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Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

February 11, 2018

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Steve Martin’s autobiography of his life from childhood through his successful stand-up career is charming, insightful, at times sad and, not surprisingly, hilarious. He nostalgically walks us through his childhood jobs—selling programs at Disneyland, working in the magic shop, his early stage shows and comedy gigs—all which had a big influence on his later showbiz career. The autobiography is focused—most everything is part of the story of his career. But it is also very personal. Martin reveals that his father, a failed actor who was sometimes physically abusive and mostly emotionally abusive, impacted his entire career. Even at its height, the elder Martin refused to give Steve credit for making it big. When Steve first appeared on Saturday Night Live, his father panned the performance in a review in the newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president.

Otherwise, it is a fun and fantastic ride Martin takes us on. For readers, such as myself who know Martin more for his movies than his standup, it’s interesting to see how groundbreaking his act truly was and what created his desire to do something different than other comedians of the time. From a creative point of view, it is awesome to see how varied his inspiration was. He was a philosophy major for a time, an avid art collector, and very much influenced by the avant-garde art scene of the late ‘60s. In one part, he describes how he wrote a bit based on some logic puzzles he’d read in a textbook written by Lewis Carroll. There are also moments of insight when he interacts with other celebrities, such as the time Johnny Carson tells him during a commercial break, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” Martin says that that’s been true, and recalls using his childhood rope tricks in the movie Three Amigos!

My favorite part of the book, however, is the turning point of his career, when he really finds his groove. He’s at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, playing for a crowd of about 100 in a room with a small stage. At the end of the show, the audience sticks around, but there are no wings to the stage for Martin to exit, so he has to just tell them the show is over, which they think is a joke. When he gets off the stage and walks out of the room and out of the building, they think it’s still part of the show and follow him. So he takes them across campus, where they come upon an empty swimming pool. Martin tells everyone to get in. They do. He then proceeds to possibly invent crowd surfing, right there on the spot.

Ten years later, he is playing to crowds of 19,000. He talks about the crush of fame and the paradox of being as famous and lonely as he has ever been. He acknowledges that yes, celebrities want celebrity when it is convenient and anonymity when it is not. But in the end, you empathize and understand why, in 1981, he walked off the stand-up stage and never returned.

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