Steve Martin ‘pure’ genius – at least on paper

Scott Gordon

Steve Martin’s movies haven’t been “Steve Martin” funny since 1987’s Roxanne, and I wouldn’t expect much from his latest film, Shopgirl, based on his own sweet, lukewarm novella. But if you take away the plot and turn him loose on paper, he can still deliver a great sick thrill – namely in 1998’s Pure Drivel, a collection of short essays, skits and monologues that remind us why people like Martin in the first place.

Like the ridiculous overnight millionaire Martin played in The Jerk, this book’s first sketch, “A Public Apology” establishes a tone both genteel and blindly vulgar, as a jailed politician recounts his crimes and public embarrassments. Despite his past, this character is hopelessly bent on redeeming himself: “I would like to apologize for spontaneously yelling the word ‘savages!’ after losing six thousand dollars on a roulette spin at the Choctaw Nation Casino and Sports Book. When I was growing up, the usage of this word in our household closely approximated the Hawaiian aloha, and my use of it in the casino was meant to express, ‘Until we meet again.'”

That’s the main Martin gag – make everything ludicrous, pretend everything’s just fine – and he works it over and over again throughout this book. No one as perverse (or cultured) as Martin can wear this gag out. His conclusions might be just plain stupid if not for the almost logical process he has to go through to get to them.

In “The Paparazzi of Plato,” for example, a whole convoluted, carefully paced conversation between Socrates and his philosopher friends has to happen before this line can work: “Let us now try and get a snapshot of Plato and Aristotle cavorting on a nude beach. It might pay for lunch.”

Sure, Martin has done some of his best work within the confines of screenwriting and acting. But like his early stand-up work, Pure Drivel reveals that, with just his words – and an utter lack of stylistic boundaries – he’s funnier.

– Scott Gordon