‘Stay Away From the Cans’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Jerk’

Steve Martin thought ‘The Jerk’ would be the key to a film career. He was absolutely right
‘Stay Away From the Cans’: 15 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Jerk’

In December 1979, Steve Martin broke out of the stand-up scene and onto the big screen with The Jerk. The story of the moronic Navin Johnson, the white adoptee of a Black family, who, after finally finding out he’s adopted, embarks on a comedic odyssey via odd jobs on the way to St. Louis, struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. 

Still hailed as some of Martin’s best work, the film has remained a comedy classic. So let’s uncross our eyes and dive into the making of a bum jerk...   

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The Jerk’s Way Out

While Martin was a household name for his stand-up in the late 1970s, he didn’t want to continue doing stand-up and wrote The Jerk as a way to get into movies.

‘The Jerk’ had Three Screenwriters

Along with MartinThe Jerk was written by Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias. Gottlieb is best known for co-writing Jaws, while Elias had previously worked with Martin on a number of his TV specials. According to Martin, their goal was to have “a laugh on every page.”

Breaking the Mold

Martin has said the “free-wheeling” nature of the film came out of the fact that it was his first screenplay and he didn’t know any of the rules of moviemaking.

A Joke that Didn’t Make the Cut

One of The Jerk’s earliest jokes didn’t make the final cut. It featured Navin Johnson taking a job as a buffalo counter in Beverly Hills. He stood on a street corner with a clicker for a while before finally seeing one buffalo and clicking the clicker.

It’s Directed by Comedy Royalty

The film was directed by comedy legend Carl Reiner, who Martin credits with giving the film “heart” and “shape.” Reiner also picked up Martin every day on the way to filming.

Jackie Mason Was Bitter About ‘The Jerk’

Mason, who played gas station owner Harry Hartounian, has said that much of his role was cut from the film because Martin thought he got too many laughs. Mason claimed that Carl Reiner told him, “You were too funny in too many spots, and Steve Martin was the star of the picture.”

Martin Learned to Play the Ukulele for the Movie

While he was already well-versed in playing the banjo from his stand-up act, Martin learned how to play the ukulele for The Jerk so he could perform the song “Tonight You Belong to Me” with Bernadette Peters.

Carl Reiner Wrote Some of the Movie Too

Reiner had said that 20 to 30 percent of the movie was rewritten each morning on the way to the set, as he and Martin would discuss the scenes they were filming that day and change them. Among his contributions, Reiner said he had the idea for Martin to lick Peters’ face instead of them having their first kiss. 

‘The Jerk’ Came from ‘The Idiot’

The original title was Easy Money. Martin has said the title The Jerk was inspired by Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot.

Behind-the-Scenes Romance

Martin and Peters were dating during the production of The Jerk.

Martin Plays Two Roles

He also plays the Cat Juggler in the film. He was credited as “Pig Eye Jackson” for the role.

It Had a Sequel

In 1984, a made-for-TV sequel aired on NBC. Titled The Jerk, Too, it starred Fridays cast member Mark Blankfield as Navin Johnson and was intended as the pilot for an eventual series. No such series, however, was picked up.

Martin’s Favorite Joke in the Movie

It’s when Navin is hitchhiking in Missouri, and a driver pulls up and asks, “St. Louis?” To which Navin replies, “Um, no, Navin Johnson.”

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