LOS ANGELES, May 12 (UPI) -- When the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presents Steve Martin with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, it will be honoring one of the most prolific and versatile performers of the last four decades.
Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman said Martin's creations -- on stage, on film or in books -- have made "a collective memory of humor and joy for all Americans."
Schwarzman might also have mentioned that Martin is an accomplished banjo picker and magician.
Martin achieved stardom in the mid-'70s with appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and memorable stints as guest host on "Saturday Night Live," but his professional experience dates to the 1960s -- when he entertained crowds at Disneyland. By the late '60s Martin joined the writing staff of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which earned him an Emmy in 1969.
Martin subsequently received Emmy nominations as a writer on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" and "Van Dyke and Company" and as the host of the 73rd Annual Academy Awards telecast. He has also won three Grammy Awards -- for the comedy albums "Let's Get Small" and "A Wild and Crazy Guy" and as part of an all-star lineup of musicians that included Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and Leon Russell on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."
John McEuen, a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, was a classmate of Martin at Garden Grove High School in Orange County -- and the two were co-workers at Disneyland. McEuen told United Press International Martin already knew in high school how to get laughs.
"During the high school morning announcements he would often be on the P.A. system doing something funny a couple times a week," said McEuen. "He is the only cheerleader guy I ever heard of who did cheers in a ballet tutu."
In 1971 McEuen's brother, producer William E. McEuen -- who was by then managing the Dirt Band -- agreed to manage Martin's career.
"He made the deal for the record albums at a time when Steve was taken around to every record label in town and turned down," said McEuen. "Warner Bros. said yes, finally, and he proceeded over the course of his recording career to sell about 9 million albums."
Martin's single "King Tut" went gold, selling in the neighborhood of 1.5 million copies.
After featured roles in the late-'70s movie musicals "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "The Muppet Movie," Martin co-wrote and starred in "The Jerk," directed by Carl Reiner -- who received the Mark Twain prize in 2002.
"I can't wait to go to Washington (for the Oct. 23 Twain prize presentation) just to hear what's going to be said about him," said Reiner in an interview with United Press International.
Martin was on the program when Reiner received the prize, and Reiner recalls especially one of Martin's jokes from that night.
"I have a lot of wonderful things to say about Carl," said Martin onstage at the Kennedy Center, "but this is neither the time nor the place."
Martin has managed to specialize in that kind of cerebral humor as well as the goofy physical comedy featured in "The Jerk" and three other collaborations with Reiner -- "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man with Two Brains" and "All of Me." Reiner said it's the versatility that makes Martin interesting.
"He's a one-man band," said Reiner. "He does more things in comedy in different fields, and then when it's all over he can do you a card trick -- which a lot of great comedians can't -- and then he can juggle."
Reiner said the first time he met Martin, Martin was already writing comic essays.
"They were hysterically funny," he said. "The development was interesting to watch. It went from that to a book, 'Cruel Shoes,' to (a novella) 'Shopgirl,' to (Martin's latest book) 'The Pleasure of My Company' -- that was a really wonderful piece of literature."
Martin has also written the plays "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" and "The Underpants" and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker.
The Twain prize is awarded specifically for outstanding achievement in humor, but its recipients -- Reiner, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin and "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels -- are generally thought of as comedians.
Comedy and humor may be two variations on the same form, but Reiner said there is a distinction.
"When I think of comedy, I think of the whole person doing something physical -- plus it could be a funny word happening at the same time," he said. "But humor is something that I think is gentler and it makes you smile. It's good humored. Comedy doesn't have to be good humored."
For Martin, the honor comes after years of plying perhaps the only trade that ever interested him.
"When he was my new friend," said McEuen, "and he was coming over the house after we finished work at Disneyland at midnight, my mother made the comment, how come that friend of yours Steve is always on? She wasn't sure she liked him because he always seemed to be acting something or doing something."
Martin will receive the Twain Prize in Oct. 23 ceremonies at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to be videotaped for broadcast at a later date.
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