The New York Times
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Lifeby Steve Martin
At age 10, Steve Martin got a job selling guidebooks at the newly opened Disneyland. In the decade that followed, he worked in Disney's magic shop, print shop, and theater, and developed his own magic/comedy act. By age 20, studying poetry and philosophy on the side, he was performing a dozen times a week, most often at the Disney rival, Knott's Berry… See more details below
At age 10, Steve Martin got a job selling guidebooks at the newly opened Disneyland. In the decade that followed, he worked in Disney's magic shop, print shop, and theater, and developed his own magic/comedy act. By age 20, studying poetry and philosophy on the side, he was performing a dozen times a week, most often at the Disney rival, Knott's Berry Farm.
Obsession is a substitute for talent, he has said, and Steve Martin's focus and daring his sheer tenacity are truly stunning. He writes about making the very tough decision to sacrifice everything not original in his act, and about lucking into a job writing for The Smothers Brothers Show. He writes about mentors, girlfriends, his complex relationship with his parents and sister, and about some of his great peers in comedy Dan Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carl Reiner, Johnny Carson. He writes about fear, anxiety and loneliness. And he writes about how he figured out what worked on stage.
This book is a memoir, but it is also an illuminating guidebook to stand up from one of our two or three greatest comedians. Though Martin is reticent about his personal life, he is also stunningly deft, and manages to give readers a feeling of intimacy and candor. Illustrated throughout with black-and-white photographs collected by Martin, this book is instantly compelling visually and a spectacularly good read.
Here are some "deleted bits" that you won't find in Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, "one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written" (Jerry Seinfeld).
1) At age twelve, my sex education was non-existent, thanks to a restrained media and an embarrassed father, who once said to me in an uncomfortable heart-to-heart talk when I graduated high school, "I never taught you about sex because you learn that in the schoolyard." Once I commented to a co-worker about the strange fat women who occasionally came through the turnstiles. "They're pregnant," said my amazed friend.
2) In January of 1974, I met Mimi Farina, the sparrow-voiced folk artist and sister to Joan Baez, at a small club called the "Egress" in Vancouver, where we worked together for several nights. She had a delectable sense of humor and loved to laugh. One afternoon we bantered back and forth as we strolled along the Vancouver waterfront. It's impossible to reconstruct how she arrived at this line, but I always remembered it: "Are those glass fishnet balls in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" She said it with the glee of someone who knew she had landed on the perfect last joke of a series, and we went into a laughing fit.
After I became successful, Mimi, an activist herself, chastised me for not being more visible politically. I felt defensive as I had already delivered anti-Vietnam war rhetoric as a writer on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I'm not sure I adequately explained to her my reasons for withdrawal from activism, but I can try now. I love comedy. To work, comedy needs to be perfect, clear and focused. A dropped cocktail glass on your punch line can kill the laugh. When I perform I want the audience thinking about only one thing, what is going on at that exact moment. A public political position, especially a strident one, can be like a dropped cocktail glass. I desire to be active privately and not publicly. But more importantly, I am not an authority. When I am asked on television about a topical issue, I feel unqualified to comment. They should ask someone who knows about the issue, not a comedian who's promoting a movie.
3) Letter to Mitzi Trumbo, influenced by logic class:
There exists in Pasadena a cafeteria such that it either has good food or it is full of young people; it is not full of young people. If there exist in Pasadena a cafeteria such that it has good food and is close to the Ice house, then we shall eat there or we shall eat at the ice house. We shall not eat at the Ice House and the cafeteria is close; if we eat at the cafeteria that has good food, is close to the Ice House and it is not the case that it is full of young people, we shall leave � hour earlier.
[three triangular dots] we shall leave � hour earlier.
The New York Times
Neatly combining his personal and professional worlds, beloved comedian, filmmaker, author, magician and banjoist Martin (Pure Drivel) chronicles his life as a gifted young comedian in this evocative, heartfelt memoir, which proves less wild and crazy than wise and considerate-though no less funny for it. The typically reticent performer shares rarely disclosed memories of childhood-his father, a failed actor, harbored increasing anger toward his son through the years-and the anxiety attacks that plagued him for some two decades, along with his early success as a television comedy writer, first for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the evolution of his stand-up routine. Sharp insight accompanies stories of his first adult gig (at an empty San Francisco coffeehouse), his pioneering "no punch lines" style ("My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh"), appearances on programs like The Steve Allen Comedy Hourand breakthrough moments with small, confused audiences. Though the book is vivid and entertaining throughout, Martin doesn't dish any behind-the-scenes dirt from Saturday Night Liveor The Tonight Show; rather, he's warm and generous toward everyone in his life, including girlfriends and colleagues. Tellingly, this intimate early career recap ends not with Martin's decision to give up live performance or his first starring role in The Jerk, but with a visit to his parents and Knott's Berry Farm, where he first performed as a teenager. (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In analyzing the development of his stand-up comedy career, Martin considers to have written a biography of someone he used to know. With a preteen passion of becoming a master magician, he escaped domestic turmoil by working at a magic shop in Disneyland. Once he gained confidence in performing live, his eclectic brand of humor was honed at coffee clubs and in local theater productions. Along the way, Martin studied philosophy, which allowed him to observe comedy as social commentary. Within a few years, he stumbled into television writing, working for the controversial Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He was a regular guest on the Tonight Show, but it was his exposure on Saturday Night Livethat catapulted Martin to success. In the early 1980s, he decided to leave stand-up comedy and become the film star we know today. Martin has always taken his life and the art of comedy seriously; his wonderful catchphrases (e.g., "Excuuuuse me"; "I'm a wild and crazy guy") will live on forever in our vocabulary. An intelligent biographical assessment recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ8/07.]
Richard A. Dickey
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Read an Excerpt
Born Standing Up
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.
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.
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