Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Born Standing Up
I’ve always enjoyed Steve Martin’s work, from his comedy albums to his novellas and the movies in-between. Martin has recently written ‘Born Standing Up’, an autobiography about his life from boyhood through his stand-up career, ending as he segued from the stage to silver screen for ‘The Jerk’.
Martin dispels any myths of overnight, or even over-decade, success. An appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”, for example, was not a golden ticket to stardom as the legends have us believe. For Martin, it was 17 appearances before it had any effect on his career (exacerbated by being relegated for years to appearing only with guest hosts after a routine Carson didn’t like). His rise, when it happened, was indeed swift. From headlining a small club in Greenwich Village in late ’74 in front of an audience of zero to a special on fledgling HBO in ‘75, hosting “Saturday Night Live” in ‘76 and a million-selling comedy album in ’77. I don't think I'm giving away the ending of the book by letting you know that Steve Martin became famous.
The Martin of recent years has evolved into a humorist, penning short pieces for the New Yorker like this one. This story and other short subjects were collected in 1998 as ‘Pure Drivel’, which I guess was something of a sequel to 1979’s ‘Cruel Shoes’, a multi-million seller that had America gladly lapping up the absurd. I would subscribe to the New Yorker if only I could justify buying it for the cartoons (which of course had been the rationale for my subscription to Playboy).
One New Yorker piece about the death of his father led to this book. Martin had an odd relationship with his father, primarily estranged. Growing up, his father was never ‘Daddy’ or ‘Dad’, but Glenn, his first name (and in a formal way, not in a “Dad is your buddy” way). Glenn Martin did not approve of his son’s comedy career, even disparaging it publicly when his son became famous. Martin’s familial relationships stand out as the most salient parts of the book. Most people try not to think about the uncomfortable aspects of their childhood or family. Martin confronts these personal demons head-on, and his ability to do so, as well as assess and articulate his feelings had me questioning whether I’m emotionally recumbent or there are some revelations that come with age. Martin, at 62, has a quarter century on me, though I like to think that I lean more towards self-aware than self-beware. Such knowledge also comes with being tested by life, and though in many ways my life has been one of ease and privilege, I’ve had my share of hard promises (as Tom Petty would say).
Instead of reading 'Born Standing Up', I listened to the audio book read by the author. I was going to hear Martin’s voice if I read it anyway, so the audio, unabridged on four CDs, was the way to go. Being a book by a comedian about his career as a stand-up comic, I thought it would be funnier, a comedy romp that flew gaily from one humorous anecdote to the next. It was, in fact, more melancholy than funny. It’s still full of humor, but more thoughtful observations than jokes (though ‘jokes’ were never what he was about). If it is guffaws you’re looking for then his comedy records from the late ‘70s are still in print. I myself enjoyed joining Steve Martin on his journey from confused kid to unknown teenage comedian to 'unknown comedian in his late twenties' to superstardom to “comedian who had become a fad”.
There are a couple of good interviews with Martin about the book, which you've probably only heard if you're a Socialist -
And in case you need some laughs, you can't go wrong with Steve on Carson as the Great Flydini -