Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

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This is a memoir of Steve Martin's life up to the early 1980s, when he stopped doing stand-up comedy. Books by celebrities are a mixed bag, I don't read very many of them. But I liked this one quite a bit; it's well-written and has sharp observations and insights.

I "grew up" watching Steve Martin, starting just slightly before he became huge. As the book details, his "overnight success" came after years and years of toiling in small-venue semi-obscurity. We overlapped a few years in Southern California, and it would have been easy for me to have seen him at the Ice House in Pasadena. But … I didn't.

A few random notes:

  • It's tempting, watching a wild and crazy performance, to think that it's all very spontaneous. Martin dispells that illusion right up front: everything is calculated. No matter how wacky and out of control the comic appears, the jokes, motions, and facial expressions are scripted well in advance. Behind the jovial mask, the comic is watching and gauging reaction, focused on getting everything right. I'm not sure why I find this interesting, but I do.

  • There's a lot of material about his family, particular his rocky relationship with his father. Being a dad makes me sympathize somewhat with his father; c'mon, Steve, isn't it possible that a lot of this emnity was due to misunderstanding? Well, probably not. But I hope I do better when Pun Son writes his memoir.

  • Perhaps surprising for an untraditional comic, Martin has unabashed admiration for the more conventional stand-ups from the 60s and 70s: he has kind words for Don Rickles, Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, etc. He has a long appreciation for the genius of Johnny Carson.

  • His story of meeting Elvis is priceless. Elvis says, "Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor."

  • His politics were (and for all I know, still are) tediously liberal. At one point they were part of his act: "All I had to do was mention Nixon's name, and there were laughs from my collegiate audiences."

    I've heard those laughs; they aren't really born out of amusement. Fortunately, at some point Martin dropped the political jokes.

  • There's an "Also by Steve Martin" page up front, and it includes a list of screenplays. Unsurprisingly, Roxanne and L. A. Story are there. Missing in action are a lot of others, though: A Simple Twist of Fate, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, … What's up with that? There's plenty of space on the page.

Last Modified 2012-10-12 8:35 AM EST