Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (Steve Martin)

born_standing_upI do not know if my act holds up these many years later. It is not for me to decide or even think about. Sometimes I hear or see a piece of the old show, and it sounds funny; sometimes I don’t get it and can’t figure out what all the fuss was about. I did, however, in the course of writing this memoir, come across routines and ad libs, long forgotten, that made me smile, like this description of a radio show in Austin, Texas, in the seventies, remembered by the host Sonny Melendrez:

“Steve Martin came directly from a recording session to debut his Let’s Get Small album on my show. Before he left, he got very serious, and I truly thought we were seeing another side of him. He launched into a monologue of what seemed like sincere words of friendship. It took me by surprise, given the hour of silliness that had just taken place. ‘Could this be the real Steve Martin?’ I thought.”

“Sonny, you know, I’ve listened to you for years, and I really feel like you’ve become my friend. I feel like I can ask you this question.”

“Sure, Steve, you can ask me anything.”

“What time is it?”

–Born Standing Up (Steve Martin), 2007 Copyright

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Again, I was just going to the supermarket and seeing the sight of the old, pre-owned books stock up in shelves, I could not resist checking it out; wishing I could find a gold among the titles. I did. And found this book:

BORN STANDING UP a comic’s life STEVE MARTIN

I bought it for only P90. And this book is a gold mine.

Steve Martin clarifies that this book 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…”

This memoir is dedicated by the author to his parents and his sister, Melinda. So expecting that he would also be talking about his father, mother, and sister in this memoir, what I did not expect were the serious, unexpected revelations and later in the end a bittersweet story that Steve Martin shared regarding his family, particularly that of his father:

My father seemed to have a mysterious and growing anger toward me. He was increasingly volatile, and eventually, in my teen years, he fell into enraged silences. I knew that money issues plagued him and that we were always dependent on the next hypothetical real estate sale, and that as his show business dream slipped further into the sunset, he chose to blame his family who needed food, shelter, and attention. Though my sister seemed to escape his wrath, my mother grew more and more submissive to my father in order to avoid his temper. Timid and secretive, she whispered her thoughts to me with the caveat, “Now, don’t tell anyone I said that,” filling me with a belief, which took years to correct, that it was dangerous to express one’s true opinion. Melinda, four years older than I, always went to a different school, and a sibling bond never coalesced until decades later, when she phoned me and said, “I want to know my brother,” initiating a lasting communication between us.

I was punished for my worst transgressions by spankings with switches or a paddle, a holdover from any Texas childhood of that time, and when my mother warned, “Just wait till Glenn gets home,” I would be sick with fear, dreading nightfall, dreading the moment when he would walk through the door. His growing moodiness made each episode of punishment more unpredictable—and hence, more frightening—and once, when I was about nine years old, he went too far… This beating and his worsening tendency to rages directed at my mother—which I heard in fright through the thin walls of our home—made me resolve, with icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me, and for perhaps thirty years, neither he nor I did anything to repair the rift…

I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know that I am qualified to be a comedian.

Right after finishing this book, I can’t help but remember a colleague who expressed with disappointment how she failed to achieve what she really wanted after earning her masters degree just months ago. She had thought that a diploma in post-graduate studies would quickly earn her that supervisory position with a high salary. My colleague is in her late 20s. When I was in my 20s, I have that same attitude, impatient to get somewhere, to be recognized for my own achievements, to earn a high salary. Through this book I learned that to become “one of the greatest and most iconoclastic comedians of all time” did not happen just by graduating with a masters degree or by sheer hardwork. In this book, I learned that Steve Martin did stand-up comedy for 18 years. “Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success,” shares Steve.

And stand-up comedy is not what you think. Just like any job, it is not easy.  And it doesn’t rely on a diploma in higher education.  It’s more of attitude, not giving up despite the disappointments, the fighting spirit to stick it through, to study harder, and work harder, especially when your whole life depends on it.

Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy’sFunny Steve enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern “Is this funny?” Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be…

I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented—I didn’t sing, dance, or act—though working around that minor detail made me inventive.

Needless to say, he shared about the irony of life, about his sad, long journey in doing stand-up comedy in front of 5 or ten distracted people in an obscure bar or a club and making it, performing to an audience composing of a hundreds, then thousands, to 45,000 people with media coverages after finally gaining fame for his antics and brand of comedy. But fame and fortune can also provide challenges:

The act was shifting into automatic. The choreography was in place, and all I had to do was to fulfill it. I was performing a litany of immediate old favorites, and the laughs, rather than being the result of spontaneous combustion, now seemed to roll in like waves created far out at sea. The nuances of stand-up still thrilled me, but nuance was difficult when you were a white dot in a basketball arena. This was no longer an experiment; I felt a huge responsibility not to let people down. Arenas of twenty thousand and three-day gigs of forty-five thousand were no place to try out new material. I dabbled with changes, introducing a small addition or mutation here and there, but they were swallowed up by the echoing, cavernous venues.

Though the audiences continued to grow, I experienced a concomitant depression caused by exhaustion, isolation, and creative ennui. As I was too famous to go outdoors without a discomforting hoopla, my romantic interludes ceased because I no longer had normal access to civilized life. The hour and a half I spent performing was still fun, but there were no band members, no others onstage, and after the show, I took a solitary ride back to the hotel, where I was speedily escorted by security across the lobby. A key went in the door, and boom: the blunt interior of a hotel room. Nowhere to look but inward. I’m sure there were a hundreds solutions. I could have invited friends to join me on the road, or asked a feel-good guru to shake my shoulders and say, “Perk up, you idiot,” but I was too exhausted to communicate, and it seemed like a near-coma was the best way to spend the day. This was, as the cliché goes, the loneliest period of my life.

So yup, Steve Martin looks back to his stand-up comedy which he did since the day he became aware that he’s alive. Here he talks about his early beginnings, his childhood interest of performing magic accompanied by funny antics to entertain his audience (and earn money) in a newly opened theme park when he was just 10 years old, his love for his craft which, to his surprise, made him one of the rich and famous, and that moment when he decided in his later years to turn his back on it. As Steve Martin felicitously put it, “… I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.”

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Steve Martin today

Steve Martin

“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”

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