Steve Martin and Me

April 6, 2024

I can already hear the criticism. Shouldn’t the title be Steve Martin and I? Um . . .  No. The full title is actually Ruminations about Steve Martin and Me, so as you can see, the “me” pronoun is perfectly acceptable. I read somewhere that grammar debates are the absolute best way to grab the reader’s attention. Nailed it!

I have loved Steve Martin’s humor and brilliance since I was 15 years old. That’s when I purchased his Let’s Get Small album and played it non-stop, sometimes with a few friends in my room, but mostly just for me. I loved the inane humor, the concept of looking like a goofball while supposedly trying to be cool, and everything about his delivery. When he started appearing on Saturday Night Live, I couldn’t get enough of the wild and crazy guys skit and everything else he appeared in. When The Jerk came out when I was a junior in high school, I had every line memorized. I know that my already quirky sense of humor was altered, perhaps for the better, by the hours of quality personal time that Steve and I spent together. He made comedy seem so effortless. And as I imagined the real Steve Martin, I figured he was just being himself, and that he was exactly that wild and crazy, yet brilliant lunatic that he so effortlessly portrayed.

My teachers weren’t too happy about Steve and me. In 9th grade, I found a pair of eyeglasses that had no lens on the right side. My schtick was to ask the teacher a thoughtful question while dramatically slipping my finger through the glassless frame to scratch an imaginary eye itch. I was sent to the office for that one. Being clumsy on purpose was another Steve Martin influenced “comedic” thing that I did. Those shenanigans attracted a lot of attention from my peers, which I thought was good. Later I learned that while some thought I was funny, others thought that I was an idiot. I think most of my friends still think that way about me.

I started thinking about this because I just watched the brand new documentary: STEVE! (martin) on Apple TV. Actually, I watched it twice. I expected to be whisked away on a laughter-filled journey through his careers in comedy, movies, music, and writing. What I experienced was so different. Turns out, nothing is effortless for Steve Martin, and he’s certainly not one of the wild and crazy Festrunk brothers that I imagined him to be.

In Part I, which contains video clips and pictures from his life through 1980, neither Steve nor his sister remembers love, laughter, or hugs in their home. Whoa. That was a surprise. His dad saw no purpose in children getting anything nice without earning it, so Steve started working at Disneyland when he was ten years old. Ten years old. It was there that he saw crowds being amazed by the magic, and being entertained by the humor of the magicians during the show. He had found his special purpose. He figured out that comedy had a brighter future than magic, so he focused on that. Being a stand up comedian was something he learned based on repeated observations and, in his never-ending pursuit of excellence, by studying and thinking deeply, even philosophically, on how to present comedy differently. In his words, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

In short, Steve Martin was a remarkably successful comedian because he worked so damn hard at it. In everything he did – comedy, movies, writing, and music – he went about becoming great by dedicating himself completely to his passion. In that pursuit, he left no time for any kind of personal relationships. And though he was somewhat proud of his many accomplishments, it appears that none of it ever made him truly happy. I would not describe his mood as dark, but melancholic seems to work. And this is from the guy who had the world’s best line about having light in our lives: “A day without sunshine is like . . . night.” (It still makes me laugh.)

I’ve never seen a study of those who worked to achieve true greatness – those who were not satisfied until they knew they had reached the pinnacle of their fields – and how that quest for greatness impacted their overall happiness. If you look at Steve Martin, the quest for greatness had no positive impact on his happiness. He did say an interesting thing though: “I decided to think of my work as an end, rather than happiness as an end.” Sounds Puritanically spiritual, doesn’t it? We are not here to find happiness – we are here to work. Sisyphus had a similar life – push that rock up the hill in order to reach the top, then go back and start all over again. But as my friend Dawnalyn said, “Sisyphus was not a happy person.”

I’m not trying to be critical. As Steve said, “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” Words to live by.

Other than my family and my career, I’m not sure if I have ever completely devoted myself to anything. But in my efforts to be an improving musician, athlete, writer, or anything else really, I put just enough effort into it to be pretty darn good – probably better than average – but never great. I’m still learning to be a writer, and I think I may have something good to share. As Steve said, “Some people have a way with words, and other people . . . not have way, I guess.” (I’m laughing again, even though I’ve heard it 200+ times.) But through all of it, I would say, with a few big exceptions, I’ve been remarkably happy. Sometimes I wonder, if I had truly devoted myself, whether I could have ever been great at any of those pursuits. It would have taken so much time, and I would have had to give up other passions in my life, and maybe, I would have had to give up on happiness.

And I do realize that “other than my family and career” is an unquestionably absurd thing to say. Those are biggies. And they have both provided me with incredible meaning and joy throughout my life. I have devoted incredible amounts of time to both, though maybe more to my career than I should have. But again, as I look back at my life, it’s been full of contentment, joy, and laughter.

But the quest for achievement and excellence matters. Steve Martin’s quest for excellence has brought so much pleasure into my life. Thomas Edison’s quest for the light bulb led to the computer I’m writing on today. And somewhere out there, researchers are devoting their lives to a cure for dementia. These quests have changed, or will change, millions of lives. I don’t think you have to give up happiness to quest for impactful achievements, but I know it happens. All I’m saying is, I’m grateful that so many give up so much to pursue their own quests. Thanks to all for something that may just make all of our lives better.

I remember learning about the marginal utility curve in an economics class in college. That’s the curve that shows that the more money or effort you put into something, the greater your results. But, there is a point in that curve (X1 below) where the results from increased inputs are not as great as they were before. For example, I was once presenting at a conference with two colleagues, we’ll call them “Carolyn” and “Karina.” We were working on the presentation all afternoon and into the evening, and it looked great. I thought we could put in more hours and make it a little better, or stop working, get some rest and some dinner, and be more ready for tomorrow. They chose to keep on working. I had a nice dinner and a walk, and went to bed at a reasonable time. Their efforts made it better, but just a little bit. (Still, “Carolyn” and “Karina” – thank you for making it better, and sorry you were on your own doing it. You’re both probably thinking you did much better work without me.) I would wish for all those pursuing excellence, that they could know when their efforts have reached that inflection point, so they could also include a pursuit of their own happiness. Steve Martin didn’t even know there was an inflection point.

Instead of constantly smiling and laughing as I watched Part I of STEVE! (martin), I found myself more impressed by him than ever (and remember, I’m a huge fan of all that he has done), but I left the episode heavy and saddened. I was mourning the loss of the imagined happiness and joy in the life of a person I have admired for most of my life.

Part II takes place three years ago, when Steve was 75 years old. He’s a different person. Everything seems slower in his life. He bicycles slowly. He cooks and eats slowly. And it’s not the slowness of age. He’s fit, still brilliant, hilarious, and truly killing it at 75 years old. His actions and mannerisms are more relaxed, and it was kind of wonderful to see. He seems to be enjoying meaningful relationships and learning what it means to be in those relationships. He is still working, but his work is not at all about pursuit of excellence. He’s doing it for the sheer joy of doing it. He worked alone for most of his early life, and now he works with Martin Short and others he admires. He says that whereas his earlier life was anxiety-ridden, he is happy at age 75. He reflects on how he has become a better person with age – he’s kinder, more open, and less driven to find purpose in what others think. I sense that contentment and happiness in him, though I am not totally convinced. I sure hope that he is. I will say this, Part II seems way happier for Steve than Part I. If a documentary on Sisyphus’s life had a similar Part II, the rock would no longer play a starring role.

Steve Martin will always be one of my heroes. I admire him even more now that I know how much he had to overcome, the failures he experienced, and his dedication to excellence. If I could have one wish that I think would change the world, it would be for every person to know they are loved. Watching the documentary made me so appreciative of my own childhood, of having parents who loved me unconditionally, and of growing up in a home filled with wackiness and laughter. I have tried to provide that same level of love, wackiness, and laughter for my own family. In terms of my career, I worked to provide meaning and opportunity, as well as love, wackiness, and laughter for students and my colleagues. And maybe I won’t ever achieve greatness in my other pursuits (and when I say “maybe,” I mean that there’s way less than Lloyd Christmas’s one in a million chance), but the pursuit of them, and the joy I derive from that pursuit, can be an end in itself.

Have a good day y’all,

– Mike Matthews

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Post #105 on


If you haven’t seen Dumb and Dumber, it probably says good things about you. That being said, my sides still hurt from laughing at some of the scenes. Here’s the Lloyd Christmas quote I was referring to. Jim Carrey, who played Lloyd, was also heavily influenced by Steve Martin, and, fun fact, only got the role after Steve Martin turned it down. Actually, I think that worked out great for both of them!

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  1. Bill Fournell says:

    You have certainly found your special purpose Mike. I too had just watched the Steve Martin documentary this past week. First for the memories of replaying his bits back and forth with my friend Gary in high school. But especially thanks for putting to words the feelings of learning about how one of my heroes struggled so much to find happiness and how he’s come out the other side. The scenes of him and Martin Short just being effortlessly funny are so great. It’s really a wonderful documentary.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Bill. Very cool to hear about your impressions of the documentary, and I should have known, that your outstanding sense of humor also has a little bit of Steve in it. I don’t know if that influence is purple, obsequious, or clairvoyant, but it’s definitely there. Thanks as always for reading and for your insight.

  2. John "Jack" Loose says:

    Great post Mike! One of my favorite Steve Martin bits was “The Great Flydini” where he shows his magic chops.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Ha! Absolutely a classic! His magician skills were no joke. Like everything he worked on, he was a top notch magician. He was just better at being funny. Thanks for reading!

  3. Wayne Reel says:

    Steve Martin dazzles me still: Roxanne, LA Story, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Pennies from Heaven, Only Murders in the Building. His humor is intelligent and catches me off guard.

    One of my favorite bits: He sings New York, New York paying a singer a bit behind and to the side of him to hit the high notes.

    Interesting blog. I enjoy your writing and your wit. As far as teaching goes, you are one of the best of the best.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Wayne! Catching off guard is a great way to describe Steve Martin humor. I’ve never heard the NY, NY bit. I can imagine it, but I have never heard or seen it. I looked for it online and did not find it. If you have a link, please send it my way!

  4. Bill Sampson says:

    Yes, you left out Steve Allen, truly a Renaissance Man, in your list of comedians. Smock, smock!

    As a mathematician I much appreciate graphic displays of phenomena, such as the indifference curve. However, that curve is better expressed (in my opinion anyway) as: “You can have 90% of the fun for 10% of the money; the other 10% of the fun takes 90% of the money.” You’re welcome.

    1. Dan Wren says:

      Bill, you are spot on. The point of diminishing returns is best shown in the racing world. The very best teams in NASCAR will spend millions on wind tests alone. A low end team can still qualify for the races buying two year old cars from the top teams at 10 cents on the dollar. This is true all types of racing. It ends up being too expensive for all but the best funded teams.
      When NASCAR was a regional sport with limited exposure a few guys could modify a car and have a chance to win. When NASCAR exploded in popularity beginning in the early 90’s the money changed everything. The chase for an ever diminishing return was on.

      1. Mike Matthews says:

        There needs to be a “All Math Can Be Explained by Nascar” textbook in our classrooms. Thanks for the insight, Dan.

    2. Mike Matthews says:

      Good verbal curve expression there, Bill. I like it. 90%, in most cases, is all I need. Thanks.

  5. Gisele Nguyen says:

    Steve Martin graduated from my high school, Garden Grove High School, a few years before I attended, but we had the same civics teacher, Mrs. Meysenburg, who had a few stories about Steve, pulling silly pranks in class.

    I haven’t seen the show yet, but you’ve inspired me with your writing. Thank you for sharing your uplifting writing, and wonderful gift with the world, Mike.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Yes! He was there when Garden Grove was just starting to blow up. And you were there many decades later. The true home of stars. Thanks for reading, Gisele!

  6. Tyson Dexter says:

    I almost peed my pants in the movie theater from laughing so hard at the snowball scene in Dumb and Dumber.

    Great post Reverend.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      For me, my near breaking point was the laxative scene. Again, showing my maturity. Thanks for reading, Tyson.

  7. Seth Finn says:

    I have to second what Bill Fournell said above, you’ve definitely found something else you’re pretty damn good at. Yet again you’re digging in to the cracks and crevices of the human condition, and doing it really thoughtfully. How much energy we put where is arguably the central question each of us faces, answering it is a life’s work. If I had a dime for every time I’ve called myself a jack of all trades, a master of none, I’d be rich, and I really think that’s what you’re getting at here, how far do we go in any of our pursuits? Why are we doing the things we’re doing? I don’t know any of the answers to any of this, what I do know is the books you’ve recommended, the topics you explore help me as I make those decisions. And I laughed out loud many times on this one, thanks Mike!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Seth. It’s easier to create laughs in my writing when I’m talking about Steve Martin. Let’s keep pursuing our multiple paths.

  8. Laurie Kantor Finn says:

    Great insight, always love reading your perspective! Your post pushed the documentary to the front of the queue! Wanted to watch before reading your thoughts. What a great two nights, learning more about Steve, he really has so many artistic outlets. Fascinating to imagine him as a father to that cute stick figure!!! “Remind me your name?” Thank you again for sharing your experiences and wisdom.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Loved the “remind me your name” bit. I remember he said, “I don’t know if I’m a good Dad, but I’m kind.” So weird that he doesn’t know a good dad from not a good one. As long as he’s trying, kind, and gives his daughter the gift of his time, I bet he’s doing just great. I’m glad you enjoyed the documentary.

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