Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, by Steve Martin
If I had been in college in the late 70s as opposed to in grade school, I would have been a Steve Martin fanatic. As it was, as a 10 year old, 11 year old – his fame and importance trickled down to my level … There was enough in his adolescent humor that would appeal to a child – but there was a sophistication there as well that made me feel that he was really for grown-ups. There was a danger to him. He seemed smart, but in a way that sometimes seemed off-putting … he didn’t chat with his audience, he didn’t do casual banter … he was on some other plane. Yet he was also the biggest goofball on the planet, skipping around giant stages with an arrow through his head playing a banjo. He was truly riveting. I had heard of him, of course. Everyone had heard of him. But it was like he came from out of nowhere back then. A new show called Saturday Night Live had aired … and sometimes I was allowed up that late to see it … and sometimes this crazy guy hosted it and he would wear an arrow through his head. Or he would play the banjo. Or make balloon animals. I didn’t understand him. But I didn’t need to understand him. If I had been in college, like I said, I would have understood him on a deeper level – the true anarchy (and yet laser-sharp specificity) of his brand of humor … but as a kid, I understood anarchy. I understood how hilarious this guy was. He seemed like an emissary from another dimension. There was an element to his humor that made it seem like he was making fun of the audience. Or, was it just that some of it was beyond me so it came off that way? And what the HELL WAS GOING ON WITH THAT ARROW? He was a big big deal, and even though I, as a child in Toughskins riding my bicycle to the corner store, was not his target audience – his fame reached me.
In the next couple of years would come The Jerk (an old favorite of mine), and other movies – but I always liked his standup best … and now with Youtube, you can watch some of that concert footage. Uhm …. Steve? It is truly bizarre. Surreal art at its height. With a slapstick undertone. His humor is truly his own. Yes, he references Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor – the giant standups at the time … but he has added his own damn thing here … It stands alone. And please watch his body language. Mixed with that startling white suit … the body language comes off as genuinely odd. (And watch what he does with his hands from about the 1:01 mark to the 1:05 mark). It is a great mistake to think that Steve Martin was “just” being a “wild and crazy guy”. No, he wasn’t. Everything was planned. Everything. And what he does with his hands there, a variation on the larger theme, is hysterical … He is taking the big crazy movements and penning them up in a tiny bottle, so they come out small and squashed. So while the overall impression here is one of insanity, and “anything goes” … at the bottom of it is a meticulous planning spirit. He knows exactly what he is doing in every single moment he is on that stage.
I’m not sure that I got that about him, when I was little. I remember seeing him on The Tonight Show, on roller skates, doing his “King Tut” number and it was so damn funny, I loved him so much, and the “King Tut” song became a favorite in the grade-school set, featured in many a talent show in the Multi-Purpose Room … after all, the whole “King Tut” thing was a cultural event like a bomb going off in my generation. At least that’s how I remember it. Suddenly, everything was about ancient Egypt. Steve Martin’s number tapped into that universal consciousness, and made fun of it, sure – but also honored it. He wasn’t really a cynical presence … not really … I found cynicism scary when I was little. It seemed threatening. There was very little (read: zero) contempt in his humor … which also set him apart from some of his contemporaries. But boy was he subversive. I couldn’t tell what he was actually doing half the time – his process was opaque – HE HIMSELF was opaque in his act – it was not confessional, or even observational humor … it was something else altogether. Like Salvador Dali.
Perspective would come later. But at the time, as a little kid, all I knew was that there was this new guy named Steve Martin and he seemed to be everywhere. I “got” it, but I didn’t get it. He didn’t scare the shit out of me like Richard Pryor did – appreciation for Pryor would come later, when I could handle it … but Martin was daunting, in a way. In the late 70s, I was 11 years old, on the cusp of being a teenager, on the cusp of being part of that larger culture … and I would get a whiff of things from “over there” … on the side of grown-up land … things I wasn’t “ready” for yet, but that were almost in my grasp. Steve Martin, in his white suit, with a balloon wrapped around his head, seemed to be the gatekeeper.
Years passed. The white-hot flame of the Steve Martin phenomenon faded a bit, and he started making movies. Many of them were good. Some were not so good. It was hard to remember, at times, that once upon a time this man was playing packed stadiums, dancing around in a pharoah’s turban. It was in the past. I never thought to myself, “I wonder why he doesn’t do standup anymore.” It never even occurred to me, which is odd – in retrospect – because those are the kinds of things that always occur to me. It’s not like I forgot. It just receded into the distant past and I accepted this new movie-star Steve Martin, and went to see his movies, and laughed, and recited lines afterwards, and that seemed to be that.
Later, much later, Steve Martin started writing novels. I was curious. I loved his witty intellectual pieces of satire in The New Yorker, and loved him, in general. So I picked up Shopgirl – a novella – and read it in a couple of hours. I cried as I read it. My review of the book is here. I wouldn’t change a word of it. I recognized myself in it. I felt embarrassed, like Steve Martin had seen too much. I cherish such books. I wrote in my review:
The way it is written is what is unconventional about it. The “voice” of the book (and that whole “voice” concept will come up again and again in the book – you’ll even see it in the excerpt below) struck me right away. This is not a casual in-the-moment voice. Of course not. It’s Steve Martin. Steve Martin’s genius had to do with his distance from things – hard to explain (but he does a great job of it in his memoir). He is not in the thick-and-thin of life … he stands slightly to the side. That’s what the voice of this delicate little book sounds like. I loved the voice. It is (not to give anything more away) completely omniscient – which might seen a bit heavy-handed for such a tiny little love story. But Martin uses it very consciously. It is how the story NEEDS to be told. I love the sound of the book. There are times in the thick-and-thin of life, the unfairness of events, the up and down of fortune … when I also yearn for an omniscient voice.
And it occurs to me that what I have been trying to describe in Steve Martin’s standup is a certain brand of omniscience. He is not sharing himself, he does not say, “A funny thing happened to me today …” He stands back, way way way back, and circles above the earth, and at that perspective – not just some things are absurd, but everything is absurd. Yet in Shopgirl, he takes that omniscient perspective and pours it into a deeply compassionate heartfelt little story about a lonely depressed girl who is released into life through her love affair with an older vaguely cold man. The omniscient voice was off-putting for the first couple of pages of the story, but then I realized its purpose. Omniscience does not mean just mean “All-Knowing” or distant. It can mean perceptive. It can mean seeing the bigger picture. Sometimes life, in its mucky-muck, its struggles, can lose a sense of omniscience, of purpose. And it is love, at times, that creates a sense of omniscience. Of being seen, of being known – not just in our everyday selves, but in our spirit, our essence. That is what the book is about. It is shatteringly moving. Martin writes:
Saturday night usually offers a spontaneous get-together with the other Habitat workers in a nearby bar. If that doesn’t happen, which this night it doesn’t, Mirabelle is not afraid to go to a local bar alone, which this night she does, where she might run into someone she knows or nurse a drink and listen to the local band. As she sits in a booth and checks the amplifiers for Jeremy’s signature stencil, it never occurs to Mirabelle to observe herself, and thus she is spared the image of a shy girl sitting alone in a bar on Saturday night. A girl who is willing to give every ounce of herself to someone, who could never betray her lover, who never suspects maliciousness of anyone, and whose sexuality sleeps in her, waiting to be stirred. She never feels sorry for herself, except when the overpowering chemistry of depression inundates her and leaves her helpless. She moved from Vermont hoping to begin her life, and now she is stranded in the vast openness of L.A. She keeps working to make connections, but the pile of near misses is starting to overwhelm her. What Mirabelle needs is some omniscient voice to illuminate and spotlight her, and to inform everyone that this one has value, this one over here, the one sitting in the bar by herself, and then to find her counterpart and bring him to her.
So, as always, Steve Martin knew exactly what he was doing when he “chose” the voice in which to tell Shopgirl. He chose an omniscient voice because that was what Mirabelle needed. Not omniscient as in distant – but omniscient as in knowing and seeing. The couple of times I have been loved, and truly loved, by a man … it has seemed to me as though he had some omniscient understanding of me, my character, my hopes, my dreams … He saw me when I could not see myself. He kept my dreams, my hopes in HIS mind … because I had a tendency to forget. And so I could look to him and remember: Oh yes. THAT is who I am. He knows. This is a great power to give to someone (although, in the moment, it never feels like you are giving anyone power – it feels like they just HAVE that power … and perhaps the experience is a mixture of the two) … and in Shopgirl Martin tells a story where the power that omniscience gives someone can be dangerous … and Mirabelle, fragile already, is shattered. To be seen and released by love after such a long dormant period … and then to have it not come to full fruition … Martin really really gets how devastating that situation is. He does not make it melodramatic. He does not dwell on Mirabelle’s tear-soaked face. With almost cold elegant prose, he details what Mirabelle does, who she is … and who Ray is and who Jeremy is … and by the end of the book, I felt like I had been put through the wringer, but also that I had a deeper understanding of my own dangerous response to love, to an omniscient eye … and the book also told me, gently, It’ll be okay … just hang in there … breathe … it’ll be okay …
Steve Martin knocked my socks off with Shopgirl. I guess I had never seen that side of him. He always seemed like a kind man, although a bit distant … he never seemed self-destructive or self-involved … but to write a book with that level of compassion and sensitivity and insight … Wow.
He has also said that the Ray character (the one he ended up playing in the lovely movie of his book) is really the closest he has ever come to playing himself. Which is truly illuminating. Ray is cold, cut off, and yet, like most of us, wants human companionship. He wants it on his terms. He sees the lovely delicate girl behind the glove counter and begins to court her. She is way too young for him, but at a certain level of life, what does that matter? Ray is wealthy. Mirabelle is a failed artist who is a shopgirl and lives in a tiny apartment. It’s not that he showers her with gifts, a la Pretty Woman. This is not a Cinderella story. He quietly insinuates himself into her life, but without ever seeming like a user, or creepy. He sees something in her. His interest in her is genuine. He has no intention of going the long haul with her, but for the time being, she is a nice companion. Mirabelle is in hiding. She is lost. Quiet, narrow, uptight. There is damage there, somewhere. Ray can’t see it at first. By the time he does see it, it is too late. Mirabelle has been shattered by their love affair.
To see Martin in this role is to realize how limiting some of his film work has been. Seeing him in Disney-sponsored pater familias parts just never really worked for me (although I did like him in Parenthood – because there was an underbelly of anxiety and anger in that guy … it seemed to fit with Martin’s energy) … I think Shopgirl is some of his best acting work. You’ve never seen such a Steve Martin. He’s humorless, but not totally cold. He looks at Mirabelle, and he has enough distance from her (which ends up being the downfall) that he can see her, he can be that omniscient voice. But omniscience comes with responsibility … Bah, I’m making the book sound preachy and drippy. It is not at all. It is a short spare volume of character development, quiet fragments, and perfect details. I am so admiring of him as a writer.
So I was beyond excited last year when Martin came out with a memoir of his time as a standup called Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. The book would not focus on his entire life, or his whole time on this planet. It would hone in on what happened to him in the 70s that put him into the pantheon, one of the most successful stand-up comics of all time – someone who, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not go the regular route. He was strictly underground. He has said that his success was more “rock and roll” than “comedic” … meaning: he did not play the regular club circuit endlessly, he did not take a traditional route. His superstardom came like a meteor from outer space, but it was his own creation. Like grunge bands playing tiny clubs in Seattle and suddenly finding themselves playing Giants Stadium. That is not normally how a comic becomes famous, but that was what happened to Steve Martin. How?? Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life describes how.
It was, hands down, my favorite book I read last year.
Steve Martin details, step by intellectual step, the development of his style. It was not organic for him, ever. He was someone who had a lot of interests, who was incredibly geeky, but who wasn’t really good at anything. He is quite honest about that. He wasn’t really funny, he wasn’t the best actor … but he was fortunate enough, very early on, to find some mentors who basically fostered his geeky interests … and so Steve Martin percolated. Over the years. As a child, his family moved right down the street from Disneyland – and it was that that changed his whole life. He got a job at the Magic Shop on Main Street, and so began his intense training in magic tricks. He was a teenager, behind the counter, entertaining tourists with magic tricks, and honing his craft.
He watched professional magicians, memorizing their moves. Most of the stuff he did early on, he stole. He lifted people’s entire acts from them wholesale and recreated them, not realizing how bad that really is. He was just trying to learn. He started getting gigs – at local veterans’ associations and the like … and he would do magic. He kept copious meticulous notes (which he recreates in facsimile in his book) – he knew when something didn’t work, so he would make note of it, to correct it the next time.
Leave out unncessary jokes, change patter for sq. circle, relax, don’t shake.
I find these things, replete with misspellings, in shaky teenage-boy handwriting, very moving. He knew he was working on something, but he just wasn’t sure what yet.
Martin writes in the book:
But there was a problem. At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.
He was obsessed with things, and he didn’t know why. He was obsessed with the banjo (he couldn’t play, although he practiced like crazy), he was obsessed with magic, he was obsessed with balloon animals, he was obsessed with language … It’s an amazing book because you can see how everything he did later on was 100% deliberate. He didn’t think, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I played the banjo?” He played the banjo because he had been obsessed with the banjo since he was 10 years old. Everything – everything – went into what would eventually become his act. But that was years in the making.
He got jobs in summer stock which was great for building confidence. He started mixing comedy in with magic … but he realized instantly what worked and what didn’t. He was like a mad scientist, or an alchemist, hovering over a bubbling cauldron. If I throw THIS in, will it work? Nothing was accidental. Everything was there for a purpose.
The book is fascinating – one of the best I have read about what is usually called the creative process. Everyone is different, and everyone has a mind that works in its own way … so this is Steve Martin’s excavation of his own mind, and how disparate elements came together … slowly, adding this in, taking that out … until he not only “broke through” – but shot upwards, into the stratosphere of entertainment. His shows grew. He had an underground following, strictly bootleg. Kind of like Metallica’s early years, when their fame grew by the passing around of cassette tapes – because they weren’t getting any radio play. Amazing. Johnny Carson took notice. He had him on The Tonight Show. And that was that. No turning back. Carson was unbelievably generous with up-and-coming comics and appearing on The Tonight Show was evidence that you had arrived. Steve Martin never was out of character. He did not sit and banter. He glowered, sneered, broke into hysterical silent laughter, danced like crazy – jiggling his body this way and that – always in his immaculate white suit which truly made him look like an escapee from a lunatic asylum. Someone who had once been a banker who tripped off the rails. He was like no one else. Lorne Michaels took notice. By that point, Martin was playing stadiums. It frightened him. The crowds were too big. He remembered the one night he was told 3,000 people were out there. He was like, “What?” Used to playing small clubs, he didn’t know how his act would survive in such a huge arena. Then he was on the cover of Rolling Stone.
And the next time he asked someone, “How many people are out there tonight” he heard the unreal answer come back, “22,000.”
Martin’s breakdown of how he made it work, how he adjusted his act to fit the circumstances – all are a great tribute to his intellect, his smarts, his perseverance. He acted SO INSANE yet there he was buttoned-up in a suit like a Jehovah’s Witness on your doorstep.
I cut my hair, shaved my beard, and put on a suit. I stripped the act of all political references, which I felt was an act of defiance. To politics I was saying, “I’ll get along without you very well. It’s time to be funny.” Overnight, I was no longer at the tail end of an old movement but at the front end of a new one. Instead of looking like another freak with a crazy act, I now looked like a visitor from the straight world who had gone seriously awry.
One of my favorite tidbits of information is about the famous white suit and how that came to be.
I worried about being seen at such distances – this was a small comedy act. For visibility, I bought a white suit to wear onstage. I was conflicted because the white suit had already been used by entertainers, including John Lennon. I was afraid it might seem derivative, but I stayed with it for practical reasons, and it didn’t seem to matter to the audience or critics. The suit was made of gabardine, which always stayed fresh and flowed smoothly with my body. It got noticed in the press because it was three-piece, which appeared to be a symbol of conservatism, but I really wore the vest so my shirt would stay tucked in my pants.
Amazing. A practical choice, made to solve a problem (he needed to be visible on the stage in those giant stadiums) turned into an iconic looking-glass image of the counterculture.
Steve Martin, at the height of his standup fame, walked away. He has never looked back. Time and place, perhaps. He knew to throw in the towel when people would HOWL with despair, rather than overstay his welcome. That took guts. His is not a normal talent, it is not an ingratiating talent. It is his and his alone. He loved the audiences, yes, the energy in those arenas had to be amazing (you can feel it in the clips of concert footage) … but eventually the energy came to be too much, he felt that his act started becoming “automatic” and that was death to him. He needed to shake things up again, walk away, and see what else was out there.
Here’s an excerpt. This is from his years in college. Watch how methodical Martin is here, showing us the step by step process of his obsessions, and how that developed his mind and his ideas about what he thought was funny. He is the most intellectual of comics.
Best book of 2007.
EXCERPT FROM Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, by Steve Martin
I continued to attend Long Beach State College, taking Stormie-inspired courses in metaphysics, ethics, and logic. New and exhilarating words such as “epistemology”, “ontology”, “pragmatism” and “existentialism” – words whose definitions alone were stimulating – swirled through my head and reconfigured my thinking. One semester I was taking Philosophy of Language, Continual Rationalism (whatever that is; what, Descartes?), History of Ethics, and to complete the group, Self-Defense, which I found especially humiliating when, one afternoon in class, I was nearly beaten up by a girl wearing boxing gloves. A course in music appreciation focused me on classical music, causing me to miss the pop music o my own era, so I got into the Beatles several years late. I was fixated on studying, and even though I kept my outside jobs, my drive for learning led to a significant improvement from my dismal high school grade average. I was now an A student. I switched to cotton pants called peggers, because I had vowed to grow up and abandon jeans. My look was strictly wholesome Baptist.
A friend lent me some comedy records. There were three by Nichols and May, several by Lenny Bruce, and one by Tom Lehrer, the great song parodist. Mike Nichols and Elaine May recorded without an audience, and I fixated on every nuance. Their comedy was sometimes created by only a subtle vocal shift: “Tell me Dr. Schweitzer, what is this reverence for life?” Lenny Bruce, on the records I heard, was doing mostly nonpolitical bits that were hilarious. Warden at a prison riot: “We’re giving in to your demands, men! Except the vibrators!” Tom Lehrer influenced me with one bizarre joke: “My brother Henry was a nonconformist. To show you what a noncomformist he was, he spelled his name H-E-N-3-R-Y.” Some people fall asleep at night listening to music; I fell asleep to Lenny, Tom and Mike and Elaine. These albums broke ground and led me to a Darwinian discovery: Comedy could evolve.
On campus I experienced two moments of illumination, both appropriately occurring in the bright sun. Now comfortable with indulging in overthinking, I was walking across the quad when a thought came to me, one that was nearly devastating. To implement the new concept called originality that I had been first introduced to in Showmanship for Magicians, and was now presenting itself again in my classes in literature, poetry, and philosophy, I would have to write everything in the act myself. Any line or idea with even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance had to be expunged. There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.
This realization mortified me. I did not know how to write comedy – at all. But I did know I would have to drop some of my best one-liners, all pilfered from gag books and other people’s routines, and consequently lose ten minutes from my already strained act. Worse, I would lose another prime gag I had lifted, Carl Ballantine’s never-fail Appearing Dove, which had been appropriated by almost every comic magician under the age of twenty. Ballantine would blow up a paper bag and announce that he was going to produce a dove. “Come out flyin’!” he would say. Then he would pop the bag with his hands, and an anemic flutter of feathers would poof out from the sack. The thought of losing all this material was depressing. After several years of working up my weak twenty minutes, I was now starting from almost zero.
I came up with several schemes for developing material. “I laugh in life,” I thought, “so why not observe what it is that makes me laugh?” And if I did spot something that was funny, I decided not to just describe it as happening to someone else, but to translate it into the first person, so it was happening to me. A guy didn’t walk into a bar, I did. I didn’t want it to appear that others were nuts; I wanted it to appear that I was nuts.
Another method was to idly and abstractedly dream up bits. Sitting in a science class, I stared at the periodic table of the elements that hung behind the professor. That weekend I went onstage at the Ice House and announced, “And now I would like to do a dramatic reading of the periodic table of the elements. Fe … Au … He …” I said. That bit didn’t last long.
In logic class, I opened my textbook – the last place I was expecting to find comic inspiration – and was startled to find that Lewis Carroll, the supremely witty author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was also a logician. He wrote logic textbooks and included argument forms based on the syllogism, normally presented in logic books this way:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
But Carroll’s were more convoluted, and they struck me as funny in a new way:
1. Babies are illogical.
2. Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile.
3. Illogical persons are despised.
Therefore, babies cannot manage crocodiles.
1. No interesting poems are unpopular among people of real taste.
2. No modern poetry is free from affectation.
3. All your poems on the subject of soap bubbles.
4. No affected poetry is popular among people of taste.
5. Only a modern poem would be on the subject of soap bubbles.
Therefore, all your poems are uninteresting.
These word games bothered and intrigued me. Appearing to be silly nonsense, on examination they were absolutely logical – yet they were still funny. The comedy doors opened wide, and Lewis Carroll’s clever fancies from the nineteenth century expanded my notion of what comedy could be. I began closing my show by announcing, “I’m not going home tonight; I’m going to Bananaland, a place where only two things are true, only two things: One, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green.” Not at Lewis Carroll’s level, but the line worked for my contemporaries, and I loved implying that the one thing I believed in was a contradiction.
I also was enamored of the rhythmic poetry of e.e. cummings, and a tantalizing quote from one of his recorded lectures stayed in my head. When asked why he became a poet, he said, “Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” The line, with its intriguing reference to comedy, was enigmatic, and it took me ten years to work out its meaning.