Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces

It might be difficult for young people today to understand just how huge Steve Martin was in ‘70s. Comedians like Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart regularly fill arenas. Martin pioneered that way before they came along. His stand-up routine had millions of Americans wearing fake arrows through their heads and saying “Excuuuuuuuse me!” at the drop of a hat. Director Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), has a new film called Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces that uses its first half to recount how the comedian became so big and the second half to look at his influence across media after hanging up the microphone. This is as definitive a portrait as any fan could hope for.

Part 1 (“Then”) details Martin’s early life, which included stints working at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland. There, he learned balloon-animal making, magic, and patter - tools he would rely upon when getting into stand-up comedy. Extensive archival footage is utilized, including very early performances. In his revealing voiceover, Martin talks about initially relying on props, then realizing his humor would work better with a radical shift in tone. He therefore bucked convention, where the set-up to a joke creates tension and the punchline releases it. Inspired by his college education in philosophy, he asked himself, “What if I created tension but didn't release it?” The result was success beyond his wildest dreams.

Part 2 (“Now”) begins right after his sense that he had become “more of a party host” than a comedian and needed to quit. The ups and downs of Martin’s subsequent movie career, his work as a screenwriter/author/playwright, his passion for art, and his recent success with the TV series Only Murders in the Building are explored in detail. This section contains lots of on-camera footage with Martin, the best of which finds him and colleague Martin Short trying out jokes on each other for their two-man touring show.


For all his fame, Steve Martin has always remained a somewhat private figure, even to his closest friends. Steve! gives unprecedented access. There are still some areas he won’t go into specifics on, such as the reasons behind the end of his marriage to actress Victoria Tennant, but he cheerfully opens up about the joy his second marriage (to former New Yorker staffer Anne Stringfield) has brought him. Same goes for fatherhood, a gig he never anticipated yet has come to love. In an especially poignant moment, he reflects on how he was miserable as a young man, thanks in part to an anxiety problem, only to find peace and serenity in his ‘70s.

The film does an enjoyable and thorough job relating the specifics of Martin’s varied career. Neville’s specialty is getting his subjects comfortable enough to show different sides of themselves. Steve! really shines in that department. Martin tears up remembering working with John Candy on Planes, Trains & Automobiles. He talks about his career being one long attempt to earn his father’s approval. He asserts (incorrectly) that he has no talent, that his career is attributable to luck.

Personal touches like those make the documentary compulsively watchable. (I viewed both halves back-to-back because I couldn’t tolerate the idea of a break between them.) The point is made that, for all his early success, Martin became a far more compelling entertainer when he devoted his life to things other than comedy. Art, philosophy, writing, and family have given him more to draw upon than all the wacky props or funny catchphrases in the world ever could.

Here's the biggest compliment I can pay Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces: I’ve been a massive, bordering on obsessive Steve Martin fan since the late 1970s. I’ve seen all his movies, read all his books, listened to all his comedy albums, and watched all his TV specials. I know his work inside and out. After seeing this film, I can honestly say that I have more appreciation for him than ever before.

out of four

Steve! (Martin): A Documentary in 2 Pieces is rated TV-MA for language. The running time is 3 hours and 20 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan