We genuinely can’t believe we’re writing this, but last night, 35 years after stepping away as the most famous stand-up comedian in the world, Steve Martin returned to the stage and did his first set.
If you don’t know why this is such a big deal (and why all of your comedian nerd friends are totally going to freak out when you tell them about this), allow us to explain. Imagine if today, right now, Adele quit performing music. She just stopped making records and holding her massive, sold-out concerts. Sometimes she’d show up in a musical, or sit in on a talk show, but her career as a recording artist would be completely over without any warning. That would be weird, right? It would be incredible and disappointing, and we’d all be very bummed out and confused. Well, that’s what Steve Martin did with stand-up in 1981, when he walked away from the business, even though he was the most successful and famous stand-up in the world. He just never returned.
On Thursday night in New York City’s Beacon Theater he did return, though—as a surprise opening act for Jerry Seinfeld. “Surprise” is an understatement really. Not only has Martin not performed a traditional stand-up act in 35 years, he has historically been reluctant to even discuss his time as one.
He did write a book about his time at the top of the comedy world, Born Standing Up, a memoir that was equal parts totally fascinating and totally maddening at the same time, because he talked about quitting the way you might talk about giving up soda for Lent. It’s been a few years since I read it, but basically he became so famous that he felt his act was becoming stale and predictable. Essentially he had no mountains left to climb, so he just walked away. Like Michael Jordan in his prime going off to play baseball, except if Jordan hadn’t shot another basketball for 35 years.
So why now? Why last night? It may have something to do with him appearing on Seinfeld’s web series this year, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, where Seinfeld did get Martin to discuss his stand-up career and even the remote possibility of doing it again one day. (Martin apparently said he was there last night because he “lost a bet.” This is weird to type, but I hope Steve Martin has a gambling problem.)
It’s almost impossible to predict if this means he’ll ever perform again as a stand-up. My instincts tell me no, that this was more likely to be a one-time event than some harbinger of any further stand-up comedy to come. It’s too bad though, because as this firsthand account of last night from Jesse David Fox at Vulture shows, Martin still has it.
“I was backstage and I used the restroom. And there was a sign that read, ‘Employees Must Wash hands.'”Pause. “And I could not find [pause] one employee [pause] to wash my hands.”
Okay, please don’t let this be a one-time thing. Pleeeeease? Some of us aren’t old enough to have seen Steve Martin live. If nothing else, now we have another excuse to go down the rabbit hole of his past performances.
Off-beat, weird, “wink-wink” humor is so prevalent today it’s hard to imagine a comedy world without it, but Steve Martin and his meteoric rise to the top of the stand-up world are still a huge reason why it endures. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 35 years for a reminder of why.
What do you think, could this be the start of a return to stand-up for Steve Martin? Let’s freak out about this together in the comments below.