05
Nov
13

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Comic: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up: A Comic's LifeBorn Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

A short, lean and engaging look from Steve Martin at his past, Born Standing Up is a fantastic autobiography. In a hair over 200 pages, he recounts his early years in a troubled home formative years working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, his years as an up-and-coming working comic and, eventually his most successful years, when he sold out stadiums and had hit records.

It’s interesting to read about Martin’s years grinding as a standup, especially in a time before comedy clubs existed; he spent most of those days opening for bands in bars. But that really sets this apart is how thoroughly he investigates himself.

It’s kind of like reading a well-researched biography. Martin adopts a neutral tone, treating these years as a part of his life that’s long gone. He breaks down the grind of his touring life, the days plugging away in The Smothers Brothers writing room and the tricks of the trade like he’s speaking about someone else. I can’t think of a similar book by another comedian; usually, they’re either prose versions of their routines or more of a memoir. This is something more than either of those.

It’s not a funny book, although it’s occasionally witty, but it’s endlessly fascinating to read his sober look at how his style of comedy was formed and break down how the sausage is made. He explains how bits came together and why he’d drop them, about his on-stage style, both in performing and in clothing (Always be better dressed than your audience, he says) and explains what it was like being on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show. There’s some harsh truths here about how unromantic a life this is, but he cloaks them with a self-deprecating charm. An example:

“There was a belief that one appearance on The Tonight Show made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, “Hi, I think we met at Harry’s Christmas party.” The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, “Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.” “

Throughout this book, I kept thinking of EB White’s quote about breaking down comedy. I think it’s to Martin’s credit as a writer that his comedy never quite falls apart under his analysis: while he breaks things down, sometimes even wondering himself what he was thinking, he’s still funny. That alone would make the book worth reading.

But that’s ignoring the memoir side of this book. He explains the pleasures and downsides of this lifestyle, the triumphs (finally getting Carson to laugh at his jokes, meeting like-minded souls like Dan Aykroyd) why he walked away from a wildly successful performing career: years plugging away led to success, but that had it’s own trappings. Reading his intelligent insights into stand-up, acting and being on the cutting edge (aka: the unpopular for a long time) side of comedy is a treat.

There’s a couple things I wish he’d written more about: putting together specials in the 70s, how his life changed once he got into movies and what he thought of people like John Candy (I’ll always think Planes, Trains and Automobiles is his best movie). Maybe he’ll get around to that book someday.

Rating: 9/10. It’s short and sometimes feels lean, but it’s also one of the best books about comedy I’ve ever read; only the SNL oral history comes close. Recommended for biography fans, especially those who like comedy.

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