Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

born-standing-up

Born Standing Up is the autobiography of Steve Martin from his childhood to roughly the early 1980s. This period includes his show business-related jobs as a youth, his work in television as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and other shows, much of his frequent guesting on numerous talk shows and Saturday Night Live, his first movie The Jerk, and most notably his entire stand-up comedy career (except his brief return to stand-up in 2016 after a 35 year hiatus).

My assessment of Born Standing Up is that Martin is likable, the book is likable, and I’m glad I read it. That being said, for me it didn’t live up to the extraordinary praise heaped on it in the blurbs included on the front and back cover and then on page after page inside the book, mainly because it’s hard to imagine that any book could. The blurbs almost sound like parody, like something from Martin’s old stand-up routine where he’d cluelessly puff himself up. (“Yeah, I make a lot of money. I bought cardboard when it was only 14 cents a ton. And it’s up to what, 16 cents now? Well, I bought three tons of it. So that’s about…well, you figure it out. Plus I made a special deal where I only have to keep 2 tons of it at my house.”)

Jerry Seinfeld says, “Absolutely magnificent…One of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written.” Others describe it as “superbly written,” “fascinating,” “incredibly moving,” “beautifully tender,” “beautifully, even poetically, written,” “the best autobiography I’ve ever read,” and on and on.

I mean, come on. I’m a big Steve Martin fan with a preexisting interest in the subject matter (I followed his career especially closely during his stand-up years, and followed stand-up comedy in general more during that era than any time before or since), and even I think this degree of hype is excessive.

Again, it’s a decent book, and I recommend it. But let’s not get carried away.

It’s of fairly modest length: about 200 pages. I don’t know that I would have preferred some massive tome, but there are some areas where I would have welcomed more detail, more context.

It’s not a gossipy book, at least not in a negative, score-settling way. There’s plenty of praise for the various people he’s worked with and been influenced by in his show business career, but minimal criticism or dirt.

He tells some of his stories in a funny way, drops in little witticisms here and there, but it’s more of a straightforward autobiography than a humor book. It’s not like, say, Groucho Marx’s autobiographical writings, which tend to be at least as much shtick as serious narrative. It’s more like Harpo Marx’s autobiography (Harpo Speaks!) in that respect I suppose.

As far as the humor goes, my pick for the funniest line occurs early in the book. Describing a club owner in San Francisco, Martin comments, “She didn’t know much about show business, having once told a ventriloquist to move the dummy closer to the microphone.”

Fans of Martin’s comedy will likely enjoy learning the origin of numerous of his jokes, recurring characters, catchphrases, etc. I was struck by how familiar pretty much all of them were to me. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, since I watched him on TV dozens of times and listened to his three top-selling comedy albums over and over back then, but I felt like whenever he started describing some bit from his act in this book I could recite the rest of it after the first few words.

One rare exception is I didn’t remember (or more likely never knew) that for a time during his stand-up career he routinely took the audience outside with him at the end and carried on with mostly ad libbed antics on the street. That reminded me of Andy Kaufman doing things like that, like taking an entire audience out for milk and cookies after a show.

Actually I thought about Kaufman a lot while reading Born Standing Up. I’m surprised Martin doesn’t address him (I believe he mentions him in passing a grand total of once), as to me it’s natural to compare and contrast them.

Now that I think about that period in retrospect, a lot of Martin’s work seems like a watered down or milder version of Kaufman’s work. I don’t mean that necessarily as a criticism. Just as one could argue that Kaufman was considerably bolder, edgier, more innovative, etc. in his unconventionality, one could instead argue that Kaufman was excessive in what he was doing. Maybe Martin found just the right balance between traditional stand-up and the kind of self-conscious, postmodern comedy he and others worked out in that era, while Kaufman went off the deep end. Or maybe not; maybe Kaufman was the greater genius. As I say, you could argue it either way, while agreeing that Kaufman was even more “out there” than Martin.

But there was definitely something excitingly different about what Martin and Kaufman—and a few others—were experimenting with back then. Martin describes how the realization that he was drifting into new territory in comedy hit him very early in his career after a performance in San Francisco: “My act, having begun three years earlier as a conventional attempt to enter regular show business, was becoming a parody of comedy. I was an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one, and this embryonic notion drove me to work on other material in that vein.”

I don’t think David Foster Wallace ever wrote about Martin (or Kaufman), but this topic seems right up his alley. I think he saw David Letterman as more the quintessential postmodern comedian, doing comedy on a meta-level where he’s kind of observing and self-deprecatingly commenting on his comedy—and its pop culture context—while he’s doing it. I like Letterman, but I think Martin and Kaufman, especially Kaufman, did the self-parodying, convention-defying and expectation-shattering comedy thing earlier and to a much greater extreme than Letterman ever did. I’d like to have picked Wallace’s brain about that.

Martin’s oddball comedy and put-ons were consistently good-natured. Part of me loves Kaufman for his greater audaciousness, but there was also an element of that that always made me uncomfortable. It’s like he was perpetually playing practical jokes on his audience, his fellow performers, and to some extent even the people in his personal life, and there can be a cruelty to that.

Martin wanted you to be in on the joke, and made himself the target of the humor (in the tradition of pompous, naive but well-intentioned losers from Ralph Kramden to Super Dave Osborne); Kaufman often wanted the joke to be on others, on those he tricked.

Kaufman pushed the comedy envelope considerably more, but in a way that could be more hurtful.

It’s easy to see, though, why neither could keep doing what they were doing indefinitely. A conventional comedian can do basically his same act for decades, just working in new jokes as needed to keep it fresh. Bob Hope could be Bob Hope for his whole career and remain successful. Johnny Carson, Rodney Dangerfield, etc.—same thing. But postmodern comedians like Martin and Kaufman are under pressure to keep increasing the outrageousness, to satisfy the “What’s this lunatic going to do next?” expectation.

So when Martin walked away from stand-up after only a few years at the top (though considerably more years before that in relative obscurity), yeah, some of it was because he was tired of the constant traveling and because he wanted to try his hand at other challenges like movies, and so on, but as he explains it was also a matter of feeling unable to further escalate his routine: “In 1981 my act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction.”

Surely that was even more true of Kaufman’s more extreme antics. I’m not one of those who thinks there’s more than a minute fraction of one percent chance that he faked his death, but God how perfect that would have been. The ultimate escalation, the ultimate put-on, that positions him such that he’s never expected or pressured to top it because he’s gone.

Born Standing Up is focused on Martin’s career—or really just a certain portion of it—but there is also material about his personal life during these years, including his steady girlfriends when he was young (which included the daughter of Hollywood blacklist victim Dalton Trumbo—what little I’ve read of Trumbo over the years, including in this book, gives me the impression of a highly interesting, and mostly admirable, man).

Martin had an unhappy childhood in some ways. Not in some extreme way, like abject poverty, sexual abuse, whatever, but just a certain lack of warm and supportive family relationships.

The main culprit seems to have been his father. It sounds like Martin has more favorable memories of the family environment of his very early years, but then something gradually hardened in his father and he became more and more of a cold, uncommunicative, unreasonable brute as Martin got older. Part of it may have been a bitterness over the realization that his own dreams would never be achieved.

Those dreams were dreams of show business success, the very kind of success his son ultimately achieved. Rather than take pride in his son’s accomplishments, Martin’s father ignored them or dismissed them, even writing a highly negative review of The Jerk in his real estate newsletter.

Meanwhile it sounds like his mother was kind of the meek type who disappointed Martin with her inability or unwillingness to do anything about his father’s increasingly emotionally abusive behavior. Later when Martin became famous she was more excited for him and apt to praise him than was his father, but she had no real clue what he was doing or why people liked it so much. She knew that he was successful and liked how that increased her social standing in her circle of women friends, but that’s about it.

The family relationships were so unsatisfying that Martin largely alienated himself from them. As he grew up, he had less and less to do with his parents, and with his sister for that matter, and sought to get his emotional needs met outside the home.

That part worked out very well. He has almost all good things to say about his non-family experiences as a youth and as a young man, especially anything having to do with his developing interest in being a performer. His early jobs (starting with selling guide books at Disneyland as a 10 year old), his exposure to the hobby of conjuring, his early mentors, certainly his first opportunities to appear on a stage and entertain an audience (at Disneyland, then at Knott’s Berry Farm) are all wonderful, happy memories.

He never really made his peace with his dismal family life though, never was content to walk away from it. To varying degrees it always troubled him and he always hoped it would one day change. And in time, there were some changes, some reconciliations. I won’t describe them in detail, but I suspect some of what he says about his relationship with his family in his later years are among the main things that compelled reviewers to remark how touching, moving, tender, beautiful, etc. Born Standing Up is.

But, again, the book is mostly about his stand-up career.

Among the things that struck me about the stand-up is how much harder it is to become “known” than people think. Even after Martin had been on daytime talk shows (Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, etc.) dozens of times, even after he had done The Tonight Show—seemingly the pinnacle of exposure for a stand-up comic—it really wasn’t much if at all easier for him to get work than a year or two earlier, he wasn’t getting rich, and he certainly wasn’t being recognized on the street. Really you have to perform on The Tonight Show ten or twelve times for those changes to start to happen. Strangers still might not know your name, but at least there’s that flicker of recognition from some of them when you are out in public.

But of course once Martin hit it big, he really hit it big, bigger than any previous stand-up comic.

His description of that time at the top—that fairly brief time—is compelling. Obviously it had plenty of positives, but it was a kind of success that “changed everything” as they say, probably more than most people would think, and many of those changes were for the worse.

It was one of those things where when you change the magnitude of something, you change the nature of it. Now that he was performing in stadiums for tens of thousands of people, he wasn’t doing the same comedy he would have been doing if he were still working clubs or even small TV studio audiences. It was a very different situation.

For one thing, there were impediments to generating new material. He couldn’t test out and refine new bits in relative obscurity on the road. Everything he was doing was in front of a gargantuan audience. For that matter, there was less incentive to develop new material. Now that he was a phenomenon, a large portion of the audience was there to see the “old favorites” in person, much like a band is expected to play their hit records over and over for the rest of their career.

He couldn’t work the crowd, control the crowd; there were just too many people. They stepped all over the timing of his jokes with their hooting and hollering and rock concert behavior. He couldn’t have clever exchanges with members of the audience or zing hecklers, as he was faced with an enormous mob rather than identifiable individuals.

At an important level, people weren’t there to really see and pay attention to his act; they were there because it was an event. It’s like the Beatles commenting on playing Shea Stadium and huge venues like that: The quality of their music sucked compared to what they were capable of, as they couldn’t even hear themselves think, let alone hear what they were playing. But people didn’t care, because it wasn’t the quality of the music that mattered to them in being there.

There were the usual drawbacks of being routinely recognized in public. People expected him to share their joy when they saw him on the highway and leaned out of their car window to scream, “Hey! Hey! The wild and crazy guy!” or whatever, or to fulfill all their photo and autograph requests when they saw him dining in a restaurant. They expected him to be funny on demand.

It’s not like it was a living hell; he also acknowledges all the ways success made his life better. But it soon became more unpleasant and stressful than not.

He didn’t immediately quit when it became unpleasant like that, as he wanted to stick it out for as long as he could while such massive amounts of money were available to be made, since surely such availability would only be temporary. But it’s no surprise that he eventually walked away from stand-up before his popularity had dipped more than modestly, especially since he had movies and other things he wanted to do in his career.

Born Standing Up is really not the best book if you want to know what life is like on the road for touring comedians. It has value in that regard, but it’s limited because his stand-up career was atypical for a couple of reasons. One, most of his career was before comedy clubs exploded around the country. There weren’t that many cities where he could perform, and the places he did perform were often clubs that featured primarily folk singers and such and only infrequently comedians, and then later he played college campuses. But in those years he did not perform that often in the kind of comedy clubs that are now ubiquitous.

Two, once he was big, he was so big that his experiences only overlapped with a comparative handful of fellow comedians, the few others who could fill stadiums rather than little clubs.

If you’re really interested in funny (occasionally suspenseful and dangerous, occasionally emotionally touching) stories of life on the road on the comedy club circuit, I’d recommend I Killed!, edited by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, over Born Standing Up. But needless to say if you’re interested in learning more about Steve Martin specifically, Born Standing Up is the way to go.

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