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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

He's been a wild and crazy guy, a dirty rotten scoundrel, a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac in "Roxanne" and a weatherman navigating a fantastical Los Angeles in "LA Story." At age 60, Steve Martin is also an icon. Along with acting in dozens of films, he can list on his resume screenwriter, playwright, essayist, art collector and novelist. This week has been a busy one for Steve Martin. His new film, "Shopgirl," was released. He was also honored with the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Lily Tomlin, Martin Short and Tom Hanks were among the guests there to sing his praises. Here's humorist Dave Barry.

(Soundbite of "The Kennedy Center Honors")

Mr. DAVE BARRY (Humorist): There are a lot of parallels between Mark Twain and Steve Martin. Like Steve, Mark Twain was a brilliant humorist who excelled as both a writer and a performer, and he used to do a stand-up act with an arrow through his head. That's why I believe that if Mark Twain were here tonight, he'd say, `Whoa, I'm like 170 years old.'

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Entertainer): You know, it's fun to get an award, but it's really fun because all my friends are there, and that it's these occasions we realize, which are actually kind of stressful for everybody, are actually opportunities for all of our friends to get together and have a drink and talk and laugh. So it's a show, too, so it's intimidating in the sense that you're doing a show and they're giving you an award for comedy, so you'd better be funny.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Well, what was your best crack?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, I had one joke where I said, `I'm reminded of this Mark Twain quote. I wrote it down because I wanted to get it exactly right,' and I took out a piece of paper and I said, `Whatever you do, for God's sake, do not name an award after me.'

MONTAGNE: (Laughs) So did you give any thought to the whole notion of American humor, considering this was the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I did, but it's the only humor I really know, and I did get a little bit serious at the end of my speech, saying that, one, I hope that America remains tolerant of satirists and iconoclasts. It's a very important aspect of our political world, what is going on in comedy. And I didn't--what I didn't say, because I just didn't have time, was it's so unfortunate that politicians cannot use humor because, as you know, if they do, they're completely lambasted and it's misinterpreted and it becomes a headline, and there's no sense of irony at all. But wit is a way to judge character. So--but I didn't have time; I didn't want to make a big political speech, so I didn't even say that. But I'm saying it now, and you can cut it out.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, interesting, though, I mean, you do not do political humor in the clear, obvious sense.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I have written quasi-political pieces for The New Yorker. Might as well call it social satire here.

MONTAGNE: Right. Right.

Mr. MARTIN: But I do not do political humor. I have--actually, there was a joke; they ran it at the Mark Twain Awards the other night, that I did in the '70s. It was a routine called "What I Believe," and the joke was: And I believe that Ronald Reagan can make this country what it once was, an arctic region covered with ice. So I have done it in my life, but I prefer to stay aloof from a political view of myself. I really like being a comedian, and I don't want the humor to be tainted by if I'm doing something--we'll call it funny--if someone's thinking, `Oh, he's a lefty' or `He's a righty.' I just want it to be accepted on a pure level.

MONTAGNE: And having mastered stand-up, slapstick and a sweet good humor, Steve Martin goes for the bittersweet in "Shopgirl." In his novella "Shopgirl," one character declares, `It's pain that changes our lives.' In the movie, Steve Martin play wealthy, older Ray Porter wooing the lovely young Mirabelle, played by Claire Danes.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Mr. MARTIN: (As Ray Porter) Be honest. If this were a TV dating show, would I be kicked off already and you'd be on to the next guy?

Ms. CLAIRE DANES: (As Mirabelle) Ahh...

MONTAGNE: Jason Schwartzman plays Martin's younger, clueless rival.

Mr. JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) Fantastic, isn't it?

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) Are we going in?

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) Oh, no. Tickets are like 10 bucks.

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) We could split it.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) OK. Let's split it.

Ms. DANES: (As Mirabelle) OK.

Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (As Jeromy) You're right. Can I borrow two bucks?

Mr. MARTIN: The shape of "Shopgirl" is very similar to something I did when I adapted "Cyrano de Bergerac" for the movies, for "Roxanne." I thought about the story of "Cyrano de Bergerac" and I thought about the character of Christian, who is representing himself falsely to this--the beautiful Roxanne. And I thought, how would he really feel after a while? He would really start to feel uncomfortable because she does not like him for who he is, and what he really needs is someone like him, someone who actually likes him. And it's--one of the changes from the play to the play to the movie is that he meets someone who finds him amusing as himself.

In "Shopgirl," I realized something similar happens, that she's in a different way been made so uncomfortable by being around Ray Porter because of his vicissitudes with her, that eventually she goes with someone who just loves her purely.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much. I only had one demented sort of question that--What the heck--I'll throw it at you. You're sort of well known to be a collector of art, a serious collector of art. If you were in any of your paintings, can you see yourself in one of them?

Mr. MARTIN: I never have thought about that. In my...

MONTAGNE: Well, OK. Edward Hopper.

Mr. MARTIN: I owned a painting by Eric Fischl, and it's a backyard-scape of a family having a barbecue, and in the center of the picture is this 16-year-old boy eating fire. This is a personal interpretation, but it's the way I felt when I was, you know, 16 in Orange County in the back yard in a conservative, nice community, by the way. But I felt I was not eating fire but that I had fire inside me.

MONTAGNE: Steve Martin's new movie "Shopgirl" is in selected theaters now, and "The Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor" will be broadcast on November 9th on PBS. And clips from "Shopgirl" are at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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