"How come you're not funny anymore?" It has got to be the most devastating comment ever launched at Steve Martin (by the cringeworthy Dennis Pennis) as he glad-handed outside a premiere in Cannes. Well, on page 164 of Martin's utterly honest, entertaining (and, yes, funny) autobiography, he tells us exactly why he would never be funnier than his 1975 performances at the Exit/In club in Nashville.
In Born Standing Up, Martin charts his life from his west Texas beginnings to his retirement from stand-up comedy after filling 45,000-seater venues in the early Eighties.
His fascination with comedy started from watching old-time pros at close hand, being taught magic tricks and cowboy rope work at Disneyland and learning to play the banjo in his car with all the windows closed. This being the mid-Sixties, he soon joined the counterculture movement and ingested prodigious quantities of marijuana before a three-day anxiety attack forced his abstinence from drugs.
Having studied logic and philosophy at college, Martin quickly realised that his act was only ever going to be derivative unless he concentrated on two things: complete originality and dropping the repetitive format of set up and punch line. It was this approach that first marked Martin out for great things – one stunt that first got him noticed was his habit of getting the audience to follow him out of the venue. Sometimes they watched as he left in a cab, sometimes he took them across the street to watch another comic. On one occasion, he took the audience into a nearby McDonald's and ordered 300 burgers to go. Eventually, the endless touring and incessant invention finally coalesced and shot Martin into the comedy stratosphere. Inevitably, the larger shows became simply "greatest-hits" performances, not opportunities to expand his material. This aspect of his career is dealt with quite perfunctorily here. Far more of the book is spent detailing what drove Martin to stretch the boundaries of his comedy, as it made unflappable progress towards the silver screen. After he had adapted his unique comedy persona into his 1979 film, The Jerk, Martin never returned to stand-up comedy.
Throughout Born Standing Up, Martin never loses his focus, whether it's talking about his relationships, parental acceptance or what makes him tick. Not many people could get away with the phrase "existentially exhausted" or describe rolling their act "up a hill like Sisyphus". Wild, yes. Crazy? Never.
Stan Broadwell, Community psychiatric nurse, Bristol
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