Steve Martin Shows You How to Write a Sketch Show in His Rare TV Special
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
This might be heresy to some of you, but I just can’t get into the early seasons of SNL. I can appreciate their importance and the talent of the writing and cast, but whether it’s a time issue or a generational thing, watching that Season One DVD set felt like more of a chore than a treat. That’s why when I watch a sketch show from the past that still holds up decades later it truly feels like the creators accomplished some feat.
I’m willing to attach this lofty claim to an NBC special entitled Steve Martin: Comedy is Not Pretty. The hour-long special, which was aired just one time on Valentine’s Day in 1980, has nothing in common with the stand-up album by Martin, released the previous year, and is instead one hour of sketches from the comedian. Now, as of writing, Steve Martin has hosted SNL a total of 15 times, so what makes this particularly so different from any of those episodes of Steve Martin sketches? Versatility. Comedy is Not Pretty is a compilation of sketches that run the gamut of everything that sketch can be. Let’s take a look at them, shall we?
The Absurd Sketch
There’s not an awful lot of information about Comedy is Not Pretty available on the Internet, but when it is discussed there’s one sketch that seems to get mentioned more than any other, and it is ostensibly a music video for the Marty Robbins song “El Paso.” The song tells the story of a cowboy (in the sketch, played by Steve Martin on a miniature horse) who falls in love with Feleena, a Mexican dancing girl, then shoots a rival for her love, flees El Paso, hides for years in the badlands, and is then murdered by a posse on his return to town (in the sketch, every other character is played by chimpanzees.) This is one of the few sketches that are online, so instead of trying to describe this five-minute masterpiece, I’m just going to let you enjoy it yourself.
The Satirical Sketch
Another sketch features Steve as a televangelist running a dry cleaner. An easy, clear premise. Then he just maps televangelist specifics onto the dry cleaner/customer relationship. Boom. There’s your sketch.
The customer inquires when his clothes will be ready, and the dry cleaner launches right in. “Many peo-ple… They ask me that question and they lay their burden before me and ask if I can cleanse it for them. I can cleanse most fabrics even if the devil has cast pizza upon them. ‘Can you make it as though new’ and I say ‘ye-ah.’” Each question that is posed is met with a similarly bombastic, including a reading from The Yellow Pages (“It says here ‘four day service.’ We shall believe the promises written in this book.”) until the customer is completely convinced.
Clearly this character was one that he enjoyed satirizing as he played a very similar one in the film Leap of Faith ten years later. This sketch was probably much more critically respected.
The Commercial Parody Sketch
Steve drunkenly staggers out of a picturesque house; as he fumbles for his keys, he insists that he won’t have a cab called and he doesn’t want to stay over. Then, Regis Philbin enters. (I’ll never get tired of typing that sentence.) “Has this ever happened to you?” he asks. “You invite someone to a party. He has too much to drink. And then he gets behind the wheel of a steamroller.” And then we see Steve Martin driving a steamroller, weaving all over a residential street. Regis continues to outline the many dangers of drunken steamroller operation before ending with the pun “Next time, keep the keys to the steamroller. He’ll flat-out thank you in the morning.”
The Character Sketch
In this sketch, Steve Martin plays his “wild and crazy guy” character from SNL without Dan Aykroyd. Instead it’s just him, talking to the camera, while he’s at a restaurant with Jean DeWitt, giving us dating advice. He tells us to know how to order and is then shocked to learn that they have different colors of wine here. He asks what animals they have steaks of. Then he gets his date into the “love mood” by mentioning the Yankees, how much he loves it when they bunt, and how rat season is almost here. At the end of the sketch, when his date tells him that tonight he’ll have to be gentle because it’s her first time, he’s outraged. “What?! I was hoping one of us would have a little experience!”
The Intellectual Sketch
“The Death of Socrates” features Steve as Socrates waiting in his jail cell to hear news concerning his fate. The sketch opens with one of his students arriving and saying, “the trial is over. Here’s your hemlock,” to which Socrates responds, “Ah! Thank you,” proceeds to drink it down then asks, “So, what was the verdict?”
Things kind of go downhill for Socrates from there until finally he uses his last few moments to tell off his followers. “I’m going to lay down here and I’m going to die. And you know what’s going to happen? You guys are going to go out to dinner. And you guys are going to sit there and stare at each other. I was the only one who would talk out of this whole group. It was always Socrates, what is the nature of truth? Socrates, what is the nature of justice? Socrates, what should I order? Socrates, what are you having? And not once, Socrates, hemlock is poison!”
The TV Show Parody
There are actually two sketches that fit this bill. The first is a parody of 60 Minutes in which Steve Martin plays an investigative journalist determined to blow the lid off of 60 Minutes. This includes an unsuccessful guerilla-style attempt to get an interview with Mike Wallace by bursting into the CBS offices, interviewing the owner of a local deli (played by a young Paul Reubens!) where Mike Wallace gets his food, only to find that the sandwiches he orders are made exclusively from foreign products. After thoroughly besmirching 60 Minutes, Steve teases next week’s topic: is Tom Snyder made of wax?
The second TV parody is the last sketch of the show, and is a parody of National Geographic-style documentary anthologies called “Bizarre Oddities of the World.” The format of the sketch allows Steve to showcase a variety of strange traditions and peoples, including creatures from an age long gone (they’re hippies, and Steve can’t stop laughing at everything they say), a Mideast country where the entire country’s economy is based around begging, a visit to the Great Pyramids of Egypt (which initially seem far in the distance but can actually be picked up and removed by the local tour guide) and a variety of other strange locales in the form of half-sketch premises.
The “Is This Really Happening? How Long Is This Going to Go?” Sketch
Towards the end of the show, Steve Martin, in a white tux, lip syncs to the entirety of “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. He plays it straight throughout and once you get over the “why is he doing this?” factor, it becomes genuinely charming and entertaining.
And that’s how you create a perfectly balanced sketch show that still feels fresh and original (and most importantly funny) thirty-two years later. Also, get a stable of writers that includes Steve Martin himself, The Jerk co-writer Michael Elias, and comedy luminary Jack Handey and you’ll be totally fine.