Synopsis: Although he was never a cast member on SNL, Steve Martin currently holds the record for number of times hosting the show. From his early days as a stand-up to becoming a household name, Steve Martin has played in many memorable and hilarious sketches such as the “wild and crazy” Festrunk Brothers, Theodoric Of York, Tightwad 007, and a classical musical tribute to King Tut.
Whether he’s peddling a special kind of beauty cream, attempting to renegotiate his contract in the middle of a live show, or performing his infamous banjo-playing monologue with an arrow through his head, Steve Martin is undoubtedly one of the most successful hosts in SNL history.
eyelights: the diversity of its skits and eras.
eyesores: the acting ability of the cast. the lackluster humour.
Steve Martin has been on ‘Saturday Night Live’ more than nearly anyone. According to IMDB, he’s been on 27 episodes and has hosted 15 times – a record only bested by Alec Baldwin, with 16 hosting gigs. Since his first appearance on October 23, 1976, he was been a perennial favourite, bringing in a million new viewers each time he hosted. Only 15 people have hosted ‘SNL’ five times or more and he was the fastest person to achieve that.
Naturally, there’s a great deal of interest in the material he’s done on the show but, for some inexplicable reason, his episodes and skits have not all been made available on home video. The compilation set ‘Saturday Night Live: The Best of Steve Martin’ cobbles together 17 bits, plus two bonus ones, but the NBC website hosts a whopping 47 sketches in total – and that it’s not even all of them (as evidenced by this very collection)!
And although it would be nice to get them all and be able to see them in chronological order so as to get a sense of the development of Martin’s brand of humour, instead they are served up in a seemingly ramshackle fashion. In any event, better some than none, and the original 1999 edition has since been bolstered by and a few additional bonus skits (whether or not that is worth an upgrade for original buyers is another matter, mind you).
Here are the bits in this 80-minute collection (with their airdate in brackets):
1. Steve Martin Sings Not Gonna Phone it in Tonight (December 14, 1991): This lengthy opening segment finds Martin with Chris Farley and Victoria Jackson, discussing his enthusiasm for the show. He begins to sings about not phoning it in for once, and it turns into a musical, featuring Mike Myers, Julia Sweeney, and then whole cast. The performances are crap, and it’s made worse by the crew and non-cast members; they all sing and not especially well. It’s a good idea, but with a mediocre delivery. 7.0
2. Banjo and Arrow Monologue (October 23, 1976): This is an opening monologue and it’s very much based on his live act at the time, including the banjo number. I guess Martin wasn’t writing new material prolifically at the time. It’s good, though. 7.5
3. Rise (October 13, 1979): This is a two-minute ad for a spray called “Rise”, which allows people to levitate above the toilet bowl so that they can avoid germs. It was funny for 10 seconds. 6.5
4. The Festrunk Brothers (April 22, 1978): Co-starring Dan Aykroyd, this is a sketch featuring their recurring Czech pick-up artists. This time, the wild and crazy guys are in their bachelor pad preparing for the arrival of a couple of “American foxes”. Frankly, the performances are horrible, and what passes for jokes is of a lower caliber. 6.0
5. To My Love (May 20, 1989): This is the same as sketch as the one in ‘Bits and Bites‘. 8.0
6. The Coneheads at Home (February 26, 1977): The Coneheads are at home, having breakfast, and get a visit from an I.R.S. Agent (Martin). He’s trying to collect information on them and it gets a little silly. My favourite part is just watching Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin eating stacks and stacks of eggs in the middle of their living room. It was such a strange sight. 7.0
7. Indian Dance Monologue (February 26, 1977): Martin does a monologue in which he sings and dances in a mock-Aboriginal style. As with sketch #2, this is a hosting bit that was ripped directly from his live act – except that it lacks freshness here. 6.0
8. Common Knowledge (October 17, 1987): Martin plays the host of a game show whose questions are compiled by Princeton grads while the corresponding answers are compiled from 17-year-old high school students – which leaves some of the contestants frustrated. “It’s not what you know, it’s what you think you know”, Martin quips. Ha! 8.0
9. King Tut (April 22, 1978): Here Martin does his song in his King Tut costume on an “Egyptian” set with dancers and musicians. I loathe the song and his goofy performance, but the production was half-decent. 7.0
10. Hollywood Minute (February 20, 1993): This excerpt from the Weekend Update segment finds David Spade taking the piss out of Steve Martin’s then-latest movie, ‘Leap of Faith’, not realizing that Martin showed up behind him – after which the latter intimidates and humiliates the pseudo commentator. 7.5
11. Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber (April 22, 1978): This skit takes us to medieval times, where we are told barbers were also surgeons. Martin plays the titular hero, whose practices are patently absurd, but likely not that far away from how crude it was back then. Most of the cast shows up for what is a chaotic and weakly-performed number. 7.0
12. Steve Martin’s Penis Beauty Cream (September 24, 1994): This is the same skit as on ‘Bits and Bites’ but left unedited, with testimonials from Chris Elliott and Kevin Nealon adding to its 3-minute runtime. Why it was edited in the other set is beyond me. 7.5
13. Jeopardy 1999 (October 23, 1976): Once again, Martin plays a game show host, this time for what was a ridiculous futuristic version of ‘Jeopardy’. The costumes are mixtures of Star Trek uniforms, big silver afros and other trinkets. The performances are really poor, as many of the cast stumble over their lines, but it’s a wickedly funny quiz, with outrageous predictions of what lay in the future. 7.75
14. Tightwad 007 (October 17, 1987): In a pretty uninspired spoof of James Bond called “Bullets Aren’t Cheap”, 007 (Martin) goes on holidays and we discover that he’s actually really stingy in his personal life. So the gags all revolve around him being frugal when he usually wouldn’t be. It’s not great, and is notable mostly for Sting’s guest appearance as the villain who duels him at baccarat. 6.75
15. Steve and Bill Murray Monologue (November 4, 1978): As the host, Martin picks Bill Murray out of the audience and proceeds to do that old parlour trick of pick-pocketing his watch. Twice (you can see Murray wearing the old watch the second time around, though!), his wallet twice and then his belt, underwear, …etc. It’s okay, but it could have been better. 6.75
16. Theatre Stories with Steve Martin (December 14, 1991): This was a recurring sketch starring Mike Myers and this one has Martin, Dana Carvey and Julia Sweeney. It’s basically a bunch of old people discussing cinema. It’s merely okay, and is mostly interesting because certain elements (Ms. Kensington and the fact that Myers’ character can’t control his voice) are elements reprised later in his ‘Austin Powers‘ movies. You can only mine your inspiration so many times, I guess. 6.0
17. What the Hell is That? (October 13, 1979): A tourist (Martin) comes out of a shack and wonders “What the hell is that?” over and over again while looking out past us, in the distance. Murray joins him and they proceed to throw the question back and forth. Maybe it would be funny if one were drunk or stoned. But it’s merely okay as is. Silly, yes, but just okay. 6.5
Theodoric of York, Medieval Judge (November 4, 1978): Again taking place in 1153, Theodoric is now a judge, not a barber. It’s a bit predictable as the cast play similar characters with similar fates as in the other sketch. To me, this seemed heavily influenced by the witchcraft scene in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘. 6.75
Opening monologue (November 4, 1978): Steve Martin has a clamp on his head and confesses to not feeling well, to having a headache. Then he realizes why. Afterwards, he talks about smoking weed years ago and then does another routine with Bill Murray, where he asks him simple questions as though he were a dog – and even feeds him crackers whenever he answers. It’s silly and amusing. 7.25
You know, having watched a lot of Steve Martin’s oeuvre in recent weeks, it’s astonishing to me just how popular he became at one point. There are a few crucial years where I think he mined comedy gold, but it’s not what made him popular; the stuff that did was the mid-’70s and early ’80s and, frankly, I don’t really see the appeal – it’s okay, no more. And this collection of ‘SNL’ typifies exactly that problem (as do most ‘SNL’ shows, frankly).
So Martin fans, do pick it up. Others, well, check it out if you must, but taper your expectations. Otherwise, this might be mostly for people like me, who are interested in getting a perspective on Martin’s career; it’s far too much of a mixed bag to recommend wholeheartedly.
Date of viewing: July 1, 2015