much celebrity stuff out there of, you know, just endorsement of somebody just by standing there. And I don't feel I have--actually, I mean, I have the right, but I don't have the right more than anyone else to purvey my political thoughts publicly.
But I do write--you know, I had a friend who said, `I'm going to try and write a speech for John Kerry.' And so she sat down, and I had lunch with her the next day. She said, `I tried to write it, I couldn't do it because everything I came up was politically incorrect or was offensive to someone.' So I gave it a try, and I sat down one night and tried to write a speech for John Kerry, which I did. And I kept it to myself. But it was a good exercise in writing down your own beliefs.
CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. And Stephen joins us on the phone from Sarajevo.
STEPHEN (Caller): Good afternoon.
Mr. MARTIN: Sarajevo?
CONAN: Hi, Steve.
STEPHEN: It's good to be talking with you. You've been one of my favorite entertainers over the years. I've been in Sarajevo for a couple of years now, and the folks here are interested in many aspects of American culture, especially movies and comedians and such. But no one has heard of you here, except for one group.
Mr. MARTIN: One who? One group?
STEPHEN: Dentists have heard of you.
Mr. MARTIN: (Laughs) Yes, I've played a couple of dentists.
STEPHEN: They're the only ones. No kidding.
CONAN: I'm sorry, Stephen. That last line we missed.
STEPHEN: I say, they're the only ones, and I'm not kidding. I have actually asked around, and I have some of your records and things. And I play bits and pieces. And I get kind of a glassy-eyed stare, except for dentists.
CONAN: Well, that's completely understandable. Two things. One is, why dentists? I played two dentists. I played in "Little Shop of Horrors" an insane dentist. And then I, in a movie called "Novocaine," I played not an insane dentist but a desperate dentist. And that may reach the dentists, which is the audience I'm targeting in Sarajevo. So, actually, my publicity scheme there is working quite well.
STEPHEN: There is one dentist in particular that actually has a picture of you...
Mr. MARTIN: Well...
STEPHEN: ...from "Little Shop of Horrors."
Mr. MARTIN: That's the grassroots; that's the beginning of the grassroots Steve Martin movie swelling in Sarajevo.
CONAN: Interestingly, a friend of mine was in a movie with you, "HouseSitter," Woody Brune(ph), who--his film career was largely composed of playing clerks and dentists. He played a clerk in "HouseSitter." And he always would say that, you know, that's acting, you know, when you can hold up the drill and point to the fish on the wall. Boy, you'd better be good when you're playing a dentist.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, you do have to learn to use the tools. That's true. I visited a dentist in New York and stayed there and learned to use the tools. And you gotta look like you can handle them. And now I actually do dentistry on the side, which is fantastic.
CONAN: On the side?
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, that's great.
Stephen, thanks very much for the call.
STEPHEN: My pleasure.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.
STEPHEN: Thank you, gentlemen.
Mr. MARTIN: So we're live in Sarajevo right now?
STEPHEN: We're live in Sarajevo. The reach of all kinds of...
Mr. MARTIN: You know, this is how I think actually Americans win the hearts and minds, is through our art and music and our, you know, freedom, in a sense, being broadcast around the world. So there you go.
CONAN: So there you go.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
CONAN: Andy's on the line from Binghamton, New York.
Mr. MARTIN: I'm daring anyone to write that down. I didn't hear...
CONAN: Yeah, that's why I hesitated there.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
CONAN: Binghamton, New York. Andy.
ANDY (Caller): Hello, Steve. I just wanted to steal a line from your movie and say you changed my life twice. I saw you 27 years ago perform at my college in upstate New York. And you truly were an entertainer, something that today comedians, I think, and others squander. You know, you played the banjo, as we heard; you told jokes; you juggled--a skill we don't see too often.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
ANDY: And after your performance, you actually came out of the auditorium and stood in the middle of the quad and did shtick for about 250 people that was just riotous.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I used to do that. That was a lot of fun. Once early on, when the audience size was manageable, I was at a college--maybe yours--and we went outside and there was an empty swimming pool, and I had everyone get in the swimming pool and then I swam over the tops of them.
ANDY: Well, in this case, one of the campus police cars actually prowled up towards where this crowd was--I don't think they knew what was going on--and you looked over and you had the crowd in your hand and you said, `If he gives us any trouble we'll flip the car over.' And if you had just given the word...
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, boy.
ANDY: ...that officer would have been on his roof. But I...
Mr. MARTIN: Those were different times. I would have been shot now.
ANDY: Yes. I have to tell you about the second way that you changed my life, and that was I was dating online and put in my profile one of your quotes, that there's someone out there for all of us even if it takes a compass, a pickax and night-vision goggles to find them, and I had someone respond to that who I'm now living with.
Mr. MARTIN: Fantastic. Did you...
ANDY: And my eight-year-old daughter is a big fan of your films, though I have to sort of explain your choice of names of dogs and...
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
ANDY: ...explain what a little fireman is.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, OK.
ANDY: But this is the biggest thrill I've had speaking with you and thank you very much for all of your work. You truly are a treasure.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you very, very much.
CONAN: Andy, does your wife know that that line wasn't yours?
ANDY: Yes, she does and she's not my wife.
CONAN: Ah. OK. Well, I hate--sorry to jump to the conclusion. Anyway, thanks for the phone call.
ANDY: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Mandy in Jacksonville, Florida. `When you were growing up did you know you were funny?'
Mr. MARTIN: No. But I did know that I loved comedy and I loved to laugh and I loved to watch comedians and I didn't--you know, there's--you don't really know you're funny 'cause it's so hard to call yourself something that you are. But for me, much, much later and it really had the--you know, professionally funny is one thing and then sort of funny with your friends is another thing, and I really enjoy, you know, being funny with friends and I love to hang out with funny people, and I just grew up on comedy and it just made me want to do it, to sort of relive the experience that someone sent to me. So, you know, it's a complicated question 'cause there's also--you know, there's the funny years, you know, and then there's the doer years, you know, going to...
CONAN: Well, then there's also...
Mr. MARTIN: ...college and very serious and, you know, confused, you know, so you kind of...
CONAN: Well, there's the philosophy student and then there's the class clown.
Mr. MARTIN: Exactly.
CONAN: Yeah. And both is, I guess, the answer. Well, OK.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, OK.
CONAN: We'll leave it there. What comedians when you were a kid did you laugh at a lot?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, you have to understand that when I was a kid it was television--I was born in 1945 and so let's say it's now 1953 or 4, television was mostly showing older comedians. They were--I mean, films like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello...
CONAN: Three Stooges, yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: ..and--right, well, yeah. I was not a fan so much of the Three Stooges, but I loved Laurel and Hardy. And so those were the comedians I really grew up on, and then there was a big, big breakthrough with modern comedy with Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman.
CONAN: We're talking with Steve Martin.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Get another caller on the line. Lisa is with us from Concord, North Carolina.
LISA (Caller): Hello.
Mr. MARTIN: Hello.
LISA: Hi. I'm in my car so you just--a minute...
Mr. MARTIN: Uh-oh.
LISA: ...but my question was a lot of the callers have been calling and talking about how much we loved the Steve Martin, you know, that we listened to and saw in the movies and stuff, and I was wondering as far as your comedic personality, how much does that or how much of that did you get into your book.
Mr. MARTIN: Into my book. Well, the book--the first book, "Shopgirl," is--I would not call it a funny book. It has funny sequences in it, but it is really much--is quite a poignant book, I think. And the film that we have just finished of it starring Claire Danes is quite a poignant movie with humor. But "The Pleasure of My Company" I actually think of as a funny book. It is also quite poignant, I believe, but it has much more humor. But you have to be very careful in writing comedy in a book because it's easy to just go beyond the truth of the character and maybe go for a joke. You have to--I really am careful about that, that all the humor in these two novels anyway has to be in a way believable. And I believe the humor in "Pleasure of My Company" is that kind of happy-sad thing where the character gets himself in trouble and you just feel for him. So it's a delicate balance in novel writing. If I write a piece for The New Yorker, then anything goes. You know, you can just be silly or funny or make a point.
LISA: Can I ask you one more question, if I could?
Mr. MARTIN: Sure.
LISA: Why did you write the book? "Pleasure"--I'm sorry.
CONAN: "The Pleasure of My Company"?
Mr. MARTIN: Why did I write it? Oh.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, actually it's--a lot of things grow from something else, and I had been writing some pieces for The New Yorker and occasionally I would write about where the central figure was this, you know, slightly offbeat person. And a friend of mine--in fact, Joan Stein is my partner in this "Shopgirl"--sorry, "Scholar" enterprise--said to me, `I love it when you write about that guy.' And I instantly knew what she was talking about and I thought, `Ah. Ah. That guy--that is a rich character.' Now I'm not describing the character to you right now 'cause it's too long a tale, but that's what this book is, is the development of that personality, and in a strange way, it relates to my stand-up comedy act because the character I did was closed-off in a way and saw things in a different way and...
Mr. MARTIN: ...was arrogant, was the world's authority and not--doesn't quite relate to this book, but anyway, that's--it's a long story.
LISA: Well, I--yeah, I can't wait to read it.
CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the call.
LISA: It was--I enjoyed talking to you.
CONAN: OK. Bye-bye. I think she enjoyed talking to you, not necessarily to me. She can talk to me any day.
Mr. MARTIN: No, no, no. That--she did not enjoy talking to you; it was strictly me.
CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we're going to continue our conversation with Steve Martin. If you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Of course we left sometime singer off that list of occupations as well.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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Mr. MARTIN: They're telling you. Now when I die, now don't think I'm a nut. Don't want no fancy funeral, just one like old King Tut. He coulda won a Grammy, buried in his jammies.
Unidentified Group: Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia. Born in Arizona...
Mr. MARTIN: Got a condo made of stona.
Unidentified Group: King Tut.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Here are some of the stories NPR News is following today. On the campaign trail, President Bush today tried to calm fears among Florida voters about the shortage of flu vaccine, while Senator Kerry continued to battle charges about his stance on terrorism. And the Army is considering punishment for members of a Reserve unit in Iraq who refused to go on a mission last week after complaining about the condition and safety of their vehicles. Some details on those stories coming up later this afternoon on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Today we're talking with Steve Martin. "The Pleasure of My Company" is the name of his book just out in paperback. He's with us from the studios of NPR West.
And, Steve, all of your biographical material says Steve Martin lives in Los Angeles and New York, which--not easy when you think about it. But where--what do you consider home?
Mr. MARTIN: Los Angeles. That's where I essentially grew up, mostly. I did live in Aspen, Colorado; I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a while. But really, LA is home.
CONAN: And you grew up right outside of Disneyland.
Mr. MARTIN: I did. I grew up in Garden Grove, California. In fact, I just did a little film for Disneyland's 50th anniversary, and it's going to play inside the park, you know, and I'm sort of the host. I'm working with Donald Duck, etc., but it was kind of--you know, I started working there when I was 10 at Disneyland selling guidebooks. And I had various jobs, ending up at the magic shop there doing magic tricks. And so it was kind of a full-circle thing to have finally achieved hostdom at the Magic Kingdom, having started there as a kid.
CONAN: And in a way, I mean, you're doing this show for ABC-TV. You've done a lot of movies for Disney as well.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes. Yes. "Bringing Down the House" was for Disney and so is "Shopgirl," you know.
CONAN: Yeah. Let's get another caller on the line. Tom joins us from...
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, before we run out of stuff. Yeah.
CONAN: Before we run out of material. Tom is with us from Oklahoma City.
TOM (Caller): Hi there.
Mr. MARTIN: Hi.
TOM: I was backstage crew working on one of your shows, "Picasso and Einstein Lapin Agile."
Mr. MARTIN: "At the Lapin Agile." "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is a play I wrote.
TOM: I loved it. It was great being backstage 'cause I could hear your voice in the dialogue.
Mr. MARTIN: Ah.
TOM: It was just amazing. I was wondering what other shows that you might be having in the works, any other plays coming up.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I did write some other plays. But I'm not writing one now because that's that inspiration issue. I remember once David Geffen called me and he said--you know, it was like 1984, '85 and he said, `You know what? You should go back on the road. You should go back to your comedy act.' And I said, `I don't have anything to say.' And that's the way I feel about right now a play. I don't have anything to say. I like to think about it and wait till I have something to say, essentially, and figure out the best medium for it.
Mr. MARTIN: So right now I've written the Pink Panther movie that is going to come out next summer--co-written, sorry. The Pink Panther movie, and I wrote the screenplay to "Shopgirl" and I have adapted A.R. Gurney's play "Sylvia" into a screenplay, and that's kind of what I'm doing now and writing little tidbits for The New Yorker occasionally. But the--I have other plays. I have a play...
TOM: Oh, yes.
Mr. MARTIN: ...called "WASP," which is about a WASP family--it's a one-act, presented in a kind of funny and lyrical, strange way, so it is a play I actually quite like.
CONAN: You mentioned--obviously you adapted "Shopgirl" for the movies. Very little dialogue in the book. Obviously, you had to...
Mr. MARTIN: Right.
CONAN: ...write some for the film.
Mr. MARTIN: Right. And that was a--the book was written kind of internally inside people's heads. So I did have to write dialogue. But that was the challenge of it and, you know, the movie is so not about dialogue. It's like the dialogue is--it's almost the reverse of a normal movie in that--well, I can't say that, but the visuals and you kind of stay with the person and you stay with them and the visuals are extremely important to the movie.
CONAN: It's interesting and, as you mentioned, you wrote that book; it was sort of an omniscient narrator in that first book. The second book, very first-person.
Mr. MARTIN: Right.
CONAN: Easier or harder?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I wrote "Shopgirl" in--because it was my first attempt at a novel I wrote it from an omniscient narrator because I thought it would be easier to begin with because, oh, well, here I get the opportunity--I can say anything that's going on inside anyone's head; it might get me out of trouble. And I didn't know how long I could extend a book in the first person, how I could sustain it. But then once I had on "Pleasure of My Company" the character in mind fully--and it's, by the way--anyway, it sort of writes itself almost. You know, I think one of the mistakes made that I encounter in the television industry is they try to have you list characters' qualities so you'll have a page and it'll say `Joe' and it will say, you know, `Loves to have fun, likes' blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And this is so not the way to write characters. Characters are extremely subtle, and I guarantee you that any of that paragraph that describes that character will not end up in your screenplay, your book or whatever because qualities--you know, five qualities of a character do not translate. All characters are subtle.
CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.
TOM: You bet.
CONAN: You've see...
Mr. MARTIN: Did I go on too long?
CONAN: No, no, no. You did great. And I know you need that reassurance from me.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes, I do. Thank you.
CONAN: Well, which leads to my next question. You've succeeded at so many things. Do you still worry that, you know, the next thing out is going to be a turkey?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, absolutely. And that is--that just goes along with the territory. Everything--you know, the joy--I've learned that the joy in a movie is making it. The joy in a book is writing it. Because you cannot count on anything after that. If it's a success, that's another kind of happiness, a kind of practical happiness. If a book is a success, it's--you know, that's another kind of happiness, too, but you really don't know what people are thinking, you know, but...
CONAN: There's kind of an awful period when you finish the book, you send it to the publishers and then you wait six months, eight months, a year...
Mr. MARTIN: Right. Well, I'm in that now with Pink Panther and "Shopgirl," and they're kind of that state where it's gone away and all that creative energy that goes into making something--the fun of it, the pain of it--I mean, everything I've ever done with the exception of maybe one or two things--one of them was "Roxanne"--has had a negative period, a sour period where it didn't quite work. It needs this; it needs that; it needs to be adjusted and fixed. And I keep reminding myself that that happens on everything. And you--you know, I try to prevent myself from getting--not depressed, but you know, down about it or `What am I doing?' you know, quite challenging yourself because you have to remember it happens all the time.
CONAN: Are you afraid of getting found out that, you know, you've been faking it all these years?
Mr. MARTIN: No. No, I'm not. I don't have that. I had it for a while, but then I--sometimes you just--you just give up on that and you realize, well, you know, I've--I'm still here. I'm still here and I'm--you know, I can get--there is something that--such a small little thing that kind of changed my outlook. When I did a--performers, creative people suffer from reviews. And I don't think critics actually know that. I remember when I was talking to John Simon once, the critic, and he has a reputation for slaughtering people. And I had heard a story that an actress had gone up to him and thrown a glass of wine on him. And so I met him, and he was quite nice and he was very smart and I actually got along with him, but that didn't stop him from killing me, you know, two years later. But I asked him--I said, `I heard a story that an actress threw a glass of red wine on you.' And he said, `Yes, yes, she did.' And I said, `What did you say about her?' And he said, `Nothing! Nothing! I said she had a big nose.'
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Mr. MARTIN: No, so the story was--you know, you can't quite mature out of it, but eventually I think I did. It was over my play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," and this play was a success and I'm actually quite proud of it and I think it's touching and moving. But that's me, you know. And it had been out about two years and now it was going back to Chicago where it began, and a local, you know, paper--one of those--the Chicago version of the LA Weekly gave it a, you know, horrible review saying, you know, it's plays like this that keep, you know, real plays from being performed, which was the standard criticism of anything celebrity. But I know the criticism is not about the thing itself but about the fact that you're famous, as that line sort of comes up, meaning--I guess it means that the critic is saying, `Well, my play is not being done.' But--and I just looked at this review--I don't even know how I ended up with it, but I thought, `OK, so I wrote a play and he wrote a review, and that's the difference between us.' And from then on I thought, `OK, I can go along and do my work and know that some'll be interesting, some won't, some'll be fairly criticized, some will be unfairly criticized,' and it's just part of the business.
And you know, I saw a great--Am I going on too long?--a documentary about David Hockney. And I talked to an art collector, a friend of mine, about five years ago--and I really like David Hockney--and he's a contemporary art collector, and I said, `Do you have any Hockney?' He goes, `Oh, no, he's out of it. He's this'--you know, blah, blah. And then I saw this documentary on him and I realized that Hockney doesn't care. Hockney's going on with his work, making beautiful things. He's in a way outside the contemporary mainstream art scene, although he's represented by important galleries in New York, but he was so enthused about his own work, it just didn't matter what people thought of him, what, you know, outside critics, people with their own specialized point of view think of him. He's making beautiful--he was doing at that point stage design. Anyway, it made me really, really admire David Hockney.
CONAN: Well, let's--I think we fooled them again, Steve.
Mr. MARTIN: We did?
CONAN: Yeah, I think we did.
Mr. MARTIN: We're done with it?
CONAN: I think we're done.
Mr. MARTIN: I'm just getting warmed up.
CONAN: Oh, well...
Mr. MARTIN: I'll get my Chinese documents out.
CONAN: There you go. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. MARTIN: OK. Thank you very much.
CONAN: "The Pleasure of My Company" is Steve Martin's most recent book. It's out in paperback. Steve Martin was kind enough to join us from the studios of NPR West. And, well, here he is playing a little banjo.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.