BORN STANDING UP: A COMIC’S LIFE
By Steve Martin
Scribner, 207 pages, $25
… Enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. —Steve Martin
Being funny isn’t fun. At the height of his great success as a stand-up comedian (crowds of 45,000), Steve Martin suffered from depression, exhaustion and the loneliness of the road. In 1981, at the top of the roller coaster, he walked away, into the movies. And into writing for them, and for The New Yorker, among other things. He’s very good at it; he’s a pleasure to read. But this memoir, one suspects, is something of a magic act. As if Steve Martin had reached into his magician’s top hat and instead of a rabbit, pulled out “Steve Martin.”
“In a sense this book is not an autobiography, but a biography,” he tells us, “because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else.” Indeed, Mr. Martin used his own archives (he has a professional archivist) and interviewed old friends while writing, as if researching somebody else—a somebody who wouldn’t always talk to him. Born Standing Up isn’t a tell-all, it’s a tell-some, a controlled and elegant act of revelation. Now you see him. And then, when he doesn’t want you to, you don’t.
“Yes,” Mr. Martin would tell his audiences, “I am … a wild and craaazy guy.” Yet Mr. Martin was never wild and crazy, only “Steve Martin” was. He’s the visceral creation of a cerebral Geppetto. What looked like spontaneity onstage, we learn in this book, was the result of endless split-second calculation, constant self-spectatoring and accountlike after-the-fact analysis. Indeed, as a young magician, he kept “scrupulous records of how each gag played after my local shows for the Cub Scouts or Kiwanis Club.”
He begins his look back on “a humid Monday night in the summer of 1965” in San Francisco, when he was 20 years old, and from there doubles back to his childhood, introducing the people to whom this book is dedicated: his father (an actor manqué who harbored an irrational anger towards the son who closely resembled him), his mother (a clotheshorse who adored fashion) and his sister. “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian,” he writes, using humor to damp down distress.
His mother (called “Mama”) and father (called “Glenn,” even by his children) will remain in the background after the opening chapters, but resurface from time to time, just as they might in psychoanalysis. “When I moved out of the house at eighteen,” Mr. Martin writes, “I rarely called home to check up on my parents or tell them how I was doing. Why? The answer shocks me as I write it: I didn’t know I was supposed to.” Nonetheless, over time he reconciles and more, delighting his mother with his celebrity, if not talent. “He writes his own material,” she said in an interview. “I’m always telling him he needs a new writer.” His father, in turn, told a local newspaper that “Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.” Sour grapes, for sure. When he hit the big time, Mr. Martin hired his father as his realtor, and gave his mother a clothing allowance that made her “ecstatic.” Later, he will recount his last visit with each of them, so by the end of this memoir, his stand-up act is over, and his parents are dead, too.
HIS FIRST EXPOSURE to comedy was in the family car, listening to the radio, and in the family living room, watching television: Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Amos ’n’ Andy, Jack Benny, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton. At age 10, he had his first employment in showbiz—selling guidebooks at Disneyland—where he eventually landed his dream job: working in Merlin’s Magic Shop, where he put together an act. It was in the back of Merlin’s Magic Shop that he saw an Japanese postcard captioned “Happy Feet” (it showed the feet of a couple making love, one pair pointing up, one down), the name he would later give his marvelous nutty dancing. By then, physicality has become as important to him as cerebration.
Meanwhile, it was on to vaudeville, and teaching himself the banjo by “slowing down banjo records on my turntable and picking out the songs note by note,” and thence to college, where he studied philosophy and considered becoming an academic. At night in bed, he listened to comedy records: Nichols and May, Lenny Bruce, Tom Lehrer. And so Mr. Martin became a theoretical comedian. He discovered “that comedy could evolve.” His formal concepts included the notions of total originality, the premise that everything in the act happened to him, and the notion of being “avant-garde.”
“The act tightened,” he says. “It was true I couldn’t sing or dance, but singing funny and dancing funny were another matter.” In sum, he was a writer and choreographer working for an actor who played a comedian: “I was an entertainer who was playing an entertainer.”
Along with great success, for which he worked like a demon, love came calling here and there. Mr. Martin has only kind words (and the occasional wonderful description) for his attachments, holding merely a mild animus toward the late John Frankenheimer, who stole Mr. Martin’s delicious girlfriend Mitzi Trumbo—and, 20 years later, hit on his then-wife, the dishy Victoria Tennant. In the interim, Mr. Martin wrote for TV, did comedy on afternoon talk shows, and broke into the limelight via The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live.
The latter was a rare source of delight for him, as was working with the director Carl Reiner, with whom he made his first film, The Jerk (1979). “The world of movie making had changed me,” he writes. “Carl Reiner ran a joyful set.” At last.
If I were going to give someone this book, I’d be tempted to include a DVD of All of Me, the movie Mr. Martin made in 1984 with Lily Tomlin and Ms. Tennant, with Mr. Reiner directing. The concept is that Ms. Tomlin, a spoiled, whiny, and deceased heiress, has inhabited Mr. Martin’s body—exactly half of it. His physical comedy here is truly marvelous. At the film’s very end, he and Ms. Tomlin dance together to “All of Me,” and the sequence is as happy and romantic as anything you’ll ever see. It looks, of course, spontaneous. You cannot read this book and not wish for Steve Martin the same thing in real life: joy, and happy feet.
Nancy Dalva, senior writer at 2wice, reviews books regularly for The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.