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Joyce Carol Oates on Steve Martin

Joyce Carol Oates introduces Steve Martin to a Princeton audience on December 8, 2011.

It’s an honor and a pleasure to be introducing Steve Martin on behalf of the University Lecture Series. Since Steve’s first, memorable visit to Princeton in October 2005, under the auspices of the Creative Writing Program, in this very hall, he has accumulated achievements, awards, and acclaim commensurate with an entire career—an entire “successful” career, that is, within the space of six years: Steve has published three bestselling books and he has made several movies (THE PINK PANTHER I and II, BABY MAMA, IT’S COMPLICATED [with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin], and the recent birdwatching comedy THE BIG YEAR). He has emerged as a bluegrass banjo sensation—his first all-music album, THE CROW: NEW SONGS FOR THE 5-STRING BANJO received the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album of 2010 and in 2011 Steve Martin was named International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year. His most recent bluegrass CD is RARE BIRD SIGHTING.

Steve Martin and Joyce Carol Oates

JCO and Steve Martin

"He is certainly the first person at Princeton, either faculty or visiting lecturer, among whose major works is a volume titled PURE DRIVEL—though numerous books may merit this title, only Steve Martin has had the integrity to acknowledge the fact."

Steve Martin is the first individual to be introduced in austere McCosh 50 of whom Elvis Presley once said, “Son, you have an o-blique sense of humor” as he is the first individual at Princeton, since its founding in the 18th century, to have been named one of People Magazine’s 2003 “50 Most Beautiful People.” He is certainly the first person at Princeton, either faculty or visiting lecturer, among whose major works is a volume titled PURE DRIVEL—though numerous books may merit this title, only Steve Martin has had the integrity to acknowledge the fact. It was not Montaigne, nor Oscar Wilde, but Steve Martin who said: “…entertainment can aspire to art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you are an idiot.”

A longtime dual resident of New York City and Beverly Hills, Steve Martin was born in Waco, Texas, raised in Orange County, California, and attended Long Beach City College and UCLA in the 1960s; he is a shining example of the unexpected uses in which a major in philosophy might be put. (“If you study geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all. But philosophy you remember just enough to screw up your life.”) Revenants of a philosophical education emerge at odd, magical moments in Steve Martin’s novels, in the inspired absurdist pieces collected in PURE DRIVEL, WASP, and CRUEL SHOES, and in such surreal comic films as THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS and ALL OF ME, as well as the acerbic lyrics of Steve’s bluegrass song “Atheists Don’t Got No Songs” from RARE BIRD ALERT.

Steve Martin has acquired enormous popularity, fame, and critical acclaim for his subtly modulated comic performances in such films as THE JERK, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, BOWFINGER, THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS, FATHER OF THE BRIDE I & II (probably Steve’s best-loved movies), L.A. STORY, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, and numerous others including the lesser-known, sinister David Mamet cult-film THE SPANISH PRISONER; and for his memorable appearances on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE through the 1970s; and for such comic masterpieces as A WILD AND CRAZY GUY and LETS GET SMALL—for which he has received numerous awards including Emmys and Grammys. No one is funnier than Steve Martin in such classics, available on YouTube, as “The Great Flydini” and “King Tut”—“stand-up comedy for dogs”—which I highly recommend for those melancholy days when life seems like, well—too much trouble. Watching Steve Martin will not answer a single philosophical paradox but, better, will dispel all paradoxes.

It is not perhaps as well known that Steve Martin is a playwright (his most frequently performed play is PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, his most underrated play, THE UNDERPANTS) and a brilliantly perceptive commentator on art, in the memoirist KINDLY LENT THEIR OWNER. His remarks on beauty in art are striking and provocative: “Beauty is patina… Like patina, which can be washed away with soap and water, beauty too can adhere to objects and be stripped from them.”

“Beauty” suggests mystery, elusiveness, and impending loss, which characterize Steve Martin’s first novel SHOPGIRL (2000), an intimate anatomy of a love affair that avoids all obvious occasions of melodrama and excess, quietly devastating, as if Henry James and Colette had collaborated, with a California setting. SHOPGIRL was also made into an excellent movie, in which Steve Martin plays Roy Porter, in a screenplay by—Steve Martin.

Steve’s second novel, THE PLEASURE OF MY COMPANY (2003) is a mordantly funny / melancholy portrait of an affable bachelor living alone in Santa Monica for whom the anxiety of ordinary life—like, for instance, crossing the street—has become overwhelming; OCD’s in this audience—“obsessive-compulsive-disorder” people—will find Daniel a kindred spirit with valuable advice: “Alternative Fixation is a technique I use to trick myself out of anxiety. It works by changing the subject. I simply focus on something that produces even greater anxiety.”

Steve’s much-acclaimed memoir BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC”S LIFE (2007), I will leave for him to present to you this evening. And Steve’s most recent book, appropriately titled AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY (2010), is itself an unusually beautiful object containing full-color art-plates enhancing an oblique and doomed love story set in the New York art world, not satire, but something much more ambitious.

Freud has famously said of beauty—“Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it. “ We can expand this to include humor—the high-quality, inimitable and inspired humor of Steve Martin’s comic genius—“Civilization could not do without it.” Please join me in welcoming Steve Martin to Princeton.