the joy of watching comedy icons at work

Obviously, Martin is still caught up in the zeitgeist. Maybe it’s because in real life he’s a 76-year-old man with a 10-year-old daughter. Or maybe it’s because he’s just very, very smart. In any case, he has a knack for constantly reinventing himself to keep up with the times. Fifty years ago, when he first got huge, Martin’s shtick was almost the polar opposite of what he does today. These days his humor is dry and cerebral. In the 1970s, his gig was as broad as stand-up comedy can get. He played the banjo while carrying a plastic dart through his head. He made balloon animals. He made silly voices and silly walks.

Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live during his standup days in the'70s.

Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live during his standup days in the ’70s.Recognition:NBC Universal/Getty Images

And he did it all to sold-out arenas and played in front of 15,000 people at once. Watching Martin’s old routines on YouTube, you have to grasp two seemingly contradictory things at once. First, people thought he was hysterical at the time. The second is that Martin’s old stuff is almost unwatchable by today’s standards. It just stopped being funny.

Martin addresses this paradox in his 2007 memoir Born standing, which is arguably the wisest book on stand-up comedy ever written. (I particularly recommend the audio book version, which Martin read himself.) Humor, he notes in the book, “is as ephemeral as the newspaper.” As he looks back on the stuff that made him famous, he admits that some of it leaves even him cold. “Don’t ask me why, but that was funny at the time,” he says after quoting one of his old jokes.

“The comedy I did was so tied to the era we came from, which is Vietnam,” Martin told Jerry Seinfeld a few years ago on a particularly instructive episode of Comedians in cars drinking coffee. “Part of my goal was to be absurd at a very serious time. I could also say that the era was coming to an end. I could feel it.”

When he felt his brand of “unbridled nonsense” going out of style, Martin did something extraordinary. In 1981, he said goodbye to stand-up forever. He let his act die out so he could evolve into other forms. He tried his hand at novels and plays. He wrote films and acted in them. When making The three amigos (1986) he met Canadian actor Martin Short and the two became amigos in real life. Recently, Martin came out of stand-up retirement to do a two-man show with Short, filmed for Netflix as An evening you will forget for the rest of your life (2018).

if only murders turns out to be Martin’s swan song, it will be a fitting one. As Prospero performs one last trick before drowning his book, Martin has constructed a format that cleverly showcases all the skills he has developed over 60 years of writing and performing.

Martin Short, Selena Gomez and Steve Martin at the season two premiere in June.

Martin Short, Selena Gomez and Steve Martin at the season two premiere in June.Recognition:AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Not that the show is all about Martin. It is a team effort permeated by quality at all levels. The credit sequence is also classy. There is a deep assurance in the writing and directing that allows the tone to shift from funny to touching and back again without any tension.

The performances are excellent across the board, with plenty of juicy roles for veteran actors. Shirley MacLaine and Michael Rapaport make brief but memorable appearances in the new series. Jane Lynch is back as Charles’ stunt double, while Tina Fey returns as Cinda Canning, the ice queen of true crime podcasting.

In his memoir, Martin explained why good comedians never run out of material. “Comedy is a distortion of what’s happening,” he wrote, “and something will always happen.” What does Martin think is happening now? What are the trends that only murders want to distort?


On the surface, the show contrasts with our current craze for true crime podcasts. This connects the three protagonists: They are all fans of the same podcast. At the beginning of the first season, they didn’t know each other. After riding up the same elevator, they hunkered down in their respective apartments to listen to the latest episode of the podcast alone. It wasn’t until a fire alarm drove them out of the building and into a nearby coffee shop that they discovered they had this big thing in common.

Those early scenes felt like soothing commentary across the internet. Information technology can isolate and divide us if we let it. But it also has the power to bring us closer together.

The show delivered a similarly hopeful message about the age gap over the course of its first season. At first, the generation gap between Mabel and the elderly seemed unbridgeable. Before you knew it, they were just three friends hanging out together.

This first series of only murders was made in the midst of the pandemic, and its underlying optimism felt contemporary. The show argues that you don’t have to leave your building to find a human connection. The Arconia is a big box of human stories, and the show constantly shifts its attention from one apartment to another, allowing a character who was previously just a sideline to suddenly become the hero of an entire episode. Martin is a serious student of European literature and I suspect he is only murders was influenced by reading the great novel by Georges Perec Life: A User’s Guide – another work that peels off the outer walls of a residential building and finds a cornucopia of stories inside.

In the 1970s, the keynote of Steve Martin’s humor was silliness. Stupidity was an antidote to seriousness; it made sense at a time when the nightly news was all too unfunny. Now the keynote of Martin’s humor is warmth, and the warmth feels like a corrective to the coldness of an increasingly virtual world. In a divided age, the show challenges us to look beyond the outside and see that the things we have in common run much deeper than the things that seem to separate us.

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Jaclyn Diaz

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