Born Standing Up, By Steve Martin
It seems that you shouldn't judge a book by its author
Sunday 27 January 2008
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.
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