Wednesday, December 25, 2013

How Lasagna Ruined Steve Martin's Holiday

Steve Martin - (Photo courtesy of
It's Christmas so I'm not going to just dismiss Steve Martin as a racist simply because of a brief Twitter message that was better left unsent; and wasn't all that funny to begin with.

As Stephen Crockett posted on the yesterday, Martin is also catching heat from astute observers of  the Twitterverse for trying to delete the Tweet; which seemed to suggest people in neighborhoods where black people live don't know how to spell the word lasagna.

The actor-writer-comedian-playwright-art collector is learning that when you have 4.5 million followers on Twitter, you can't really delete a Tweet once you've sent it.

You CAN but for someone of his stature once it's out there, it's out there. Click the link up above to to see the actual Tweet, but what happened was one of his Twitter followers asked him if "lasonia" was the correct way to spell the popular Italian-American baked dish.

Martin Tweeted back, "It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?"

Is that calling someone the "N" word? Certainly not, but it's trite, snide and reeks of lazy intellectual assumptions.

While his comment does not tell you anything about the intelligence of African-Americans or their capacity to spell the names of popular Italian dishes, the joke does reveal something about Martin's thinking and perspective.

None of us is perfect. But seeing something like that goes against Martin's carefully crafted image as a popular member of the Hollywood quasi-liberal elite. He's written screenplays, plays, books and has spent millions on his widely-respected collection of modern art; which includes works by Edward Hopper, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Crumb and many others.

Growing up in the 1970's after Martin had been a writer for the Smothers brothers, I first knew him from his many hysterical appearances as the host on Saturday Night Live, his quarky musical hit 'King Tut' and then a string of successful and popular films in the 80's and 90's including 'Roxanne' and 'Parenthood' where he evolved beyond the wise-cracking physical comedy of 'The Jerk' to give far more restrained and nuanced film performances that revealed an impressive range to audiences and critics alike.

Over the years this philosophy major from Long Beach State was known as being extremely guarded about his private life.

So when I read the offensive text that he's catching so much unwanted heat from mainstream media for, it was almost like opening a door onto someone you saw before but never really knew. It's not like I know him personally, but I can't shake a sense of feeling a little bit let down by someone I'd admired for so many years.

It's like the feeling so many people had when Clint Eastwood was standing there on the stage of the Republican National Convention talking to a chair - as if you were seeing him for the first time, and could never look at him quite the same again.

But even though it was just a joke; it's the subject matter and context given the increasingly polarized racial climate we live in this country that makes it so much more than just a Tweet.

It's hard to reconcile the art collector-intellectual with such low brow humor based on a rather tired Ayn Rand-ian assumption about race and intelligence.

But don't feel sorry for him, it's just a moment in a long and distinguished career and Martin is worth an estimated $110 million; back in June he put his house in the Caribbean up for sale for a cool $11.24 million - so a Tweet isn't going to destroy his life or anything.

His reputation is another matter. 

Part of the potential downside for Martin's legacy is that the power and immediacy of the Internet could end up branding him in a negative way for a much younger generation who don't remember him back on SNL; or even in 'Parenthood' - a generation who grew up with a much different sense of a multicultural America than Martin had with his post-World War II southern California upbringing. And a much different sense of humor.

But he's a writer and writers not only try to choose their words carefully; they must also take ownership of them. It's the thinking behind those words that have brought him back into the glare of the spotlight of mainstream media. Words which did not make many of us laugh.

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