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Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life Paperback – September 2, 2008
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At age 10, Steve Martin got a job selling guidebooks at the newly opened Disneyland. In the decade that followed, he worked in Disney's magic shop, print shop, and theater, and developed his own magic/comedy act. By age 20, studying poetry and philosophy on the side, he was performing a dozen times a week, most often at the Disney rival, Knott's Berry Farm. Obsession is a substitute for talent, he has said, and Steve Martin's focus and daring--his sheer tenacity--are truly stunning. He writes about making the very tough decision to sacrifice everything not original in his act, and about lucking into a job writing for The Smothers Brothers Show. He writes about mentors, girlfriends, his complex relationship with his parents and sister, and about some of his great peers in comedy--Dan Ackroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carl Reiner, Johnny Carson. He writes about fear, anxiety and loneliness. And he writes about how he figured out what worked on stage.
This book is a memoir, but it is also an illuminating guidebook to stand-up from one of our two or three greatest comedians. Though Martin is reticent about his personal life, he is also stunningly deft, and manages to give readers a feeling of intimacy and candor. Illustrated throughout with black and white photographs collected by Martin, this book is instantly compelling visually and a spectacularly good read.
Three Bonus Deleted Passages from Steve Martin's Born Standing Up
On Returning to Disneyland
Ten years later, after the Beatles, drugs, and Vietnam had changed the entire tenor of American life, I returned to the magic shop at Disneyland and stood as a stranger. As I looked around the eerily familiar room another first came over me, a previously unknown emotion, one that was to have a curious force over me for the rest my life: the longing tug of nostalgia. Looking at the counter where I pitched Svengali Decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, I was awash with the recollection of indelible nights where the sky was blown open by fireworks and big band sounds drifted through trees strung with fairy lights. I remembered my youth, when every moment was crisply present, when heartbreak and joy replaced each other quickly, fully and without trauma. Even now when I visit Disneyland, I am steeped in melancholy, because a corporation has preserved my nostalgia impeccably. Every nail and screw is the same, and Disneyland looks as new now as it did then. The paint is fresh, and the only wear allowed is faux. In fact, only I have changed. In the dream-like world of childhood memories, so often vague and imprecise, Disneyland remains for me not only vivid in memory, but vivid in fact.
On Meeting Diane Hall
During the day, I attended Santa Ana Junior College, taking drama classes and pursuing an unexpected interest in English poetry from Donne to Eliot. I would occasionally assist on a college stage production--never appearing in one--as a member of the crew. Years later I was looking through a box of memorabilia and noticed a silk-screened playbill of the musical Carousel, May, 1964, which listed me as a stagehand. The lead actress was Diane Hall. Something connected and I remembered that Diane Keaton's name was once Hall, (hence, Annie Hall). I confirmed with her that she was in that production. Neither of us remembers meeting the other, yet we must have worked in proximity. More evidence that I was a wallflower. Decades later, we ended up "making love" on the floor of a movie set on Father of the Bride.
On the Kennedy Assassination
One Friday in 1963, I had finished a class and was about to drive to Knott's Berry Farm for the afternoon shows when I saw a clump of agitated students across the campus. I asked someone what was going on. "They're saying that the president's been shot."
I drove across town to Knott's and punched radio buttons. I could hear the scheduled programs clicking off and being replaced by live broadcasts. Assassination seemed so ancient and inconceivable, I was sure that someone would soon correct the erroneous report. President Kennedy died that day and I didn't know that news could be taken so personally by a nation. Sitting backstage, watching the Birdcage's black-and-white TV drone out the increasingly grave report, we were all mute. We assumed the performance that night would be canceled, but as show time neared, word came down that we were going on. We couldn't fathom why; we believed no one would show up, much less enjoy us. I still can't explain the psychology, why the very full house that night was able to roar with laughter. The obvious must be correct: our silly show was providing some kind of balm that soothed the ache.
In 2003 I hosted the Oscars on the particular weekend that the United States invaded Iraq. The news was grim and just hours before the show I flipped on the TV and saw a report, subsequently proven false, that our captive soldiers were being beheaded. I quickly turned the TV off, sick. I knew, from my experience forty years earlier with the Kennedy assassination, what my job was, and I harbored a secret knowledge that the audience would laugh. I also felt that soldiers who might be watching would be tuning in to see the Oscars and all its hoopla, not a cheerless comedian doing what he doesnt do best. I decided to acknowledge the circumstances early in the show and then get on with the jokes. The academy had announced that the show would "cut back on the glitz." I walked out for the opening monologue, took a look around the stage at the dazzling, swirling staircases, mirrored curtains and polished floor, and simply said, "I'm glad they cut back on the glitz." It got a laugh of relief and the show could go on.
More from Steve Martin
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Praise for Born Standing Up
"[A] lean, incisive new book about the trajectory of [Martin's] life in comedy...Born Standing Up does a sharp-witted job of breaking down the step-by-step process that brought Steve Martin from Disneyland, where he spent his version of a Dickensian childhood as a schoolboy employee, to both the pinnacle of stardom and the brink of disaster...tightly focused...Born Standing Up is a surprising book: smart, serious, heartfelt and confessional without being maudlin." --Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Absolutely magnificent. One of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written." --Jerry Seinfeld, GQ
"The writing is evocative, unflinching and cool. When Martin takes a scalpel to his life, what you feel is the precision of the surgeon more than the primal scream of the unanaesthetized patient...Born Standing Up is neither fanfare nor confession. It gives off a vibe of rigorous honesty. With lots of laughs." --Richard Corliss, Time Magazine
"A spare, unexpectedly resonant remembrance of things past Martin's one true subject is the evolution of his comedy--the transcendent moments...A smart, gentlemanly, modest book winning." --Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly, EW Pick: A
"A charming memoir tracking what the great comic characterizes as his 'war years.' Martin offers an eloquent and exacting account... [and] approaches his subjects with generosity, warmth and integrity." --Kirkus Reviews
"Sure to delight fans and create new ones." --Laura Mathews, Good Housekeeping
"What fun to discover the humble beginnings of some of his iconic personas...inspiring." --Rachel Rosenblit, Elle
"The archetypical story of the underdog's rise and a particularly American story...beautifully written, honest, engaging, and quietly brave." --Frederic Tuten, Bomb Magazine
"Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor." --Elvis Presley
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Neatly combining his personal and professional worlds, beloved comedian, filmmaker, author, magician and banjoist Martin (Pure Drivel) chronicles his life as a gifted young comedian in this evocative, heartfelt memoir, which proves less wild and crazy than wise and considerate-though no less funny for it. The typically reticent performer shares rarely disclosed memories of childhood-his father, a failed actor, harbored increasing anger toward his son through the years-and the anxiety attacks that plagued him for some two decades, along with his early success as a television comedy writer, first for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and the evolution of his stand-up routine. Sharp insight accompanies stories of his first adult gig (at an empty San Francisco coffee house), his pioneering "no punch lines" style ("My goal was to make the audience laugh but leave them unable to describe what it was that had made them laugh"), appearances on programs like The Steve Allen Show and breakthrough moments with small, confused audiences. Though vivid and entertaining throughout, Martin doesn't dish any behind-the-scenes dirt from Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show; rather, he's warm and generous toward everyone in his life, including girlfriends and colleagues. Tellingly, this intimate early career recap ends not with Martin's decision to give up live performance or his film debut The Jerk, but with a visit to his parents and Knott's Berry Bird Cage Farm, where he first performed as a teenager.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Top Customer Reviews
As the book continues, we learn all of his major stepping stones from Disneyland to the Bird Cage theater at Knotts Berry Farm, and so on. Martin traveled a winding road to stand-up success and is brutally honest about how much he had to learn for so long early in his career. Yet, with each step, you can see the progress as he figures out how to create his own unique comedy voice and make it work.
There are many things that could be said in favor of "Born Standing Up." From my perspective the most important are these two. First, I felt like I knew Steve Martin better when I finished reading than when I started. That may seem an obvious result of any biography but it can only be said if the author is genuinely candid. The second thing is that I both like and respect him more as a result. Not because he paints a perfect picture of himself, but because he is honest about his shortcomings and how he dealt with them. It was a true pleasure to spend this time in his company and I hope he writes a sequel someday covering the experiences of his movie career.
The book itself is a collections of stand-up memories and developmental notes on how Mr. Martin began his professional career as an onstage performer. It goes through a bit of the highs and low without going for the cheap "tell all" trash of sex, drugs, and back room deals that seems more like a low class ploy to sell books. What little there is of that in the book is quickly and quietly glossed over. He speaks of his career and gives his nuances on how he moved from an unknown to having more fame and less privacy. The professional reading is also punctuated with mini banjo solos.
He does not go much into his movies beyond "The Jerk." Most of his private life is still very much private, although he does go a bit into his relationship with his immediate family. There is not a lot of mentions of other famous people beyond a few tiny mentions here and there. It really is merely focusing on career development without throwing any of his past coworker under the proverbial bus.
For me, he came off as a hard-working professional with a lonely somewhat secluded life that makes me want to reach out and be his friend. However at the same time, it made me know that since his fame that he has erected a wall between his public persona and his private life. I do not see him as capable to have a friendship with the "common" folk anymore, as he will always be unable to trust anyone without expecting ulterior motive, which is a shame.
Martin's book brings the dark, but not so much the anger; more sadness. What he does a pretty good job of is showing that, while he landed by an accident of birth in a charmed place and time, he was plagued with the same dysfunctional family relationships as people whose lives are less charmed.
But what I found the most interesting is that he's somewhat candid about the conceit behind his most-lucrative period of "new comedy" -- that it was aimed at creating the impression that you had to be smart to understand it, that something important was being said that you needed desperately to be a part of, something that the yapping masses wanted to"be hip to," and that you didn't dare let on that you didn't find it funny for fear of letting people know how uncool you truly were. You had to get the inside joke, or pretend you did, to avoid being mocked. And in that sense, his comedy was actually a microcosm of much of the culture of the seventies, (and '80s) specifically -- phoniness, full-blown artifice. That's what Madison Avenue, when it co-opted the hippie culture, created; it morphed the sixties' culture into its polar opposite while retaining the superficial trappings.
What makes the book so great is not that his story is so unique or profound, but he's very good with how he tells the story. He makes it very poignant . If more writers were as honest, personal, and eloquent with words as he is in this book, more people would read.