During the 1970s, Steve Martin was the most successful standup comedian in America, earning the level of commercial success -- sold-out arena performances, platinum records, hit singles, and delirious fan adulation -- usually reserved for rock stars. Although his career went on to encompass stints as an acclaimed dramatic actor and playwright, for many supporters, the "Wild and Crazy Guy" persona defined on his comedy records remains Martin's true artistic legacy.
Although born August 14, 1945, in Waco, Texas, Martin spent the majority of his childhood in California, eventually working a concession booth at Disneyland as a teen. There he learned a variety of performing skills ranging from magic and juggling to playing the banjo and sculpting balloon animals. After graduating from college, Martin began writing, and occasionally performing, comic material for television programs including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Glen Campbell Hour, and The Sonny & Cher Show. At the tail-end of the '60s he moved to Canada, where, in addition to appearing as a semi-regular on the syndicated series Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour, he also began working as a standup.
Soon, Martin graduated to opening for rock performers, where his long hair, scraggly beard, and hippie wardrobe aligned him firmly with the counterculture movement of the era. However, while in his twenties, his hair began to go white; gradually, Martin began adapting his on-stage persona to fit the change, re-emerging as a clean-cut, immaculately dressed conservative. The contrast with his increasingly high-concept comic identity was sharp: superficially silly and daft, Martin's act contemptuously mocked the inherent stupidity of the standup form, mining catch phrases, props, and schticks to create a unique brand of scathing anti-comedy.
After earning a following on the standup circuit, Martin rose to national prominence thanks to a series of guest appearances on the NBC network's sketch comedy phenomenon Saturday Night Live, as well as a number of performances on The Tonight Show. With the release of his 1977 album debut, Let's Get Small, Martin's career exploded; the record reached the Top Ten, his concerts became immediate sellouts, and one-liners like "I am...one wild and crazy guy!" and "Well excuuuse me!" became hip catch phrases. After a cameo in the musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he made his proper film debut with 1978's The Jerk, which he also scripted; additionally, he wrote a best-selling book, Cruel Shoes.
Also in 1978, A Wild and Crazy Guy, Martin's most successful LP, was released. Another platinum seller, it reached the number two slot on the charts on the strength of the hilarious hit single "King Tut," a pseudo-disco record mocking the then-current national obsession with the legendary Egyptian ruler. Nonetheless, Martin was clearly losing interest in the narrow parameters of the standup form; after his final two albums, 1979's Comedy Is Not Pretty and the following year's Steve Martin Brothers, he made the film musical Pennies from Heaven, a significant move away from his idiotic Jerk persona, and eventually retired from standup performance altogether.
After several underappreciated comedies in tandem with director Carl Reiner (including the clever Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid), Martin won acclaim for his superb slapstick performance in 1984's All of Me. With his sweet performance and stellar screenplay for 1987's Roxanne, a delicate comic spin on Cyrano de Bergerac, he won the critical success that had long eluded him, and soon graduated into dramatic roles in films like Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon and the Silas Marner update A Simple Twist of Fate. Still, by the '90s, Martin seemed largely disenchanted with Hollywood filmmaking, virtually sleepwalking through bland mainstream comedies like Father of the Bride and Sgt. Bilko; instead, he focused his energies on the stage, writing the acclaimed theatrical production Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Ever eclectic, Martin also took the time to record a banjo album, and when the John McKuen-produced Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo appeared from Rounder Records in 2009, it showed he was no slouch on the instrument, and the album further revealed Martin's immense and versatile talent. Martin supported its release by hitting the road with the Steep Canyon Rangers, who served as his backup band. The collaboration was warmly received and led to the release of 2011's Rare Bird Alert, which featured Martin as a temporary member of the Steep Canyon Rangers and included guest appearances by Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks. Love Has Come for You, a collaboration with Edie Brickell that featured her lyrics and singing over Martin's banjo-composed melodies, appeared in the spring of 2013. Reaching number one on Billboard's Top Bluegrass Albums chart, Love Has Come for You was a major success, spawning a tour -- documented on a 2014 live set -- and a sequel, So Familiar, which appeared in October 2015. ~ Jason Ankeny & Steve Leggett, Rovi