Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

For me, one of the great innovations in internet came when AbeBooks and similar sites opened their doors. I was already overwhelmed that I could go to Amazon and order just about any book in print for a very good price and with low to no shipping charge. But AbeBooks, which gathers together the inventories of tens of thousands of used book sellers and makes them searchable, was a whole new order of overwhelming. Many of the books that have been critical in my own education are long out of print. I used to spend a fair amount of time looking through the stacks at university libraries for those books, and to be able to quickly search what seems to be the entire inventory of used books on the planet—well, that was both a major blessing and a temptation that needed to be managed carefully.

In the past couple of years there has been a new twist in the AbeBooks universe, namely lots of sellers who find remaindered books and offer them for sale at a very low price, say $1 plus another $3 for shipping. Since I am usually willing to risk $4 on a book I know something about, I have bought many books in this category. (Fewer these days, though, now that we are making heavy use of interlibrary loan for books I want to see but know I won’t want to keep.) In fact, if a book comes out that interests me, I often make a mental note to check AbeBooks in a bout six months, when the hardback version will likely be remaindered for $1.

Awhile back I read reviews of Steve Martin’s new book Born Standing Up, a memoir of his days as a stand-up comic, and resisted the urge to buy it right away—not too difficult, since it was a tiny book selling for $25. Something reminded me of the book a few weeks ago, and sure enough when I checked AbeBooks there were countless copies being offered for $1. I ordered one, which came when I was off at this year’s jam camp. It is very short, about 200 pages with big print and a goodly collection of photos; it took me only a few hours to read, but I am still thinking about it.

I first encountered Steve Martin in the early 70s, on a trip home from college to see my folks in El Paso. They had cable, sort of a wonder at the time. I was baffled by the fact that I could watch TV channels from Los Angeles. And there was a channel called HBO, which broadcast fairly recent movies without commercial interruptions, plus the occasional program made just for them. One of those special programs was an hour-long performance by Steve Martin at some nightclub in California. I didn’t follow comedy much at the time, especially stand-up comedy which had yet to be re-invented by Martin and his colleagues. But I thought that program was the funniest thing I had ever seen; in fact, I made a point of watching it every time it was repeated during my visit.

I wouldn’t say that I was a true Steve Martin fan, but I followed him fairly closely after that, catching performances on the Tonight Show and especially on Saturday Night Live. I never owned any of his spectacularly successful records, but I heard enough from them on the radio. As he became wildly popular I began to lose touch with him, and then suddenly he seemed to have transformed himself from a stand-up comic to a movie star who no longer performed live.

Some of his early films I thought were funny (like The Man With Two Brains), some not so much. Then there was another breakthrough with Roxanne, which was not only funny but well-constructed and quite touching. I also was impressed with L.A. Story, although I didn’t completely understand where he was coming from. Then he started to make family pictures, which I never made a point to see but would sometimes come across anyway. Mostly he has been off my radar for quite awhile, with occasional spectacular exceptions—I think his recent film Bowfinger with Eddie Murphy is one of his funniest.

Lately I’ve been hearing about him through Pete Wernick, who has been helping Martin with his banjo playing. Martin put together a group of famous banjo players, including Earl Scruggs, who performed “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on the David Letterman show—five minutes of entertainment to folks at large, but a huge thing for bluegrass which is rarely heard on national television. Pete was one of the banjoists there. Pete also helped Martin record and produce The Crow, a CD of banjo music he had written, which is being distributed by Rounder Records. And so there have been a few stories written up by Pete on his website about what it is like to operate in such a rarefied atmosphere.

Born Standing Up is an unusual memoir, covering only his stand-up career which ended in his early thirties, adding only enough early biography to help you understand that career. More important, the memoir is really an explanation of a particular theory of comedy performance, using his stand-up years to illustrate and explain. I won’t explain that theory here, since for the most part it is not applicable to everyday life or even more general kinds of performance. But it is fascinating to watch Martin as he formulates this theory, then pursues it single-mindedly for nearly ten years with sporadic success and little momentum, then finds his groove and begins to hone his act into something very polished and specifically aimed—still without much commercial success—and then finally breaks through, to a nearly incomprehensible level of success. And then gives it all up, quite deliberately, just a few years later.

Some observations:

  • Steve Martin was one of the first to structure his comedy act around irony, presenting himself as a caricature of a comedian. To truly enjoy his act, you needed to detach yourself from the performance and observe it from the outside; quite often the funny part was that, although what he said or did was stupid or absurd, you knew it, and you knew he knew it … maybe. These days, such irony seems to be the sum total of comedy.

  • A critical factor in Martin’s success was the long years of constant work that preceded his breakthrough. He says he performed his material so many times in so many contexts that he felt in complete control of it, leaving him enough mental capacity to be able to fine-tune its execution on the fly, playing the audience like an instrument.

  • Stand-up comedy is an intensely lonely thing. There are no fellow participants in the project, no band members to share ideas or camaraderie or anything else with. As good and as successful as he was at it, Martin says his life became immensely more enjoyable when he began making films, where he worked with a cast and crew the whole time.

  • Martin says he missed an important transition in his stand-up career, where he went from being the focus of attention to the host of a very large, very raucous party, where people came not to hear something new but to be reminded of and celebrate the things they already knew quite well. He understood enough about the transition to know that he couldn’t continue developing his stand-up career. But the endgame would have been smoother and more enjoyable, rather than as frustrating as it was for him, if he had known that it was already over and just needed to be wound down gracefully.

There are some points that Martin makes about audiences that I am still thinking through, because they ring true based on our own experiences with performing and I think could be helpful to us if we can digest them fully.

In summary: an unusual book which accomplishes its quirky goal, worth a read if you have some interest in comedy or performance, or if like me Steve Martin was part of your life for awhile. But you probably don’t need to own a copy, so look for a place to borrow one.

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