Last night, those attending a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up performance in New York got one of the most unexpected treats a comedy audience could ever hope to receive: an unannounced opening act by Steve Martin. What made the performance so surprising was that it was Martin’s first stand-up show in 35 years, after he walked away from the form at the peak of his success, vowing never to return. His return to the stage followed an appearance on Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, during which the two discussed Martin’s career and his leaving stand-up. “I didn’t want to [return],” Martin said in the episode, “I was essentially depressed.”
What made Martin’s popularity particularly impressive in the ’70s —when he was one of the biggest stand-up acts in the world, performing to audiences that would rival the biggest music acts of the day in size—was that his was a comedy act founded on “anti-humor,” jokes that earned their laughs largely through how funny they weren’t. As The A.V. Club wrote in its Primer on Martin, his act was
founded on surrealism and non sequiturs, bits that zagged where every other comic had zigged. Martin counted on the audience knowing entertainment conventions; the joke was how those conventions were being subverted. “My act, having begun three years earlier as a conventional attempt to enter regular show business, was becoming a parody of comedy,” he wrote of his creative evolution [in his memoir Born Standing Up]. “I was an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one.”
Eventually, however, so many people got the joke that his zags became crowd favorites, and their success contributed to the depression Martin described to Seinfeld. (He was also focusing on his film career at the time; The Jerk, one of the most influential comedies of the past 30 years, is basically a translation of his stand-up philosophy to the screen.).
According to Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, who was at the show and reportedly lost his mind at the news, Martin only performed for a few minutes, though the material was funny and apiece with the “jokes about jokes” style that made him famous. Among the jokes Fox recounts: “I’m here tonight because of that old showbiz saying: Never lose a bet to Jerry.” It remains unclear whether Thursday’s show was a one-off, or whether Martin could be lured back for more performances in the future, happy feet and all.