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People who came of age in the bleak interregnum of the late 1970s had very little to look forward to. The excitement of psychedelic culture and the sense of purpose provided by the struggle against the Vietnam War had fizzled by then. The "greed is good" yuppie energy of the 1980s, when young adults once again had a purpose and an identity, had not yet been born. Our sad president, bundled up in his unbecoming sweater, warned us that things were going slowly downhill. Becoming a grown-up seemed a very bleak prospect.
And then, suddenly, without precedent or warning, just when we felt most like giving up, two words--Steve Martin--raged through the great American high school, and joy was returned to the earth.
Through records, television appearances, and the astonishing power of word of mouth, it seemed that every teenager in America got the news and joined the cult. For awhile, everything Martin said was a catch phrase. Not just his famous, "Excuuuuuuuuuuuse Me!" but also nearly meaningless, contextless phrases like "Let's get small," "We're havin' some fun now," and "Next time, try five of them."
It was easy to memorize his routines; the bits collected on his three gold- and platinum-selling records between 1977 and 1979 amount to no more than about 112 minutes of material. It was not so easy to know what it was that made him so completely different from everyone who had come before and so very, very welcome.
Martin himself isn't quite sure why it all worked exactly the way it did, but that's not for lack of trying to figure it out. His memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, begins with the lines: "I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success." This book is the chronicle of the stand-up portion of Martin's illustrious and varied career.
Although the memoir begins with his birth, in Waco, Texas, in 1945, and includes memories of estrangement and reconciliation with his parents, and a growing insight into his father's frustrated dreams of a show business career for himself, it is not primarily about Martin's family history. Nor is the book a detailed account of Martin's romantic life, although there are intriguing tales of a chaste affair with Linda Ronstadt and an eye-opening relationship with the worldly Mitzi Trumbo, daughter of the black-listed screenwriter Dalton. And it most certainly is not a comprehensive look at Martin's career, which includes writing, producing, and/or appearing in more than forty movies; two very good novels about young people with mental disorders--(Although the movie of the same name missed its mark, Shopgirl, the book, is a surprisingly insightful portrayal of depression in a young woman); the critically acclaimed play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile; several other books; numerous New Yorker essays; and countless television appearances, among other things.
What it is about is how Martin started out a lonely boy with a sub-standard magic kit and slowly, gradually, thoughtfully, and painstakingly became the most successful comedian in history.
His performing career, as best he remembers, began with a chance to play Rudolph in a kindergarten Christmas pageant. The crushing disappointment he felt when he learned that no serious attempt had been made to get him the plastic red nose he had been promised seems to be with him still. "That was the only reason I took the gig."
All the disappointments, loneliness, failed auditions, empty clubs, and "comedy death" after that, though, he seems to have survived through a single-minded will to keep improving and stretching himself and his audiences.
The second performance he chronicles here--victory in a second grade tumbling contest--he downplays with what is undoubtedly false modesty. He claims it involved nothing more than a series of somersaults and that the other children were slowly eliminated through attrition, but anyone who remembers the lithe athletic stunts Martin did in the film Roxanne will know he has a physical grace that has served his career well.
That, of course, doesn't solve the riddle either of what, exactly, was so special about him.
Never does he claim raw talent and he rarely credits luck. His tale is one of excruciatingly hard work, trial and error, and an intense study of psychology and philosophy, both academically and in the hard knocks school of mostly small, unappealing bars, folk clubs, and theaters in unmemorable towns across America.
At once the most inane and the most intellectual of comics, Martin came up at a time when there was no such thing as a comedy club. He built his act, step by step, defining a new kind of entertainment as he went along. Early on, it was a combination of magic, banjo playing, and jokes, with an occasional poetry reading. Over time, the banjo skills improved, the poems were ditched, the magic tricks became parody, and then--gradually and most important--the jokes were abandoned in favor of a new kind of comedy. "What if there were no punch lines?" Martin muses, noting that old-style comedians had a predictable rhythm to their joke-telling that indicated exactly when the audience was expected to laugh. "What if there were no indicators? What if I set up tension and never released it?" He experimented with risky new ideas, like "an elaborate presentation that climaxed in pointlessness."
A major breakthrough came in about 1972, when he realized that hippie culture had nearly run its course. Drugs, riots, and Charles Manson, among other things, had turned the culture sour, and Martin had grown tired of his own political material. He cut his hair, shaved his beard, and put on a suit. "Instead of looking like a freak with a crazy act, I now looked like a visitor from the straight world who had gone seriously awry." It worked. "Over night," he says, "I was no longer at the tail end of an old movement but at the front end of a new one."
My generation already knew we would never be flower children. And no replacement was in sight. We did not know if we had hope of being anything at all. But now, at least, we had a grown man in a three-piece suit wearing an arrow through his head and getting happy feet. Thank you.
He stopped telling topical jokes about the state of the world, and let his material become more and more surreal. "The act's unbridled nonsense was taking me and the audience, and me, on a wild ride," he recounts. Reviews ranged from dismissive to angry to ecstatic. And many times, of course, there were no reviews at all. Somehow, though, Martin plugged onward, night after night, through years when thirty people in the house was a lot. He studied audience reactions and changed timing, words, and nuances relentlessly. "My most persistent memory of stand-up," he writes, "is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future. The mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next."
If there is any lesson in this book about what sets apart the successful person from all others, it is this doggedness, this inability to imagine not doing what you're doing, no matter how difficult and thankless it seems.
Finally, after a decade and a half of struggle, the confluence of a few outstanding reviews of his stand-up shows and the birth of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which gave him both a national audience of young people and a crew of colleagues on the same humor wavelength, signaled that his moment had come. Martin gives a rapid rundown of the "wild success" years: theaters could now fill fifty seats for his shows, then 500, 1,000, 3,000 . . . until he was playing stadiums filled with 40,000 people, a feat unprecedented by any comedian ever. The thrill of finally reaching the success he had striven for all his life was now tempered by the fact that he was so famous he had to rush, with bodyguards, from theater to hotel and do nothing between performances but sit alone in darkened rooms watching "Brady Bunch" reruns. "Oh yes," he says, "I've heard the argument that celebrities want fame when it's useful and don't when it's not. That argument is absolutely true."
Although Martin had the sanity and the ability to change the course of his career when the comedy roller-coaster reached its pinnacle and threatened to send him careening down the other side, he never questions his calling to show business. Anyone who shares his drive to perform would be well advised to read this thoughtful, down-to-earth account of what it takes to get there. Martin's voice is intelligent, mature, analytical, and warm, and his story is compelling. For those who want to literally hear his voice, the unabridged recording, excellently read by the author himself, is available on CD from Simon & Schuster Audio.
© 2008 First Serial Rights. Heather Liston
Heather Liston is a free lance writer based in San Francisco