Steve Martin Avoids Comedy Clubs: 'I Can Still Taste the Cheap Wine'

Documentary Celebrates Steve Martin's Career and Life, Directed by Morgan Neville.

by Nouman Rasool
Steve Martin Avoids Comedy Clubs: 'I Can Still Taste the Cheap Wine'
© Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Growing up in Los Angeles, Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville was an ardent admirer of Steve Martin. At the age of 12, he persuaded his father to drive six hours to Las Vegas to witness one of Martin's final stand-up performances at the Riviera Hotel.

Fast forward forty-five years, Neville found himself sharing the NeueHouse Hollywood stage with his comedy idol to promote their new Apple TV+ documentary "Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in Two Pieces." Neville's primary goal was to listen and let the story unfold naturally.

"We just talked in the beginning, and I recorded conversations with no agenda," Neville said. "Then slowly, shape started to come out of that, and I started to think about what a story could be." The documentary split into two parts of roughly 90 minutes each, chronicles Martin's illustrious career and personal life.

The first part traces his journey from working at Merlin's Magic Shop in Disneyland to his last stand-up performance in 1980. The second part delves into Martin's movie career and his current life as he nears the age of 79.

Comedian Nick Kroll joined Neville and Martin at the FYC event to discuss the making of this extensive exploration of one of America's most influential comedians.

Cinematic Collage Unveiled

The initial half of "Steve!" is presented through a blend of photos and archival footage, complemented by testimonies from Martin and his contemporaries.

This method resulted in a cinematic collage of the comic's early years. Neville admitted that initially, he was unsure if they had enough archival material to tell the story this way. However, as they delved deeper into Martin's archives, they discovered an abundance of material.

"Slowly as we got into Martin's basement archive and went through storage vaults, it started to come out that we can do this," Neville explained. "We started finding all of Martin's old cassettes where he recorded his act year by year, and you can hear that forensically in the doc." Martin shared that he had saved many relics from his past, though not always the right ones.

"When you're in show business, you're like, 'Oh, I'm on the cover of this,' and you save the cover. 'Oh, I'm in an article,' and you save that. But what I really wanted were photos of friends, where I was, and a diary." Throughout the documentary, Martin reflects on the loneliness he felt despite his success.

In the second part, he listens to one of his old stand-up tapes but can only endure a few minutes before turning it off. Although he is "very happy" with the three-hour documentary, revisiting his early days as a struggling comedian was sometimes uncomfortable.

"I have a hard time walking into comedy clubs because of the memories. I can still taste the cheap wine in my mouth," Martin told Variety. "Reliving that, you go back to a lot of memories, and not just about the material, but also about when and where you were." In his later years, Martin became an avid art collector, often drawn to paintings of isolated figures.

One of his favorite works is "Captain Upton's House" by Edward Hopper, which depicts a solitary seaside home attached to a lighthouse. Initially seen as a solemn image, Martin later interpreted it as full of hope and life. When Neville first heard Martin speak about the painting, he thought it "spoke volumes" about his journey from a tortured young artist to finding peace in his old age.

"There's this painting called 'Captain Upton's House,' which looks like it might be a lonely, isolated home. But the closer you look at it, it's alive. The windows are open. The breeze is going through. You can almost imagine furniture in there," Martin said.

"You came up with that metaphor, that it in some way reflected my life. I never saw it that way," Martin told Neville. "Ya, well, that's my job," Neville quipped.