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Steve Martin, that ‘wild and crazy guy,’ gets serious at UB

Steve Martin is many things: comedy legend, playwright, actor, musician, author. He has won Grammys, Emmys and comedy awards.

But on Saturday night in University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena, he took on a different role – storyteller. As the student choice selection of UB’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Martin took the stage to tell part of his own story, “Stand Up: My Rise and Collapse.”

When someone is famous for being hilarious, it’s hard not to expect exactly that of them, whatever the setting. No matter whether you know Martin from his stand-up days, his appearances on “Saturday Night Live” or his roles in films like “The Jerk,” he has made a name for himself with his wacky, physical humor.

However, although lighthearted moments and laughs were sprinkled throughout his lecture, it was far from comedic. The audience was treated to a thoughtful, detailed and occasionally philosophical stroll through Martin’s early life and stand-up comedy career, complete with video clips and photos.

Martin began by sharing his first jobs and early fascination with magic. He said the day he got a job working at a magic shop was the happiest day of his life, and getting a job performing his own magic act at 18, the second happiest. He did some comedy work at local theaters, drawing gags and routines from joke books and acts on television.

But after enrolling in college, Martin had several breakthroughs that influenced the way he thought about comedy. The first was the importance of originality, and the subsequent development of a sort of performer’s morality – he would never again copy anyone’s work.

Another defining idea was his rejection of formulaic, punch-line driven comedy and the beginning of his drive for “you had to be there” laughs, where the audience would laugh without being able to pinpoint why they started.

A stroke of luck at 21 got Martin a gig as a writer for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (the third happiest day of his life). The job led to other writing and stand-up opportunities, and in 1972, he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” for the first time.

But after several years in Hollywood trying and failing to make it big, Martin took his show on the road. Performing around the country for audiences that didn’t involve critics or producers allowed Martin’s specific brand of comedy to evolve and transform. It became more physical, and he grew to realize the importance of his act’s precision – every second, every gesture mattered.

“All I had to do is free my mind,” Martin said. “The show was changing – each performance brought my view of my comedy more into focus.”

Once he had found his groove, there was no going back. Martin ditched his turquoise jewelry, long hair and beard in favor of a suit and clean-shaven look, and a rave review of his new and improved show got him invited back on “The Tonight Show.” When a camera accidentally cut to Carson laughing during one of Martin’s bits, his reputation as a comedian soared.

Thus began a new period in the comedian’s life – one in which he “earned money, got famous and was more funny than ever before.” He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” for the first time in 1976, and after that, the crowds for his shows increased by the thousands.

While the insane crowds and his comedy’s popularity were exhilarating at first, Martin soon felt his act shifting into automatic.

Rather than spontaneous change and experiment with his material, he felt enormous pressure to not let anybody down. With “nowhere to look but inward” during his exhausting, coast-to-coast tours, he said, he fell into a depression. When a technical malfunction threw him into a rage after a show, he finally knew: It was time for a change. “It was a creative experience that dead-ended,” Martin said. “It couldn’t change – it could only end.”

That night ended his stand-up career and launched a foray into the movie business that has lasted for 35 years. On that bittersweet note so, too, ended Martin’s lecture at UB. Although not the riotously funny performance some of the audience may have been expecting, it proved an unexpectedly intense and informative journey into what exactly made him a “wild and crazy guy” – and why it had to end.