If pressed for my favourite funny person of all time (admittedly no one is doing this; I’ve got to invent some kind of dialogue here!), it’s hard to go past Steve Martin. I’ll always adore the produce of Australia’s own Shaun Micallef (yes, even Welcher and Welcher!). But, what The Beatles’ achieved for the music industry in their tectonic-shifting decade of existence, Martin did for the comedy landscape in an even shorter space of time. In 1981, just four years after he released his first record, Martin walked away from stand-up. He has obviously remained an icon in the years since, thanks to the lasting power of his albums and a film career that was born with 1979’s The Jerk. Martin collaborated with director Carl Reiner on an oddball odyssey so strange, filled with non-sequiturs so funny, and decorated by a romance so sweet, it was an inevitable star-maker.

Martin plays Navin R. Johnson in this rags-to-riches-to-rags saga. Navin grows up in a black family, oblivious to the fact that he was adopted (if his skin colour didn’t give it away, his total lack of rhythm should have). When a jazz standard finally ignites his ability to dance, he’s inspired to venture out into the world, where such beauty first emerged. His journey is a perilous one; even the simple act of finding a home (at the gas station where he works) and landing in the white pages sees him wind up on the wrong end of a sniper’s rifle. The gunman, played by M. Emmet Walsh, angrily accuses him of being an “every day random son of a b****.” Aren’t we all?


Eventually he winds up at the circus, falling for the lovely Marie (Bernadette Peters). Cue a gorgeous, beachside rendition of Tonight You Belong To Me by the two (one of cinema’s great scenes). Navin strikes it lucky again when a poorly conceived invention of his becomes a massive success. Suddenly, the poor black child becomes a rich white man. If only he could harness his desire to indulge in every excess under the planet. Or, perhaps, just not donate so much money to the charity seeking to end cat juggling. Yes, it’s a tragedy. Still, there’s gotta be a more sensible way to spend your cash, Navin!

What this short review and summary could never capture is the pure genius of the comedic nuggets littered throughout by Martin as well as co writers Carl Gottleib and Michael Elias. It would be criminal to simply resort to listing them here; I’m partly kicking myself for alluding to a couple above. Though I technically prefer the even nuttier Martin/Reiner collaboration The Man With Two Brains, and admit Martin gives the better performance in the inspired All of Me, The Jerk’s influence can’t be underestimated; a comedy landmark if ever there was one. It’s about as thinly plotted a vehicle as any Hollywood hack could have devised. Yet, in these hands, it’s an inspired, endlessly quotable classic. It carries a curse, however. Those of us endeared by it may often find ourselves at a loss; desperately trying to derive laughter from confused loved ones by exclaiming, “He hates these cans!” What a joy to come across a fellow Jerk fan; to swap a line or two, nod, and then walk on by.