Steve Martin on the Banjo's Popularity, Martin Short, and the Loss of Robin Williams

Before answering Steve Martin's phone call, you spend some time biting your nails, giggling nervously, and wondering which Steve Martin you'll be speaking with at the other end of the line. He's King Tut, but he's also The Jerk. He's dueled banjos with Kermit the Frog and even pissed himself as Ruprecht in what is, safe to say, one of the best movies ever made, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Something else he'll also always be is one of the Three Amigos. He's currently touring with Martin Short who costarred with him in the 1986 comedy. These are two of the funniest men of their generation. And Martin is by far one of the most successfully versatile. He is currently working on his first musical, with Edie Brickell, called Bright Star. He told us that if he shared the plot, it'd ruin it but did divulge that it's set in the 1920s and '40s and "reveals a secret about a woman's life."

This weekend, on the Hard Rock Live stage in Hollywood, we can expect to hear at least one Three Amigos song and plenty of banjo tunes. Here's what he had to say about his instrument of choice, Martin Short, and the late Robin Williams.

See also: Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell - Kravis Center, West Palm Beach - May 24

New Times: You're on the road with Martin Short. Did you ever think of bringing along Chevy Chase to make up the full Three Amigos?

Steve Martin: Well, right now we're the two amigos. Marty and I just had some dates we did on our own. We did some comedy festivals where we just kind of interviewed each other. And it went really well. And we so enjoyed doing it, that we worked out some material and now it's turned into a full fledged show.

We really enjoy it. Marty has a solo show on his own, and I have a solo show that I do with the band, and we combined the best elements of both. Although Marty doesn't have any best elements. I'm the only one who has the best elements.

Then we started combining in his act with my act and it really turned out to be a fun enterprise, we really enjoy doing it.

Are you bringing the banjo on tour with the comedy?

Yes, in this particular case, the band I usually work with, the Steep Canyon Rangers, wasn't available, so we put together an absolutely great band with ace players. Every one of them is nominated this year at the International Bluegrass Association for awards.

See also: Steve Martin's Top Five Musical Moments

What do you think of some indie bands taking up the banjo these days? Are you encouraged by it?

Absolutely. I think that the banjo... Well, I don't want it to be a mainstream instrument because it's actually not versatile enough. It's really a specialty instrument. It works so well with certain instruments Like the fiddle or violin and cello, in orchestral situations.

It depends on how you play it. It can be played in many different ways. It can be played in a melancholy way. It can be played in a fast, uptempo way, it can be strummed. It could be a lead instrument like it is in bluegrass. But in rock and roll, it'll always be kind of there to provide atmosphere.

I like people seeing it more, they get used to it, and it doesn't become unfamiliar to them when they hear it in our situation, which is as a lead instrument.

You play the 5 string banjo. Do you have an instrument that's your favorite? Do you have a ton of them?

Onstage I play five different banjos. But there's a reason. One is, I play in different tunings. And I don't want to waste the audience's time retuning one banjo, so I keep them at different tunings. And each banjo has a different sound. Some are appropriate for one song and some are appropriate for another song. That's why I play different banjos on stage. Some are loud, some are quiet, some have an open sound, some have a sharp sound.

Do you have a favorite banjo partner?

I've played with many great players. When I was growing up, I played with John McEuen who actually lives in Florida right now. But we started when we were 16. He taught me a lot. But through the years, I've had the pleasure of playing with Earl Scruggs, who passed away a couple years ago. There are so many great players now, there's just more than you can count. I wouldn't even know who to say. It's hard to keep up.

See also: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's John McEuen Says, "Performing's More Fun Than Ever"

Everyone's playing the banjo these days.

It seems like it. Ed Helms plays the banjo, you know.

You said once that you were "just right famous."

That quote came from my autobiography which was published maybe 10 or 15 years ago. I was talking about when I was very, very famous in the '70s, you know, you couldn't walk down the street. That's mellowed through the ages, and it's not so maniacal.

You have a certain amount of fame that suits your current position. And people are kind and friendly and wave to you, but they don't go crazy. It's a very nice position to be in. I've always just done exactly what I've wanted to do artistically. I was able to transition from a comedian to an actor, actor to a writer, and then a writer to, I guess, a musician now. And now I've written a musical with Edie Brickell, and I'm really enjoying what I'm doing.

I don't know if it's too soon, but you Tweeted about Robin Williams and I thought I should ask if there's anything you wanted to say about his passing.

I haven't really been able to digest anything to say about it. It's just so puzzling and sad. As far as any further sophisticated thoughts about it, I'm still trying to formulate something to say about it other than that it's puzzling and deeply sad for the people who knew him and for the world really.

Steve Martin and Martin Short. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 6, at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $59 to $129 plus fees. Call 954-797-5531, or visit

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Liz has her master’s degree in religion from Florida State University. She has since written for publications and outlets such as Miami New Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Ocean Drive, the Huffington Post, NBC Miami, Time Out Miami, Insomniac, the Daily Dot, and the Atlantic. Liz spent three years as New Times Broward-Palm Beach’s music editor, was the weekend news editor at Inverse, and is currently the managing editor at Tom Tom Magazine.
Contact: Liz Tracy