“If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh…”Steve Martin, “Born Standing Up”
Reading a book is a solitary exercise. Sometimes we don’t want others to know what we’re reading or the reasons we’re reading something. Writing is also a solitary exercise for the inverse of those reasons. Like writing, comedy is a profession that puts its practitioners through great and terrifying rigors. Standing up in front of strangers seeking their approval and approbation seems to me to be a herculean task. And yet the result is laughter and joy in the darkness. Comedy as a solitary craft involves seemingly endless hours of preparation with no guaranteed payoff, much like writing. Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up exposes that craft through poignant writing, revealing the emotional bumps and bruises necessary to make a career out of being silly onstage.
My knowledge of Steve Martin the comedian was limited to the films he starred in during the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s. His writing and comic timing are impeccable and he’s not afraid to venture into whimsy as can be seen in the film Roxanne. I’d never witnessed his stage work, though, so reading what Martin describes as “someone I used to know” (referring to his stand-up persona) was endlessly fascinating. At his height in the late 1970’s, Steve Martin was the biggest name in stand-up comedy, one of the first to sell-out auditoriums and arenas rather than dingy clubs. He was arguably the funniest man in show business but he accomplished this by being entirely unconventional. As he reveals in the book, the idea of forgoing punch lines and pushing his audience to the precipice without a release of laughter caused the audience to decide for themselves when it was appropriate to laugh.
Martin shows that his roots in performing come from magic, another profession that requires repeating the same actions ad nauseam. He was influenced by the idea of originality, of not copying what others before him had done. Originality in entertainment is almost taboo due to the necessity to be profitable. After any new zeitgeist moment appears in any of the various entertainment mediums (say…blogging, for example), its wake allows for copycats of all stripes to attempt a cash-in. Martin regarded this idea of originality as stripping away anything in his act that had “even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance”. To start from scratch as a writer is the definition of terrifying; a blank page becomes a challenge that seems to be completely unbeatable.
There is a precision to Martin’s prose, an apparent vulnerability that may or may not exist while remaining both stark and comforting. When relating stories from his stand-up career’s zenith, the feeling of Martin’s growing detachment from his work is palpable. Martin invites the reader in, showing that the glory of overwhelming success is also bitterly tragic. Once you were a person but after, you become an icon, an immutable jukebox cranking out the greatest hits the people want to see. Throughout what he describes as a biography, Martin gives the reader a guided tour of every frustration and triumph on his increasingly lonely road in stand-up. Where some would showcase these moments to gain an audience’s sympathy, the feeling I get from reading this book is Martin’s sincere honesty and straight-forward search for understanding his past.
One section in particular stood out for me and it’s the reason I wanted to read this book in the first place. Martin writes of a lesson he learned when he began doing comedy full-time: “It was easy to be great”. Every person in a creative endeavor has days (single, individual collections of moments) where everything is working and nothing fails. Like pocket aces in Texas Hold’em, you can statistically count on these days to occur over time. A person can have one great concert, or film, or book, or performance over the course of a career. What’s most difficult is to be consistently good, day after day, week after week, no matter the circumstances. Martin’s realization is one that applies to life in general, but creative work in particular. Constantly honing one’s craft, as Martin relays to the reader, is the hallmark of creating good entertainment.
Bridging the gap between memoir and autobiography, Born Standing Up is a thoroughly engaging read. I cannot overstate how much the book should be read by anyone who is fascinated with celebrity, comedy, creativity, and show business. Getting to peek behind the mental curtain of one wild and crazy guy was an absolute treat, one that I advise others to take a look at when they get the chance.