Title: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Author: Steve Martin
Publication Year: 2007
Count for Year: 24
How I discovered
I came across this book while shelf-reading while working at our local library. I’ve mostly been organizing in the biography section and this one especially caught my eye, because I love Steve Martin.
In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”
— from the publisher
Warning, this book is not about the Steve Martin that was on Saturday Night Live. Neither is it about the movie star Steve Martin. This book is, as its title suggests, about the stand-up Steve Martin. With that in mind, this book succeeds on all levels as it shows the years leading up to those “glory” years through stories of his struggle to the top and photos of those times, many never seen previous to the publication of this book.
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 seem to have happened to someone else, and I often feel 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.
So Martin writes in the first chapter, and that affection is clearly shown in the pages that follow, from his career starting at age ten at Disneyland, first selling guidebooks then doing magic shows at the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm to his later becoming a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He also reveals about his growing up with his mother, father and sister, and the first influences on what would become his comedy routine:
The TV also brought into my life two appealing characters named Laurel and Hardy, whom I found clever and gentle, in contrast to the Three Stooges, who were blatant and violent. Laurel and Hardy’s work, already thirty years old, had survived the decades with no hints of cobwebs. They were also touching and affectionate, and I believe this is where I got the idea that jokes are funniest when played upon oneself. Jack Benny, always his own victim, had a variety show that turned into a brilliant half-hour situation comedy; his likable troupe was now cavorting into my living room, and I was captivated. His slow burn — slower than slow– made me laugh every time. The Red Skelton Show aired on Tuesday evening, and I would memorize Red’s routines about two pooping seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliffe, or his bit about how different people walk through a rain puddle, and perform them the next day during Wednesday’s morning “sharing time” at my grade school.
Along the way, Martin naturally encounters romance, including with Mitzi Trumbo, the daughter of Dalton Trumbo, the director and screenwriter who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. One of those romances, Nina Goldblatt (later Lawrence), eventually leads to a job on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and then his departure from comedy writing into the world of stand-up, starting from the bottom:
Because I was generally unknown, in the smaller venues I was free to gamble with material, and there were a few evenings when crucial mutations affected my developing act. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I played for approximately a hundred students in a classroom with a stage at one end. I did the show, and it went fine. However, when it was over, something odd happened. The audience didn’t leave. The stage had no wings, no place for me to go, but I still had to pack up my props. I indicated that the show had ended, but they just sat there, even after I said flatly, “It’ over.” They thought this was all part of the act, and I couldn’t convince them otherwise. Then I realized there were no exits from the stage and that the only way out was to go through the audience. So I kept talking. I passed among them, ad-libbing comments along the way. I walked out into the hallway, trying to finish the show, but they followed me there too. A reluctant pied piper, I went outside onto the campus, and they stayed right behind me. I came across a drained swimming pool. I asked the audience to get into it — “Everybody into the pool!”– and they did. Then I said I was going to swim across the top of them, and the crowd knew exactly what to do: I was passed hand over hand as I did the crawl. That night I went to bed feeling I had entered new comic territory. My show was becoming something else, something free and unpredictable, and the doing of it thrilled me, because each new performance brought my view of comedy into sharper focus.
Because of moments like these in the book, and because the book wasn’t about the Steve Martin we all know and love, but about the pre-celebrity persona of Steve Martin, I really enjoyed this book…and for that, I’m giving it a 4 out of 5. While the book is not a classic, it is worth owning a copy of it, because it captures a comedian — and not just any comedian, but Steve Martin — before he became famous.
5- Classic, must read
4- Worth owning a copy
3- Worth picking up at library
2- Worth skimming at the bookstore
1- Worth being a doorstop
FTC Disclosure: I didn’t receive a copy of this book from the publisher, but took it out from my local library.