Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
This one came to me by an odd route. I’m not a typical Steve Martin fan. Though I adore his seventies stand-up and SNL appearances, I’ve deliberately missed most of his movie career (there are some winning exceptions) and don’t get his New Yorker humor pieces (though I have to admit I don’t respond to most written New Yorker humor). But it may have been Martin’s connection that prompted the magazine to run an excerpt from Born Standing Up, Martin’s memoir of his slow road to comedy success. That I did like. Nine years later (I told you this was circuitous) I bought a cheap copy of the book and quickly started reading it. It far exceeded my expectations. Soon I was marking favorite lines and making margin notes. I was mesmerized. There wasn’t a wasted sentence.
Though Steve Martin has been a big success for four decades, it took him fourteen years to get there. He sacrificed a lot for stand-up-college, close family connections, community of almost any sort. There are many things here that surprised me about Martin. Because I knew almost nothing about his early life, I unconsciously assumed it was like…well, I don’t know what, but not what it turned out to be. His parents were from Waco, Texas, his mom a strict Baptist and the whole family was emotionally blocked and terrible at communicating. Martin threw himself into learning magic tricks, spent as much time away from home as possible, and left for good the moment he made enough money to squeak by. For a while he dated fellow actor Stormie Sherk, who would become in another incarnation the well-known Christian author Stormie O’Martian. He had a chance encounter with Diane Arbus, also before she was famous. A huge break happened when he got a job writing for the Smothers Brothers. But the network soon cancelled their highly popular show because it was too controversial and Martin was once again out of the mainstream. He spent many more years doing stand-up again, fairly content if not exactly happy because relative poverty allowed him to explore, innovate, and experiment. He mixed up all the skills he had—acting, comedy, writing, juggling, magic tricks and so in ways that often confounded audiences. It took him forever, he says, to realize that he’d get nowhere if he wasn’t original. But even originality wasn’t a ticket to financial security. He was plagued with recurring panic attacks, felt he had no great showbiz skills because he couldn’t sing or dance. But, like Andy Kaufman, Martin was, in the late sixties and early seventies, way ahead of his time, so much so even he wasn’t quite aware of it. (Martin himself doesn’t say he was ahead of his time: this is a modest book, modestly written). Also like Kaufman, Martin made fun of what he saw as showbiz norms such as slickness, shallowness, smarminess, and even competence. Like Kaufman, this was lost on much, if not most, of his public. He promised himself that he’d quit if he hadn’t made it by age 30.
Throughout the accounts of alienation and struggle there is sharp, well-detailed writing and a type of Martin humor new to me—often restrained, literary, but not pristine. And still funny, very funny. Martin on the fifties: “Eddie, I discerned, was living with a woman not his wife, the 1955 equivalent of devil worship.” As for the sixties, “… we were now living in the Age of Aquarius, an age when, at least astrologically, the world would be taken over by macramé.” Every so often, Martin drops us a reminder of why he left home in the first place. While dating Mitzi Trumbo, daughter of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, he discovers that he’s “never been in a house where conversations were held during dinner.” The life of the artist was often difficult, but at least it was alive.
It’s interesting that the man who’s made such a career playing crass and shameless characters has produced a book that is so carefully written, so unsentimental, so unself-congratulatory. It’s almost an anti-star book when you compare it to the run of the mill How I Made It accounts. The only place where I detect Martin doing something close to bragging is when he reminds us how The Jerk was universally panned upon release but has since won critical favor. Taking him up on the dare, I watched it for the first time and found it largely mediocre. But it does have a few brilliant scenes.
So why did he give up the biggest stand-up career in history? In addition to the severe limits it put on his family and social life, there were other good reasons. Because he was exhausted. Because he couldn’t do anything subtle in front of 25,000 people. Because his public expected the old bits and he wanted to innovate instead. And, finally, he discovered that you hunt for fame, then you find it, then it hunts you.