Steve Martin is one of those comedian/actor/all-round indefensibly genius entertainers that reached superstardom in the late seventies, along with Bill Murray and —? — who survived through decades of ever-changing and evolving audiences of adoring fans who faithfully followed their careers through the rest of the 20th century, without ever losing an original admirer, even when they basically weren’t having a career at all. Just showing up on a late-night ‘Letterman’ show or making an appearance at some Hollywood event and doing a 2- or 3-minute monologue was enough to solicit instant thrills from people like me and many others who absolutely loved everything they did, no matter the circumstance. Unlike any other survivor of the ‘SNL’ glory years, like Chevy Chase or Eddie Murphy, their stars never dimmed, their genius and talent never questioned. If Bill Murray never writes an autobiography or appears in another classic movie, he has earned a lifetime ‘pass’ from the countless fans, both young and old, who will always come back to him and fall right into whatever ‘groove’ he happens to be in at the time, looking, laughing and listening to him as long as they’re around to entertain us once in awhile. They both made an occasional misstep, like their dramatic forays in film, ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (Martin) and the remake of ‘The Razor’s Edge’ (Murray), but those were quickly forgotten and forgiven, because we simply could not stop loving them, and they both left such indelible impressions on our younger lives that all but guaranteed their continuing, ‘legendary’ status, in whatever work they originally did, and continue to do.
The similarities pretty much stop right there. Steve Martin enjoyed a popularity that no other stand-up comedian had achieved prior to 1977. Unlike veterans such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, who consistently made brilliant, award-winning comedy albums that forever cemented their legendary status, both before and after, Steve Martin the Stand-up Comedian had a finite career in that arena that eclipsed every other performer and set a new standard for just how popular a person standing on a stage and making people laugh could be. Martin himself defines the unique superstardom he achieved in Born Standing Up:
“Sixty cities in sixty-three days. Seventy-two cities in eighty days. Eighty-five cities in ninety days. The Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, largest audience in one day, 18,695. The Chicago International Amphitheatre: twenty-nine thousand people… I played Nassau Coliseum in New York. How many tickets sold? Forty-five thousand… This lightening strike was happening to me, Stephen Glenn Martin, who had started from zero, from a magic act, from juggling in my backyard, from Disneyland, from the Bird Cage, and I was now the biggest concert comedian in show business, ever.”
It’s hard to define just how well-known and universally loved Steve Martin was back in those two to three years of ultimate 70’s ‘hipness’ – regular magazine articles and appearances on the cover of ‘Rolling Stone’, one with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, a triad of then-ridiculously famous stars; a debut LP, ‘Let’s Get Small’, the first comedy album to have advance sales of one million copies before it was even released; a feature-film debut just around the corner, ‘The Jerk’, an instant comedy classic that held its own against new blockbusters like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’. Adults may have perceived him as silly, gimmicky and impossible to relate to, but there was no class, gender or ethnic group coming forward as actually disliking Steve Martin, so effortlessly inoffensive and original in front of an audience that the idea of any negative commentary holding any weight was non-existent, much as it remains to this day.
But Steve Martin’s unique stature could not be consistent for any length of time, and he was more aware of this conundrum before the rest of us fans were. His second album, ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’, which tripled in sales compared to his first LP, already peaked his popularity while at the same time inaugurating his inevitable decline in the stand-up career he had carefully and meticulously crafted through years of polishing and testing on countless television appearances, as varied as Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas’ daytime variety programs to the ‘plateau’ acknowledged by every performer in show business as the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ – if a comedian was successful on Carson’s show, they had nowhere to go but down, and very few of them experienced that circumstance when Carson was the King of Late Night, virtually the only program that a stand-up comic could be seen by millions of viewers in one night.
This reviewer was there, all of 18 – 19 years old, and I had nearly worn out my copy of ‘Let’s Get Small’ when ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’ was released in 1978. The recorded evidence could not be ignored by even the most generous fan: it happens at approximately 30 seconds into the beginning of side two, when an another familiar, intimate comedy club act is abruptly cut into a screaming, disorienting blast of enthusiastic stadium noise from an obviously huge, young and overly-familiar crowd of teenagers and twenty-somethings that are anathema to what any comedy-seeking audience should be. Steve Martin is literally reconstructing his entire performance, adjusting his rhythm, timing and delivery to suit an auditorium that is entirely too large and noisy to risk throwing out a punchline too early for the back rows to hear and too late to achieve any kind of spontaneous, complete reaction that a reasonably small club full of people would provide for the enclosed acoustics of a single microphone, where everyone hears the same thing at the precise same time. Steve Martin was indeed “the biggest concert comedian in show business” – the only problem was that there was too big a concert audience to collectively appreciate the fundamental experience of hearing a joke or routine that could elicit any organic response to the comedian himself, absent of having to react along with the multitude of others who all hear the ‘funny parts’ at split-second intervals apart.
Born Standing Up delivers exactly what Steve Martin means to explain, the life, the inspirations and the practiced efforts that any comedian would identify with in their pursuit of being a successful stand-up comic. It is not an instructional text, but neither is its purpose in doing anything more than merely describing his singular process in how his act, his persona, was conceived and practiced. But in spite of this initially disappointing fact, he still makes it a somewhat fascinating journey through his own life and experiences, and this is what makes the book an interesting read even for those who are not aspiring to a career in stand-up comedy.
He sprinkles tidbits of his complicated relationship with his father, whose approval of Martin’s vocation was never given, and you realize early on that this is a particularly important matter of unresolved preoccupation throughout his life. He maintains consistency in both his personal biography and the various dynamics and revelations that inform his craft, surprisingly honest and straightforward as to the actual inspirations and origins of his most iconic humorous trademarks – the arrow-through-the-head gag he seemingly forgets is even there; the self-deprecating of his own talents even while he’s bragging ludicrously about them; the incorporation of complex philisophical studies as filtered through a clueless thought process. It’s all there for any aspiring comic to gain insight from, and while this makes for an informative study of how a comedian can reach beyond the generic set-up and punchline, how to achieve laughs throughout the dialogue instead of saving it all for the end means, Born Standing Up cannot be recommended for anyone aside from the truly knowledgeable and adoring fan of Martin’s work; there are poignant and almost uncomfortably-recounted familial incidents near the end of the book that are both heartbreaking and satisfying for those who would really just like to get inside this man’s head, if only briefly.
In summary, I rate this book an ‘A-‘ for hardcore fans, and a solid ‘B’ for those who are still familiar with most of his work and want a little history of his life outside of it. If you’re one of those who do not go out of their way to experience every facet of Steve Martin’s long rise to stardom and how he (wisely) chose to abandon stand-up comedy completely, it would be hard to recommend this book.
In closing, I cannot help but quote some of the jokes he lists as having to abandon in order to streamline his act but still loves anyway:
“I think communication is so firsbern.”
“I’m so depressed today. I just found out this ‘death thing’ applies to me.”
“I have no fear, no fear at all. I wake up, and I have no fear. I go to bed without fear. Fear, fear, fear, fear. Yes, ‘fear’ is a word that is not in my vocabulary.”
“I just found out I’m vain. I thought that song was about me.”
Bill Murray is a funny guy as soon as he walks into a room – Steve Martin is too, when he wants to be. But there’s too much talent inside of him to leave it at that.