Steve Martin’s PR Woes: Even Most Media-Savvy Not Immune To Missteps

By Adrien Seybert

Even the most media-savvy figures have a bad night, but that doesn’t necessarily spell the doom of their latest venture. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for audience’s taste or mood. You just fall flat once in a while no matter how prepared you are.

Take actor/comedian Steve Martin’s fairly recent 92nd St. Y appearance in late November, for instance. Martin is certainly no stranger to rejection. After all, he cut his teeth in the early 1970s standup. It’s just that he probably hasn’t bombed to the extent he did in decades.

At one point, 92nd St. Y slipped Martin and his interviewer Deborah Solomon, who writes for the New York Times Magazine, a note encouraging them to switch things up.

The audience – live and via Internet – wanted to hear more about Martin’s comedy and acting career than his latest project – a novel called “Object of Beauty” centering around the New York art market. Martin as well as Solomon were taken by surprise. He compared the action to the audience asking an actor in a Shakespearean play to tighten up the soliloquies, The New York Times reported.

The night from the Y’s perspective didn’t measure up to the organization’s usual standard of excellence, so it provided profuse apologies and refunds, much to the dismay of Martin and Solomon. It all played out very publicly in the arena of public opinion, making it even more embarrassing for the participants.

“Now let me try to answer the question you might be asking yourself at this point: Was I boring? Yes, I might have been,” Martin wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed.

“I have no doubt that, in time, and with some cooperation from the audience, we would have achieved ignition. I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note. My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have,” he added.

The Y didn’t give them the chance and defused a potentially disastrous situation as best it could.

But, much like negative hoopla surrounding Broadway’s Spider-Man, Martin’s Y debacle may have only served to strengthen the buzz around his book, which had broken the top 15 hardcover fiction on the New York Times Bestsellers List in mid-January.

It isn’t the first time he’s been forced to bounce back from a less-than-effective media strategy. Back in 2009, when he was promoting an album of banjo compositions, he made the less-than-fortunate error of performing a children’s song he had written on “Saturday Night Live.” First, his banjo chops far surpass his vocal talents. Secondly, the song wasn’t up to the quality of the rest of the album, and thirdly, it came across like a comedy skit he performed years before as an SNL staff member.

The performance fell flat in my mind, causing me to discount the rest of the album, which eventually went on to win a Grammy in the bluegrass category. Needless to say, subsequent TV performances highlighted the album’s instrumental cuts.

Had Martin stubbornly continued to showcase the children’s song, I doubt he would have snagged the industry’s top honor. But fortunately for him, he adjusted his strategy and rebounded, much the way he emerged from the 92nd St. Y fiasco.

What would you do if you were in the shoes of Mr. Martin or his publicists? Have you ever handled a situation like this before?

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