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25 Clever Steve Martin Quotes on Longing, the Art World, and Creating Characters

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Happy birthday to comedian, writer, and banjo god Steve Martin. The Pennies from Heaven and Man with Two Brains actor — not literally, though his cleverness would suggest otherwise — has impeccable comedic timing and an unparalleled ability to conjure the humor, warmth, and pathos from just about any situation. Martin’s observations on comedy, writing, art, and life are worth poring over, so we’ve collected a few of his best quotes in honor of his 71st.

“I don’t think anyone is ever writing so that you can throw it away. You’re always writing it to be something. Later, you decide whether it’ll ever see the light of day. But at the moment of its writing, it’s always meant to be something. So, to me, there’s no practicing; there’s only editing and publishing or not publishing.”

“I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”

“The real joy is in constructing a sentence. But I see myself as an actor first because writing is what you do when you are ready and acting is what you do when someone else is ready.”

“I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct. The course was more plodding than heroic.”

“I loved to make people laugh in high school, and then I found I loved being on stage in front of people. I’m sure that’s some kind of ego trip or a way to overcome shyness. I was very kind of shy and reserved, so there’s a way to be on stage and be performing and balance your life out.”

“I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you’re an idiot.”

“I’m enamored with the art world.”

“I was not naturally talented. I didn’t sing, dance or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive.”

“I just wanted to be in show business. I didn’t care if I was going to be an actor or a magician or what. Comedy was a point of the least resistance, really. And on the simplest level, I loved comedy.”

“Anytime you look at anything that’s considered artistic, there’s a commercial world around it: the ballet, opera, any kind of music. It can’t exist without it.”

“With comedy, you have no place to go but more comedy, so you’re never off the hook.”

“I actually credit Twitter with fine-tuning some joke-writing skills. I still feel like I’m working at it.”

“You want to be a bit compulsive in your art or craft or whatever you do.”

“I never thought about success. I always thought about doing the job at hand. My goal was getting through the show that night.”

“There’s a lot of thought in art. People get to talk about important things. There’s a lot of sex, you know, in art. There’s a lot of naked women and men, and there’s intrigue, there’s fakery. It’s a real microcosm of the larger world.”

Comedy is not pretty.”

“Writing has a lot of definitions. I always thought that writing for my comedy act was writing. It was a very simple progression for me. When I was in high school and college, I loved poetry. And I was very moved by certain poems and certain sentences. And then I became a comedian and a comedy writer and that was a whole other form. After I’d done my comedy act during the late seventies, I started writing a screenplay for The Jerk. And that went on and I started writing more screenplays. I remember being in New York and seeing a comic play, and I thought, ‘I should be able to do that. I’ve written screenplays and I’ve performed live.’ So I started fooling around, writing my first play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The play had more, let’s say, thoughtful passages. And those thoughtful passages encouraged me to be able to write. For example, in Pure Drivel there are a few stories that are more thoughtful, and I have these thoughtful sentences. And those few sentences encouraged me to be able to write Shopgirl.”

“I don’t totally believe in the very specific back-story. It never really helped me as a writer. I don’t think it helps in movies either. They’re always talking about backstory, backstory, backstory and you can’t express it unless it’s completely boring exposition.”

“It’s sort of the author’s right not to reveal how much of a character is him.”

“I don’t really manage my time. I really just wait until I’m inspired to do something. And when I’m inspired to do something, it just happens. I know it seems like a lot, but, you know, a movie takes three months, right? And during that time you’re sitting in your trailer a lot. So I’ll learn a song on the banjo or maybe I’ll write an essay if it comes up. But only if it comes up.”

“To me, torture would be, ‘I can’t think what to write in the next sentence. I’m stuck.’ Torture would be if you didn’t have the next idea.”

“My process is, I get inspired to write the first couple of sentences and I just keep going with it. I try to think about where the next bit is before I stop. Then I’ll stop at a natural place, either because I’m tired or because I get distracted. And then the days go by and I know that my mind is like churning and churning and churning and churning, and then I’ll go back and it comes out freely. I don’t mind waiting until it does come out freely.”

“I think that there can be a moment where the writer becomes confident. It may take fifteen years, or it may never come, but I think that’s what that block is about. The other thing is, as life goes on, you have more to say. I remember once David Geffen said to me—this was after I’d done my stand-up act and I’d quit—he said, ‘You should go back on the road, you should do your stand-up again.’ And I said, ‘David, I don’t have anything to say.’ You’ve got to have something to say. And by ‘something to say,’ you might not even know what it is. You just know it’s in there, trying to get out. I guess I should clarify. It’s not necessarily ‘something to say’ but ‘something to discuss.’ ‘Something to say’ is a myth. That’s like an aphorism.”

“For the most part, these characters are way, way, way far removed from any specific traits of mine. They’re really works of emotional fiction, and all the clichés of writing about a character as he appears in your brain and then demonstrates some interesting behaviors and then starts saying things and then starts saying them to other people who just appear in your brain . . .And the only thing consistent about these characters is that, just like the “characters” in our real lives, they behave inconsistently a lot of the time. I think the greatest magic that a character holds for a writer is the lesson that the inconsistent thing that he or she just did is actually quite consistent. I would almost say about reading novels: you don’t need to know an artist, and maybe you should try to know an artist as little as possible. In fact, sometimes knowing the artist obscures everything. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve talked with artists and they’ve been so wrong about their paintings. They think it’s one thing and everyone else in the world sees it another way entirely. But that’s what creates mystery about art.”

“When I did this movie called Pennies From Heaven years ago the thing that affected me most about this character I played was his longing and his wishing. If you remember the film, the lyrics of the pop songs made him want so desperately that kind of idealism, that kind of romance, that kind of love. So desperately. That’s what I found to be so heartbreaking about it — and about other characters I liked to read about and to play (in movies) — it’s the longing. That’s the human condition, I think. Well . . . It’s maybe my human condition.”