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Inside the AFI tribute to Steve Martin

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Lester Cohen/WireImage

The 43rd AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles made one thing abundantly clear: It was Steve Martin’s night.

Stars flocked to Hollywood’s lush Dolby Theatre for the black-tie affair to honor Martin and his career, from fellow “Wild and Crazy Guy” Dan Aykroyd, to Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, who held court in the preshow lobby. Portraits and posters of Martin adorned the room: The Jerk popped up near the entrance on the left, while the fake-arrow cap, ballooned-covered man, and other photographs filled out the right side.

Then the show began. Classic cinema clips—Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, James Dean, the Three Stooges—were intercut with moments throughout Martin’s career that clearly channeled the entertainment legends. The night’s honoree was introduced over a modest standing ovation, and the main program began with what was presented as the national anthem by Jack Black, instead playing a rendition of “The Thermos Song.” Thus followed the consistent pattern of the evening: montages of old Martin clips and interviews—with the man of the evening, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Ron Howard, and more—preceding guest speakers who elevated and tweaked their jokes to properly skewer and pay homage to Martin. Tina Fey approached the podium first and established the high bar: “I remember the first time I saw one of Steve’s movies,” Fey said. “It was on the plane ride here today.” 

Sarah Silverman admitted her sheer love of Martin, even penning the inner teenaged love on her ceiling—and showing the world proof. All the pretenses and ceremonial tact evaporated when Queen Latifah cast Martin’s banjo plucking and complexion in one fashion—”He is the whitest man on Earth to ever live. Have you seen him dance?”—but was quick to share that the 69-year-old is “a part of my heart.”

All of Me costar Lily Tomlin reached the mic after an introductory clip from their 1984 comedy, revealing her admiration, but conceding the teleprompter was too far away: “I can’t read a damn word up here.”

The A-list appearances and zany bits, along with a the feverish pace, reached its apex with Amy Poehler and Conan O’Brien. Poehler auctioned off Martin while roasting him and his musical inclinations, even taking to the crowd to solicit bids. “$50! Who said that? [beat] Oh, it’s up in the balcony: You don’t have that money.”

O’Brien recited one of Martin’s funny public apologies. “Finally, I would like to apologize for spontaneously yelling the word ‘Savages!’ after losing $6,000 on a roulette spin at the Choctaw Nation casino,” O’Brien deadpanned. “When I was growing up, the usage of this word in our household closely approximated the Hawaiian word ‘aloha,’ and my use of it in the casino was meant to express, ‘Until we meet again.’ “

Additional highlights: Carl Reiner, the director of a handful of Martin movies, spoke from the crowd and shared how he brought the spirit of Johnny Carson with him by wearing a tie he stole from the late late-night legend; Martin Short staked his bid for funniest of the night in a hilarious monologue and heartfelt ode; Diane Keaton was awestruck by Martin and his resume; and Mel Brooks reminded everyone that he remains forever sharp.

Finally, it was Martin’s turn to speak. Naturally, he seized the last word and turned his sharp wit on his contemporaries (“I love working with Marty [Short], because he understands the concept of 60-40.”). But he was humbled by the honor, graciously imparting on the crowd an insightful maxim about the top comic minds. “I finally realized what a comic genius is,” he said. “A comic genius is someone who decides never to go into comedy.”

The ceremony will air June 13 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TBS. TCM will also show the ceremony on July 30 at 8 p.m. ET in the midst of a Martin marathon.