What do you get when you put Tina Fey, Jack Black, Dan Aykroyd, Amy Poehler, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Martin Short, Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, Lily Tomlin, Steve Carell, Conan O’Brien and Sarah Silverman in a room together? One hell of a rollicking good time filled with laughs, all in celebration of the illustrious career of Steve Martin.
The actor, playwright, comedian, author, banjo player and producer was honored with the 43rd AFI Life Achievement Award in ceremonies taped June 4 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, bestowed upon him by another comedy legend, Mel Brooks, and the 41st such honoree of the American Film Institute.
After introductory remarks from AFI Board Chair Sir Howard Stringer and the institute’s President Bob Gazzale, the evening’s festivities kicked off with a drum roll and a color guard introduction of Jack Black, who set the tone for the night with a funny a capella version of “The Thermos Song” from “The Jerk.”
Then, a clip reel of just a few of Martin’s numerous “greatest hits” rolled, an array of bits going back to his days as a rock star stand-up comic in the late 1970s to his appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “Saturday Night Live” to scenes from “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Jerk” and “Father of the Bride.”
“Steve Martin gave me some great showbiz advice,” said Fey, his co-star in “Baby Mama.” “Advice like ‘to be early is to be on time and never shake hands when an open mouth kiss would suffice. Fix your nose or your teeth, but not both.’ I’ve learned so much from you, Steve, and then you end up marrying a woman who’s a younger, smarter version of me. You’re a genius.”
The camera cut to a grinning Martin with wife Anne Stringfield, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Fey.
Aykroyd spoke after the inevitable — and highly anticipated — clips of their beloved, bumbling escapades as “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” on “SNL.”
“We first met on ‘SNL’ and he asked me to come to Saks with him to look at sweaters. Steve left and never spoke to me. I worked on [creating] the hedonistic, swinging Czech brothers, and then four decades of the Blues Brothers,” Aykroyd recalled. “Steve, I owe you a living.”
Interspersed with the parade of Martin’s co-stars to the podium, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard also paid tribute and offered their reminiscences via video.
“He’s the whitest man on Earth who ever lived,” remarked Queen Latifah, who starred opposite Martin in “Bringing Down the House.” “In college, he took white studies. Usually when I hear white people playing banjo, it’s time to leave,” she concluded, to roars of laughter from the audience.
Poehler also commented on Martin’s banjo playing. “Man with banjo, it’s the grey period, from 1970 to tonight,” she said about his artistry. “He’s the Mona Lisa of comedy.”
Carell took a different approach when speaking about his relationship with Martin. “I for one hate Steve Martin. But I ripped him off. ‘Roxanne’ is pretty much ‘Foxcatcher.’ He’s better, smarter and funnier. But I know he’s not a good lover.”
But it was Short, Martin’s frequent co-star in projects including “!Three Amigos!” and two installments of “Father of the Bride,” in addition to their “SNL” skits, who had the crowd continually in stitches.
“I’m so happy … that the Vicodin and Xanax are taking effect,” he began, and then launched into tracing Martin’s career in a set that will likely be edited for the broadcast of the ceremony. “He started turning tricks at Disneyland, offering to pleasure strange men in the parking lot. Then Walt Disney asked him, ’Jew or not a Jew?’”
As the audience roared with laughter, Short continued by saying, “Steve is needy, vindictive and overrated. He’s received many awards — but this one is not deserved.”
Yet Short, who will share some tour dates with Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers beginning this summer and is obviously getting well warmed up, did have this compliment for his friend, “I think he’s ‘fucksy’ — funny and sexy.”
There was much, much more — so no further spoilers — before Short ended by performing a song by Edie Brickell, Martin’s frequent musical collaborator.
When it came time for Brooks to present Martin with the honor, he started off sincerely before letting his natural comedic instincts take over. “He sticks his hand in his fly and does amazing things,” Brooks said of Martin. “He keeps winning awards. But Steve, tear down this wall. Let Jews and blacks and women back into comedy.”
“How do I top this parade of stars — easy,” said the man of the hour, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from a crowd of about 1,000 people. “But to quote Jack Benny, I don’t really deserve this.”
(“43rd AFI Life Achievement Award to Steve Martin” premieres on TBS Saturday, June 13, at 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. ET/PT. An encore showing is set on TCM for Thursday, July 30, at 8 p.m. ET/PT as part of an all-night tribute to Martin’s films.)