Steve Martin on finding your authentic voice (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
Steve Martin on finding your authentic voice
May 4, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guests today are Steve Martin and Adam Gopnik. You probably know Steve as one of the true comic and creative geniuses of our time. He went from being America's most popular comedian to one of the world's most beloved actors. First in movies like The Jerk and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and now in the TV show Only Murders in the Building, where he and Martin Short play podcast hosts, the job I know a little bit about.

I've been a superfan of Steve's ever since I was a kid teaching myself to perform magic. I still laugh every time I think of his classic bit as an incompetent magician, like the napkin trick where he just sticks his tongue right through a napkin.

[00:00:55] Steve Martin:
When Johnny Carson said he was gonna retire, he said, “Could you do Flydini?” I couldn't say no. This goes back to a traditional magic act where, uh, a guy comes out with a top hat, there's nothing on the stage, and then by the end, he produced everything, right, out of the top hat and has filled the stage with stuff magically appearing from the top hat. So this was a parody of that. We take it out of my fly.

[00:01:23] Adam Grant:
Steve also happens to be an accomplished musician and novelist. This month, he released his first audiobook, So Many Steves, with his longtime friend Adam Gopnik. Adam is a prolific New Yorker writer and author, most recently of the book, The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery. It's a powerful analysis of what it really takes to achieve excellence at any skill.

So Many Steves is packed with wisdom and humor. From the key chapters of Steve's masterful career, he and Adam delve into authenticity, creativity, success, happiness, learning, and so much more. I couldn't wait to talk with the two of them about all the psychological insights.

Steve Martin and Adam Gopnik, welcome to ReThinking.

[00:02:08] Steve Martin:

[00:02:09] Adam Gopnik:

[00:02:10] Steve Martin:
Nice to be here.

[00:02:11] Adam Grant:
Thrilled to have you here. This is very meta. We're doing a podcast about an audiobook about a guy who plays a podcast host.

[00:02:20] Steve Martin:
Adam, you don't know this, but I had to do a little promotion for the book, and I said, “What is a book with no punctuation and no grammar?” It’s an audiobook.

[00:02:32] Adam Grant:
Well, it was such a treat to listen to the audiobook. I love the stories and the analysis and the banjo music. It's just an incredible work of art. Congratulations to both of you.

[00:02:41] Adam Gopnik:
I have not really listened to it through properly because I hate the sound of my own voice. It's just what everybody does, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. We had a good time doing it.

[00:02:49] Steve Martin:
I also remember when I was seven and a teacher brought in a tape recorder, which was even kind of rare, and we recorded our kids' voices and they played it back. And I literally thought, “Who's that? What, what is that voice?” It was so treble and high. You know, we hear our voices inside our head, so—

[00:03:09] Adam Gopnik:

[00:03:09] Steve Martin:
We don't really know.

[00:03:11] Adam Gopnik:
Is that why, Steve? I didn't, I never knew this. See, I'm learning something. Is that why, because they resonate inside our heads, they always sound deeper and better to us?

[00:03:18] Steve Martin:
Well, I think you can trust that I'm an expert on this. And I have no idea. I assume so.

[00:03:27] Adam Gopnik:
Because I still suffer from it when I, when I'm speaking, I hear myself with a rich, plummy voice somewhere between Alistair Cook and Orson Welles. And when I hear myself, I sound like a, a rabbi on a sitcom, you know, saying—

[00:03:40] Steven Martin:

[00:03:40] Adam Gopnik:
“And so Steve, what is our next subject that we're going to pursue?”

[00:03:44] Steve Martin:
You just sounded like David Attenborough just now. It was beautiful.

[00:03:47] Adam Gopnik:
Yes. Oh, great. Good.

[00:03:49] Steve Martin:
We ought to let Adam get a word in.

[00:03:51] Adam Grant:
I mean, we, we have So Many Steves, I felt like we needed another Adam to balance things out.

[00:03:56] Steve Martin:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

[00:03:58] Adam Grant:
It’s actually really fun to hear the two of you talk because you can hear the friendship in your exchange and that's one of the things I wanna talk about over the course of this conversation. But I, I thought it would be fun to dig into some of the Steves, for starters. And Adam, this comes at a perfect time because you recently published The Real Work, and you analyzed mastery, and so I think Steve is a case study for you in many ways of what it takes to master just about any craft.

[00:04:20] Adam Gopnik:
Absolutely. It was one of the pleasures of doing this is that it was an, a lovely overlap. I was working on The Real Work, my book on the mystery of mastery, which is a study in comic inadequacy in most ways. But simultaneously, Steve and I were having these conversations, and I know Steve is a little allergic to the idea of mastery ‘cause he doesn't claim to actually to have mastered all of these things.

But it's exactly the, the point of my book, of the thesis of it, if you want to make it a little more pompous, that exactly the way we learn to do anything well is to do other things badly, and we often get more satisfaction—

[00:04:54] Steve Martin:

[00:04:55] Adam Gopnik:
—from the things we do less well because it, it nourishes us; it gives us a sense of the flow of the happiness, of absorption, even if we're not doing it ideally well.

[00:05:05] Steve Martin:
Lorne Michaels told me once, “I always like to hire people when they're coming off a flop because they put so much more energy into the next thing.”

[00:05:18] Adam Grant:

[00:05:18] Steve Martin:
Which is pretty astute.

[00:05:19] Adam Gopnik:

[00:05:20] Adam Grant:
That’s fascinating. And uh, it's actually a great segue, I guess, Steve, to you starting out at standup comedy and you said “I was not a natural,” which is hard to believe for anybody who's watched your standup; you look like a natural. Tell us about the early days.

[00:05:34] Steve Martin:
I loved comedy. That was the only thing natural about it. But how you do it, I had no insight, no nothing. I watched like one comedian live; I didn't see another comedian live ‘til I was probably 19. I, first one I saw was like 14 or 15 at Disneyland. Wally Boag was a very funny guy who did the same eight minutes, five times a day for probably 25 years. And his freshness was what remarked. It has to look like you're just kind of making it up, or at least that's what I thought at the time.

But on the other hand, I love the precision of, like, Jerry Seinfeld, who I know is not making it up, but the precision is so good. So I, I don't know, I just, it’s trial and error, you know, is trial and error.

And I, I have a, a documentary coming out and, and then, as a lot of it is talked about in this book, about those, and every comedian has them: silence. Silence. I, I did a joke recently. I said, “I, I love to do standup because it's the one place I can go and just enjoy the silence.” Something like that, you know.

[00:06:55] Adam Gopnik:
I like doing storytelling, but kind of like The Moth kind of thing on stage, because storytelling is standup for frightened people because if you get no laughs and they're just quiet, you can reassure yourself. They're really moved by it. They're really taken by the story, even if they're not laughing.

[00:07:11] Steve Martin:
In my standup, I had no story. And other comedians do have story. And now, later in life, I, I, everything I do, I'm going, “What's the story? What's the story?” Because you can hang in there with story while you're not getting laughs.

I was talking to a screenwriter, Bruce Robinson, and he wrote The Killing Fields. And I, I gave him my script to LA Story just as a, ask him to do a favor to read it, give me his opinion. He says, and he says, “And then the story, you just gotta work on that.” It's just hard work to come up with the story.

[00:07:48] Adam Gopnik:
Robert Benton, the great film director and screenwriter once said to me, “The thing with the story is it's like having a nursery full, fill of crying infants. And you quiet one of the crying infants by solving a story problem—”

[00:08:01] Steve Martin:

[00:08:01] Adam Gopnik:
“—And another one starts crying, and you just hope for the moment when you suddenly have only one squalling infant at a time and that's when you're done enough to start shooting, or…”

[00:08:11] Steve Martin:
Well that, it is like whack-a-mole, but fortunately something else crops up.

[00:08:15] Adam Gopnik:

[00:08:15] Steve Martin:
And that gives you the out in solving that. And it's always a little bit of a mystery. In the screenplays I've written, I like to know not where I'm going because if I don't know either, does the reader. And then as time goes on and you're writing, you realize you've laid in elements that you weren't even aware of that can manifest themselves later.

[00:08:40] Adam Grant:
As I was listening to the audiobook—

[00:08:42] Steve Martin:
I’m gonna interrupt. I'm gonna interrupt you, Adam Grant, because you're one of the few people who has heard it.

[00:08:48] Adam Grant:

[00:08:48] Steve Martin:
So I'm, I'm, I'm curious now. We have absolutely no feedback. You know, we can't judge ourselves. So anyway, go ahead.

[00:08:55] Adam Grant:
No, I have a lot.

[00:08:56] Steve Martin:
I guess I'm asking for feedback.

[00:08:56] Adam Grant:
I have a long list of notes. Are you ready?

[00:08:59] Steve Martin:
All right.

[00:08:59] Adam Gopnik:
Yes, please.

[00:09:00] Adam Grant:
I was listening really with two lenses. One was just to, you know, to enjoy it, right? Which was great fun. And then the second was my day job is I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm fascinated by what makes people tick and how we evolve our careers. And so I was thinking about, well, what does the arc of this book teach us about building a creative career and, and working toward mastery?

And so I think one of the things that I was really curious to hear more about was this idea of Adam, I think you alluded to it actually, Steve, you just did a moment ago with trial and error. It seems like a lot of early standup was being like a scientist where you have a, a hypothesis that something's gonna be funny. You test it with an audience, you gather data, and then you iterate.

[00:09:41] Steve Martin:
Well, I, I think that’s, that's true, but the one thing the science metaphor doesn't include and can't include is luck. Comedy is inexplicable.

[00:09:54] Adam Gopnik:
I know you don't want to seem pretentious about this, but you did move from a background in philosophy in thinking about the logic of things into thinking about the illogic of things.You know how the logic of—

[00:10:05] Steve Martin:
Right, that’s true.

[00:10:06] Adam Gopnik:
—philosophy could become the illogic of comedy. So it was somewhat more motivated in that way than someone who's just coming up and saying, “You ever noticed that airplane food?”

[00:10:16] Steve Martin:
Yes. Right. That kind of thinking, of, of analyzing everything, it’s a part of the study of philosophy, and I, by the way, I'm, you know, I'm not a philosophy expert or anything. It's like 101 and a few beyond. It was in the air to investigate everything, to challenge everything, and I was at Long Beach State College, now the University of California Long Beach, and it was an art-centered school and we just had fun being iconoclasts in our head. You know, just challenging everything.

[00:10:50] Adam Grant:
Wait a minute. If you were to line up all the occupations from funniest to least funny, it's possible philosophers would come in dead last. And yet there, there was a connection here. So talk to me about, about how, both of you.

[00:11:04] Steve Martin:
Some of it just came from Descartes. “I think, therefore I am,” which is like, what's the one thing you can know? And he postulated, “I think, therefore I am.” And I sort of approached comedy like that.

Okay, what if there is no comedy? How do we build it up? How do we start fresh and, and make a new thing? Wittgenstein said, “The world is everything, that is the case.” And that is hilarious because it's just stating a completely obvious fact. But it's also a statement of if you can make a sentence out of it, it exists.

[00:11:42] Adam Gopnik:
It's one of those things that's profound because of the door that it opens up, that that's enough. If you say “the world is everything, that is the case”, you sort of kill metaphysics and idealism with one shot.

[00:11:53] Steve Martin:
And thank you Adam for bailing me out of that, what I was saying, ‘cause I didn't really understand it.

[00:11:59] Adam Grant:
One of the things that you've both talked about in other places is the importance of writing for clarifying thinking. And I wanna read a, a quote from you, Steve. You said at some point you had the horrible revelation that “If I was going to be successful as a comedian, I'd have to write everything myself.”

[00:12:16] Steve Martin:
What I'm gonna say right now has nothing to do with the answer. But it was kind of an auteur theory of film that, that the director had the, made a statement with the, “But I was only doing it because I felt things had to be new.” Even if you left the audience with, “What was that?” it was better than formulaic jokes. But by the way, I now love formulaic jokes. It's so much easier and fun and fun, and the audience understands it, and that makes your life so much more pleasant.

[00:12:53] Adam Grant:
So why was it a horrible revelation? What was, what was bad about writing at first?

[00:12:58] Steve Martin:
Well, because I didn't know how to write and I had an act of some of, some of which I wrote, but most of which I didn’t. And so if I had a, I had a 20-minute, you know, I'm 18 or 19, I have a 20-minute act, it goes down to 12 minutes because I'm cutting everything that I didn't, you know, that I didn't deem original. Uh, and some of those jokes I caught, that were lifted because I didn't know. I’m living in Orange County. I didn't know you couldn't use other people's material. You know, they were great. And so not only your go, your act goes from 20 minutes to 12, you also, it also, also goes from getting some laughs to none.

[00:13:41] Adam Gopnik:
I've been on this book tour for the past five weeks doing countless events, not unlike this one. And I have the same six jokes that I always deliver, and as I attempt to deliver them with some residual air of spontaneity, there’s a part of me that grows ill when I realize, “Oh my God, if they, if these guys ever get together and compare the, the same interview and the way in which I am faking looking for a lively answer and then arriving at it, they'll come after me.”

[00:14:11] Steve Martin:
Well, we comedians always envy singers who, uh, get to have their songs, they don't have to written them, a lot of 'em do, but they get to sing them night after night, and the audience wants you to sing it night after night. Whereas a comedian, they go, “Oh, I heard that. I heard that.” Yeah,
[00:14:33] Adam Grant:
I, I was just thinking about that in the context of, of comedy, but also acting where you, you have to repeat the same things over and over again. How do you keep it fresh?

[00:14:42] Steve Martin:
I was talking to Marty Short, who has done plays on Broadway, and we both agreed that six months in, your performance is completely different than one month in because you're searching every night. It's amazing how you can find something new in a line that you've said a million times six months later, and comedy is like that too. I've been on stage with Marty and I go, “Oh, that's how that line should be,” or, “Oh, I take out that one word. Why didn't I see that before?”

[00:15:17] Adam Grant:
Adam, you highlighted the difference between conquering new worlds and ruling them. You described Steve as “motivated by gaining mastery, not maintaining it”, and I'd love to hear the two of you riff about that a little bit. ‘Cause as a psychologist, this is just endlessly interesting to me that the moment you finally feel like you're pretty good at something, it's time to give up and walk away.

[00:15:34] Steve Martin:
I think it all depends on what it is. For me, giving up standup around 1980 wasn't me saying, “Well, I've done it.” It's that I didn't want to play arenas anymore, and I didn't feel I had anywhere to go with it. I didn't have a way to shape it into something new. That particular thing was just dead. Where on the other hand, in music, I played the banjo, I played it my whole life, but I'm still very interested in still writing tunes, but I'm not on the road like I was for a while with a band, uh, because that's, that's its own kind of struggle.

And, uh, in that sense, yes, I kind of did that and, and now I'd like to just write songs and maybe record them for a tiny audience. And when you're playing the banjo, you automatically have a tiny audience.

[00:16:25] Adam Gopnik:
I, It’s one of the things I hope is to kind of interesting point of view in the audiobook of me thinking about Steve or, or reflecting on Steve is that I only do one thing, and I've only ever done one thing since I was 20 years old.

Now, I write song lyrics and I write plays and librettos and I try to tell funny stories, but they're really all versions of the same activity. They're all writing. So I, I was fascinated by the truth that, that Steve could do something that was really accomplished without flattery like write a novel, and Steve wrote three novels and each one was more interesting than the, than the previous one.

[00:17:02] Steve Martin:
There is a throughline for me, and I'll just tell you what it is: standup comedy. And I'm writing things for that, writing things for standup. But remember I started with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour as a writer. So I'm writing sketches, so I have this little, uh, experience with writing sketches and with writing standup, and then movies happened.

Standup led me to movies. And then you start thinking, “Well, I've, I've written sketches and I've written, I could maybe write the screenplays.” ‘Cause otherwise as an actor you're just waiting, waiting for someone to offer you something or f—so I thought, I'll, I'll experiment with that. And I got to write with Carl Reiner and different good writers.

I was trying to get a screenplay written for Roxanne, and I couldn't find anybody to write it. And just logic said, “Well, you've participated in a screenplay and you've done this, and so I'll do that.” And, and then inadvertently I got asked to write something for The New Yorker from Tina Brown. So I started writing prose, and I started thinking, “Well, you can't just write one. Because that would be a fluke. I have to write another.”

Two still sounds like a fluke. I have to write ten. So you write ten and then you start getting into prose, and then you start thinking, “Hey, what about a longer thing? What do I have anything to say?” And you go, “Well, yeah, I do.”

[00:18:19] Adam Grant:
This is a great example of a Kierkegaard observation that life can only be understood backward, but it has to be lived forward.

[00:18:25] Steve Martin:

[00:18:26] Adam Grant:
Carl Reiner came up just now. I, I have to ask, one of my highlight moments of the audiobook was listening to the analysis of sort of the lessons from Carl Reiner and the one that, frankly, I can't stop thinking about is the idea that Adam, I think is, as you characterized it, that once upon a time Steve was shy and then he started playing Carl Reiner to exude warmth offstage.

[00:18:50] Steve Martin:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:18:50] Adam Grant:
Tell me, tell me about that experience.

[00:18:53] Steve Martin:
Well, Carl Reiner could go into a room and be very charming, and I realized it wasn't fake or phony. He, he could do it minimally. Just say hello to somebody. Tom Hanks is a genius at this, but he's sincere. I don't know. I just hear things as still coming up with, I'm saying, interacting with people. I go, “That was Carl Reiner. That was Carl Reiner.” If I say something in the course of this interview, I will say, “That was Carl Reiner.”

[00:19:19] Adam Gopnik:
It's funny ‘cause I never got to meet Carl Reiner, but Steve's description of him was so vivid, and I listened to him countless times with Mel Brooks and then in, on television and I had a sense of him.

And when Steve keyed me into that, I thought, “Hmm, that's really interesting. Be like Carl Reiner.” And in my own weird way, I tried being like Carl Reiner and I find this very successful. And I, because Carl Reiner, I think, and I mean he's a man of, of originality and genius, but in a certain sense he belonged generically to a generation of Jewish spritzers of whom I know very well.

[00:19:52] Steve Martin:
Yeah. That’s right, yes.

[00:19:53] Adam Gopnik:
Plus every man in my family was like that, you know? And it was actually very funny because they wouldn't let me park my bike when we were doing the conversations inside Steve's building. And then I said, “I'm gonna be Carl Reiner.” And I, you know, talked to the doorman and said, “What am I gonna do? You want me to leave my bike out there? It's gonna be stolen.”

And they said, “Okay, can, you can leave it here” And it was my idea, kind of based on the template of my own grandfather of what it was to be Carl Reiner and it's, I've used it. I continue to use it in life.

[00:20:22] Steve Martin:
The first advice I ever got from Carl Reiner, we had the script for The Jerk and he was going to do it, and he said, “Now here's what I do every time I get a screenplay I'm going to direct.” And I thought, “This is going to be so wise, what he's going to say. I better write this down.” And he says, “I go through and I change all the nights to days.”

[00:20:51] Adam Grant:
That's amazing. Let's circle back to this idea of playing Carl Reiner for a second, or being Carl Reiner. As I've reflected on this, it seems to challenge the zeitgeist of being yourself. I think we're constantly urged when we're nervous or when we're uncomfortable, “Well, just be yourself. Right?” And that's, I think, a recipe for authenticity.

And after hearing the two of you talk about Carl Reiner, I thought, “No, no, we don't wanna be ourselves. We wanna figure out ‘Who do I know that's really effective in this situation?’ And then, can I step into that role?”

[00:21:21] Steve Martin:
Well, I think the advice of “be yourself” is the worst advice for humanity—

[00:21:29] Adam Gopnik:

[00:21:29] Steve Martin:
Because nobody knows, especially when you're young, you don't know what yourself is. You don't even know what that means. You think it means be authentic or something? Well, authentic would be go lying on the sofa and watch television. I think it's good to have a, a role model, a template that you can work around and then find your own authentic self within.

[00:21:50] Adam Gopnik:
It's exactly the way you find your voice in writing. Nobody ever finds their voice by shutting off their influences. You find it by imitating other people and then through the process of osmosis, of putting in those people, internalizing their sound. Suddenly, one day you wake up and you say, “Oh, that doesn't sound like anybody else. That sounds like me.”

[00:22:12] Steve Martin:
Many years ago, maybe 40 years ago. I'm talking to a woman who was a young actress, and I was a young actor, and she said, “I'm going into an audition and I don't know how to be. I could be aggressive, or I could be shy, or I could be this.” And I said, “Well, why don't you try just to be yourself?” And she said, “I'll try that.”

[00:22:40] Adam Gopnik:
When I was struggling to learn to drive, which I did in my fifties, Steve learned when in his teens, the only way I could hold down my panic was to be my father. My father had been driving since he was 14. He was a super competent person, and I would literally sit there and intrude my father's self inside my own.

And then I could understand how you held yourself while you were driving. So I think that, you know, that the, the logic of impersonation is a much better way into, maybe it's paradoxical, let's say, into authenticity, but into exchange and interchange into how we relate to other people.

[00:23:18] Adam Grant:
Well, you've anticipated one of my favorite papers. Back in the late nineties, Lockwood and Kunda studied asking people to become their best selves and found that they aimed lower than if instead, they shot for a role model.

[00:23:32] Adam Gopnik:
Oh, we can call that the Carl Reiner phenomenon. Aim higher, don't be you.


[00:23:40] Adam Grant:
I feel like it's time for a lightning round. Are you up for some rapid-fire Q&A?

[00:23:44] Adam Gopnik:
Sure, sure.

[00:23:44] Steve Martin:
I, I'd love to be canceled.

[00:23:48] Adam Grant:
Adam, what is your favorite role of Steve's and Steve, what is your favorite role that you've played?

[00:23:53] Adam Gopnik:
That's easy for me. It's, uh, Steve's take as Cyrano. really in Roxanne.

[00:23:58] Steve Martin:
You know what? I would probably say the same thing, and I'll tell you why: because I had written the screenplay. And now it's cast. And I thought, “The one thing I haven't thought about is how to play it.” And I thought, “How am I gonna play this?” And I just thought, well, upbeat.

[00:24:21] Adam Grant:
All right. Hard to argue with that. But our kids are gonna be a little disappointed that it wasn't Cheaper by the Dozen . I was expecting Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Or Father of the Bride.

[00:24:28] Steve Martin:
In Father of the Bride, I'm essentially playing myself. A guy.

[00:24:33] Adam Grant:

[00:24:33] Steve Martin:
A guy. I play a guy. I think I was doing interviews for the movie and, and the, you know, you know the thing where you do 40 interviews in one day and the standard question: tell us about your character. Like, well, he is a guy.

[00:24:51] Adam Grant:
Alright, guy, what is your favorite podcast?

[00:24:53] Steve Martin:
I am on a show called Only Murders in the Building, and the reason that came about is I got fascinated on a true crime and not so much the, the events, which are horrible, but the solving, I found the solving really interesting. I do enjoy listening to an Australian podcast called Case File.

I had been thinking of trying to write a book that is each paragraph is one sentence long and every sentence advances the story, and I thought that would be an interesting exercise and maybe an interesting thing. I don't know. And I was listening to Case File the other day and I realized that's what they do.

[00:25:46] Adam Grant:

[00:25:46] Steve Martin:
Everything they say advances the story, and that's why it's unique and different. And the crimes are horrible. I don't recommend it to anyone. Yeah, they're horrible.

[00:25:57] Adam Grant:
Tell me the worst advice you've ever gotten.

[00:25:59] Steve Martin:
The worst advice I've ever gotten was also the best advice I've ever gotten. And I'll tell you why. I was a young writer working around Hollywood. I think I had The Smothers Brothers Show, and I got, you know, this Glen Campbell show and, and now I'm talking to an agent, and I was also doing little standup here and there in local clubs. You know, Hoot Night, One Night Stand, whatever, and the agent passed away, but he said, “Stick to writing.” So in a sense, that's the worst advice. But on the other hand, it was also the best advice because I thought, “Oh yeah. I'll show you.” Wow.

[00:26:37] Adam Grant:
Wow. Steve Martin underdog is going to prove that agent wrong.

[00:26:40] Adam Gopnik:
Exactly. I have the same best advice. Worst advice, though, it came from a, a classy source. When I'd been writing for the New Yorker for about a year, John Updike, who was not just the CEO of American Literature, but the Pope of American Literature, it's extraordinarily, uh, distinguished as an ugly word.
I can't think of a better one. And he came into my office, he said, “I'm very much enjoying your writing, Mr. Gopnik.” And then he said, “You know, I have the impression from reading you that you are a yes writer, and if I can give you one piece of counsel, it's that you have to be either a yes writer or a no writer. And I suspect that you're a yes writer. So say yes to everything because you'll find you'll waste more emotional energy trying to choose between things you might do than just saying yes to everything.”

[00:27:23] Steve Martin:
That’s fabulous.

[00:27:24] Adam Gopnik:
And it's my work, it shows. I took his advice, I say yes to everything.

[00:27:29] Adam Grant:
Steve, what’s the best part of being a comedian?

[00:27:31] Steve Martin:
This is not really an answer, but I'll tell you the one thing about being in comedy that is fantastic is that you get to hang out with funny people. And also in the arts in general, in the arts is a great career choice. I've just found that in my life, hanging out with artists of any type is genuine fun. It's mind-expanding ‘cause people will talk about anything. They're not saying, “Oh, we don't talk about that here.” You know.

[00:28:02] Adam Grant:
Adam, from all the years you've been friends with Steve and you know, the last year of conversations with him, what, what is something that he made you rethink?

[00:28:10] Adam Gopnik:
That’s a good question. He made me rethink my own somewhat narrow relationship, we talked about it before, to prose. Because Steve had taken on the task of learning something about writing a novel, and he'd written, as I say, three ones. Each one was better than the next. And then he'd put it aside to pursue other things, and I felt a little bit rut-bound when I was biking home from Steve’s.

And I was saying, “You know, I shouldn't be so enslaved to this hamster wheel of prose production as I have been for the last 40 years, for the honorable reason that it, it supports my family and for the less honorable, but actual one that I love to do it.” I actually get limitless pleasure out of producing sentences, but I, I genuinely thought, you know, I'm going to write more songs and more plays and more shows, and I sort of know how to do this, and I'll do other things. Whether I'll do it successfully or not, I don't know. But I genuinely felt emboldened in that way by our conversations.

[00:29:08] Adam Grant:
That was definitely one of the effects that the audiobook had on me is—

[00:29:10] Adam Gopnik:
Oh. Great.

[00:29:11] Adam Grant:
It really inspired me to wanna expand my own range and say, “Whatever I think is my comfort zone, I need to push the boundaries of that. ‘Cause that's part of what's made Steve such an interesting creative force in the world.”

[00:29:21] Adam Gopnik:
Coming off of what Steve was saying about the company of comedians and artistic people is I, I love the company of comedians and I envy them so much. I have joked that Steve has two sidekicks. We’re two short Canadian sidekicks and Marty is his comic one. I’m his high-brow one. Right?

And when I hear Steve and Marty interacting, I have nothing but deep envy for the speed of mind and the audacity of imagination.

[00:29:48] Adam Grant:
There was a joke in the audiobook that I think met your definition of, or maybe it's Carl Renner's definition of refrigerator humor.

[00:29:55] Steve Martin:

[00:29:55] Adam Grant:
Can you just explain refrigerator humor for our audience?

[00:29:59] Steve Martin:
I was working with Carl Reiner and, and he said, “Oh, that, that's a refrigerator joke.” And I said, “Well, what's a refrigerator joke?” He said, “You, you're watching the movie, and you don't think it's funny or you don't laugh, and then you go home and you're standing in front of the refrigerator and suddenly it strikes you funny.”

[00:30:15] Adam Grant:
Yes. I love those moments. And you created one in the audiobook, which I think Adam, you sort of, you had to nudge Steve to deliver. It was a joke about turning 77.

[00:30:25] Adam Gopnik:

[00:30:26] Steve Martin:
Oh yeah.

[00:30:26] Adam Grant:
Steve, can you, can you give us that joke?

[00:30:29] Steve Martin:
Yes. The joke was, I actually use it in my show now. I say “I, I turned 77 this year,” and the audience applauds, and I say, “Oh. Wait, sorry. I'm a little dyslexic. I meant to say 77.”

[00:30:44] Adam Grant:
I laughed when I heard it in the audiobook, and about three days later, you know, it popped into my mind, and I laughed hard, and it was just such a great, great illustration of the very principle you were unpacking. And I know this is dangerous. People often say it's like dissecting a frog to deconstruct a joke. But Steve, could you, could you explain how you come up with a joke like that? And Adam, can you maybe add to that since you've seen him do this so many times?

[00:31:09] Steve Martin:
I, I like nihilism, and I've used it before in my comedy in the seventies and sixties, is anything that denied the premise. And I guess in a way, I don't know, it denies the premise and I'm saying, “Oh, I'm not this, I'm that.” But it's exactly the same. And, and a lot of times these jokes just are funny on the way they sound. They can't quite put your finger on why it is.

[00:31:32] Adam Gopnik:
Look, nothing can be more annoying, particularly to a naturally funny or accomplished, funny person than the analysis of humor. Nonetheless, I will say that I have always had a kind of pet theory, which maybe even comes up once or twice in the book, that what comedy often does, jokes often do, is that they propose a way of reorganizing the world or our knowledge that we recognize as plausible, but we dismiss as, as unnecessary, as excessive.

[00:32:01] Steve Martin:
And also, the thing of the joke is ‘cause I, I have had dyslexia before where I look at numbers and see them inverted. And I, in this case, I was able to fix it by looking more carefully the first time. That was one thing, but I thought if you are dyslexic and you looked at it and you, you would see them inverted…

[00:32:25] Adam Gopnik:
We have killed this joke, but I will, I will tiresomely press the point.

[00:32:30] Steve Martin:

[00:32:30] Adam Gopnik:
The good jokes tend to be true things that are not helpful. Why do birds fly south in winter? Because it's too far to walk. That is absolutely true.

[00:32:37] Steve Martin:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:32:37] Adam Gopnik:
That is why, but it's not why birds fly south in winter. It's one condition that would keep birds from flying south in winter. But it's not a helpful explanation of avian behavior, though it happens to be true. It is too far to walk.

[00:32:50] Adam Grant:
Well, at the, at the risk of, of beating a dead horse here, when the two of you were talking about this kind of comedy that I think Steve perfected, it reminded me of what psychologists call the benign violation theory of humor, which is the idea that there's a threat to the way you think the world should be, but it turns out to be a completely harmless threat. And that's funny.

[00:33:09] Adam Gopnik:
I had not known that that, that name. Now I'm very depressed ‘cause I thought that was original to me. Benign violation.

[00:33:15] Adam Grant:
Not depressed, validated. Validated.

[00:33:16] Adam Gopnik:
Beningly, too.

[00:33:19] Adam Grant:
That's, that's exactly right. Talk to me a little bit about the role of, of friendship in creativity and success. Friendship plays a big role in, in how your ideas unfolded. Your Martin Short friendship is legendary both onscreen and off. Talk to me about how this matters and whether we should all work with our friends.

[00:33:35] Steve Martin:
I can't even believe Adam cares about me at all. I mean, he is such a, so far, more sophisticated, more aware, such a better writer, such a everything. But, I've always loved working with other writers. When we're pitching comedy ideas, you'd find out things you could never think of alone. If you wanted to be a comedian, find other people who are interested in the same thing and sit with them and talk for months. Just sit and talk and see where your mind goes.

[00:34:11] Adam Gopnik:
I value my friendship with Steve to an extravagant degree, in part just for the sheer pleasure of talking, but also because one is reminded in the course of just, you know, the normal, lovely back and forth between two friends, Steve will suddenly come up with something that will remind you, “Oh my God, this guy is a comic genius,” and you, it will be deeply, uh, thrilling.

[00:34:30] Steve Martin:
There's no comic genius. I mean, you could say [unintelligible] but I thought, “What is a comic genius? That means you never miss? You say every joke and everything, people are on the floor?” There’s just no such thing.

[00:34:42] Adam Gopnik:
Well, I mean by it, it's like when you hear a Paul Simon Melody, I know how to play guitar.

[00:34:47] Steve Martin:

[00:34:47] Adam Gopnik:
And I know how to write melodies to a certain limited degree. And you say, how did he think of that? You know, the, that relationship between E-flat and D-flat. I would never would've done that. Right? And, and it's, it's, it's astounding.

[00:35:01] Adam Grant:
I'm sorry, Steve, but I'm gonna side with Adam on this one.

[00:35:02] Steve Martin:
You can't imagine what pressure you're putting on me.

[00:35:06] Adam Grant:
I mean, I, somebody has to, right? You've got two Adams here.

[00:35:08] Steve Martin:
Well, I think it’s actually, uh, bad now if somebody comes and sees me, they’ll similarly think, “Oh, it's a genius. It's not a funny guy. That last line wasn't so genius.” Genius, genius.

[00:35:21] Adam Gopnik:
Not a genius, no. Only a, only a great comic would be that, would at this stage be that, that concerned.

[00:35:26] Adam Grant:
I think when, at least when I think about how to measure creative genius, I think about it not as your hit rate. But as how high is your peak and—

[00:35:35] Steve Martin:

[00:35:36] Adam Grant:
You’re, you're allowed to miss a lot.

[00:35:36] Steve Martin:
I'm not that high. I'd rather have it the other way.

[00:35:41] Adam Gopnik:
The thing is to me, when you're working with Marty, you, you let Marty get a lot of the laughs. You're glad to be Carl Reiner to Marty's Mel Brooks.

[00:35:49] Steve Martin:
Jack Benny to Dennis Day.

[00:35:49] Adam Gopnik:
Yeah. Yeah. All right.

[00:35:49] Steve Martin:
But I mean, Jack Benny's philosophy was “If they're getting the laughs, it's like I'm getting the laughs”.

[00:35:57] Adam Gopnik:

[00:35:57] Steve Martin:
Because he was the center of the show. I don't know.

[00:36:00] Adam Gopnik:

[00:36:00] Steve Martin:
It just makes our show better. We don't have jealousy about who's getting the laughs.

[00:36:05] Adam Grant:
It's so clearly for the audience as opposed to, you know, for either of you. One of the things I've noticed over the past few years of, of podcasting is that I end up asking all the questions, and I don't let the guests do that at all. If there's anything you wanted to ask me either about the audiobook or anything else you're curious about in the psychology world…

[00:36:23] Steve Martin:
Well, I'll ask you a question that'll be as equally difficult for you to answer. What is the latest thing in psychology?

[00:36:30] Adam Grant:

[00:36:30] Steve Martin:
What’s the newest thing people are looking at?

[00:36:33] Adam Grant:
Oh, that’s a really good question. I think one of the, the things that I've become fascinated by recently is there's a, a new body of research on what's called the victim personality, and it's the idea that you feel entitled to things going your way, and obviously don't take it well when they don’t.

What I did not anticipate though, was that this could be a source of status and even a virtue. I think we all know people who air their grievances like every day is Festivus, and it turns out that that is actually a strategy that they use and particularly it's a strategy that narcissists and psychopaths use because they—

[00:37:08] Steve Martin:

[00:37:08] Adam Grant:
They know they can't promote other virtues. Like, if I'm extremely narcissistic, I'm not gonna walk around talking about how generous I am. Right? But claiming that other people have taken advantage of me and exploited me. Well, that one I can defend.

[00:37:20] Steve Martin:
I, I do think that the, the, the victim culture is, is a, a kind of a new thing, isn't it? Where we're all, uh, sort of, uh, born inherently to be given things, you know, or to be praised?

[00:37:35] Adam Grant:
There's a beautiful book by Edith Eger, The Choice. She's a Holocaust survivor turned psychotherapist, and she said, “Look, taking victimhood in as part of your identity, that's a decision. That's a choice we make, and it's a choice we can reject.”

[00:37:50] Adam Gopnik:
Yeah, that's good. That's good.

[00:37:53] Adam Grant:
One of the things that, that the audiobook really made me think about differently was the relationship between success and happiness. We've debated for decades in my field about whether happiness energizes success, or whether success breeds happiness or neither, and I think that one of the themes that, that came through, maybe in each of the Steves in some way was that as you gain mastery, success leads to happiness, but that too much success could actually undermine it. And I was, I was curious to hear about your takes on that.

[00:38:26] Steve Martin:
I think success early on can be very difficult, and yet that's what you want. And you're happy you have it, but success later in life is fantastic, and to have had success is fantastic, even if you've lost it. But to have had it is a great, great thing. I can’t deny it.

[00:38:48] Adam Gopnik:
Happiness is, is absorption in something outside yourself. It could be in raising children, which for me was the greatest source of happiness I was, have been blessed to have in life.

[00:38:58] Steve Martin:
Likewise. Yeah.

[00:38:59] Adam Gopnik:
Yeah. And ‘cause that's totally exterior, right? You're just, you're waking up, you're responding, you're reacting. It's outside yourself. Uh, and the same thing is true about mastering music or anything else. And so for me, that's always the case, that happiness is absorption.

[00:39:14] Steve Martin:
That is success: to be absorbed.

[00:39:17] Adam Gopnik:

[00:39:17] Steve Martin:
And it doesn't mean financial success or notoriety, but I know people who are so happy because they are absorbed in what they're doing.

[00:39:25] Adam Grant:
Talk about absorption. This time is flown by for me. I so appreciate the two of you taking the time to do it. We started meta, so I'll close meta and say that, that you know, Steve, if your career has brought so much joy to so many people, and this audiobook is a joyful experience of, you know, not only reliving that joy but adding to it, and it, it's clear you really are George Baker or maybe Tom Banks. And, um—

[00:39:49] Steve Martin:

[00:39:49] Adam Grant:
I just, I just would hope that, you know, you rethink your decision to retire because we all want more Steve Martin.

[00:39:54] Steve Martin:
I’m not retired. No, that, that was a misnomer. I, I think what someone asked me, they said, “Uh, are you going to retire?” And I, and I cavalierly said, “Well, this is it.” Meaning I'm doing a television show and I'm doing a live show with Marty and writing, you know, recording some banjo music. That's what I meant, and then people took it as I was retiring, I wouldn't even, yeah.

[00:40:16] Adam Grant:
Such a relief. We look forward to, uh, the sequel to the audiobook.

[00:40:21] Adam Gopnik:

[00:40:22] Steve Martin:

[00:40:23] Adam Grant:
Thank you both.

[00:40:23] Steve Martin:
Thanks a lot, Adam. We had a great time.

[00:40:26] Adam Gopnik:
Terrific, thank you again, Adam.

[00:40:27] Steve Martin:
See ya, Adam and Adam. Bye.

[00:40:32] Adam Grant:
I never thought that I would get a chance to interview Steve Martin, and he was so earnest, so sincere, and even more so when his good friend Adam, joined the conversation. And that's made me start to think differently about authenticity. When so many of us think about authenticity, we think about just, yeah, sorry, reaching inward, trying to figure out who am I and how do I bring that outward.

But I think Steve's experience with Carl Reiner flips that. He says, “Well, I've got a friend who exemplifies something I want to be, and so, let me play that role.” And what's so interesting is that friends aren't only models of who we wanna become. They're also conduits to moving in that direction. And so I think a big part of authenticity is not just figuring out who are the role models that I aspire to be more alike, but also asking who are the friends that can help me move in that direction?

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin, original music by Hansdale Hsu and Alison Leyton-Brown.

[00:41:56] Steve Martin:
Hang on. Mm-hmm. Uh, one, uh, yeah, sorry. Hi, I'm doing a, a podcast.

[00:42:00] Person on Phone:
Oh, I'm sorry. I'll talk. Nevermind.

[00:42:02] Steve Martin:
I’ll be done. I'll be done shortly. I'll be done shortly. Okay.

[00:42:07] Person on Phone:

[00:42:07] Steve Martin:
Alright, bye.