Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

  • Author: Steve Martin

  • Published: September, 2008


Born Standing Up, a memoir by Steve Martin about his illustrious stand-up career, which he abruptly walked away from in 1981 at the peak of his blockbuster success, is a triumph. 

Wisely succinct yet brimming with acute and poignant anecdotes, Martin draws the reader in with an irresistible frankness. I read the entire book during a lazy afternoon with my daughter, and felt like I had spent an intimate day with one of show business’s most versatile and unique talents.

It’s tempting to use terms like meteoric and spectacular when describing his career, but this would shortchange his doggedness and tireless work ethic. As Steve puts it himself on the opening page, “I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” 

His introduction to the business was as humble as you can get. As a 10 year old selling park guides at Disneyland, Martin gravitated towards the park’s Merlin Magic Shop, where he became enamored with magic tricks, slights of hand and corny one-liners. His frequent presence at the store led to a job as an assistant sales clerk, and eventually head salesman. As he he puts it, “My weekends and holidays were now spent in long hours at Disneyland, made possible by lax child labor laws and my high school, which assigned no homework.” At the store he would engage small groups of kids and parents to demonstrate tricks for them. His first audiences.

Steve was an apt pupil and soon had a modest magic act that he would perform for cub scout troops and Rotary clubs. “Later in life, I wondered why the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club, comprised of grown men, would hire a fifteen-year old boy magician to entertain at their dinners. Only one answer makes sense: out of the goodness of their hearts.

Soon, the realization began to dawn that the audience almost preferred when the tricks backfired, forcing Steve to improv and exaggerate his ineptness. Eventually he would relegate magic into just a small portion of his show, and chose to embrace the title of comedian. But the magician’s props, flair for the dramatic and ability to surprise became hallmarks of his comedy, and served him well throughout his career.

His friends and budding career as a performer acted as an escape from the dreary home life he endured. His Father, a man with show business aspirations buried beneath an icy detachment and a career in real estate, seemed to resent the son living out his fantasy. Martin never cues the violins, but he makes it clear that his father’s physical punishments and brusque demeanor made for an unhappy home. “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.

At 18 he hit the road and didn’t look back. He’d perform for anyone and anywhere he could, building an eclectic array of talents, including banjo playing, juggling, physical comedy etc. After years of touring, and much needed writing work on TV shows like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Sonny and Cher, he hit upon an epiphany:

What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for climax, but all I delivered was 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 punchline, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.

Thus the anti-comedian was born. Steve became the most unaware, grandiose performer ever to take the stage. He acted as though what he was doing was so brilliant (despite being so dumb) that it could only be the audience’s fault if they didn’t appreciate it. An approach like this takes a heavy set of balls, and the patience of a monk - blessedly Steve had both, and he plied his trade for years to many bewildered stares and stinging reviews. Eventually, fueled by his unwavering confidence, the shows became an exercise in such assured absurdity, that it was almost a dare not to laugh. And once the damn broke, the audience was along for the ride, and he became a sensation.

Memorable stints hosting Saturday Night Live, appearances on The Tonight Show, movie deals and millions of albums sold all followed in rapid succession. He became the hottest comedian ever to tour, and played to sold out crowds at stadiums across the country. But with his newfound riches and celebrity, came the darker side of fame - the loss of privacy, the isolation, the backlash. 

Feeling as there was nowhere left to go but sideways or down, Steve writes eloquently about his decision to walk away from the stage. He moves into a career in film and writing, followed by a reconnection with his family, and the burying of old wounds. One can’t help but be moved as he describes saying goodbye to his parents on their respective deathbeds. A touching pair of passages that linger on long after his story is told.

Born Standing Up never dabbles in exaggeration or self-indulgence. It is the work of a man at peace with his decisions, and with enough wit and timing to know when to move things along, and when to savor the moment. Quite simply, it is the story of man’s life written by an expert storyteller. Steve never tries to fully analyze the appeal of his comedy, after all to do so would violate the magician’s code. Rather he takes you along for the ride as he strides across the stage, a lovable and clueless colossus, working very hard, but never showing it.