Steve Martin Saved The Jerk’s Script With A Single Sentence
As it happened, when Martin was on stage performing standup comedy, he often had a single line in his back pocket that he would always use to win back an audience he found himself losing. That comedy “spare” was enough to get “The Jerk” rolling.
The opening of “The Jerk” finds Navin living at home with his adopted family, Black sharecroppers who felt they never had to explain the white Navin’s adopted status to him. Navin is so imperceptive, however, that he assumes that he too has always been Black. Playing into jokes about racial stereotypes, Navin’s family all have wonderful musical rhythm while Navin does not. It’s not until he hears a bland, Lawrence Welk-ready version of “Crazy Rhythm” from the 1928 musical “Here’s Howe” does he realize that he can indeed snap his fingers along to music. Bland, boring “white guy” music.
This entire introductory sequence was inspired entirely by Martin’s “run dry” standup line. As Gottlieb tells it, the process was stymied until Martin save things. He begins:
“There was no idea. We sat there everyday. We had a nice little office in the writers building right on the Paramount lot with a couple new pencils and yellow pads and we’d go into work every morning and look at each other and say ‘Well, what about…’ And then a couple of weeks went by and we didn’t have anything.”