Steve Martin on His Late Career Surge and Contemplating Retirement
After more than 60 years in the business, the comedy legend was ready to wind it down. Then came ‘Only Murders in the Building’ and his three Emmy nominations. And a new stage show. And a new book. And a new doc. But after that, it’s over. He’s pretty sure…
Steve Martin keeps telling himself to stop fiddling with the same material, but he can’t help it.
This lifelong impulse made a recent appearance a few stops into his latest tour with Martin Short, You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Today! One joke was earning two perfectly adequate laughs from the crowd, but he craved a bigger reaction.
As the show’s title suggests, the longtime friends and entertainment warhorses devote a portion of each night to ribbing each other over images from their past. Short, a little soft around the edges in his youth is subjected to one shirtless photo during the slideshow. For a while, Martin hammered the chubby jokes. “I’d say, ‘Now, are you sure that’s you? At first I thought it was Winnie the Pooh,’ ” Martin explains. “The audience laughed. Then I would say, ‘What are you there?’ And he’d go, ‘I’d say a B-cup.’ They’d laugh again.”
Something about the response didn’t satisfy Martin. So he thought on it a while before it struck him: ceding the whole joke to Short would make it funnier. “Getting rid of my line doubled the laugh that he got for ‘B-cup,’ ” he says, pride mingling with “well, duh” embarrassment on his face. “How long have I been doing comedy? 60 years? I’m still having fun finding those things.”
Martin’s pursuit of big laughs is the stuff of comedy legend. It also has surpassed 60 years. Born in August 1945, he was hamming it up at various jobs at Southern California amusement parks as soon as he could legally work. He began stand-up in earnest by age 18 and ultimately hit the highest highs of one of the most difficult professions. Since the 1980s, he’s been the unlikely leading man in films like Roxanne, L.A. Story, and the Father of the Bride movies. For Martin, every bit of the work — yes, even sophomoric remarks about baby fat — still demands constant refining.
“Talent is amazing and stunning when you first encounter it, but it has to get better and have a standard that it lives by,” says Saturday Night Live creator and producer Lorne Michaels, Martin’s close friend for five decades. “You don’t worry when Steve’s on something. He’s not going to be happy until he cracks it. And even then, he’s not going to trust it.”
During one of three July performances at the Hollywood Bowl, an abbreviated version of Martin and Short’s typical two-hour show that shared the bill with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and fireworks, Short’s “B-cup” line killed. Moments later, Short remarked that he and his pal planned to keep working as long as they were still having fun. With a confident gait and no words, Martin exited stage right and ceded the next few bits to Short. The crowd lost it. And while it may be an obvious gag, either man would be more than justified in a desire to take it easy.
Martin, in particular, is the busiest he’s been in years. His TV series, Only Murders in the Building, premiered in 2021 as an instant hit and quickly became Hulu’s most-watched original comedy. A dry whodunit set in a Manhattan co-op and based on an idea Martin originally had years ago, the series stars Martin, Short, and Selena Gomez as a trio of lonely true-crime obsessives. Already renewed for a third season, Only Murders earned 17 Emmy nominations for its freshman run. Of those, Martin is up for three: best comedy (as producer), writing for a comedy series (shared with co-creator John Hoffman), and lead actor in a comedy — pitting him against Short, his perennial co-star. There’s also their exhaustive tour, a follow-up to 2021’s The Funniest Show in Town at the moment, 2017’s An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, and 2015’s A Very Stupid Conversation. Martin even has an upcoming book (his 12th) and a long-gestating documentary about his life and career.
What these projects have in common — and what distinguishes them from Martin’s early days as the only guy onstage — is that he now eagerly shares the workload on almost every endeavor he tackles. “I think Steve learned the joy of collaboration,” says Short, who first worked with him on the 1986 film Three Amigos! “All through his stand-up life, he was by himself. Now, when he has success, he can celebrate with someone. And when something bombs, he can really laugh about it — as opposed to just being alone with it.”
Whether alone or joined by one of his assorted serial collaborators, Martin acknowledges that this boom time may be an unexpected crescendo to a career that, a few years back, was starting to slow down. “We were very happy just doing the live show,” Martin says. “There may be a natural end to that — somebody gets sick, somebody just wears out — but I wouldn’t do it without Marty. When this television show is done, I’m not going to seek others. I’m not going to seek other movies. I don’t want to do cameos. This is, weirdly, it.”
“I have a family life that’s really fun,” says Martin. “I can’t disappear for three months [on a movie].” PHOTOGRAPHED BY AUSTIN HARGRAVE
Martin exhibits genuine respect for the value of a dollar. Once the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up, he openly frets about guests leaving his latest tour feeling like they haven’t gotten their money’s worth. And even though he’s counted Hopper, de Kooning, Picasso, and Lichtenstein among the names in his renowned art collection, the first thing he does when we meet two weeks after the Hollywood Bowl at a Spanish-style cottage on the grounds of a tony Santa Barbara hotel is to speculate, in awe, about the nightly rate.
“Once, I took my wife to Paris, kind of a honeymoon thing,” he says, while poking around adjoining rooms before surveying the Pacific views through the balcony doors. “We stayed at the George V, and I hadn’t really checked the price. The little paper they gave us with the key said 795 — 795 euros. That’s cheap for one of the greatest hotels in Paris.”
He pauses for effect before continuing: “It wasn’t until we checked out that I realized 795 was our room number.”
In-person, Martin appears tailored for five-star hotels. If he got the memo about suits not surviving the pandemic, he’s chosen to ignore it. He’s arrived early, in a crisp navy blue number, and offers a salutatory fist-bump, explaining that he’d been trying to liberate himself from handshakes for years. Taking a seat in a leather armchair and swinging his left leg across the right, he is sedate compared to the frenetic banana he’s been on so many stages and countless screens. But he isn’t stingy with punchlines, either. Martin seems keenly aware of what’s expected of him.
“One time Steve was visiting at Saturday Night Live, and I had seen him do [David] Letterman the night before,” says Tina Fey, who has forged a friendship with him over many projects — most recently as his true-crime podcasting foil on Only Murders. “I said, ‘You were so funny on Letterman last night.’ And he very matter-of-factly said, ‘Well, you have to kill every time.’ It was chilling to me, but it’s true. Comedy people can’t go on talk shows and blather-like actors. We’re supposed to deliver. Steve always delivers.”
Delivering does not just happen, even for Martin. “He phoned me up once and said, ‘Do you have a minute to hear some jokes? I’m doing Jimmy Kimmel in two months,’ ” says Short. ” ‘And you’re already working on it?!‘ That’s why he’s Steve Martin. That’s why he’s still Steve Martin.” (Michaels, too, has gotten those calls and is quick to clarify: “Most people I know prepare on the drive to the show.”)
Martin takes an almost scientific approach to develop his material. The blueprint for this can be found in Born Standing Up, the 2007 memoir of his stand-up years — “I don’t know a comic who hasn’t read that book,” says Amy Schumer. “He’s in the comedy DNA of me and everyone I know” — in which he recounts the often surrealist routine he honed over the course of the 1970s. The decades since may have compressed this career arc down to a few catchphrases and indelible images for the general public, but his iconoclastic sets forever minted Martin as a god to the comedy community. He shunned traditional jokes, launched into satirical rants, and, in one move that seems unfathomable amid today’s pressing safety concerns, frequently encouraged large crowds to follow him outside venues.
“I knew it was kind of gimmicky, but when it started, it was crazy,” says Martin. “One time I played Nashville, the EXIT/IN, and I took the audience across the street to a jazz bar. All 300 people came in, and we went to someone else’s jazz guitar show. When the audience got to be like 1,000, I couldn’t do it anymore. It was dangerous. And they couldn’t hear me.”
Sated, and maybe a little bored, Martin unceremoniously quit stand-up in 1981 and fully segued into the film career that cemented his place in Hollywood. His keyed-up physical comedy remained intact, but Martin began marrying it with more emotional work in such films as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Parenthood. “He created that transition for himself,” says filmmaker Nancy Meyers, who has worked with Martin on four projects. Along with then-husband Charles Shyer, she was asked by Martin (a fan of their 1987 feature Baby Boom) to pen the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride that he’d topline. “On set, he’d say, ‘Once you’ve gotten what you need, let me know if I can try something else,’ ” says Meyers. “By the way, Steve’s the first to go over to a monitor, see one of his ideas and say, ‘Oh no, it was better before.’ There’s no ego. But, clearly, most of his ideas work.”
“Of course, he was terrific and funny in the movie, but he also had the same weight as Spencer Tracy in the original,” says Nancy Meyers, who wrote Martin’s 1991 remake of Father of the Bride. “Watching Steve, you can’t laugh harder and you can’t cry harder.” BUENA VISTA PICTURES/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION
Martin has never suffered from a shortage of ideas or creative avenues. He’s published three successful novels, written three plays and one musical (the latter with Edie Brickell), and found earnest success with the banjo, once a stand-up prop and now the reason for three of his five Grammy Awards. He also learned that he works best with others.
“The first time I hosted the Oscars [in 2001], I remembered standing there alone, behind the curtain, waiting for it to go up,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. I was so tense. But when I did it with Alec Baldwin [in 2010], I wasn’t tense at all. Thinking about it later, it was having a partner that made me comfortable. That’s what made it fun.”
It’s not easy to get Martin alone these days. Throughout promotions for the first two seasons of Only Murders, he’s almost exclusively been flanking Gomez or Short — casting himself as a cheerleader rather than the series’ creator and de facto star. Even by celebrity standards, the 76-year-old is fiercely private. Over the course of our morning together, he makes little reference to his personal life — one that, by all accounts, is quite rich. He and his wife of 15 years, Anne Stringfield, spend summers in Santa Barbara, where Martin likes to bike into town. It’s an electric bike, helping him traverse the region’s residential hillsides, but he carries himself in a manner that implies he is no stranger to cardio.
Martin and Stringfield, who met over the phone when she was fact-checking one of his pieces for The New Yorker, spend the rest of the year at their home in Manhattan. That’s where their only child, a 9-year-old girl, attends school. Martin likes hosting dinner parties, but he doesn’t cook — save poached eggs, which he makes with the help of a new machine he’s eager to evangelize. Those in his circle emphasize that domesticity now ranks highest among his many talents. “I have a family life that’s really fun,” says Martin. “To film a movie now, to go someplace else to live, I’m not willing to do that anymore. I can’t disappear for three months.”
This bi-coastal life that largely bypasses Los Angeles has allowed Martin to escape the daily incursions of Hollywood banter, though the surprise success of Only Murders has made that harder to sustain. He doesn’t like to keep up with industry gossip but is still curious enough to riff on the news of the day — in our case, Netflix’s latest fraught earnings call — for a spell before he cuts himself short with a shrug: “I’m happy not to know too much about the business.”
There are plenty of asks the entertainment industry might make of Martin that he says he’ll no longer consider.
Studio comedies? “Go into theaters with a comedy movie starring me? It’s got failure written all over it!”
Political humor on the road with Short? “Marty doesn’t mind a ‘boo,’ but I do, so we intentionally minimize any political context. We want to lay down arms for a night.”
As for a return to stand-up, it’s never even been up for discussion.
But there is one ask that he often can’t avoid, the quintessentially Hollywood offer of, “Let’s do lunch.” “I’ve had meetings with X, Y, and Z,” says Martin, his ambiguous lament for too many wasted afternoons to count. “There’s always this fascination. They’re interested in you. Then, as soon as they meet you, nothing happens. The mystery is gone. You realize you’re just a couple of boring guys.”
His theory was proved wrong in 2019 when his agent Danny Greenberg cajoled Martin into meeting him for a meal with power producer and This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman. As they were finishing up, Martin casually floated an idea he’d been kicking around about three aging male amateur sleuths who investigate only the murders that take place in their eccentric New York apartment building. They were in immediate agreement that it was a good idea. There was some tweaking — Hoffman was brought on as showrunner and reimagined one of the central trio as a young woman (Gomez). And there was some coaxing — Martin would agree to act only if Short also starred, filming took place in New York and he could be home every night by 6. (“That part didn’t work out,” he concedes.) And then Hulu gave the septuagenarian a rare first: After a half-century working in Hollywood, Martin finally had his own TV series.
Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building. CRAIG BLANKENHORN/HULU
He may not be in the writer’s room, but Martin’s comedic sensibility is evident in Only Murders‘ distinctive tone, including the kind of slapstick he hadn’t done in years. The series first season reaches its climax with his character, a washed-up actor named Charles-Haden Savage, drugged and trying to warn his friends of more potential murders in their high-mortality high-rise. He flops around the floor, mistaken for drunk by the nosy-biddy neighbors who want him evicted, before winding up ass over teakettle in the clutches of an equally unsympathetic elevator. Performers half Martin’s age would have demanded a double.
“They write these things high, essentially, and then you have to do it,” he says, laughing at the mention of the scene. “I didn’t want it to just be a funny walk. So I was lying in bed at night thinking about it. And I started imagining myself upside down, elevator doors closing on my crotch. I laughed to myself for about 20 minutes. I went in the next day and said, ‘Please, let me just try this.’ “
Martin sports a genuine grin when he talks about working on Only Murders. He references the writers, set designers, and even members of the lighting crew by name, anything to deflect the credit elsewhere. He’s not often home by dinner, but he doesn’t complain about the hours when he’s reworking lines with Short and Gomez or sharing scenes with so many performers from his past. “He works really hard, and he really seems to be happy to be there,” adds Fey. “You’d be surprised how rare that is.”
Among the latest cast additions is Schumer, who appears as a slightly unhinged version of herself in season two, after first working with Martin on the 2017 Broadway staging of his play Meteor Shower. “I did Picasso at the Lapin Agile in college,” says Schumer, nodding to Martin’s first published play. “It’s so smart and has incredible historic references, clear wit, and messaging. With Meteor Shower, he just wanted it to be this wild, funny play. I learned from Steve that you don’t always have to search for deep meaning. You can just give people a nice time and make them laugh.”
The dominant criticism of Meteor Shower, which earned Schumer a Tony nomination for her performance, was just that: It was funny and nothing more. But to Martin, whose academic approach to humor influenced Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, such jabs no longer are slight.
“I don’t want to make them think, ‘There’s plenty of people who can do that,’ ” says Martin, referencing his nostalgic comedy tour more than Only Murders — a series that frequently throws punches to the heart alongside its one-liners. “I just want to deliver entertainment. I want them to go, ‘Oh, that was so good.’ That’s what I’m after.”
Maybe 15 minutes after theatrically fleeing the Hollywood Bowl band shell, Martin returned — banjo in tow. Surrounded by his off-and-on band of the past decade, Steep Canyon Rangers, he played a selection of songs both sincere and silly. He appeared content and proud, escaping the show’s exploration of personal histories for a spell.
“After the show, he’s really happy,” says Short, who notes that they rarely wait for the applause to subside before rushing to Emily, the teleprompter operator, to move lines, change words and make other adjustments. “Steve gets a little anxious before a show, just because he so wants it to go well. He’s very modest in some ways, but he’s also aware of his position in show business — which, I guess, is as high as it gets … certainly in the realm of comedic influence.”
Martin performed onstage at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, on July 22, 1978. PAUL NATKIN/GETTY IMAGES
Whether he admits to it or not, reflection is part of Martin’s brand at his age. His upcoming book, Number One Is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions, is a collection of anecdotes accompanied by illustrations from frequent collaborator Harry Bliss. The title, a reference to his long status as No. 1 on the call sheet, is quickly undercut by a passage about his work in Meyers’ 2009 feature It’s Complicated, in which Martin played No. 3 to Meryl Streep’s No. 1 and Alec Baldwin’s No. 2. (“Steve was really more of the 2.5,” observes Meyers.) He’s also making a documentary about his years in the business with Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville for Apple TV+. Martin says he wants to wind down, but he somehow continues coming up with new ideas and finding people who inspire him to turn those ideas into actual work.
“My wife keeps saying, ‘You always say you’re going to retire and then you always come up with something,’ ” says Martin, adjusting the cross of his legs to grab a glass of iced tea. “I’m really not interested in retiring. I’m not. But I would just work a little less. Maybe.”
Notes Michaels: “He’s kind of at another career peak, of which he’s had way too many. It’s just never an accident when people are still standing — and right at the front.”
Martin may not have anticipated this latest act of his life, but what’s clear — in speaking with him or watching him onscreen — is that he’s not taking it for granted. “There’s a time in your career when people are dying to see you,” he says. “Now is the time in my career when I’m the one who’s got to show up.”
Humility makes this an easy confession, though it also prevents him from admitting the obvious. Steve Martin has always been one to. show up.