As I child I loved Steve Martin, the man in white with an arrow through his head. As I grew older I felt he followed the path of Eddie Murphy (they would even work together in Bowfinger). He was this energetic, hilarious guy on television, movies and records who, as he aged, became something else. He began making watered-down family entertainment. Maybe that’s what everyone does. I felt like I was his audience though. Shouldn’t he care what I want? Writing this book I decided to give every comedian a real chance. I listened to him read Born Standing Up with hope.
The Customer is Always Right begins with an awkward scene of a chubby older man named Ahn Chang-jin and a schoolgirl. The saying “The Customer is Always Right” gets a lot of visual ridicule throughout the film. I have always had a problem with it. I understand it. There is no successful business without the customer, but a line may be crossed. Sung Ju-ru plays Chang-jin, a barber. The schoolgirl he’s with is prostituting herself, but he’s never going to get that far. She runs away with Chang-jin’s money. It’s a strange beginning as the barber believes his life is perfect. He’s a perfectionist at his trade and has a wonderful wife, seemingly. A gangster played by Myung Gye-nam is about to change his life forever and put the philosophy of the film’s title to the test.
Steve Martin was a comedian before comedy clubs existed. He focused his lack of commercial talents into an avant-garde act. Rick Moranis called it anti-comedy. Though I started out feeling a distance between us, I felt pulled in while Steve Martin read his own exquisite words recalling his epic life. Steve studied comedy and broke down what he should and shouldn’t do. And he often did both. I started to realize that he was two people, the man and the man on stage.
The Customer is Always Right feels like a stage play. The shots aren’t boring, they are the creativity that comes from being in a box. Kang Yang-gil (Gye-nam) has come in for a shave and some money. He’s witnessed a hit and run. It was the barber’s car. He’s not happy with just one visit either, he’s going to make many. Paying for his shave and then making the barber pay for his mistake. He’s going to take whatever he wants. Even the barber’s wife.
There is a certain woman I’d love to talk about right at this moment. Ellen DeGeneres probably has an idea of who I’m talking about as well. I will not mention her name though. She was such a crazy liar she had to write two books about it. Sympathy for Mr. Martin and Sympathy for Mrs. DeGeneres. Moving on.
When Chang-jin tries to stand up for himself there is a frightening scene where he is slapped and slapped and slapped like he was an incompetent gangster. He’s slapped until there is a red face and tears. The anger melts to the whimpers of a child. There is no way out of this hell. One mistake that he’ll literally pay for forever. The scene is not uncommon and a detective is hired to slowly unravel the real identity of Myung Gye-nam. At this point in the film, you may also begin to put the clues together.
Every comedian starts out with heroes and looking for identities. Before his joyous happy feet and the surreal thoughts surrounding “getting small” Steven Martin was a magician. He was an intellectual magician, an intellectual comedian, an intellectual writer and actor. He was breaking the whole process down. What works, what doesn’t. Becoming what needed to be. I fear writing this, I’ve written for so long and Steve’s words bury me. Some author’s large vocabularies come from expensive editors and an explosion of thesaurus use. With Steve, it’s real. I’ve felt him becoming his old self as he quoted his own jokes and I see things differently.
Myung Gye-nam is playing himself. I will never forget him because of this film. He often plays a small role and is in many gangster films. His daughter has been hit by the barber’s car. It has nothing to do with the prostitute at all, in fact, the barber’s wife was behind the hit and run. Gye-nam only wants insurance money that will come from his death. He plays his final role in real life attempting to drive a man into homicidal madness. He needs an accident for the insurance to pay off, maybe a slip of the razor. That will pay for what his daughter needs. In the end, Chang-jin rescues his sign and places back on the wall, The Customer is Always Right.
Steve Martin is a wonderful writer. Considering all he’s done in the entertainment industry there is nothing to not be proud of. If he’s doing what he wants and he’s happy now, it matters little what you or I think. I can always go back and watch or listen to what I enjoy. I can watch The Jerk. I can understand the past, present and future of Mr. Martin on a new level. The only person that is right is the person who is harming no one and is happy inside. I can do my own happy feet if I need to … and I think … I … will!