Late in Steve Martin's memoir Born Standing Up, an interviewer asks Steve Martin about his reputation as a very private person. Martin adorably replies that if he truly were a private person, he wouldn't be on television talking about his reputation as a private person. Of course in today's shamelessly exhibitionistic pop-culture climate, anyone unwilling to fellate an ex-child star on basic cable while buried neck-deep in a vat of pig testicles in a desperate attempt to hold onto the limelight qualifies as a semi-recluse.
Where Albert Brooks and Woody Allen created comic personas that amplify and exaggerate their offstage personalities, Martin's finely honed stand-up image seemed designed to hide even the faintest hint of the man behind it. It was a mask Martin discarded the second he walked offstage. The wild and crazy guy with the arrow through his head might have looked an awful lot like the white-haired gentleman who collects art, pens droll pieces for The New Yorker and followed up The Jerk with Pennies From Heaven, but that's where the similarities end.
In Born Standing Up, Martin is torn between the impulse to confess and the need to conceal. The memoir promises a rare glimpse at the real Martin, the man behind the mischief, the penetrating comic mind behind the dazzling silliness. Though Martin remains guarded throughout, the book nevertheless delivers: like Robert McNamara in Fog Of War, Martin is willing to reveal himself, but only up to a very definite point. It's not quite a tell-all, but as a tell-some, it's fascinating and revelatory.
It helps that Martin is looking back at his distant past, at the man he used to be rather than the man he is today. It's almost as if he's writing about an entirely different person. Time and hindsight have a funny way of rendering pain abstract and intellectual instead of searing and personal. Born Standing Up is a memoir in the truest sense. Instead of telling the story of his life, Martin very specifically chronicles the evolution of his comic mind, how he became arguably the most popular stand-up comedian of all time and why he walked away at the height of his fame.
It's a serious, deeply sad, hauntingly lonely book about a legendary stand-up act that was goofy and childlike on the surface and a cerebral deconstruction of comedy underneath. The cover photo says it all. It's a grainy black and white image of Martin in his trademark white suit, adorned by a halo of bunny ears. Yet the look on Martin's face is one of grim concentration, almost Olympian focus. Like much of Martin's stand-up work, it's an absurd juxtaposition of the buttoned-down and gleefully absurd. The bunny ears belie the craftsmanship and fierce focus of an artist carefully calibrating every movement and word for maximum impact. Martin was an artisan masquerading as a goofball, a visionary comic pretending to be a giant spazz.
Martin was born a poor black child. No wait, that's his character in The Jerk. The real Martin (see how tricky it can be separating fact from fiction?) was born to a desperately unhappy failed actor turned real estate salesman and a mother who abandoned dreams of a glamorous existence for the security of being a mother and wife.
My esteemed colleague Keith found the family-melodrama aspects of Born Standing Up strained and arbitrary. I know this is probably going to cost me my job, but I respectfully disagree. What's that? No, stop pummeling me with your fists Keith! I'm sorry, I'm sorry! No! Not the whip of discipline! Anything but the whip of discipline! Colleagues should be able to disagree with each other without being whipped into submission!
Alright, now that that unpleasantness is over, we can return to the matter at hand. Martin writes that when his father died, his friends told him what a kind and caring man he had been. This shocked Martin, since he'd never know his father to be tender or caring. There's something quietly heartbreaking about a man finding out that his father saved his best self for people outside his immediate family. I'm tempted to over-use the word "quiet" in this column because it seems so deliciously apt. Born Standing Up is quietly moving, quietly funny, quietly revealing and ultimately quietly powerful. Perhaps that quiet is an antidote or a reaction to the clattering noisiness and abrasive din of Martin's latter-day vehicles (I'm looking at you, Bringing Down The House, Pink Panther and Cheaper By The Dozen).
Later, after the premiere of The Jerk, one of Martin's friends ask his dad what he thought of the movie. "He's no Charlie Chaplin" is his reply, an offhanded quip that poisonously undercuts everything Martin had worked so hard to achieve. It's an indirect way of saying, "So, you think you're somebody now that you've co-written and starred in a big Hollywood movie? Fuck you, you'll never be anyone to me."
Martin escaped the arctic chill and free-floating air of repression and abandoned dreams of his home life to work at Disneyland, first selling guidebooks as a fresh-faced whippersnapper and later demonstrating magic tricks at Merlin's Magic Shop. One of the things I love about Born Standing Up is how methodical it is in tracing every step of Martin's comic evolution. At Merlin's Magic Shop, Martin's comic education began in earnest as he soaked up the gags, routines and timing of the hams around him. He was a sponge, eager to listen and learn, a dedicated student of comedy.
Some people are born funny. Making people laugh is as natural to them as eating or breathing. They're always on. But Martin worked diligently at his craft, slowly but surely building not just an act but a revolutionary comic philosophy that deconstructed the fundamentals of stand-up and transformed them into something shockingly new and fresh. It wasn't enough to make people laugh; Martin made audiences think about why they were laughing.
Martin's stand-up persona–in idiot child in the body and clothes of a responsible adult–was at once a throwback to vaudeville and a secretly cerebral parody of show-biz phoniness. Though Martin seems to have been born a straight-looking square with a white suit and white hair, Born Standing Up makes it clear that he was very much a product of his times, a philosophy major who plied his trade in bohemian enclaves with names like Coffee and Confusion, smoked pot daily before a crippling panic attack caused him to stop permanently, dressed like a roadie for the Allman Brothers (one of my favorite jokes in the book is a picture of a long-haired, bearded Martin in full freak regalia with the caption "No Comment") and wrote for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour alongside writing partner Bob "Super Dave" Einstein, whose brother, Albert Brooks, was also in the process of deconstructing and reinventing stand-up.
In one of the books more intriguing passages, Martin writes that Dalton Trumbo, the father of one of his earliest serious girlfriends, "clasped a (joint) between his knuckles like a German officer in a movie. He didn't pass it along, just held it and puffed on it but did not inhale. With a broad grin (daughter) Mitzi leaned over to me and said 'Pop doesn't know how to smoke pot. He thinks you smoke it like a cigar, and he never gets high'". Trumbo was unsuccessfully smoking pot in an effort to cut down on his drinking. Some might see pot as the lesser of two evils, but I prefer to think of it as the greater of two awesomes. That's right. I am a thirty-two year old with the body of a 90-year-old and the maturity of a fifth grader.
Born Standing Up hauntingly captures the fundamental loneliness of being a stand-up comedian, the endless travel, the interchangeable motel rooms and the disorienting sense of suspended animation that comes with living for those forty minutes in the spotlight at the Chuckle Hut or Sir Laughsalot and shutting down the rest of the time.
There are epiphanies and triumphs along the way, like the legendary gig where Martin decided to take his entire audience to McDonald's after the show, ordered three hundred burgers, then changed his order to a small fry. All those years of struggle and toil eventually paid off and Martin becomes not just a success but a phenomenon. His fame trajectory looks a little something like this=not famous enough, not famous enough, sorta famous, famous, scary famous, disconcertingly, unfeasibly famous. He became a victim of his own success.
Like an oldies act hitting the state fair circuit, Martin performed before giant crowds expecting, no demanding, to hear the hits. Audiences would mouth Martin's signature bits while he performed them, like drunken concertgoers singing along to "Born In The USA" at a Bruce Springsteen show. Martin stopped being an artist and an innovator and became part of the machine, a one-man industry with roadies and tour managers and merchandising people all depending on him for their livelihoods. Then he walked away, never to return.
As a habitual over-writer, I treasure economy and elegance in other writers. Born Standing Up has economy and elegance up the wazoo. There isn't a wasted word or pointless digression in the entire book. It's spare, understatedly funny and absolutely essential for students of comedy. Here's my closing question for you, dear reader. Does the fact that Martin is still capable of greatness, of writing something tender and true (to borrow a particularly resonant phrase from Shopgirl, make his current cinematic hackdom more or less excusable?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably note that Born Standing Up was published by Scribner, the imprint of Simon & Schuster that's also publishing my memoir. I probably shouldn't talk about this, but I have heard from my industry spies that Martin and other Scribner authors like Stephen King and Don Delillo have been bragging throughout the cocktail party circuit about being published by the same house as me. Even worse, I hear that Scribner author F. Scott Fitzgerald has been boasting boorishly about his connection to me in the afterlife. That shit is just tacky, guys. Your books should live or die on their own merits (though I would be remiss in not pointing out that everything Scribner does is awesome), not because it has a weak link to a dashing literary supernova like myself.
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