After leaving Paramount, Martin was able to set up shop at Universal. Unfortunately, the move meant Gottlieb couldn’t be involved in the rewrite of the film (with Martin’s old writing pal Michael Elias taking over co-writing duties) and couldn’t direct the film as he’d originally wished to. As he explained, “Had we stayed on track at Paramount, I probably would have directed it. But it would’ve been a substantially different movie.”
“The Jerk” ended up finding the best director for the movie it became in Carl Reiner, who by the late ’70s was already a comedy legend. Reiner and Martin hit it off so well while making the film, in fact, that it marked the beginning of a remarkable collaboration. As Reiner observed, “Once we did this film together, we did three after that, so you realize we were on the same page every day and we understood each other and it just flew out of us.”
Upon its release, “The Jerk” proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Steve Martin was bound to become a legend himself, on-screen as well as on stage. Though “the reviews were mixed,” as Elias recalled, the movie ultimately worked because it “was Steve’s act in a way, which was also groundbreaking and anarchistic and bent all the rules and reflected on itself and parodied other things.”
The film also showed that Martin could be counted on for box office returns as well as laughs, as Gottlieb observed: “It did so well for its time, and it cost so little to produce, that it was a huge success for everybody.” After all, according to Martin, no less than Stanley Kubrick professed his love for the film. Given all this success and praise, it makes the old regime at Paramount who passed on the film look even more like … well, real jerks.