Actor-musician Steve Martin

Originally aired on February 22, 2012

The multitalented comedian-actor-musician and author of The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten. explains what, artistically, he gets out of using Twitter and plays a tune from his Grammy-nominated bluegrass CD, “Rare Bird Alert.”

Steve Martin has come a long way from working as a Disneyland concessionaire, which he did in his teens. He was still a college student when he wrote for the hit show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and won an Emmy. Since then, he's proven his talent as a comedian, dramatic actor, film writer, director, producer, playwright, author and musician. He’s won Grammys for both comedy and music, including his first all-music CD, "The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo," and has a new book in release, The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten: The Tweets of Steve Martin.


Tavis: Please welcome Steve Martin back to this program. The iconic comedian, actor and writer is also, of course, an accomplished musician whose latest CD of bluegrass music is called “Rare Bird Alert.” You can catch him now on tour in support of the project, and for that matter, over the course of the next few months.

He is of course also these days an avid tweeter. Is that a word, “tweeter?”

Steve Martin: It is now. You have made it a word now. (Laughter)

Tavis: It is. His new book is a collection of some of his favorite tweets called, “The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.” (Laughter)

Martin: It’s a good title to read. It’s not a good title to say. Yeah.

Tavis: No, I’m glad you said, because I was thinking that I hope the joke comes through on the air.

Martin: Yeah, you have to kind of look at it rather than say it.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah, especially with the lines and the circles.

Martin: I know, well.

Tavis: But I love this little book, man. It fits in your pocket. It’s pretty cool.

Martin: Yeah, you wouldn’t want to really put it in your – there’s no reason to put it in your pocket. (Laughter) It’s more – I think it’s perfect reading for a train, although nobody really goes on a train anymore, so maybe a plane. Certainly not while you’re driving.

Tavis: Was this written by popular demand? Why did this come to –

Martin: Popular demand? (Laughter) Actually, nothing I do is done by popular demand. (Laughter) No, I wrote this – “wrote this” is a strange way to put it – but over the last year and a half. By the way, this is the first interview I’ve ever done about this, so I don’t even know what words are coming out of my mouth.

I went on Twitter and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I started – I thought it was going to be a kind of a commercial venture to be able to promote things, and then it just didn’t work out that way.

I started writing funny things or what I thought were funny things, and then I started telling – it just completely kept changing all the time. Then it became little stories and then it just – always moving.

Then I started realizing I was – I didn’t even realize I was getting responses for a while, and then I started reading the responses and they were quite funny, and then I started collecting them and saving them, cutting and pasting them by hand.

Then after a year and a half was over I started looking at them and I thought, this is like a new form of comedy to me.

I collected them and I’m donating my proceeds to my charitable fund. It just seemed like it actually makes me laugh, so I thought well, that’s good enough, so here it is.

Tavis: I’m glad you told that story, Steve, because it makes so –

Martin: Because it’s so interesting? (Laughter)

Tavis: It is interesting enough to lead me to another question.

Martin: Hey, good.

Tavis: Which is why one, at this point in your career, at your age, given that Twitter now is all the rage, what, artistically, do you get out of this?

Martin: I actually get laughs. I get laughs just kind of thinking up things. At first I thought well, I’ll be writing a lot of things and I’ll probably come across things I can use, say, in our banjo show, because I like to do comedy in the banjo show, or things I can use on the Letterman show or the Leno show.

Then none of that worked out. It’s really just its own thing, but I have been getting a lot of laughs from myself and from followers that I found myself a lot running in to my wife and saying, “Listen to this.” It’s amusing.

Tavis: You’re up to, like, 1.7 million followers now.

Martin: You are way low.

Tavis: Am I low?

Martin: I’m about at 2.3 now, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Oh, excuse me, Mr. Martin.

Martin: Yeah.

Tavis: I thought it was – (laughs) my research is behind.

Martin: Yeah, it’s all on the Internet, though. (Laughter) It’s the one thing that you could actually research on the Internet that’s actually fact.

Tavis: What do you make, though, what do you make of the fact – (laughter).

Martin: Sorry, I’m coughing. Because you said the word “fact,” and that just doesn’t work. (Laughter) That and the Internet just don’t go together.

Tavis: Yeah, just don’t go together. What do you make, though, of how fast that number has grown?

Martin: I feel good about it. It feels good, yeah. Instead of going down or sideways, it keeps going up, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: Were there managers, were there agents, were there advisers –

Martin: No.

Tavis: – told you not to do this? Because a lot of folk get in trouble saying things –

Martin: Well, I have a tweet in there, one of my earliest tweets – let me find it and read it to you.

Tavis: Okay.

Martin: It should be in the front of the book, being an early tweet, (laughter) and I didn’t know if I was – I actually got a few – but I only had a few followers at the time, and I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this now, but I tweeted this very early on: “My publicist is nervous about my becoming a tweeter. He says celebrities tend to make such monumental gaffes. He’s such a typical wop.” (Laughter) Can we cut that out? Do you have an eraser? (Laughter)

Tavis: So there was somebody who told you, “Steve, you might not want to do this.”

Martin: No, there wasn’t. No. No, that’s the great thing about humor. If it’s done in a lighthearted way, you can get away with murder. Yeah. Comedians do that all the time in their shows.

Tavis: So do you find yourself now, like, transfixed to this?

Martin: No.

Tavis: Are you, like, sitting on the toilet, tweeting, and –

Martin: How dare you?

Tavis: (Laughs) I’m like, are you addicted to this now?

Martin: No, no, I’m not addicted. No, no. At first I could panic, I could panic if I felt I made a lousy joke or just made a big gaffe. I would actually get heart palpitations. Then I completely got over that, because I realized, in the early days when I was a writer for television, one of the great things about it, I always thought, well, there’s always next week.

If you did a bad show, there’s always next week. Here, there’s always, well, there’s always the next second. (Laughter)

Tavis: Anything that you tweeted and thought twice about before you pushed the send button?

Martin: I have, but nothing really significant. Usually it’s in terms of grammar. Sometimes I tweeted something and then I realized I had misspelled something.

Tavis: I was going to ask you about that. Go ahead, yeah.

Martin: Or made a grammatical mistake I didn’t like, and you can delete it and then I would redo it and send it out again. Because I don’t know why I did this, but just maybe to be different, I don’t know. But I made a rule early on there was going to be no abbreviations and no, I don’t know what you call them, you know, like the letter “B” for the word “be,” to save an “E.”

Tavis: You ain’t got but so many characters, though, Steve. That’s why people do that.

Martin: Yeah, I know, but that was part of the challenge.

Tavis: Right.

Martin: I wasn’t going to cut it down. I would spell “February” instead of spelling “Feb,” and then I would put a big parentheses behind it that says – or if I did an abbreviation I would say, “I abbreviated the word ‘February’ to save space.” (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s funny. I saw your tweet – I’ll get this wrong, probably – “Lunch with a Qaddafi, canceled.”

Martin: Oh, that’s when he was killed.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I know. (Laughter)

Martin: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, so sometimes these things can be politically challenging.

Martin: I think I also tweeted that I canceled my banjo tour of Libya.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Martin: Some of the more topical things, I didn’t put in there were passé.

Tavis: Let me stop being silly and ask a serious question for a moment.

Martin: Oh, you were being silly? I’m sorry. (Laughter) I didn’t realize.

Tavis: Which is what do you make of the fact that this instrument, this technology, better word, really has seriously toppled dictators and led to worthy political uprisings?

You use it for humor and that’s a good thing. Some use it for promotion and that’s a good thing. But what do you make of the fact that here we are in the 21st century –

Martin: Well, I think it’s great for humor. I worry a little bit that it can topple dictators, or on the other hand it could topple legitimate people. Because you have to be very thoughtful when it comes to nations. You just can’t get everybody excited for a second.

So I love it that it topples dictators, but I wouldn’t want it to topple legitimate people with the same kind of fervor.

Tavis: Technology offers us a lot of good, a lot of advances, but it’s as fraught with as much potential danger as it is with the good stuff.

Martin: Well yeah, but so is a hammer. (Laughter) There’s always been –

Tavis: Yeah, okay.

Martin: Everything is fraught with danger. I love technology and I love science. It’s just always all in the way you use it. So there’s no – you can’t really blame anything on the technology. It’s just the way people use it, and it always has been.

Tavis: Do you consciously recall when or how you came to see the world through the lens that you see it through? I can say something serious and two seconds later you’ll turn it into something funny. Do you recall consciously how you came to see the world in that unique sort of way?

Martin: Well, it’s a period of growth. I think when I was young, let’s call it high school, and even before that, I just loved comedy and I loved comedians. I grew up watching Laurel and Hardy. That’s really a long time ago. I loved Jerry Lewis. I just loved comedians.

I never really thought about becoming one. I loved to make people laugh in high school, and then I found I loved being on stage in front of people. I’m sure that’s some kind of ego trip or a way to overcome shyness. I was very kind of shy and reserved, so there’s a way to be on stage and be performing and balance your life out.

Then there comes a point where if you’re going to keep doing that, you have to start to get good. Then I got a few lucky breaks in my career and now I’ve had a career, and I’m still refining that ability to be funny.

I actually credit Twitter with fine-tuning some joke-writing skills. I still feel like I’m working at it. I started – like we’re on tour with our banjo show, and I just didn’t want people to think they were going to come see our show and it was going to be a guy who turns his back on the audience and plays 37 songs and walks off.

I knew I wanted it to be fun and funny, so we incorporate comedy. I don’t know, I just feel like I’m back on stage, entertaining people, like I did in the ’70s, but with a new attitude about it. This helps.

Tavis: I’m always taken aback by the numbers of people I’ve spoken to over the years who, whether as comedians or some other kind of artist, were shy, still are shy, but find refuge in being on stage in front of thousands of people. That never, ever connects for me.

Martin: Well, it’s not personal when you’re on stage. It doesn’t really overcome shyness, but it is a way to be a hero. Being a hero makes it easier to walk into a room. You have a natural – essentially a way to meet girls. (Laughter) Because you’ve overcome –

Tavis: It all comes down to girls.

Martin: You have something to talk about. (Laughter)

Tavis: Right.

Martin: I’m not sure if it really works or not, but now I’m married so I don’t really – I’m not into that anymore. Everybody has their own problems. I just – this was one of mine. (Laughter)

Tavis: I was saying to a friend of mine the other day in a conversation that I took a dare one time, this may be seven years ago, took a dare one time to go up on stage and I did a tight three minutes. I’ll remember it as long as I live for two reasons. One, I will never do it again, because I was scared out of my mind, and I’d long since been on television. I’d never gone on stage to do – take a dare to do a comedy bit.

So in front of a room full of people I go up and do three minutes, got some laughs, it was pretty funny, but I’ll remember for as long as I live the feeling of – I remember what it felt like to actually make people laugh, and I was just doing it on a dare.

How would you describe the feeling of being able to write material, to go up on stage, and bring people to hysteria?

Martin: Well, in my early days it was work. You’re always thinking – like you say you did three solid minutes? My mind immediately went to, “Well, do four.” (Laughter) That’s the way I always thought. I always thought what’s next, what’s next.

You stretch that into an hour and you’re always, your mind is just ticking over. I wrote in my book, “Born Standing Up,” about that you’re always – it’s hard to enjoy it because you’re always thinking ahead. You’re never really in the moment.

But now when I do it I actually relish when I know I have a good joke coming up, because I’m much more relaxed and I have this music thing that takes time between these jokes. I love having a good new joke that I can’t wait to get to or can’t wait to set up.

I also have other band members, the Steep Canyon Rangers, on stage, to have interplay with, and I never had that before. I have camaraderie, as I say.

Tavis: Are the feelings comparable when you pick up your banjo, which I’m going to have you do in a little bit here, when you pick it up and start playing it and people respond in that way, the feelings are comparable?

Martin: It’s a very different thing. When I first started playing again, which was only about three years ago, I never really played with a band before except for maybe one or two songs. Through my career I’d always played alone. I wasn’t used to having people go (moves head) and express enjoyment that way. To me, they always had to be vocal or something and I didn’t quite know how to handle it.

I thought, oh, I’m supposed to play something that’s musical. (Laughter) I’m not supposed to, like, work really hard at it, just make them relax and enjoy it. So I learned that very quickly, obviously.

Tavis: Is it just me, or is the banjo undergoing some sort of renaissance right now?

Martin: Well, I think it is. I’m starting to think it is, because I’m seeing it in so many places now.

Tavis: I see more people playing – exactly.

Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: That’s a good thing.

Martin: Yeah, I think it is a good thing, because it’s such an American instrument, and I think it evokes so many emotions in Americans in some way.

Tavis: I don’t know the answer this, which is I guess what I’m asking you, and this isn’t the only instrument that comes to mind that I can ask this question about.

For an instrument, to your point now, that is such a part of American history and American culture, what happens in the culture when an instrument basically just gets discarded for a while? When a particular instrument just goes by the wayside when it was at one point all the rage, what allows that to happen, do you think?

Martin: Well, I think it’s as simple as times changing or something else takes over. It’s like when Elvis Presley became a hit, all the crooners just became old-fashioned.

So I think this instrument is being resurrected. It’s always been very mighty in a certain cultural part of America, and never really went away. But between the 1960s and now, some great, great players were being developed, and now they’re just making their voices known.

Tavis: Tell me about this – this is the latest project, “Rare Bird Alert,” the one you and the band are on tour for now. Tell me about –

Martin: Our tour doesn’t really start until the summertime. We tour at the end of May, June, July and August.

Tavis: Right, so about to be on tour.

Martin: This was nominated for a Grammy.

Tavis: You won a Grammy for “The Crow.”

Martin: We won a Grammy for “The Crow.”

Tavis: Exactly.

Martin: We were nominated for a Grammy for this, but we did not win.

Tavis: That must be cool, though. You put something down, you come back to it, and three years into it you’ve been nominated for two Grammy awards.

Martin: That’s very nice.

Tavis: Yeah.

Martin: We were very happy about that, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: There are folk who spend their whole careers trying to get Grammy nominated.

Martin: Yeah.

Tavis: You pick it up and three years into it you got a Grammy award already, and another nomination.

Martin: Well, it’s nice.

Tavis: How’s this one different from “The Crow” in terms of the playlist?

Martin: Well, we put different songs on it. (Laughter)

Tavis: You’re busting my chops, man.

Martin: That was my idea. Yeah.

Tavis: Okay. I got my chops –

Martin: This one is recorded with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and so I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just a completely different record.

Tavis: When you’re going into – I want to phrase this the right way. There’s so many artists now, I see them on this show all the time, who feel that – there’s nothing wrong with it, but they feel they have to do a concept record to find their own space in the marketplace, because there’s so many people in that particular genre. They’re all trying to figure out some concept to make the record work. You don’t feel that pressure?

Martin: Well, in a sense, the first record was a concept record in that it was kind of a celebrity playing the banjo with songs that he wrote. Then this album was the same idea, but now I’m playing with an existing band who is extremely good, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and it was unified in that way.

This is much more sort of less produced, in a strange way, because it’s just more the band than me. Then the third album will have to be a little more conceptual, because you just don’t want it to be another record.

Tavis: So are you thinking of that already, the third one?

Martin: Yeah, I have some ideas, but it’s still far down the line.

Tavis: This name, “Rare Bird Alert.”

Martin: Well, that’s such a long story, but I was doing that movie, “The Big Year,” and there was a thing in birding or bird-watching where they have a rare bird alert. So I thought that was a good title for a song, and I wrote a song on there called “Rare Bird Alert.”

Tavis: Can you grab your little –

Martin: Sure.

Tavis: I should say – it’s not little.

Martin: No.

Tavis: I want to ask you a couple of question just that we didn’t get to last time.

Martin: Sure, yeah.

Tavis: Just put you on the spot. What’s the high end – on the high end, what do one of these things cost?

Martin: On the high end?

Tavis: On the high end.

Martin: On the high end, it can cost $200,000.

Tavis: For a banjo?

Martin: Well, not new. (Laughter) That’s for a collectible, very rare Gibson banjo, original five-string from the ’30s. But you can buy a banjo just to learn to play for $300 or $400, a good enough one to learn to play on.

Tavis: You must know somebody, because this says, “Steve Martin” on it.

Martin: That was a coincidence.

Tavis: Oh, yeah? (Laughter)

Martin: Very lucky coincidence.

Tavis: Yes, I see. (Laughter) So where does one go – if one wants to learn how to play banjo, where does one go for –

Martin: There’s so many places.

Tavis: I see signs all the time for piano lessons. Where do you get banjo lessons?

Martin: Well, you can get them online.

Tavis: Right.

Martin: You can buy videos, you can hire an instructor, you can get books.

Tavis: How did you learn how to play?

Martin: I learned two ways – from books, Pete Seeger had a book, Earl Scruggs had a book. I knew friends who taught me little things. I never really had a lesson. I used to slow down 33 rpm records to 16 and pick it out note by note.

Tavis: I’m always impressed by people like that, by you, who can pick up an instrument and just kind of basically teach – never had a lesson, and just teach themselves.

Martin: Yeah, I was so motivated. I just loved the instrument so much. (Strums banjo) It just – you don’t even have to play it. You can just do that, and it sounds good to me. (Laughter)

Tavis: See, if I did that, it would sound horrible.

Martin: No, it would sound good.

Tavis: Let’s see. Watch this.

Martin: Go ahead.

Tavis: (Strums banjo)

Martin: Gee, you’re right, it didn’t sound right. (Laughter)

Tavis: All right, so I got a couple of minutes left in the show. Would you like to strum a little something –

Martin: I’ll try and play something quickly.

Tavis: No, take your time.

Martin: This is a song actually off that record. It’s called “More Bad Weather on the Way.”

Tavis: Okay.

Martin: I wrote it, I liked the title because it implies that thing where you’re sort of snowed in, maybe with your favorite other, and the fact that more bad weather is on the way, that may be not such a bad thing. (Strums banjo) I haven’t played this in a long time. I hope I get it right.

Tavis: All right (unintelligible).

Martin: Here we go.

[Live instrumental performance.]

Tavis: (Applause) Very, very nice. (Laughter)

Martin: Thank you.

Tavis: I know there are folk in Chicago right now who really don’t want to hear that, though, more bad weather on the way – not at this time of year. (Laughter) But it sounds awfully good here.

So two things – Steve Martin, the latest CD, Grammy nominated this year, is called “Rare Bird Alert.” He, along with the Steep Canyon Rangers. And the new text, the new book from Mr. Martin is called – I love this – oh, good, they got it up on screen this time. That’s good.

Martin: Oh, that’s even better.

Tavis: That’s even better. “The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten. The Tweets of Steve Martin.”

Martin: I wonder if it’s funny if I read it.

Tavis: Yeah. You want to try that?

Martin: I’ll try it. “The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.” No, not really.

Tavis: That was funnier. (Laughter)

Martin: Yeah.

Tavis: Funnier to me. I’m glad to have you on the program, Steve.

Martin: Thanks very much.

Tavis: Come back anytime.

Martin: Appreciate it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 23, 2012 at 2:40 pm