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
The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z!
The Pleasure of My Company
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
I DID STAND-UP COMEDY for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.
My decade is the seventies, with several years extending on either side. Though my general recall of the period is precise, my memory of specific shows is faint. I stood onstage, blinded by lights, looking into blackness, which made every place the same. Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet. The audience necessarily remained a thing unseen except for a few front rows, where one sourpuss could send me into panic and desperation. The comedian’s slang for a successful show is “I murdered them,” which I’m sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you.
Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern “Is this funny?” Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be. I suppose these worries keep the mind sharp and the senses active. I can remember instantly retiming a punch line to fit around the crash of a dropped glass of wine, or raising my voice to cover a patron’s ill-timed sneeze, seemingly microseconds before the interruption happened.
I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented—I didn’t sing, dance, or act—though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now. A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life—which inevitably touches upon my personal life—and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away.
In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.