The Steve Martin we know today is the legend who built himself up thanks to performances both on the stage and on the screen. One of those first feature film roles was in Carl Reiner's 1979 classic, The Jerk. There are pieces to the film's humor, though, that, while passing muster with 70's audiences, might leave today's viewers left in the cold once they're told.
The Hollywood Reporter took the opportunity to catch up with Martin, who was a recent honoree for the American Film Institute's Life Award. In particular, there's one gag that THR was worried wouldn't transfer well into a modern version of The Jerk. That gag, naturally, is the revelation that Martin's protagonist, Navin, grew up as a "poor black child." When asked if this would hold up if the project were to be made today, Steve Martin had this to say:
...looking back, everyone was treated with such respect, and we had that fabulous opening with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee singing on the porch, two very well-known blues artists. You might get a kind of knee-jerk reaction, but it would be hard to get a verdict in court against it."
It's difficult to argue against Martin's rationale that one of The Jerk's signature jokes would hold up in a modern context. Navin's "blackness" isn't dictated by any sort of ethnic shorthand that could be seen as offensive. He just grows up with a black family, and assumes he's one of them by osmosis. The key to the gag lies in the obvious fact that Navin is, in fact, not black – yet he still self-identifies as such out of his own ignorance. Take a look at a clip from The Jerk, during the sequence where Navin is told the truth of his heritage, and see how the whole joke is ultimately resolved.
The big reason The Jerk's racial humor works is for the sheer fact that it's not played as a malicious slight to the black community. Navin isn't jumping for joy because he's truly white. In fact, he's kind of disappointed. Even in 1979, this was a pretty bold joke to shuffle into the deck of gems the Carl Reiner film would use, but taken in a more modern context, it works just as well as it did back when it first played. Not only does that fact speak to the strength of the film's writing, it also speaks to the comedic abilities and care of Steve Martin's skill set, because in lesser hands this could have been a much uglier joke.
They don't make movies like The Jerk any more, mostly because they don't sell as much as what passes for comedy in the movies these days. Not only that, but it's hard to find anyone to write a comedy on the same level as The Jerk, as that sort of humor has fallen by the wayside for the most part. Here's hoping that some day we can return to such incisive, yet downright funny, writing on a wider scale.
The Jerk is available on DVD, and you can next see Steve Martin in Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which is slated for release at some point in 2016.