Books: “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin

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STEVE MARTIN | Born Standing Up

Few entertainers can match Steve Martin’s career when it comes to breadth, scope and longevity. He started performing in a magic shop at Knott’s Berry Farm as a child, moved over to Disneyland, excelled as a magician, won an Emmy as a comedy writer, mastered the banjo, wrote screenplays, stage plays and books. In between he carved out a stand-up comedy career that few in history have matched.

His memoir “Born Standing Up” recounts his career from those early days at Knott’s Berry Farm to the end of his stand-up and comedy recording career. It’s a fascinating self-examination by a complex man who’s frantic and hilarious on stage but reserved, introspective and a bit insecure off it.

martinbook.jpgI became a Steve Martin fan during the late 1970s, during his “wild and crazy guy” period – he was filling up 20,000-seat arenas and recorded a series of comedy albums that outsold most of the popular music of the day. He earned fame through his performances and his appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “Saturday Night Live,” but quit the stand-up game not long after, his career trajectory moving into films and writing.

Martin has called the book a biography, not an autobiography, because it’s about “someone I used to know.”

In a review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that in the book, Martin “need not specify that he has spent years dissecting that long-lost someone, since this book is written in the straight-from-the-couch voice of a dutiful analysand. That does not make Mr. Martin myopic or dull; it simply gives him more than the usual degree of insight into why his sense of humor evolved the way that it did. Sure, he had a father who told a newspaper that ‘Saturday Night Live’ (on which Mr. Martin has appeared many times) was the worst thing on television and whose own thwarted ambitions as a performer led to stone-faced disapproval of his son’s success. But the younger Mr. Martin is more interested in gaining insight than in settling scores.”

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An excerpt from the book:

I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.

My decade is the seventies, with several years extending on either side. Though my general recall of the period is precise, my memory of specific shows is faint. I stood onstage, blinded by lights, looking into blackness, which made every place the same. Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet. The audience necessarily remained a thing unseen except for a few front rows, where one sourpuss could send me into panic and desperation. The comedian’s slang for a successful show is “I murdered them,” which I’m sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you.

Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern “Is this funny?” Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be. I suppose these worries keep the mind sharp and the senses active. I can remember instantly retiming a punch line to fit around the crash of a dropped glass of wine, or raising my voice to cover a patron’s ill-timed sneeze, seemingly microseconds before the interruption happened.

I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented—I didn’t sing, dance, or act—though working around that minor detail made me inventive.

I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now. A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life—which inevitably touches upon my personal life—and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away.

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It’s a great, fascinating read about a man whose career has reached heights few can imagine, but had enormous depths few knew about until the publication of this book. I highly recommend it.

Here’s a video clip of Martin’s “Funny Baloon Animals” routine…

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