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Born Standing Up

I got the new Steve Martin book for the holidays and finished reading it last Sunday. I wanted to write about it, but not as a review. This is just my thoughts on a very important little book.

It is called Born Standing Up, but it should be called How To Be a Successful Comedian. Well, maybe not, because it is so specific to Steve. How To Be Steve Martin? Nah, I like the title as it is.

The point is, Steve wrote a great book about the artistic process. It is a memoir, but even the childhood stuff (dealt with in a perfunctory manner in other autobiographies I’ve read) is fascinating and well-written. The most relevant parts to me, however, and the parts that Steve seemed to stress the most, were how and why he created his stand up act, and how that was greeted by the public.

He was constantly performing. Even when he had a more conventional job (relatively speaking) as a television writer, he was refining his own material. I liked that he wrote specifically what ideas went into his act. I’m kind of amazed he could even pinpoint the moments of discovery. The funniest part is that, even after having these epiphanies, no one else seemed to notice. He would say something like, “I made this huge change in my act, but it would take eight more years for it to come to fruition.” That kind of determination is incredible, almost insane. You have to be pretty crazy to chase an idea for that long without any assurance it will be worth it.

The other thing I found interesting was how Steve really wanted to be a performer, not necessarily a comic. He started out as a magician, then added a little banjo playing, then added comedy as a way to extend the act. It was an organic process, not about demographics or marketing. As a result, he was flat broke for a long time. When he did hit, he was capable and ready because of the foundation he had built up to that time. It was the realization that his act essentially froze when he became famous that made him turn away from stand up. After all the years of experimentation, he must have felt hemmed in by playing the same jokes to huge masses of people night after night.

It was a happy surprise to read such a lucid, introspective account of this part of Steve Martin’s life.