Many comedians have written memoirs, but few have risked much in the effort. It’s all too easy to package a stage routine into a book, slap on a grinning front-cover portrait and a catchy one-word title (Seinlanguage, Fatherhood) and hope nobody remembers hearing the same funny stories on The Tonight Show last year.
But Steve Martin has never taken the easy way out, and his latest offering will be held to high literary standards by readers who have enjoyed his previous books. These include a collection of Dadaist prose pieces (“Cruel Shoes”), a brainy play (“Picasso at the Lapin Agile”), and, more recently, a wan love story (“Shopgirl”) involving a mild-tempered and wealthy adult rather like himself. Having taken that last step toward personal revelation, Martin now dives completely into the memoir format with Born Standing Up, an autobiography that doubles as a dissertation on how to be funny in front of crowds.
The art of stand-up comedy is the specific focus of the book, which reveals its California-raised and Disneyland-trained author to be an incredible workaholic and a bit of a laugh-o-meter wonk. From his youngest days as an amateur magician he tirelessly studied and analyzed the way audiences reacted to his every move, and he kept careful notes after every performance to help him better calibrate the jokes for the next one. If you ever doubted that there was a method to Steve Martin’s madness, you will be convinced otherwise as he explains why a white suit is the best thing for a comedian to wear onstage, or finds himself suddenly stopped dead by the existential question of whether the comedy writers of the world will ever exhaust the supply of fresh material (he allows himself to resume his career only after realizing that “comedy is a distortion of what’s happening, and there will always be something happening”). His intellectual process is breathtaking to observe, and it’s no surprise at all when Martin cites the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rene Descartes as formative influences, along with a few more predictable choices like Red Skelton, Lenny Bruce, and Laurel and Hardy.
Born Standing Up offers a fascinating glimpse of an odd brain doing its work, as well as an enjoyable sweep through America’s pop culture past. As a teenager, Martin considered it a big step up when he left his Disneyland magician gig to perform with a comedy troupe at Knott’s Berry Farm, and then wandered north to San Francisco to play the beatnik bars. He developed his signature routines years before they became famous on Saturday Night Live, and perfected them while touring as an opening act for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or slumming with the guest hosts on The Tonight Show because Johnny Carson didn’t like his style.
Martin clearly feels more comfortable talking about his career than about his feelings, though he writes of a frustrating relationship with his failed-actor father who didn’t like anything he did until “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” in 1993. He suggests that panic attacks and chronic shyness have affected his career path, and describes moody moments of loneliness even as he is surrounded by beautiful women eager to love him. Martin also expresses some resentment toward his own career, especially after he shoots to fame in the late ‘70s and discovers that crowds no longer want him to surprise them, but instead want him to play “party host, presiding over a celebratory bash of my own making.” His act is built upon confounding audience expectations, but by the late ‘70s the stadium audiences just want him to deliver the familiar routines. He walks away from stand-up comedy after a bad show in 1981, and the book ends at that point.
Born Standing Up does not contain many jokes, though several comedy bits are analyzed as case studies. Martin’s sense of humor does peek through the solemn veneer at times, as when he describes a Summer of Love-era San Francisco cafe owner named Sylvia Fennell: “She didn’t know much about show business, having once told a ventriloquist to move the dummy closer to the microphone.”
Martin is a careful and precise writer, and at moments of inspiration he achieves a swanlike elegance as he glides through his life story. Readers may wish this book were thicker, but Steve Martin will never wear out an audience’s welcome. He risks something deeper here by trusting his audience to continue to love him even after he reveals how hard he has always worked to make them do so. They will. Like the timeless Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up is that rare thing, an autobiography by a comedian that improves the jokes by explaining them.