Murder at the Boarding House: When Steve Martin Quit Comedy to Be Funny by Billups Allen

Steve Martin illustration by Billups Allen. Man with arrow through the head, with bunny ears fallen off.

Splat the Movies, Episode Five

The Jerk


In a review of 1979’s The Jerk, film critic Roger Ebert described Steve Martin’s debut film as “…a flat, dumb, and tasteless movie.” He went on to say, “I thought maybe the movie wouldn’t depend entirely on Martin’s rather shallow comic personality.” Many thumbed their nose at this assessment. The Jerk became a successful comedy in its time and is mentioned often as a classic of the era. It was appealing to a new generation of comedy fans, along with films like Animal House (1978) and Meatballs (1979). The youth market was returning to the movies and the anti-hero with a cavalier attitude toward sex, drugs, and chaos was becoming a formula for success. But The Jerk’s anti-hero was an unlikely one. While other movies relied on the audience to believe their character’s antics were cool and justifiably anti-authoritarian, Martin relied on a unique instinct to play dumb. It’s a trademark characteristic he developed across various personas throughout his career. After The Jerk, Martin eschewed his more formulaic comedy. Three films he made in the early ’80s showcase Martin’s edgier and intellectual side as a comic actor.

The anti-hero with a cavalier attitude toward sex, drugs, and chaos was becoming a formula for success.

Through his comedy records, his unique comedic language seeped into the underground vernacular. The record label Gern Blandsten Records is named for a Steve Martin joke. The Mummies have repeated jokes from Martin records the three times I saw them, albeit in a more sarcastic manner. Neil Hamburger’s first album dissects some of Martin’s mannerisms and inflections informing Hamburger’s persona. Punks of a certain age heard and identified with that album on some level. Steve Martin comedy records must have leaned up against some Kiss and Joan Jett albums during their reign.

Comedians George Carlin and Richard Pryor were already successfully selling comedy albums when Martin’s first album came out, but their success was a longer road, with street-level observations exposing America’s hypocrisies. That did not land with the middle class as quickly. Pryor and Carlin were becoming cult heroes. For a new wave of comedians, Martin was being seeped into mainstream homes as comedy became edgier. Steve Martin entered the fold without Carlin or Pryor’s street cred, but with crude folly easing people into new comic territory using modern standards without challenging them politically.


Martin lacked the gritty realism of his peers, but there were surreal jabs of manic intelligence in his humor peeking through.

And the humor is noticeably broader. Martin’s first album Let’s Get Small is mostly full-on buffoonery. The cover of the album doesn’t do much to conceal this. Martin wears a balloon animal as a hat, a fake nose and glasses, and a novelty arrow through the head that would become a trademark for his early days of comedy. Martin lacked the gritty realism of his peers, but there were surreal jabs of manic intelligence in his humor peeking through. Martin’s sarcasm and occasional random shifts in storytelling signaled traces of a new element of mature comedy. Although his albums don’t age well, a few of his bits show the instincts that later transferred into his work in film. These moments are the best bits to listen for on his records.

On the title track of his first album, “Let’s Get Small” Martin describes in street terms a drug that makes him tiny. The routine goes on to warn the listener about the dangers of getting “too small” and falling asleep in weird places like a vacuum cleaner and tips on how to deal with the police trying to measure you. This odd concept is articulated well and shows a progression from the general hammy humor inherent on the record. The joke requires belief in a more surreal scenario.

Martin was already a successful standup comedian by the time The Jerk hit theaters. His achievements as a live act escalated quickly: his stardom elevating him from performing in small clubs like the famous Boarding House in San Francisco where three of his albums were recorded to large venues like Denver’s Red Rocks arena where segments of his second album was recorded. Before the days of the Internet and widespread cable television, it was as meteoric a rise as you could achieve through word of mouth and sparse television appearances. His albums sold and his popularity rose quickly. He was an obvious candidate for the big screen. People couldn’t get enough Steve Martin. And he worked hard to get there. He is said to have regularly taken on a very endearing effort at his sold out-shows by entertaining in parking lots for people who couldn’t get in.

Martin stopped doing standup after his fourth, somewhat lackluster album The Steve Martin Brothers. He hung up the broader comedy prevalent in The Jerk. Tropes of comedy and modern mores change quickly in the arena of filmmaking and some comedy classics fall short when viewed in the modern era. That and the need to rely on race and gender stereotypes make some of these movies hard to stomach. Retrospectively, The Jerk holds up slightly better than some of the comedies of the era. It has its moments, but Martin created his sharpest and most innovative work immediately after The Jerk and before he was successful doing conventional comedies.

Pennies from Heaven

Without a doubt, Martin’s second movie, Pennies from Heaven (1981), took fans and critics off guard. The film is set in 1934. Martin’s character Arthur Parker is a sheet music salesman who, despite not being very good at his job, harbors dreams of opening a record store. His poor treatment of his wife Joan (Suspiria’s Jessica Harper) and his pushing an affair onto a local schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) takes them all down a dark road. Parker’s imagination runs wild when things get bad and he imagines songs of the era describing his trail through life. These songs manifest in the form of hallucinations resembling large-scale Hollywood musical segments. It’s a dark movie with spectacular musical numbers. Co-star Bernadette Peters was a Broadway veteran and the lavish numbers rival the original films of the thirties and forties they parody. The dark tone and starkly brutal plot resemble low-budget thrillers. The combination creates an interesting commentary on the escapism of film and particularly the contrast of lavish film production in the 1930s during the depression.

The film was a financial failure largely due to fan expectation of Martin. Critics were mixed in general, but many agreed the musical segments were unique and lavish beyond comparison. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune went as far as to say, “Martin ruins what could have been one of the year’s freshest and most innovative films.” As a Steve Martin vehicle, it’s difficult to dissect if it would have been more successful without him. He is not responsible for the text itself. The film is based on a BBC mini-series starring Bob Hoskins as Arthur Parker. So it may have only been Martin’s interest in the film that got its high-budget endeavor green lighted in the first place. It’s also unfair to judge his performance so harshly. Martin dances well and plays a charlatan with great aplomb. His chops portraying a fast talker and self-obsessed lout were honed in some of his early comedy. His pleasant but empty smile begs for confidence that other characters rely on until it’s too late.

An aspect of the musical interludes is that the characters lip synch to songs of the 1930s against character and gender. Whoever is around in the tableau of the scene congregates to the song. It’s fun to watch as a production starts slow and intensifies until the screen is busy with extras dancing choreographed numbers. Christopher Walken steals the film as a pimp named Tom. As he tries to convince a girl being a prostitute is not a big deal, he dances and sings the upbeat Cole Porter song “Let’s Misbehave.” The segment escalates with bar patrons joining a chorus line in the end.

The movie regularly creates dichotomy with the upbeat music and dark situations. Björk’s video for the song “It’s Oh So Quiet” uses a similar technique for comedy: People on the street join her in dance as she walks and sings until finally even a mailbox is in on the number. The arbitrary dance number has become a regular trope of movies and television. The trope of utilizing the spontaneous musical number for comedy has become a standard in film and television since Pennies from Heaven was released. Sitcoms like The Simpsons and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia use unlikely settings for spontaneous musical numbers for comedy effectively. Martin didn’t write Pennies from Heaven, but he was ahead of his time recognizing the electricity inherent in this style of entertainment that is also aware of itself. It’s a sorely underrated film and feels much less dated than many of its contemporaries. Martin took a risk starring in a drama after having such a big hit with The Jerk. He risked further still with such an abstract concept.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Martin was back in the writing seat for his third film collaborating with screenwriter George Gype and director and comedy legend Carl Reiner. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is, at base, a genre spoof of noir and pulp detective films from the forties. Martin portrays Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled detective on the case of a missing scientist renown for his work experimenting with cheese. This movie’s unique twist is Martin and a few other actors play their roles against old movie clips assembled together out of context to form a story. The plot unfolds as the actors interact with clips from classic noir films that sometimes match the plot well and other times create strange and almost surreal non-sequiturs. Humphrey Bogart is utilized often from his roles in films as a private detective. The scenes with Bogart often easily fit the plot due to the similar nature of the types of mysteries he regularly starred in, particularly as they are a prototype for the type of film being spoofed.

But some segues stretch to an almost Dadaist level of absurdity to make the connection to the next scene. The humor connecting the past and present film segments creates a different level of sophisticated. He creates a warped world with a different set of conventions around the characters. A fun example is Reardon connecting with his ex-girlfriend Doris Devermont using clips of Betty Davis from Deception (1946). The voiceover during the scene explains that the only time he had ever lied to Doris was about his name. By this point in the film, Reardon is established as an unreliable character, and it is fun to watch as he reacts to her continuing to call him by the wrong name. The scene continues with Reardon reminiscing about her sandwich-making habits with Betty Davis answering in turn with bizarre declarations out of context. The movie can come across as a one-note joke, but the in the right mood it can be a fun and slightly surreal journey. The plot meets itself around strange corners; sometimes making jokes because it falls into place so neatly and sometimes amusing due to the lengths the writers stretch to make the jokes work. It’s an unusual style of filmmaking done before the age of digital editing.

No one likes to see Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider character Billy giving a fucking modern Ford a nod from his motorcycle.

Reacting to old footage as a technique shows up in varying degrees of modern media, particularly with the invention of CGI. Martin’s analogue mixing of modern film with classic film clips is his punk demo to the world. Later this technique of revisionist history would come to be known more for making commercials than as a technique for storytelling. No one likes to see cartoon M&M’s appear in The Wizard of Oz or Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider character Billy giving a fucking modern Ford a nod from his motorcycle. We are crossing the line further with this concept nowadays, most disturbingly in the film Star Wars: Rogue One where veteran (and dead since 1994) actor Peter Cushing’s likeness is inserted into the film reprising his character of Grand Moff Tarkin. Here the line of the uncanny valley is close to being crossed: Peter Cushing’s likeness has become so real, it’s frightening. In Martin’s film the writers were charged with writing around what they were given to work with. As a sampling sport, the concept is intriguing. We’re now in the era where we’ll soon see where Martin’s early experiment takes us.


The Man with Two Brains

The screenwriting team of Gype, Martin, and Reiner produced another genre spoof screenplay for Martin’s fourth movie The Man with Two Brains (1983). It is a more conventional spoof structurally than his previous two films, but Martin’s uniquely sarcastic humor reads well as he portrays a top brain surgeon struggling to recognize his new wife’s deviousness. Martin is adept at creating a world where his blank characters flourish. The environment surrounding the characters includes arbitrary elements fusing together near the end of the film, including a serial killer who kills his victims by injecting them with window cleaner and a method of brain surgery that allows surgeons to enter the brain by creating a screw top at the top of the skull. Martin’s character Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr has an inflated sense of self that brings back a more sophisticated level of Martin’s clueless character. A memorable scene from the film shows Martin’s proclivity to carry a joke to the nth degree. His character runs over a woman with his car. A four-year-old girl standing on the corner sees the accident and Dr. Hfuhruhurr relays complicated medical instructions to her to relay to the hospital. In a surprise turn, the girl recites the complicated instructions back to him verbatim, only to have the joke turn again as he berates her and mocks her for suggesting the person has a subdural hematoma. As the girl runs away, he shouts at her: “You thought, you thought. Just go. Three years of nursery school and you think you know it all. Well you’re still wet behind the ears. It’s an epidural hematoma. Ha! God damn that makes me mad.”

In this film he’s becoming the angry hero, a prototype for modern comedies. In The Jerk, his character riffed through situations invented to drive a skeleton plot, eventually fumbling to a conclusion. Many films of the era relied on this technique to allow their skit-trained comics to fill out their feature-length run times. In The Man with Two Brains, the expectation is his character will have to change to bring about a satisfying conclusion. Martin manipulates the character to change, but not always in a way the audience might expect. His comedy is becoming more sophisticated.

Martin may have just been genre surfing during this time, but the humor and structure of these movies remains innovative.

In a scene from The Man with Two Brains, Dr. Hfuhruhurr passes a mirror and notices someone has attached rabbit ears to his scrubs. He tears them off violently and chastises a nearby associate: “I don’t find this amusing.” Neither do we much anymore, and he knows it. With these three films, it’s fair to say Martin may have just been genre surfing during this time, but the humor and structure of these movies remains innovative. They read as much less dated than many comedies from this era, and sometimes less dated than Martin’s later work. Hit or miss, I admire him for not relying on his shtick. He went on to greater mainstream success playing more straightforward roles, but he has fought to stay relevant in the ever-changing comedy vernacular. Martin still shows his teeth in movies and television occasionally portraying con men and megalomaniacs, two types of personas he has developed well in the course of playing blank and self-serving characters. Martin’s early-’80s work helped open the possibilities for more subtle and sophisticated comedy. Had he relied solely on his lunacy, he probably would be a footnote in the history of film. Instead, this cannon of movies remains the foundation of a stern shift in comedy.


Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor and has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. (cramholezine.com, [email protected])