Born Standing Up, Steve Martin

Scribner, 2007, 209 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4165-5364-9

There’s an admirable purity in stand-up comedy, which remains one of the most direct art form out there: a guy with a microphone, making a crowd react by the sheer power of his words alone. Jokes are easy, but comedy is hard and it takes a long time to learn how to do it well.

That’s the best reason to read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, an autobiography that tackles Martin’s career from his days as a Disneyland employee to the point when he decided to quit stand-up in favor of film comedy. Nowadays, Steve Martin has a very different reputation than he had at the end of the seventies: His movie career has degenerated in easy safe self-parody (CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN? BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE? THE PINK PANTHER?), while his work on projects such as Shopgirl has earned him serious literary accolades.

But by the end of the seventies, Martin was one of the best-known stand-up comics in America, presenting to sold-out arenas. He held top billing for only a few years, but it took decades to get there: Born Standing Up tells how it happened, following Martin through small acting jobs, early stand-up gigs and how he gradually developed his style of comedy.

Martin has earned accolade for his writing projects, and Born Standing Up is a fine example of his skill as a writer. The book is short and breezy to read, even when tackling the earlier years that are less interesting to audiences than Martin’s stand-up success. He chooses to end the book by a heartfelt chapter talking about his relationship with his parents. (Though I doubt it, there may be a second volume in the works: Martin chooses to focus this book on comedy, and it seldom mention the events of the past twenty-five years, and practically ignores his movie work after THE JERK.)

Students of comedy will be pleased by the material in this book. (Though poor students of comedy will have already read the essay in The New Yorker that reprints almost all of the book’s best chapter.) We get a sense of the life of a would-be comedian as he learns how to deal with the crowd, chooses a comedy style that runs counter to people’s expectations and becomes better-known through various jobs and occupations, from live theater to scripted television, Johnny Carson appearances to Saturday Night Live (which gets less of a mention than you’d expect.)

As a memoir, it’s what we would expect from “a Steve Martin autobiography”: it’s frank, it’s detailed, it’s revealing and it gives a good idea of the life he’s lived. Those who missed Martin’s stand-up years may want to hit YouTube and experience a number of his routines for themselves, just so to put everything else in a proper context. Humor theorists will get a kick out of Martin’s self-conscious attempts to undermine the very idea of stand-up comedy by disregarding the expectations of the crowd –a trick that, in good hands, leads to even more laughter through audience desperation when faced with non sequitur.

This being said, people with tighter budgets and fainter affection for Martin may want to check this book at the library, or wait for the paperback: at barely more than two hundred airy pages (albeit with numerous pictures), it feels overpriced at nearly C$29, especially for those who have read the New Yorker article, which contains most of what readers will remember from the book. Readers who skip biography chapters until the person becomes successful (a group I’m always tempted to join) may not find all that much meat here; neither will those who expect a tell-all airing of dirty laundry. Particularly picky readers will bemoan the lack of an index.

But there’s still a kick to Born Standing Up, especially if you want an inside look at the live of a touring comedian, and the dues that have to be paid before mastering the craft. Because, in the end, it’s still one guy with a microphone and a few carefully-chosen words versus a crowd of people who expect a good time.

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