July 18, 2008

Book review: "Born Standing Up," by Steve Martin

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Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
By Steve Martin
Scribner / ISBN: 978-1-4165-5364-9

I hope this isn't too embarrassing a thing to admit, but when I was a kid I used to have Steve Martin's old comedy albums literally memorized; and I mean, literally, back in the late '70s and early '80s when he was at his commercial height, back when I was ten, eleven, twelve years old, I could literally relate entire routines of his to a public audience (and sometimes did), pause for pause and inflection for inflection. And now I look back, of course, and wonder what the childhood-me ever saw in Martin's edgy, countercultural performances; as can be expected from a '70s comedian, most of his work was about drugs and sex and other strictly adult topics, half the jokes zooming right over my head as a child even as I was able to perfectly recite them. I guess, then, that it was maybe the pure manic energy Martin brought to his performance, the traditional zaniness of it all, which I guess adults were enjoying for ironic reasons at the time but I loved just because it was silly -- a grown man wearing rabbit ears, a clown wearing a formal three-piece white suit. "Well, excuuuuuuuusssse meeeeee!!!!"

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

So how interesting, then, to get to sit down and read Martin's memoirs on those years, Born Standing Up, decades after he quit stand-up for good, decades where he has been ambivalent and shy about his stand-up years in the first place, preferring to constantly delve forward with his traditional acting instead, as well as the more intellectual humor that has defined his later career as a novelist and playwright. Because as this tight, slim, plainly-spoken, always entertaining volume shows, it was in fact precisely the combination of his traditional showbiz childhood experiences and the countercultural excesses of the '60s that led to his act in the first place, not an affectation of any sort but merely the things that naturally interested him back then, the things that he naturally found funny; but by doing so, he in fact forged something entirely new, unique and unforgettable, leading to him at one point being the number-one live-entertainment draw in the entire United States, and this counting rock musicians as well.

That's important to remember about Martin's early career, that he had the kinds of live-audience successes that sound surreal anymore in these "Laff Shack on every corner" days; at the height of his stand-up years, he was sometimes packing in 20,000 people a night or more, night after night and city after city, precisely because he did the kind of hybrid performance that no other comedian did, a wry sensibility attuned to the times combined with literal cornball routines and effects from the Catskills era. It'd be easy to believe, as many did, that Martin deliberately added these cornball details to his routine at a certain point during adulthood, precisely for the ironic enjoyment that jaded '70s audiences would get out of it; but as this book shows, these elements have actually been a consistent part of his public act since literally his teenage years, when he worked at the magic store inside of California's Disneyland during high school, wearing such things as arrows-through-the-head and Groucho Marx glasses unironically, trying to actually sell more of them at the store. Once he got into college, according to him, once he was in his twenties and starting to put together an adult touring club routine of his own, he simply left the magic-store accrouchements in, simply because he was 20 and a terrible comedian and needed stuff to fall back on; it was only as he started getting older, started embracing more of the countercultural things going on around him, that these details took on their ironic effect, by which time he was a good enough comedian to understand how to exploit them for that purpose.

In fact, it's no surprise that no less than Jerry Seinfeld has called Born Standing Up "one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written," because this is a very wonky, very process-obsessed memoir, a chance for Martin to literally record the steps that moved him from one moment to the next in his early career, to literally talk about the specific things he changed from step to step, the specific things he held onto. Because let's face it, there's actually a hugely fascinating milieu of significant events that was swarming around him during his youth; raised in southern California, actually a philosophy student at college while first pursuing a career as a comedian, Martin was lovers and roommates with all the various future legends of Hollywood, but also compatriots with student radicals, art historians, blacklisted Communist writers, and all kinds of other people who would have such a profound effect on his later, more mature career. (For those who don't know, in fact, on top of his performance career, he's currently also one of the most respected private collectors of 20th-century art in the entire country.) He was a writer on the old "Smothers Brothers Comedy Show," right at the height of its Nixon-hating, network-preempting controversy; he was brought into the now-classic "Saturday Night Live" right at its most daring start, one of the people who helped cement the show into what it now is. When the "Lenny Bruce Look" finally became the norm on comedy stages in the mid-'70s, he switched over to a short haircut and a three-piece suit, for no other reason than to be different; and then right at the height of his career, a moment when he was literally selling out basketball stadiums for weeks on end, he walked away from it all and never looked back.

And that's maybe the biggest irony about Martin's early career, as so smartly but sometimes cynically detailed in Born Standing Up; that he had never meant to be a stand-up in the first place, had only done so because he literally had nothing else going on in his life at the time, and in fact couldn't wait to walk away from it all as soon as he could, perpetually embarrassed as he was over the entire stand-up industry in the first place. And in this I share a deep empathy with Martin, in that this is how I in general feel as well about my own youthful years in the slam-poetry community of the 1990s; how even something that brings a person quick fame and attention can ultimately be embarrassing to the person it's benefiting, how a person can be weirdly proud of what they themselves did within that medium but still deeply disappointed by the medium itself, by everyone else in it and what the general public thinks of it. As Martin explains throughout this memoir, he has always seen writing and intellectualism as much more worthy life pursuits than simply getting on a stage and making with the yuk-yuk, and in fact even needed to be convinced by friends to write the memoir in the first place; it's very telling, I think, that he actually had to hire a researcher to track down all the photos and documents seen throughout the manuscript, in that he had held on to barely any of this stuff himself.

That's a fascinating thing about Martin, I think, that his career can be classified into such two clean and unrelated halves, not just the mediums he's worked in but even the type of humor he uses. He truly was a master of the stand-up format, which is why I have such immense respect for him for walking away from it all, the moment his fame got big enough that he had the actual opportunity to do so, to delve instead into traditional movies and traditional acting. But I have to say, I'm glad as well that he was eventually convinced to indeed write Born Standing Up -- it's a treasure trove of information for anyone who was old fan of his from those years, as well as any aspiring stage performer who wants to understand more about how one hones one's craft over time. It comes highly recommended today.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about Born Standing Up: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:12 AM, July 18, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |