Born Standing Up, By Steve Martin

It seems that you shouldn't judge a book by its author

When a famous person takes the unusual step of actually writing their own autobiography, there is a tendency for critics to be so overwhelmed with surprise that they overburden the resulting volume with praise. In the case of Steve Martin's exquisitely pithy and precise memoir of his life as a stand-up comedian, however, the over-familiar accolade "beautifully written" really is the only one that does the job.

Firstly, because this slim and elegant volume abounds with phrases that make the reader (well, this one anyway) purr with pleasure. These range from the relatively straightforward – sardonic reminiscences of the distant father who "had evidently saved his vibrant personality for use outside the family", or fonder memories of the first proper girlfriend (the excellently named Stormie Sherk, later a celebrated evangelist) who was "filled with an engaging spirit that was not yet holy" – to the downright lyrical. Martin's description of Disneyland opening in Anaheim, California "on a day so sweltering the asphalt on main street was as soft as a yoga mat" nails this historic event with poetic finality.

Beneath and beyond Born Standing Up's linguistic acuity, the precision and economy of its overall construction are even more impressive. Anyone who saw Martin's recent film Shopgirl (adapted from his own novella) will have feared that his huge comic talent was lost forever in the mire of the male mid-life crisis. But this book makes the same implausibly direct reconnection with exactly what a great artist was thinking and feeling when he was at his most creative that Bob Dylan achieved with Chronicles Vol 1.

The mood of invigorating candour is set from the opening paragraphs. Having briskly laid down the parameters of his 18-year stand-up career (ten years spent "learning", four more "refining", and another four in "wild success"), Martin makes an extraordinary confession. "Enjoyment while performing was rare," he notes; "enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford."

This provides some clue as to why, having conquered previously unscaled peaks of popularity (by 1981, he was performing selections from his multi-million selling album to audiences of tens of thousands on a nightly basis), Martin swapped the live stage for the cinema. He wanted to have some fun.

Growing up in the sunshine state, the young Steve Martin always harboured a secret sense of superiority over those of his peers who had suntans because "it meant they weren't working". From a gruelling apprenticeship selling Disneyland guide-books (begun at the tender age of 10) through teenage years spent painstakingly learning magic tricks, the perspiration part of the showbiz equation was never a problem for him. But it's the clarity with which he depicts the moments at which inspiration entered the picture that makes Born Standing Up the most complete and honest account of the evolution of an individual comic persona that I have ever read.

For many comedians, describing the nuts and bolts business of how they make people laugh might fairly be described as the last taboo. Even some of the most daring performers are suddenly overcome with reticence when the time comes to discuss the origins and mechanics of their technical and stylistic prowess.

But Martin dives in where iconoclasts fear to tread. His account of his own creative breakthrough is mesmerising in its directness. Having observed the ritualised nature of the punch-line – the fact that if a comedian was sufficiently talented and had a sympathetic audience, it didn't have to be audible, let alone funny – he began to wonder what would happen if you simply left out the handshake that sealed the deal.

What if he "created tension and never released it... what would the audience do with all that tension?" The correctness of his hypothesis – that they would "eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation" – is soon being demonstrated in front of audiences of 45,000 people. At this point, "the laughs, rather than being the result of spontaneous combustion, now seemed to roll in like waves created far out at sea", and Martin bailed out and headed for Hollywood. I hope he'll write a similarly insightful and fascinating book about what happened next.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine