Steve Martin has been a Renaissance man for decades.
His career has ranged from stand-up to Saturday night live, to play the banjo. He’s appeared in what feels like a million movies and has received critical acclaim for his latest hit, the series. Only murders in the building.
Central to his multi-hyphenated status is a passion for writing that ranges from novellas to plays to films. It is therefore remarkable that he has chosen a new medium to tell the detailed story of his film career: animation.
The book, number one goesis a collaboration with The New Yorker Cartoonist Harry Bliss. It is the couple’s second work and will be released on November 15th.
Steve Martin and Harry Bliss joined Everything considered to share the experience of working together to tell the story of Martin’s life through pictures.
This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Why you chose this medium
SM: I did a memento of my stand up career and I did that in 2007 and it was called Born standing. And the reason I limited it to this story is because it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I started out as a young, whatever, actor-comedian, and then I became a stand-up comedian, and then I quit. So it had a breakpoint. It had a philosophy to tell it. It had soul, I would say. And then I thought a lot about my film career, but I always thought, well, I always find biographies and autobiographies very interesting before you make it, and after you’ve done it, it’s like, “Yeah, OK, and then I met, and then I did this, and then I did that.”
I thought I have these anecdotes and I don’t want to make a book of anecdotes because they’re often tiny. They’re small, tiny things. And then I started working with Harry, for whom I started writing cartoons The New Yorker with, and then we made a book of cartoons together.
I walked up to Harry and said, “Would you be interested in writing these anecdotes?” Because an anecdote in cartoon form is very concise. You don’t have to stage yourself. You don’t have to describe what people are wearing. You could just do the essentials of the story.
So I thought this is a perfect vehicle for that because there are certain stories that I just love and certain memories that I love.
About the shared experience of illustrating someone else’s life story
HB: I live in the forest, very rural. And how it came about, and how I got these anecdotes, is that sometimes he would email me. But one day he called me and I was hiking in the woods and I had taken a small dose of psychedelics and I was feeling really good. And the phone rang and I felt it vibrate in my pocket. And I saw and it was Steve. And I thought, well, I think I can handle it.
So I took the call and he told me this really funny anecdote about Selma Diamond. And he told me that and I laughed out loud. And I hung up and said, “Well!”
I just stood there in the snow in the New Hampshire woods. I’m going to describe it as David Byrne described it: How did I get to this place? Where did this house come from? And this beautiful woman comes here? How did I get to this point? It was a beautiful moment.
on the title, number one goes
SM: Well, the original title is now the subtitle, My Life at the Movies and Other Distractions, that is, there are cartoons, anecdotes and cartoons. But this phrase has always stuck in my mind, “Number one goes”. It’s used on a movie set when the call list comes in, the type of lead, the one with the most lines, is called number one. And then there’s number two. And number three, the people who actually buy wires.
And when the assistant director is on his walkie-talkie, they don’t want to say, “Steve Martin is going on set,” because that might create a commotion or something. So they changed it to “number one goes, number two goes.” And it was always kind of awkward, you know.
About the creation process of the illustrations
HB: Well the process, we established that a bit in the first book we did together. But I’ll start in general Steve, in this case he’s talking to some animals in the woods. There is a bear and a deer and a raccoon and other animals. So he tells these animals this anecdote. Part of the reason I’m doing this, opening it up like this, it’s kind of a recording, is because I love drawing animals and trees. I just enjoy it.
And I love Steve’s kind of incongruity in the woods. So he talks to them. It’s a kind of vignette of the picture. It’s been called “collapse” in comics from then on. So I’ll break these records. I will break down Steve’s words which I receive in an email.
He’ll write them down and I’ll start breaking them down the way a storyboard artist would do a movie. Maybe the third panel is a pull back shot and all you see is the word balloon coming off the top of the mountain there. And I enjoy it because I get to draw these things and it’s always fun to draw Steve’s face. At this point I can draw Steve while he sleeps.
Martin on the vulnerability of a memoir
SM: I think there’s an assumption that at a certain point you’re just overly confident. And I don’t think that’s likely to be the case for anyone. And that’s how I made this film parenting, and I went to see it. I could tell it played great. And as I was driving home I was like, “Wow, everyone in this movie is amazing except me.”
And I went home and went to bed, which is part of the story. And I just think about it and think about it. And I was like, “Wait a minute, they didn’t hire seven amazing actors and one lousy one. So I have to be good too.” It’s all about watching yourself because it’s just you. Whereby when you write a book you are at least separated from the end product.
It’s different from you. But here it is only real is She. So you’re not looking at yourself from afar, you’re looking at yourself from within. I don’t know how to describe it.
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