It is Not Good for Steve Martin to Be Alone

Robert Hubbard

For a comedian long known for his prematurely silver locks, Proverbs 20:29 could have been written with Steve Martin in mind: “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old.” Indeed, if Scripture has much to teach us about aging well, so does Apple TV’s Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces.

Supported by hundreds of artifacts from throughout his impressive career, master documentarian Morgan Neville’s wistful account of Martin’s seven-plus-decades on earth offers many insights into the complicated comedian. Perhaps the strongest impression involves a late-in-life shift in Martin’s enigmatic personality. Viewers witness an astonishing transformation from a groundbreaking comedian plagued by anxiety and social isolation into a calm and peace-filled elder, friend, husband, and artist sustained and nourished by hospitality and community.

Then, the first installment of the two-part documentary series, primarily chronicles Martin’s fifteen-year career as a struggling comedian who suddenly began to sell out stadiums as the single biggest draw in the history of standup. While interesting and nostalgic, especially for Gen Xers like me who grew up reciting this wild and crazy guy’s routines, much of Then treads ground already covered in Martin’s remarkable 2007 autobiography, Born Standing Up. Haunted by a dismissive and unaffectionate father, a California kid sought escape through magic and youthful employment at Disneyland. Later, Martin’s craving for his father’s approval gave birth to a postmodern approach to comedy that changed everything, replacing punchlines with absurdist non-sequiturs (a style still in evidence in Martin’s most recent on-screen endeavor, Only Murders in the Building).

But despite Martin’s enormous popularity and critical success during this early phase of his career, he still suffered debilitating panic attacks and struggled to authentically connect with people. The late Tommy Smothers, who Martin wrote comedy sketches for in the 1960s, once said that “talking to Steve Martin is like talking to nobody.” Or, as Martin describes himself at one point in Steve!: “I wasn’t mean with people, I was just removed.”

The second episode of the documentary, entitled Now, focuses on Martin’s impressive post-standup career. Sadly, his dazzling Hollywood success with films as wide ranging and popular as The Jerk, All of Me, Roxanne, and Parenthood failed to quell a proclivity for loneliness and social isolation. Without deep and sustained connections to people, the aloof Martin sought companionship through visual art, gradually building a museum-quality private art collection. One scene in the documentary describes Martin’s practice of sitting alone for hours in a converted garage space staring at his art. When asked in a press interview about the first piece he ever purchased, the reclusive comedian strangely refused to discuss it—in the same way other celebrities shield family members from the media spotlight. For him, these inanimate objects of pigment on canvas, often depicting isolated figures and landscapes, stood in for genuine companionship.

Without deep and sustained connections to people, the aloof Martin sought companionship through visual art.

But late in his career, something shifted. After joking that “I lost interest in movies at exactly the same time that movies lost interest in me,” Martin explored and mastered multiple other creative pursuits, including playwright, novelist, New Yorker essayist, and banjo player, a staple of his earlier standup career. The latter pursuit turned into an acclaimed bluegrass album followed by tours with a band in which he found himself writing jokes to set up his songs. Surprisingly energized by these fresh live performances, Martin soon crafted a touring comedy show with longtime pal and Three Amigos costar, Martin Short. They still perform together regularly.

Indeed, Martin’s renewed and flourishing friendship with “Marty” forms a major thread of Now. Neville’s camera inconspicuously captures the two older comics joyfully testing out new material, playing cards, goofing through mic checks, and even sharing an afternoon bike ride through Martin’s lush California neighborhood. In a conversation with Jerry Seinfeld about the renewal of his standup career, Martin gratefully opines, “I have a partner now. That makes everything so much easier.” It is as if an Old Testament truth finally crept into Martin’s solitary life: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Beyond the agape friendship with Martin Short, the documentary reveals another likely explanation for the tidal shift in Martin’s personality. In a much less emphasized narrative thread of the doc, we learn that the lonely guy finally found true love. In 2007, at age 62, Martin married Anne Stringfield, a fact checker whom he met over the phone when writing for The New Yorker. By 2012, the couple had a daughter together. While the May-December relationship admittedly confirms a tired Hollywood stereotype (Stringfield is 27 years Martin’s junior), a case can be made that the comedian’s younger selves were far too self-involved and career-driven to make decent husband or father material. In this way, Martin’s slow march into relationship maturity echoes Job 12:12: “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?”

Few if any artists can boast a career as long, successful, or multitudinous as Steve Martin. While Steve! effectively celebrates his astonishing professional achievements, a much more important message transcends. At one point in Now Martin observes, “I used to get great satisfaction from my work. It gave me my reason to respect myself, and I realized that unless I was continually working, people wouldn’t like me. And there’s kind of emptiness left.” Late in life, Martin finally filled this emptiness by intentionally cultivating loving relationships. Indeed, he directly credits his wife and family for his “salvation.”

Admittedly, this depiction of salvation tends toward the secular humanist variety. Nonetheless, Martin’s beautiful transformation reinforces an essential call for community described in 1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another.” Moreover, the fact that Martin did not discover this salvific truth until late in life provides an encouraging rumination on aging for us all. As the apostle Paul states in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “. . . do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. ”

Topics: TV