The actor/comedian has turned writer with his new book

Give me a second,” Steve Martin requests as he slips into a chair at a Beverly Hills restaurant. He flips open his laptop computer, taps away for a solid five minutes, then, finished, peers up with that same big, loopy grin that melted Bernadette Peters’ heart in The Jerk.

A rare glimpse of the writer at work.

The 53-year-old comedian, it turns out, has spent much of the past three years typing into this laptop, taking a break from the movie business to practice that most endearingly old-fashioned literary genre, the short humor piece. His elegant, S.J. Perelmanesque compositions — ”after-dinner mints to the big meal of literature,” he calls them — have appeared in the back pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times. And now about two dozen of them, including ”Mars Probe Finds Kittens” and ”The Sledgehammer: How It Works,” have been collected in a giddy little volume titled Pure Drivel, published this month by Hyperion.

”After I finished Sgt. Bilko, I just lost contact with making movies,” he explains. ”I couldn’t read a script anymore. I didn’t want to. So I started writing plays and these little pieces. It’s not like I decided to take a three-year break — it just happened.”

That break, by the way, looks to be over: Martin has already wrapped a remake of The Out-of-Towners with Goldie Hawn and is currently filming Bowfinger’s Big Thing — from his own screenplay — with Eddie Murphy. ”It’s a big comedy in the spirit of A Fish Called Wanda,” Martin says. ”Eddie’s playing a black action star who’s out of his mind, and I play a loser producer trying to get a movie made with him.”

But Martin isn’t entirely done with literature. That article he’s been noodling with on his laptop at the restaurant, for instance, is an op-ed piece for The New York Times. ”It’s called ‘News Stories Besides Monica Lewinsky,”’ he says, booting up his computer again after dinner (”The city of Santa Monica is going to change its name to Santa Monica Lewinsky,” reads one item). ”I have to finish it tonight. Usually, if the idea is solid, I can write it in an hour, but then I’ll edit it for a week.

”I have one rule: Never write until you’re ready,” the author continues, scrolling down his computer screen. ”I want to keep it fun. I find it’s better when I just wait and wait and wait until the idea is so crisp, so baked, it just comes out.”

Hmmm. Sounds like a cookbook might be up next. Chicken a la King Tut, anyone?