Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Steve Martin Is King

Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Steve Martin Is King

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.


It’d been ages since Warner/Reprise had waded through comedy hits, back in the Sixties, when it was Bill Cosby, Allan Sherman, Bob Newhart...

People still laughed, though, and the one act they laughed most at in the late Seventies was a writer, a banjo player, and a big draw on Saturday Night Live.

Recording Steve Martin was both easy and confusing. His act was visual, which LPs are not. If he’s dancing to a bit (“happy feet”), maybe you would hear shoe tappings, but you didn’t experience body flow.If he’s blowing up and twisting balloons to illustrate unusual forms, like venereal disease, or he’s juggling a kitten, or walking around strumming his banjo, these were not usual in comedy albums.

Like he put it: “Hello, I’m Steve Martin, and I’ll be out here in a minute.”

Lots of his records were made up of his songs, but few got air play. Working with Martin’s rep, Bill McEwan, the promo staffs in Burbank struggled. Came up with life-size in-store posters, hoping people would look at a nearby bin and “Aha!” And “That’s him!” Creating videos of Martin himself, pitching his latest to radio and retail.

Check out Martin's pitch here:

But Martin hardly hung out around WBR, and records were not what he had deepest in his heart. That far deep, Martin wanted to feel audience response when he did a routine, and records played at home were not yielding ha-ha’s he could hear.

Martin kept busy doing stand-up. The Johnny Carson Tonight Show, The Gong Show, even The Muppets. And whenever he showed up for Saturday Night Live, that show’s audience surged up a million plus over last week’s host.

His routines created pop phrases. Like “I’m a wild and crazy guy,” and “Ex-CUSE me.” He invented the “air quotes” gesture, using two-fingers-both-hands to make double quote marks. Such inventions would not sell more albums, but Martin was popular enough to do amazingly well.

Albums to Laugh About

Platinum was Martin’s and Warner’s achievement from his first album: named Let’s Get Small. A million-seller, involving cuts like “Excuse Me,” “Let’s Get Small” and “Las Vegas” (the one with the dancing feet bit). Recorded in San Francisco at The Boarding House for 1977 release, Martin’s first album went to #10 in Billboard’s Pop Albums chart.

The next year (1978) was even bigger. The year’s album: A Wild and Crazy Guy. Sketches from Saturday Night Live abounded, like Martin and Dan Aykroyd playing Georgi and Yortuk, the Festrunk Brothers, bumbling would-be playboys from Czechoslovakia, trying to pick up girls in an art gallery.

Check out the 2 "Wild And Crazy" Guys here:

Wild and Crazy Guy was compiled from two venues’ performances. Part One: The Boarding House (as in Let’s Get Small) then Part Two, getting a major crowd at the Red Rock Amphitheatre.

The album went to #2 in the Billboard Albums chart; sold double Platinum; and got the Grammy in ’79 for Best Comedy Album.

The highlight?

Tut Tours America

In the late Seventies, from 1976 to 1979, America experienced a traveling museum exhibit titled Treasures of Tutankhamun. It opened and was a “wow” in seven different cities, and was attended by eight million wide-eyed visitors. The “treasures” were maybe so-so, but the “gotta see this” was high.

Martin got into it. He created a song about it, and called Saturday Night Live to see if he could debut it there. Producer Lorne Michaels knew how to say “yes,” and spent more on staging this bit for NBC than any other before had enjoyed.

In Martin’s “King Tut,” the Egyptian king (Mr. Tut) was brought kitchen appliances by his subjects. Or, as Martin sang it:

King Tut (King Tut)
Now when he was a young man,
He never thought he'd see
People stand in line to see the boy king.

(King Tut) How'd you get so funky?
(Funky Tut) Did you do the monkey?
Born in Arizona,
Moved to Babylonia (King Tut).

(King Tut) Now, if I'd known
They'd line up just to see him,
I'd taken all my money
And bought me a museum. (King Tut)

Buried with a donkey (funky Tut)
He's my favorite honkey!
Born in Arizona,
Moved to Babylonia (King Tut)

(Tut, Tut) Dancin' by the Nile, (Disco Tut, Tut)
The ladies love his style, (boss Tut, Tut)
Rockin' for a mile (rockin' Tut, Tut)
He ate a crocodile.

...and so on. During the song’s bridge, a sax player (Lou Marini) steps out of the sarcophagus to wail the instrumental solo.

Tut’s backing band (members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) got called the Toot Uncommons.

Competing with disco and hot songs, “King Tut” as a single hit #17. It sold over a million. Went #2 on the Albums chart.

Then Martin stopped. In 1981, he stopped doing stand-up, and had other careers to conquer: movies, banjo, writing…

To comedy albums, Steve Martin never came back. But if you’d gotten close enough to King Steve, you might have got…

- Stay Tuned