A man funny beyond words The public-relations machine for comic-turned-writer Steve Martin is in high gear, making sure he doesn't talk to just anybody about his new book. Luckily, 'Pure Drivel' speaks for itself.

October 18, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The pre-interview, I thought, was going swimmingly. I sensed Steve Martin was only a phone call away. Could almost hear Martin himself breathing on the phone.

(Steve Martin - the comedian, actor, playwright, and now author of "Pure Drivel," a best-selling collection of his New Yorker essays.

(Steve Martin, the King Tut nut, banjo-playing, I-was-born-a-poor-black-child, I'm-just-a-wild-and-crazy-guy guy.

(Steve Martin, the opening act for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band circa 1970.)

When anonymous newspaper writers attempt to contact famous non-newspaper writers, they have to dunk their pride in the festering vat that is public relations. Martin is ferociously shielded and otherwise represented by a California PR group, which had the nerve to return calls three hours later. They even gave the feeble "time zone" defense.

I proposed an interview with Martin re: "Pure Drivel." After an initial miscommunication (we squabbled over the meaning of "re:"), I got down to business with a borderline-ferocious PR person named Michelle.

I said: I like Mr. Martin's essays. Some of them remind me of Woody Allen's old New Yorker gems.

(In particular, I enjoyed Mar-tin's piece this year called "Dear Amanda." It's a series of hapless letters from love-struck Joey to a very un-struck Amanda. At one point, Joey refers to Amanda's new boyfriend: "By the way, there's someone named Francisco trying to pick up girls on the Internet ...")

Michelle said: Steve is not doing any more print interviews. Martin already had granted interviews to the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and - this one hurt - Parade magazine. Hell, Steve, why don't you just pull up a chair at my old college newspaper?

Instead, she pitched me a "phoner." (That's journalese for talking with someone on the "phone.") But first, Michelle said, Steve wants to know whether you have written any book reviews or any articles about authors (i.e., you are a nobody; you know and we know it). And could you please send, say, two stories you've done? Here's our Fed-Ex number ...

Oh, goody - an audition. I sent two stories - but drew the line at sending my resume and two references.

Gee, I hope Michelle likes my writing!

But it's for a promising cause. I do like Martin's essays, especially "Side Effects," in which he lists three pages of side effects from taking two tablets for joint pain:

"This drug may cause joint pain ... Under no circumstances eat yak ... Do not pilot a plane, unless you are in the 10 percent of users who experience 'spontaneous test pilot knowledge' ... Projectile vomiting is common in 30 percent of users - sorry: 50 percent ... Men may experience impotence, but only during intercourse ..." And so on.

"Pure Drivel" is smarter and sharper than Martin's ancient book, "Cruel Shoes." At 53, Martin's humor has aged well. Luckily, he's still a sucker for the word "yak." Also "lozenge," which has a cameo in a dandy piece called "How I Joined Mensa."

In "Mensa," the writer learns he needs an IQ of at least 132 to join: "I worried that the 132 cutoff point might be arbitrary," Martin wrote, "until I met someone with an IQ of 131, and, honestly, he was a bit slow on the uptake."

Yes, it's no Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld. He's Steve Martin, who once had salt-and-pepper hair and who once kept a gag arrow through his head. And people laughed when, rigged with gag dynamite, Martin threatened to blow himself up on the "Tonight Show" if people didn't laugh. This was in the time before Letterman, Leno, Shandling et al. Before you could talk to your favorite comedian on AOL.

Also remember, it wasn't that long ago Martin's album "Let's Get Small" was a generation's first comedy album - kids who had never heard the comedy albums of Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters. As much as any pop icon, Martin embodied the spirit and spunk of the original "Saturday Night Live" (he's been the host, what, a dozen times?).

Long since retired from stand-up, Martin made a second career of making a whole mess of movies. Then lately, he seemed to be missing in action. Research shows that he hasn't worked on a movie for three years.

"During these years, in which I vowed to do nothing and leave myself alone about it, I accidentally produced several plays, a handful of sketches, two screenplays and," as Martin acknowledges in "Pure Drivel," "a reorganization of my entire self."

Who among us doesn't produce plays, screenplays and sketches when we play hooky for three years? "I suppose what I'm saying is," Martin wrote, "if you really want to work, stop working." I have no idea what he means, but it's a keeper.

Michelle called back - three hours later. Steve is not doing any more print interviews at this time, she says. As if to make up, she adds, thanks for trying. "We like writers!" (Good to hear - since I'll be sending Michelle 500 stories I've written. Seems I still have her Fed-Ex number ...)

Oh, well. Thought it would be fun to talk with Steve Martin. But maybe not. Maybe funny people aren't fun to talk with. Maybe - probably - it's more fun to watch them on Letterman, buy their compact disc, or read their advice upon taking two tablets for joint pain:

"Side Effects: You may find yourself becoming lost or vague; this would be a good time to write a screenplay ... Do not sit on pointy conical objects ... If a fungus starts to grow between your eyebrows, call the 'Guinness Book of Records'..."

In the timeless, poignant words of Steve Martin, best fishes.

Pub date 10/18/98

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