Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk” is ecstatic to find his name in print — in the phone book. “Things are going to start happening to me now!” he says.
Twenty-six years later, the actor and writer is receiving a more prestigious form of recognition.
For his career achievements, Martin was honored Sunday with one of the nation’s top comedy awards — the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Among those saluting the versatile performer at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts were actors Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin, Diane Keaton, Martin Short and Claire Danes and musicians Paul Simon and Randy Newman.
“He redefined comedy by defining the moment of our ascendancy as a generation,” Hanks said. “As did Charlie Chaplin, as did the Marx Brothers, as did Laurel and Hardy define their own times, Steve Martin defined ours.”
Martin’s colleagues paid tribute in between dozens of clips from his movies and TV appearances. Newman performed “I Love to See You Smile,” a song from Martin’s film “Parenthood.”
Tomlin said, “His artistry soars to heights of sublime silliness and divine absurdity.”
In accepting the Mark Twain Prize, Martin mentioned some other awards he had won, including a 1969 writing Emmy for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” “But of course the Mark Twain Prize is more special to me,” he said, “because it’s more recent.”
“He’s an original genius,” Short said before the ceremony. “He’s kind of blazed his own trail.”
“I think he’s the most intelligent man I’ve ever met,” said Monty Python veteran Eric Idle. “Honesty, simplicity and truth are the secret to his comedy.”
Hanks disagreed, saying Martin’s success was based on “self-loathing and unhappiness.”
Cherishing and regrettingAsked if he had any regrets, Martin said, “It’s a life of cherishing a few things and regretting a lot of things, but that’s the life of a performer.”
Martin’s career got off the ground in the late 1960s, when he wrote for the Smothers Brothers’ show. As a standup comic, he grew popular on campuses and often appeared on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”
He hit his stride playing larger-than-life characters while hosting “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s. His performances on that show — from a singing King Tut to Georg Festrunk, better known as one of two “wild and crazy guys” — earned him fame as a zany comedian.
After starring in the hit “The Jerk” in 1979, Martin appeared in more than 30 other films. He also wrote the screenplays for such films as “Roxanne” (1987) and “A Simple Twist of Fate” (1994).
Over the years Martin expanded his repertoire to include plays, novels and humorous magazine pieces for The New Yorker. His 1993 play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” which envisioned a meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso at a Paris cafe, has been produced around the world.
Despite these sophisticated career turns, Martin, now 60, hasn’t forgotten where he came from — he will star next year as the stumbling, bungling Inspector Jacques Clouseau in “The Pink Panther,” a prequel to the popular Peter Sellers movies.
PBS plans to air the Martin tribute on Nov. 9. Previous Mark Twain Prize winners include Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg and Bob Newhart.