Short Starts is a column devoted to kicking off the week with a short film, typically one tied to a new release. Today we look at an early film by Steve Martin, who co-stars in "The Big Year," which opens this Friday.
There doesn't seem to be much excitement for "The Big Year," but at least it gives me reason to showcase a certain short film associated with one of its talents. No, not the one that got director David Frankel his Academy Award (sadly, the failed-TV-pilot-turned-Oscar-winner, "Dear Diary," is not available online, but you should read its story). I'm talking about the one that kind of got Steve Martin his only Oscar nomination: 1977's "The Absent-Minded Waiter." Technically the honor only went to producer William E. McEuen, but it's really all Martin's effort and achievement. Even above director Carl Gottlieb, whose subsequent feature film, "Caveman," would prove him undeserving anyway. In fact, it's credited on screen as "A Steve Martin Short."
Before I get to that film, which is I think officially Martin's film debut, I thought it would be fun to see his actual film debut, which is a tiny cameo in a 1956 documentary short titled "Disneyland Dream." This amateur work is actually a home movie by Robbins Barstow about his family's Scotch Tape-sponsored contest-winning trip to the new theme park. It was preserved by the Library of Congress and named to the National Film Registry in 2008, partly in honor of Barstow's lifelong work in and advocacy for
the recognition of amateur cinema (he also shot films of other trips around the world, stream-able here). He also deserves notoriety for capturing a 10-year-old Steve Martin in his first film appearance. Nobody would ever know except that Martin himself wrote to Barstow two years ago, stating the following:
“At age 11 I worked at Disneyland. I sold guidebooks at the park from 1956 to about 1958. I am as positive as one can be that I appear about 20:20 into your film, low in the frame, dressed in a top hat, vest, and striped pink shirt, moving from left to right, holding a guidebook out for sale.”
Did you see him?
Now for the main event, "The Absent-Minded Waiter," which unites Martin with McEuen and Gottlieb, both of whom would also collaborate with the actor on "The Jerk" a few years later. McEuen also went on to produce two of Martin's comedy shows and three more of his early features. The short, shot in two days for $96,000, stars Martin along with Buck Henry and Teri Garr (his friend from "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" and "The Ken Berry 'Wow' Show"), who play a couple eating at the fancy restaurant where Martin's character somehow still has a job. As you can figure from the title, he's extremely forgetful. But he's also mostly just an idiot, more than absent-minded. He's like a cross between "The Jerk"'s Navin Johnson and the waiter Martin plays in "The Muppet Movie."
As you'll see, the film is basically just a comedy sketch, like something you'd see on "Saturday Night Live." Supposedly Martin later recreated the whole thing for an "SNL" appearance, but I can't find any real record of this -- there was a 1993 sketch in which Kevin Nealon plays a "Forgetful Waiter," however, and a 1988 sketch where Tom Hanks is a diner with short-term memory. Another episode had Martin as a restaurant patron while Dan Aykroyd is an "annoying" waiter. "SNL" does restaurant skits a lot, obviously. The film was initially written to be a part of "The Smothers Brothers Show" (interesting that just like Frankel's short, it was originally intended for TV) then apparently ended up in Martin's live act, screening ahead of his routine, and was theatrically released by Paramount. Later it was included on a compilation video titled "Steve Martin Live."
Get the latest headlines from Spout delivered to your inbox every day.