Born Standing Up – Steve Martin


This is not a new book – written in 2007 – but I read something about it a few months ago and so have had it on my ‘to-read’ list for this year.  I’m glad I did.  It started out a little slow, but after a couple of chapters I started enjoying it and really liked it overall.  It’s Martin’s memoir of his stand-up days.  Since he was famous as a stand-up mostly in the seventies, and since his acting career has lasted far longer than his comedian days, people tend to forget just how successful he was.  This book does a good job of telling the story of how he got there and what it was like once he did.

For me this was fun to read on a couple of levels.  One – I like memoirs like this.  Big-time celebrities who are thinkers (and that’s not always a common combination) and actually have their feet on the ground are really fun to read about or listen to (and both of those characteristics are true of Martin).  Their lives are so unbelievably different than normal lives – than my life – that it’s interesting to read about them.  Two – I have an older brother who was in college when Steve Martin became big.  My brother was in school from 1973-1977 – the exact time that Martin became the biggest name in stand-up.  Since college students were one of Martin’s main constituencies, my brother was in the perfect place and at the perfect age to ‘get’ him.  And get him he did.  I remember my brother walking around saying, “Excuuuuuuuuse meeeeeeeeee!” – one of Martin’s catchphrases.  He also had a couple of Martin’s comedy albums.  For me – since I’m just over eight years younger than my brother and at that time thought that what he did was pretty cool – I became a Martin fan too (even though as an elementary school kid, a lot of the time I didn’t really understand his humor).  And since Martin’s humor was definitely something you either ‘got’ or didn’t appreciate at all (my dad thought it was the dumbest stuff he’d ever heard), there was an ‘in’ sense about being his fan.  All that to say, this book brought back some memories and it was fun to hear just how slowly and with how much difficulty Martin became an ‘overnight’ sensation.

The book starts with his childhood (born in 1945) – which wasn’t overly happy (I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian) – and ends in roughly 1981 when he made The Jerk and his movie career started.  He actually started at Knots Berry Farm when he was very young and eventually became a writer on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – all while trying to get his act perfected in stand-up.  He really labored as a small-time comedian for probably 10+ years before becoming big (I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct. The course was more plodding than heroic).  Interestingly, one of the things that ramped up his career was when he decided that the age of Aquarius and flower power were starting to fade, and so he was no longer going to include political humor in his show.  He saw the Nixon administration ending and Vietnam ending, so in his mind it was time to go a different direction.  That’s when his career took off (it would be really nice if a few comedians made the same choice today).

His brand of humor essentially mocked humor.  He wasn’t a comedian as much as a parody of a comedian.  I remember that aspect of his act (What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh).  What I didn’t remember was just how big he became.  By the late seventies he was selling out arenas – by himself.  There are some comedians who can do that now, but there wasn’t anyone like that at the time.  At his peak, he was the most successful stand-up comedian in history (to that point).

He ended up walking away from it when he realized he no longer had anything new to say AND he figured out that acting in movies was a much easier life.  He used his influence as a mega-star in comedy to make The Jerk.  From then on, it was all about movies.

The book is essentially an autobiography, but it doesn’t dwell a lot on his personal life away from the comedy (In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years).  And since it ends in 1981, it obviously doesn’t cover a large part of his life.  Its intention is just to tell the story of his stand-up days.  For those who like this type of book or remember his act back in the day, I’d recommend it.

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.

Steve Martin quotes from his act

[Ask the audience] – “How many people have never raised their hands before?”

“Now let’s repeat the non-conformists’ oath: I promise to be different! (audience repeats) I promise to be unique! (audience repeats) I promise not to repeat things other people say! (audience repeats, laughs) Good!”

“I used to smoke marijuana. But I’ll tell you something: I would only smoke it in the late evening. Oh, occasionally the early evening, but usually the late evening – or the mid-evening. Just the early evening, midevening and late evening. Occasionally, early afternoon, early mid-afternoon, or perhaps the late-midafternoon. Oh, sometimes the early-mid-late-early morning. . . But never at dusk! Never at dusk, I would never do that.”

“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.”

“I believe in equality.  Equality for everybody.  No matter how stupid they are or how superior I am to them.”

“I have decided to give the greatest performance of my life! Oh, wait, sorry, that’s tomorrow night.”

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