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
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot