Book Review: Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up”

steve martinIn 1981, when Steve Martin finally hung up his mike or whatever stand-ups do when they retire, he was if not bigger than Jesus, then certainly up there with some of the disciples. Playing to stadiums of 20,000 people, with platinum-selling records topping the charts and his face on the cover of Rolling Stone and Newsweek, he was the first comedian as Rock’n’Roll star, with an act honed over 18 years and thousands of gigs, a totally original mix of gags, physical shtik, rubbish magic and hardcore stupidity (think Tommy Cooper as performed by Robin Williams, or, as one critic put it at the time, “Disneyland on acid”).

At first glance, Steve Martin’s an unusual candidate for membership of the traumatised outsider/bullied-at-school Comedian’s Guild. He’s not Jewish, black, gay – hell, he’s not even that funny-looking (the slightly premature greying barely counts). And then there’s the name – Steve Martin, as if one bland first name wasn’t enough. But within twenty pages of “Born Standing Up”, his memoirs of his years as a live performer, any doubts about his psychological qualifications for Club Comedy are brusquely kicked off-stage: a terrifyingly dominant and volatile father who barely spoke to him; an early heart murmur which prompted a lifelong battle with extreme hypochondria; panic attacks which plagued him for two decades and included a phobia of night-time (quite a drawback, one would have thought, for a would-be stand-up). This guy was born to be a comedian.

Steve Martin began gigging in the ‘60s, not a decade usually associated with comedy. Flower children dabbling with drugs and making love not war do not a good comedy audience make. There were no dedicated comedy clubs and Martin had to try out his act in folk clubs or, on one occasion, a drive-in movie theatre where the cars were hooked up to the sound system through window speakers and the patrons honked if they found a joke funny. His first influences were old vaudeville acts (“I’m in the dark side of the cattle business.” “Do you rustle?” “Only when I wear taffeta shorts”), but slowly he sculpted his act into something completely ground-breaking and modern, the missing link between ‘50s vaudeville and alternative comedy.

What’s unusual about the book is the detail with which it charts this journey, like some manual for students of comedy: his fanatical pursuit of “originality” and “precision”, where every second, every gesture mattered; his conscious decision to be avant garde, to abandon the punchline, experiment, take risks (before he became stadium-big he would end his shows by taking the audience out onto the street and seeing where the comedy took him, marching them into MacDonalds or into another act’s show). His approach is obsessive. Even as a 15 year old starting out, he’d keep a diary recording how every joke had gone over (“Excellent!”, “Big Laugh”, “Quiet”) and suggesting improvements for the next gig. Every second was analysed, dissected, taped, played back in the quest for the Perfect Comedy Moment. To borrow from philosophy (his other big love), there’s a Nietzschean drive and compulsion to it all, a sort of unstoppable Will-to-Funniness.

The danger is nothing is quite as dull as a comedian talking about comedy (I should know. I am one). And there are certainly times when he makes you want to shout “lighten up, dude!” But it’s this very earnestness and almost masochistic self-analysis which makes the book so fascinating. When success finally came, it was massive and frightening.  He found himself cursed with the comedy equivalent of the midas touch, unable to say “hello” or “what time does the movie start?” without people falling about laughing. He fell into depression and after one particular panic attack had to be taken to hospital. As he lay on the trolley terrified that he was dying, a nurse asked him to autograph the printout of his erratic heartbeat. Celebrity noblesse oblige. He signed.

His mother had no such problems with his success, telling him at one point to get out of the car so she could watch the people staring at him as he walked down the street. He’s incredibly moving about her death and the death of his father, and you suspect that ultimately the book’s raison d’etre is to justify his career choice to them, especially to his estate agent dad whose response to his son’s breakthrough performance on Saturday Night Live was to write a damning review in the local real estate newsletter. It’s as if his whole career, that manic, obsessive toiling for perfection, was merely an attempt to get his dad to say “I love you” (which he finally does, if only in an awkward whisper). And that’s something anyone can relate to, not just students of comedy.

This review first appeared in The Sunday Times.

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