Time is an interesting thing in the world of entertainment. Time can cause a rift between generational audiences. Nuances once found hilarious by one generation goes completely unappreciated, unaffected, or just plain irrelevant for a newer audience. Many Steve Martin films have content that will surely fly over the heads of younger audiences but what about the style of the comedy?
Silly comedy is still very relevant with Will Ferrell owning that particular market right now. Steve Martin's humor, at least in many of his films, like The Jerk, were silly comedies about very ignorant characters. Those are the things Will Ferrell has somehow mastered over the years. Will Ferrell simply sprinkled a comedic ingredient called "obnoxious" all over the silly-ignorant pie. One of the more modern and recognizable people in comedy to do that was Chris Farley. While Saturday Night Live bred many comedians with these features, not too many had somehow contained all the ingredients within themselves.
The Jerk opens with Steve Martin portraying a white character, who happened to be raised by a black family. It was in his complete and perfect ignorance that the humor was found in, not that he was indeed raised by a black family. There wasn't a hint of implication as to whether there was a negative implication of that fact, but the punch was purely in the character not realizing he was adopted. Sure, today, things may have to be written in a way that might have to actually imply there's nothing wrong with being raised by a black family, which robs much of the thunder and - in my opinion - political correctness would've stolen the wit.
Context will always be an issue in comedy. In Martin's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which I personally regard as the best comedy film of all-time, has huge context issues for newer audiences. Many of the problems faced in the film just couldn't be possible today due to our overwhelming options in technology. I think much from modern American culture is so interconnected and so far from the troubles and social quirks from the '80s that there's almost no chance these films could be a smash hit if simply re-released. I'm not even sure how a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles feature would be funny now that we've come so far in the last 20-30 years honestly.
I think the perception of Steve Martin has been dramatically changed once he crossed over into the '90s. It's almost like life passed him up, but perhaps this was his own doing. He became increasingly interested in a musical career and from my perspective it appeared to be a shift from film to music. His instrument of choice? The banjo.
He was one of the few Godzilla-sized comedians in the '70s and '80s. Martin's comedic wit was immeasurable, but the new wave of "fresh" comedians pushed the classic aside. The '80s had a core group of comedians who all had somehow established a "club" with each other. Richard Pryor was one of the more unique individuals of the group, who I believe is comedy's greatest hero, someone who could reach into every culture in America and just own his environment entirely.
Steve Martin had a very similar ownership of his environment but his stand-up and natural comedic talent has now been overshadowed by his modern films... which weren't exactly smash hits. I hate to see and hate to say it, but what an actor or comedian does in their last years can dramatically change how they're perceived.
I think Steve Martin, while winning a recent AFI Life Achievement Award, still hasn't gotten enough credit for paving the path for today's comedians. While there may be easy comparisons to some comedians, Steve Martin doesn't have his modern twin. There's no one like Steve Martin. In his, as well as other successful or favorite comedians, they own their uniqueness. He didn't just own that uniqueness, he dominated an entire genre for over almost two entire decades. There just aren't many comedians you could begin to argue that for. Steve Martin is in a very short list of not just great comedians, but a shorter list of A-list legends.