Steve Martin performs in 1975. (Larry Hulst / Getty Images )
Steve Martin, the man in the white suit, has led many lives and worn many hats — some of them actual hats — in his travels through the culture as actor, musician, composer, novelist, memoirist, humorist, playwright, screenwriter, comedy writer, art collector, magician and Twitter star. So busy and so varied has his career been that it is possible to forget, if you ever knew it, that he once was a stand-up comedian, a pursuit he pretty much abandoned at his rock-star height, some 30 years ago.
A dispatch from that lost time comes this week in the form of a three-DVD set, "Steve Martin: The Television Stuff" (Shout! Factory). It collects four prime-time specials made for NBC from 1978 to 1981, a nightclub set (from HBO) and a gloriously energetic concert, and a generous assortment of odds and ends spanning five decades.
"I haven't really had the strength to sit down and watch them," Martin said recently on a hot day in a leafy canyon of the NBC specials, which take up most of the collection's first two discs. As many have noted, he is in person more a mild and classy than a wild and crazy guy. "I like the third disc, the eclectic part."
That smorgasbord includes his first television appearance, on a Southern California kids' show; his short film "The Absent-Minded Waiter"; a selection of brilliantly skewed mock-solemn speeches delivered at tributes to himself or to others. (From a "Kennedy Center Honors" broadcast honoring his friend Paul Simon: "I don't use the word 'genius' very often — I just thought I'd mention that.") There are solo spots from "Saturday Night Live," which he has hosted 15 times, and appearances on the Carson and Letterman shows.
"I think some of my best work incidentally has been on these late-night TV shows," said Martin. "And when I say 'incidentally,' I'm not kidding, because you're always going on these shows to promote something. And you go, 'I'm going to hold up a record for 30 seconds, and for that I have to have 10 minutes of comedy material.' I've always been really thoughtful about it. I really wanted this stuff on [the DVD] because I didn't want to be represented by essentially three years of TV specials, while television has been this adjacent part of my career my whole life."
Born in 1945, Martin was a child alongside the young medium. "My parents lived through the development of the airplane and the automobile, and I grew up through the age of television. I remember when I was 5 years old and my father brought home a black-and-white TV — with antennae — and I saw westerns, and I saw Laurel and Hardy, and I saw W.C. Fields. It was all stuff that had been made 10, 20 years earlier. That's where I first saw comedy and show business."
Martin began his own television career off-camera as a writer on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour": "The slogan of the day was 'Never trust anyone over 30,' so they wanted to hire all young writers and get rid of their really, really good writers, who were older, who had actually written for Jack Benny. And I got hired, mysteriously."
His greater goal was "to be a regular on a variety show, which was dying out. That's why I took these writing jobs; I kept having this dream of being hired as a regular on the show. But they always hired somebody else."
He is, one might say, a variety show unto himself: In the course of "The Television Stuff," he juggles, makes balloon animals, tap dances (with Gregory Hines, bravely), performs magic and rope tricks and, of course, plays the banjo -- his main pursuit nowadays. (He was on that day on a break from on ongoing tour with the Steep Canyon Rangers, the North Carolina bluegrass band with which he records, and had just finished recording an album with the singer-songwriter Edie Brickell.). And he got his variety specials eventually, in the twilight of variety, by leaving television for the stage and coming back a star.
The NBC specials are inevitably a mixed bag. "All Commercials," from 1980, which depends on a knowledge of contemporary advertising, is the furthest past its sell-by date. But most of what's here works perfectly. The live broadcast "Best Show Ever," from 1981, amounts to an "SNL" reunion, and allows Martin and Dan Aykroyd to do their Czech swingers. Its centerpiece is "The Elephant Guy," with Martin sporting a pachyderm's ears and trunk, corrupted by his own notoriety into a narcissistic showbiz swinger.
Also here: Marty Robbins' song "El Paso" enacted with circus animals. Socrates drinking the hemlock because no one told him it was poison. ("You guys are going to go out and you'll have dinner and you'll sit and stare at each other.") Martin performing a series of comedy dives — the ones you remember from being 12 years old — in "Olympic competition," a bit as lovely as it is funny. The pace runs from the antic to the oddly lyrical.