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More than three decades since its debut on Saturday Night Live, comedian Steve Martin‘s “King Tut” performance drew ire for what some perceived to be racism. But others pointed out that Martin was parodying Egyptian culture’s commercialization through museum exhibitions. That’s a seemingly forgotten context that was relevant to the time. Keep reading to learn more about the complaints against and defense of Martin’s humor.

Steve Martin during "KingTut" skit on April 22, 1978
Steve Martin | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Steve Martin’s ‘King Tut’ humor offended some people

To summarize the argument against Martin’s schtick, The Atlantic reported on complaints from college students in 2017. Their writer said, “You could say that … his dance moves are unintentionally offensive or downright racist.”

According to The Atlantic, “Many students found the video so egregious that they opposed its very presence in class.”

“That’s like somebody … making a song just littered with the n-word everywhere,” one student opined to the newspaper at Reed. They further explained to The Atlantic, “The gold face of the saxophone dancer leaving its tomb is an exhibition of blackface.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with that summary. The sketch and song are still quite popular among comedy fans. Some point to how the comedian was parodying the commodification of Egyptian culture in America as it happened, and they argue he wasn’t diminishing the culture itself.

It seems the Bowfinger star didn’t just choose Tutankhamun at random and make him the subject of one of his funny songs. King Tut’s treasures were touring the U.S. at the time, attracting millions of visitors and raking in millions of dollars on souvenirs.

Steve Martin’s ‘King Tut’ performance has a forgotten context

The “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit toured the United States in the years around the time Martin wrote and performed his “King Tut” skit for SNL.

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, “As millions of people lined up for hours to see the show, museums became the hottest tickets in town, helping usher in the era of the blockbuster museum exhibition.”

The NEH reported, “Exiting the show, [visitors] stepped into a store stocked with three hundred Tut-themed items developed by the Met. There were coloring books, posters, and postcards, along with a Tut tote bag.”

Americans experienced a bit of “Egyptomania” as a result of the cultural crossover event. According to the NEH, “The Tut-inspired jewelry collection ran to one hundred pieces. Hermès designed a limited-edition scarf, while Limoges produced a porcelain plate adorned with a falcon. There was also a $1,500 reproduction of the goddess Selket.”

Some fans argue that phenomenon was at the heart of the Only Murders in the Building star‘s “King Tut” humor when he sang lines like, “He gave his life for tourism.”

Steve Martin’s ‘King Tut’ opening provides some explanation


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It’s hard to find the actual complaints about Martin through all the people defending him on social media. But some Twitter users pointed out the SNL “King Tut” skit was being shared without the opening monologue. That’s where the comedian sets up the song. Without it, some context is missing.

“One of the great art exhibits ever to tour the United States was the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun,’ or ‘King Tut,'” Martin explains in the opening. “But I think it’s a national disgrace the way we have commercialized it with trinkets and toys, t-shirts and posters.”