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Monday, November 21, 2011

(Audio)Book Talk: *Born Standing Up*, by Steve Martin

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
Steve Martin (Twitter)
read by the author
Scribner (2008), Paperback (ISBN 1416553657 / 9781416553656) (audio edition ISBN 0743569725 / 9780743569729)
Memoir, 208 pages
Source: purchased audiobook (Audible.com)
Reason for reading: Personal
Book description, from the publisher’s website: In the midseventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of "why I did stand-up and why I walked away." 
Emmy and Grammy Award winner, author of the acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Martin has always been a writer. His memoir of his years in stand-up is candid, spectacularly amusing, and beautifully written, illuminating the sacrifice, discipline, and originality that made him an icon and inform his work to this day. Martin also paints a portrait of his times -- the era of free love and protests against the war in Vietnam, the heady irreverence of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late sixties, and the transformative new voice of Saturday Night Live in the seventies.
Comments: Despite the popular catchphrase associated with him during the peak of his stand-up comedy career in the late ‘70s, it turns out that Steve Martin never was much of a “a wild and crazy guy” after all. He actually took being funny very seriously, although until he wrote this book, he hadn’t taken a serious look back at that part of his professional life since he stopped doing it on stage every night.

As the book description says, Martin “exploded” onto the comedy scene, but he hardly came out of nowhere. He’d been working toward it ever since he got his first job at Disneyland during junior high, collecting jokes and developing a magic act. By the time he started college (as a philosophy major, eventually), he’d moved on to the company at the Birdcage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm. After a few years, he left the theme parks and most of the magic tricks behind, taking his increasingly offbeat comedy to bars and clubs by night while writing sketches for popular comedy/variety shows during the day, until he quit the TV work at 28 and gave himself till the age of 30 to make a living as a stand-up comic. He made the deadline.

I was in high school during Steve Martin’s heyday...and I remember not finding him as funny I thought I was supposed to. After revisiting his comedy in Born Standing Up, I’m pretty sure I was just too young to get it at the time, because the bits he quotes in the book cracked me up. I was fascinated to see how it developed, and now able to appreciate just how groundbreaking it was--surreal and subversive and non-topical, fearless, simultaneously brilliant and stupid. Martin approached it with professionalism and craftsmanship, evolving as an artist; in his arc, I saw some broad similarities to Patti Smith’s artistic evolution as recounted in her memoir Just Kids (which I reviewed for Shelf Awareness, but haven’t posted here yet), although it’s possible that I inferred those similarities partly because I listened to both books on audio, read by their authors.

By his own admission, Steve Martin is a very private person, and it makes sense that he’d focus a memoir on his work--and just a portion of it. at that--than on the more personal stuff of his life. But he did some pretty interesting and memorable work, which I appreciate more now than I did before I read this--and I got the sense that, in writing about it, he may have come to appreciate it better himself. I enjoyed his narration of the audio, and the transitional banjo music between chapters that he wrote and performed himself (a replacement for the photos in the print edition); while he may never be as famous for his work subsequent to stand-up, he’s been pretty successful as a bluegrass musician and author. It turns out he makes an excellent subject for a book, too.

Rating: 4/5 for both book and audio performance