- Craig Graziano
In Born Standing Up, Steve Martin looks back at his comedy career in a way that few artists are able to do. He not only has succeeded in his craft, he also has the luxury of being able to step back from the act and make sense of just what it was all about.
In the 1970's and 80's, Martin attained a kind of success usually reserved for rock stars. He filled up arenas and released number one albums, but Martin is quick to point out that this was no overnight sensation. He spent his youth trying to break into the entertainment business by working at Disneyland and writing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
If you see or listen to Martin's act now, it can be hard to explain why he got so popular. Several of his routines approach dense, heady subjects such as philosophy and linguistics. Sometimes it appeared that Martin was a kid, and comedy was his own personal science experiment.
"What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation."
What clicked with the masses was combining these ideas with pure silliness. He peppered his intellectually lofty subjects with visual gags such as an arrow through the head, unrecognizable balloon animals, or a dance explosion of happy feet.
Even with his prematurely gray hair and suit, Martin came across as youthful and vibrant. Offering counterculture ideas in a less radical package, he found a way to bridge the generation gap and become rich and famous doing it.
Martin stopped performing stand-up at the height of his fame. It would have been terrible if he had left performing, but Martin simply wished to try new things, moving his focus to films and writing. That desire to grow and change has benefitted us all.
I will give you fair warning that this book is not aiming at laughs. Martin is at a comfortable place in his life where he doesn't feel the need to constantly be on. If you want to read something funny by him, try Cruel Shoes or Pure Drivel. Honestly, I enjoyed reading his more serious novellas such as Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company more. You also have the wonderful choice of listening to Martin himself in the audiobook version of his works.
Born Standing Up invites you inside the head of one of most significant and introspective comedians of the twentieth century, even if he couldn't get a blue spotlight.