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Martin was born in Waco, Texas to Glenn Vernon Martin, a real estate salesman and aspiring actor, and Mary Lee Stewart, a housewife. Martin was raised in Inglewood, California and Garden Grove, California. He is of English, Irish and Scottish descent.
As a teenager, Martin started out working at the Magic Shop at Disneyland. There he developed his talents for magic, juggling, playing the banjo and creating balloon animals. He teamed up with friend and Garden Grove High School classmate Kathy Westmoreland to do a musical comedy routine. They performed at local coffee houses and at the Bird Cage Theater in Knott's Berry Farm. Martin attended Santa Ana College at the same time as actress Diane Keaton.
"It changed what I believe and what I think about everything. I majored in philosophy. Something about non sequiturs appealed to me. In philosophy, I started studying logic, and they were talking about cause and effect, and you start to realize, 'Hey, there is no cause and effect! There is no logic! There is no anything!' Then it gets real easy to write this stuff, because all you have to do is twist everything hard—you twist the punch line, you twist the non sequitur so hard away from the things that set it up, that it's easy... and it's thrilling."
Martin's girlfriend in 1967 was a dancer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She helped Martin get a writing job with the show by submitting his work to head writer Mason Williams. Williams initially paid Martin out of his own pocket. Along with the other writers for the show, Martin won an Emmy Award in 1969. Martin also wrote for John Denver (a neighbor of his in Aspen, Colorado at one point), The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. He also appeared on these shows and several others, in various comedy skits.
Martin also performed his own material, sometimes as an opening act for groups such as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Carpenters. He appeared at San Francisco's The Boarding House among other places. He continued to write, earning an Emmy nomination for his work on Van Dyke and Company in 1976.
In the mid-1970s, he made appearances as a stand up comedian on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. That exposure, together with appearances on HBO's On Location and NBC's Saturday Night Live (SNL) led to his first of four comedy albums, Let's Get Small. The album was a huge success.
His next album, A Wild and Crazy Guy, was a bigger success. It reached the #2 spot on the sales chart in the United States. It created a catch phrase (the album's title). It was based on an SNL skit in which Martin and Dan Aykroyd played a couple of bumbling Czechoslovakian playboys. The album was a million seller.
Martin's first movie was a short, The Absent-Minded Waiter (1977). The seven-minute long movie, also featuring Buck Henry and Teri Garr, was written by and starred Martin. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Film, Live Action. His first feature movie appearance was in the musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He sang the Beatles' Maxwell's Silver Hammer.
In 1979, Martin wrote and starred in his first full-length movie, The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner. The movie was a huge success, grossing over $73 million. Martin was in three more Reiner-directed comedies after The Jerk: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid in 1982, The Man with Two Brains in 1983 and All of Me in 1984. In 1986, Martin joined fellow Saturday Night Live veterans Martin Short and Chevy Chase in ¡Three Amigos!, directed by John Landis.
In 1987, Martin joined comedian John Candy in the John Hughes movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. That same year, the Cyrano de Bergerac adaptation Roxanne won him a Writers Guild of America award. In 1988, he did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Michael Caine and directed by Frank Oz.
In 2005, Martin wrote and starred in Shopgirl. Martin played a wealthy businessman who strikes up a romance with a Saks 5th Avenue counter girl (Claire Danes). He also starred in Cheaper by the Dozen 2 that year. Martin's latest work was in the 2006 remake of The Pink Panther.