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.
Itâd 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 heâs dancing to a bit (âhappy feetâ), maybe you would hear shoe tappings, but you didnât experience body flow.If heâs blowing up and twisting balloons to illustrate unusual forms, like venereal disease, or heâs juggling a kitten, or walking around strumming his banjo, these were not usual in comedy albums.
Like he put it: âHello, Iâm Steve Martin, and Iâll be out here in a minute.â
Lots of his records were made up of his songs, but few got air play. Working with Martinâs 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 âAha!â And âThatâs him!â 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-haâs 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 showâs audience surged up a million plus over last weekâs host.
His routines created pop phrases. Like âIâm a wild and crazy guy,â and âEx-CUSE me.â He invented the âair quotesâ 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 Martinâs and Warnerâs achievement from his first album: named Letâs Get Small. A million-seller, involving cuts like âExcuse Me,â âLetâs Get Smallâ and âLas Vegasâ (the one with the dancing feet bit). Recorded in San Francisco at The Boarding House for 1977 release, Martinâs first album went to #10 in Billboardâs Pop Albums chart.
The next year (1978) was even bigger. The yearâs 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 venuesâ performances. Part One: The Boarding House (as in Letâs 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 â79 for Best Comedy Album.
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 âwowâ in seven different cities, and was attended by eight million wide-eyed visitors. The âtreasuresâ were maybe so-so, but the âgotta see thisâ 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 âyes,â and spent more on staging this bit for NBC than any other before had enjoyed.
In Martinâs âKing Tut,â 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 songâs bridge, a sax player (Lou Marini) steps out of the sarcophagus to wail the instrumental solo.
Tutâs backing band (members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) got called the Toot Uncommons.
Competing with disco and hot songs, âKing Tutâ 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, writingâ¦
To comedy albums, Steve Martin never came back. But if youâd gotten close enough to King Steve, you might have gotâ¦
- Stay Tuned