Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Wild and Crazy Guy

Steve Martin's Born Standing Up is not the memoir I expected it to be. Its not even an autobiography. Rather, Martin makes it clear that this is a biography, because it details the life of somebody he used to know - Steve Martin, the stand-up comedian.

The book details Martin's long apprenticeship in comedy, as he goes from performing in a magic shop at Disneyland in grade school, to performing at dinner theaters, small night clubs, headlining small night clubs, opening for bigger acts, and finally becoming a headliner in his own right. The anecdotes of day-to-day life as a working comedian are entertaining, but what's most interesting is the way that Martin, while still in college, decided to become an avant garde comedian, even if, at the time, he didn't really know what it meant to be avant garde. He just decided that he didn't want to be like everybody else, then set out to make himself different, even if that meant a fifteen year process of trial and error.

Originally, Martin gave himself until his thirtieth birthday to make a success of himself in comedy. When his thirtiest birthday arrived, he almost gave up performing for a more conventional career. But he had already appeared on the Tonight Show a few times, and he decided to stick it out. When one of his subsequent appearances on the Tonight Show, in which he did a speeded-up impression of a Vegas night lounge singer ("Frank Sinatra personal friend of mine Sammy Davis Jr. personal friend of mine Steve Martin I'm a personal friend of mine too and now a little dancin'"), the cameras caught Johnny Carson in the background, doubled over in laughter. A shot of Johnny Carson in hysterics was the best endorsement a comedian could get in 1974, and it elevated Martin's career to new heights. Before long, he was playing the Nassau Coliseum and other 20,000 seat-plus venues; venues so large that fans in the back row could not see the balloon animals and sight gags that were such a beloved part of Martin's show.

By 1978, he was booked solid for the next two years, and his punchlines had become so popular that the fans would shout them out at his live shows like Springsteen fans singing along to "The River." Unfortunately for Martin, sing-alongs work better at stadium rock shows than they do for stand-up comedy. He was so popular, and so beloved, that people would laugh in anticipation of his jokes, so that Martin couldn't tell if he was actually being funny, or if fans were just laughing at the memories of his previous performances. He checked into a hospital after having a panic attack, and a nurse asked him to sign his EKG. People he had known for years asked him for autographs. People would laugh when he asked what time a movie started, or ordered food at a restaurant. In 1981, Martin walked away from stand-up comedy, and hasn't gone back.

By the time I was old enough to be conscious of stand-up comedy, Martin had long since retired. Its easy to forget that, before he made L.A. Story and Parenthood, let along Cheaper by the Donzen and Sgt. Bilo, Martin was the most popular stand-up comedian of all-time, and that his stand-up album A Wild and Crazy Guy once reached the mind-blowing position of #2 on the Billboard charts. Martin has made a lot of terrible movies in the past 28 years, but he's still one of my favorite funny people, with his occasional Saturday Night Live and Academy Award hosting gigs, well-written comic novels and New Yorker pieces, and his universal high regard as a renaissance man - he's widely read in philosophy and is one of the most distinguished private art collectors in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote that, after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, he wanted to talk to Steve Martin, because he knew that Martin would have something insightful to say about them. We see more of the learned, philosophical Martin in Born Standing Up than we do of the Martin who once routinely filled the Nassau Coliseum, but its still a funny, engaging book, and a must-read for anybody with a serious interest in comedy.

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