Book Review: Steve Martin’s $30 comic book — “Number One is Walking,” (drawings by Harry Bliss)

Steve Martin’s “Number One is Walking: My Life in Movies and Other Diversions,” is the sort of book that airports should buy in bulk and sell at a discount, so that passengers can give them a quick read and leave them behind for somebody else to pick up before their flight.

It’s a lightly-amusing collection of anecdotes, illustrated “graphic novel” style by Harry Bliss. There are also scores of single-page cartoons for which Martin provided the captions, and Bliss illustrated. It is a 20 minute read, tops.

While perusing it, you might think, “Whoa, a couple of these (there are maybe 60 or 70) might be clever enough to actually make it into The New Yorker!”

And then you read the back cover and realize, “Hey, Harry Bliss does this for a LIVING at The New Yorker.”

Well, I haven’t picked it up in a while, so maybe they’ve had a bit of a falling-off, at least in terms of wit. Or maybe he was just thrilled to get into a book with Steve Martin and didn’t have the temerity or the heart to say “Let’s take another run at this” or that.

It’s a slight book, even by the standards of the short-funny-takes genre that Woody Allen, Martin and others have served up for decades.

Illustrating showbiz lore from his early years with the banjo, the making of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” “Roxanne” and other films, relating “How I got into movies” and how he got out — “I lost interest in the movies at exactly the same time the movies lost interest in me” — should have been the template that this enterprise stuck with. That’s what works.

I’d love to see a whole book of illustrated versions of his “SNL” appearances, how “King Tut” came to be, that “Love at First Laugh” connection with Martin Short, his shorter half for decades of stage appearances, TV sketches and the Third Act triumph that is “Only Murders in the Building.”

I know he’s covered some of that stuff in other memoirs, but an anecdote about the first time he went to the Lapin Agile in Paris, inspiring his play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a few others about early stand-up and the like would be more readable and entertaining than much of what made the cut here.

The guy did a whole Jacqueline Onassis bit when he was the Stadium Stand-up King, preserved on vinyl. Not connecting that to a party at her apartment years later when he did “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway seems an opportunity missed. Or maybe he’s forgotten that, or chose to forget it.

Pages of cartoons illustrating his purchase of an off-the-books, street “caption” because Martin couldn’t come up with anything funnier doesn’t play, nor does the “I blow dried the cat” “hot” caption he “bought.”

I was reminded of the late comic polymath and King of All Media Steve Allen, whom Martin has emulated and bested in some regards — stand-up, stand-up LPs, films, books, plays, music, TV. Any time a Seinfeld or Kevin Hart, Silverman or Samantha Bee takes on a book, a play or a talk or game show, they’re following in the footsteps of the first famous “Tonight Show” host, who tallied films, tunes, multiple series and enough books to keep Ron DeSantis’s censors busy for weeks among his “keep busy” and “use the brand” efforts.

Allen wrote a lot about comedy, and while no one would confuse him with Henri Bergson, he was a superb analyst of the medium, the form and those who practiced it. He astutely took Martin’s off-kilter lowbrow high-wit seriously very early on.

Having had the pleasure of interviewing both Allen and Martin a few times over the years, that’s a label that both men have relished, being taken “seriously.”

But if you’re going to dig at Milton Berle, in his day the most unpopular comic among his peers, widely regarded as a jerk, why would you hold back and sugar coat the one time you worked in a movie with Chevy Chase (“The Three Amigos,” which Martin conceived)? Nobody in show business WANTS to work with Chevy Chase. Sometimes, they’ve been forced to, but the stories about him go back to the ’70s, took flight in the ’80s and led to his exile by the ’90s, until TV folk forgot what an insufferable ass he is and brought him back. Briefly.

A lightweight tome like this might not be the place to address that (Surely he’s got “Chevy stories.”). But recalling that Robin Williams was either “on” or “off” during their “Godot,” a guy who couldn’t help but disrupt rehearsals with manic riffs, suggests that maybe it is.

Martin’s “real people” buying tickets to his movies — many of which were bad — isn’t quite the cop out it seems. He acknowledges how hard it is to make one that works, how many you have to make to get a few really good ones under your belt. “All of Me” with Lily Tomlin and “Roxanne” with Darryl Hannah, greenlit by the one studio exec in Hollywood who remembered who Cyrano de Bergerac was, and the pablum that was “Parenthood” have their moments and memories revived here.

With so many books, memoirs included, on his resume, Martin can be forgiven for not wanting to repeat himself, for running out of things to recall and joke about that he hasn’t passed on in another book. What he can be chewed out for is peddling and packaging this “curated,” rarely-charming piffle from a specialty publisher at premium prices.

If you’re going to write a comic book, why charge for a hard cover? It’s not like you need another Edward Hopper, even if he provides the punchline to one of the better cartoons served up here.

Number One is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions.” By Steve Martin, drawings by Harry Bliss. Caledon Books. $30. Maybe…70 pages of content, mostly drawings with a blank page on the back.


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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