Steve Martin uses his martial arts skills to dispose of a bigot in a scene from the film 'The Jerk', 1979. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
Movies - TV
Steve Martin Saved The Jerk’s Script With A Single Sentence
Today, “jerk” means something more like “a**hole” or “bully,” but back in 1979, when director Carl Reiner and screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias were making their comedy film “The Jerk,” it meant something more akin to fool or buffoon. Perhaps that’s why Steve Martin, in all his comedic clownery, was able to save the film's script with just a single sentence.
According to Gottlieb, there was a long time when “The Jerk” didn’t quite have a central hook. After weeks of trying different ideas, Steve Martin brought up one of his go-to jokes; Gottleib remembers that when asked what the joke was, “[Martin] says ‘I was born a poor Black child.’ So, that landed the room with significant impact. And we said, ‘Wow. But what if you were?”
That gave the movie its central premise with Martin as Nevin, the adopted child of Black farmers, and led to the hilarious gag that upon hearing horribly bland music (and feeling rhythm for the first time) he has the urge to leave home and experience the world. Then Nevin goes out into the world, bumbling around much like Dostoyevsky’s Idiot
or Voltaire’s Candide.