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Born standing up : a comic's life
2007
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Born Standing Up Beforehand I DID STAND-UP COMEDY for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare--enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego's last stand. My decade is the seventies, with several years extending on either side. Though my general recall of the period is precise, my memory of specific shows is faint. I stood onstage, blinded by lights, looking into blackness, which made every place the same. Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don't laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet. The audience necessarily remained a thing unseen except for a few front rows, where one sourpuss could send me into panic and desperation. The comedian's slang for a successful show is "I murdered them," which I'm sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you. Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy's enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern "Is this funny?" Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be. I suppose these worries keep the mind sharp and the senses active. I can remember instantly retiming a punch line to fit around the crash of a dropped glass of wine, or raising my voice to cover a patron's ill-timed sneeze, seemingly microseconds before the interruption happened. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented--I didn't sing, dance, or act--though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now. A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life--which inevitably touches upon my personal life--and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away. In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, 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, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years. Excerpted from Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

Steve Martin documents his evolution as a comic. IN his often engaging new memoir, "Born Standing Up," Steve Martin recalls an encounter in 1967, at a nightclub in Aspen, with his first serious heckler. "See if you think this is funny," the man said, throwing a glass of red wine at him. The incident feels especially shocking because by this point in the book, almost halfway through, the reader is so sympathetic to Martin - the guy slaved for years analyzing comedians on television, studying them in clubs, torturing himself to deliver something radically new, all the while waiting for even the tiniest recognition - that you take the heckler's assault personally. This ability to draw people to his side is one of the reasons Martin became a star, especially in movies: he makes you root for him without ever seeming to ask. In between laughs, there is a sweetness mixed with something wistful that places him just on the outside and makes you do the reaching. That quality is in much of his writing, too, and there are sections of "Born Standing Up" to be savored. Born in Waco, Tex., Martin was the younger child of Mary Lee and Glenn Martin. The family moved to Hollywood in 1950, when Martin was 5, so his father could pursue an acting career. "In our house," Martin writes, "my mother was called Mama, but my father was always called Glenn." You know right off the bat that Glenn is trouble. His show business career never materializes, and he grows increasingly moody and disaffected, bullying his wife, son and daughter, Melinda. Martin got himself out of the house and over to Disneyland, on his bicycle, where at 10 he was hired to sell guidebooks. He also learned magic tricks, juggling and how to play the banjo, becoming a one-man entertainment conglomerate. His account of his years at Disneyland - he worked in its warehouse and magic shop, and haunted its Frontierland theater - is superb, embodying all the excitement and gratification not only of a budding artist who has found an outlet but of a lonely child who has found a home. He details his stations of the performing cross, starting at the Bird Cage Theater at Knott's Berry Farm in 1963, then going on to write for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and the Sonny and Cher show. Along the way, he plays clubs big and small and tours, tours, tours. Martin's greatest strength is documenting his evolution as a stand-up comic: how he developed his act, what worked, what didn't and why. And he makes you feel the wear of the road. "I learned a lesson," he writes. "It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances." It isn't until the last 20 pages that Martin puts his finger on the essential element the book is missing: emotional candor. "I admit that I'm a lousy interview," he writes. "My magician's instincts make me reluctant to tell 'em how it's done, whether it's a movie, book, play or any aspect of personal life. Sometimes a journalist will lean in and say, 'You're very private.' And I mentally respond, 'Someone who's private would not be doing an interview on television.'" Someone who's private would not be writing a memoir, either. People who write memoirs have a story to tell about themselves. People who read memoirs are looking for a story in which to find themselves. Martin willingly recounts some of the more hurtful episodes in his relationship with a competitive, often meanspirited father, but offers no context, insight or fallout, as if just telling were enough. After Martin first appeared on "Saturday Night Live," Glenn, who had become a real estate agent, wrote a bad review of him in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president: "His performance did nothing to further his career." Later, he told a newspaper, "I think 'Saturday Night Live' is the most horrible thing on television." Martin writes, "I suppressed anything I felt about his comments because I couldn't let him have power over my work." Um, really? Glenn's self-loathing, jealousy and rage - not to mention lack of talent - helped turn his wildly talented, emotionally wounded son into a world-famous comedian. But Martin can't make that connection. "As my career progressed, I noticed that my father remained uncomplimentary toward my comedy, and what I did about it still makes sense to me: I never discussed my work with him again." I actually interviewed Martin for The New York Times in 1995, and the man does not lie; he was a lousy interview, indeed. But you know what? That was my problem, not his. He chose to reveal what he wanted, and it was up to me to fill in the blanks. This time around that responsibility is his, and he simply refuses to do it. Maybe it's unreasonable to expect that someone who rocketed to fame wearing an arrow through his head is capable of or interested in deep introspection. But after the publication of his novella "Shopgirl," with its devastatingly accurate depictions of depression, rejection and loneliness - and for a female character, no less - well, those expectations from Martin as a writer are not only reasonable, but mandatory. As any comedian knows: "When you slip on a banana peel, it's comedy. When I slip on a banana peel, it's tragedy." In between those two extremes lies the expression of all the fear, hope, joy, desperation, enlightenment and heartache of living with people who are supposed to love you. More, please. Alex Witchel is a staff writer at The Times Magazine. Her second novel, "The Spare Wife," will be published in February.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Martin recounts his tense childhood, his desire to become a magician and his segue into standup comedy in his surprisingly serious and eloquently written memoir. Martin's memories are perceptive and emotionally honest even though he confesses early on that while writing this book, he felt some events in his life "seemed to happen to someone else and I often felt like a curious onlooker." Martin's writing is spare, concise and evocative, and he's a smooth and limber reader, an assured and relaxed, seasoned raconteur. Martin runs through some of his classic comedy routines to give listeners an idea of how they developed into his "anti-comedy" sets (humor without punch lines). "Enjoyment while performing was rare," he reveals. "Enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford." After 18 years of studying, refining and finally succeeding, Martin ends the book when he gives up the solitary standup life in favor of a collaborative life making films. Martin also provides the banjo music that plays between chapters. Simultaneous release with the Scribner hardcover (reviewed online). (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Summary
In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of "why I did stand-up and why I walked away."Emmy and Grammy Award winner, author of the acclaimedNew York TimesbestsellersShopgirlandThe Pleasure of My Company, and a regular contributor toThe New Yorker, Martin has always been awriter. His memoir of his years in stand-up is candid, spectacularly amusing, and beautifully written.At age ten Martin started his career at Disneyland, selling guidebooks in the newly opened theme park. In the decade that followed, he worked in the Disney magic shop and the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm, performing his first magic/comedy act a dozen times a week. The story of these years, during which he practiced and honed his craft, is moving and revelatory. The dedication to excellence and innovation is formed at an astonishingly early age and never wavers or wanes.Martin illuminates the sacrifice, discipline, and originality that made him an icon and informs his work to this day. To be this good, to perform so frequently, was isolating and lonely. It took Martin decades to reconnect with his parents and sister, and he tells that story with great tenderness. Martin also paints a portrait of his times -- the era of free love and protests against the war in Vietnam, the heady irreverence ofThe Smothers Brothers Comedy Hourin the late sixties, and the transformative new voice ofSaturday Night Livein the seventies.Throughout the text, Martin has placed photographs, many never seen before.Born Standing Upis a superb testament to the sheer tenacity, focus, and daring of one of the greatest and most iconoclastic comedians of all time.
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