Friday, October 29, 2010

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Steve Martin's autobiography is one of my rare forays into nonfiction. Although Martin says that "in a sense this is not an autobiography, but a biography because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream." Born Standing Up is an incredible memoir of Martin's journey from doing magic tricks with a bit of humorous patter for the Cub Scouts to playing to audiences of 25, 000 and more. He gives us an authentic, honest look at the hard work and difficult decisions he made over those years. He shows us that stand-up comedy is lonely life and a difficult way to make a living. To be good, you have to play to an awful lot of half-empty houses, learning what works and doesn't work and how to make things work better. What I like best about the book is that Martin never name-drops....even after he reaches the years when he became famous every mention of Johnny Carson to Dan Ackroyd to Richard Pryor is in there with a purpose and that purpose isn't to say "look at all the famous people I rubbed elbows with."

Martin has a background in English classics and philosophy and it shows. He writes well. His prose is spare and direct and like a great punch line delivers the goods at just the right moments. Without meaning to, I think he portrays a great sense of the loss he felt at being isolated from his family and friends (while on the road in his early years of stand-up) and his nostalgia for some of the most surprising places. In fact his story begins with nostalgia when he leaves his first steady job at Disney Land's magic shop:

My final day at the magic shop, I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the stor was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch.

And comes full circle when, after the success of his last years in stand-up and early ventures into movies, he returns to Knott's Berry Farm (site of his earliest comedy routine work) to stand on the empty stage of the Bird Cage theater:

I stood on the empty stage and looked out at the empty theater and was overcome by the feeling of today being pressed into yesterday. I didn't realize how much this place had meant to me.

Driving home along the Santa Ana freeway, I was still unnerved. I asked myself what it was that had made this place capable of inducing in me such a powerful nostalgic shock. The answer floated clearly into my consciousness as though I had asked the question of a Magic 8-Ball: I wanted to be there again, if only for a day, indulging in high spirits and high jinks, before I turned professional, before comedy became serious.

He tells his story in an engaging manner that takes the reader along with him on his ride to success. We see him at his lowest points--when he thinks he's never going to make it and just might have to what his dad kept telling him...find something else to fall back on. Then we go with him as he rides to fame. The reader never feels like a voyeur who is peeking in on Martin's life--rather we see things from his point of view without the baggage of ego. Overall, an engaging, interesting and, to be expected from a comic, sometimes humorous autobiography. Four stars out of five.

No comments: