Book Review: “Born Standing Up”

As you can see on my home page, I already highly recommend you buy and read Steve Martin’s new memoir, "Born Standing Up," if you have any inclination at all in learning what it takes and what it means to be a stand-up comedian.

The back cover of my copy carries a blurb from Jerry Seinfeld calling Martin’s memoir "one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written." But the quote from November’s issue of GQ continues if you read the Seinfeld interview, in which he compares Martin’s book to his 2002 documentary Comedian — which I also highly suggest for anyone looking to get an accurate picture of the mind of a stand-up comedian. Here’s what Seinfeld continued to say about Martin: "The thing I have to write to him and tell him is, people always thought it was a triumph of silly? To me, it was a triumph of intelligence. There was tremendous intelligence in everything he did. It was only packaged in this silly veneer. But that’s what was funny about it. Inside, it was very smart and thought-out. It’s a wonderful document of this profession, which seems to be dying."

Whoa…what? The profession seems to be dying??? I wish I’d had the chance to ask Seinfeld about that last part. In the meantime, let’s get back to Steve Martin and this rich portrait of the artist as a very young man.

I read the book on my flight home from Las Vegas and The Comedy Festival, after seeing about a dozen hours of comedy from some of the nation’s best and brightest comics. A little amped up. But ready for some introspection. Much to my surprise, Ms. Bernadette Peters shared my flight to New York City, and I wondered what she’d think if she saw me reading Martin’s memoir. After all, she was part of his craziest peak years as a stand-up, co-starring with him in the 1979 classic comedy, The Jerk (which also coincidentally was the first R-rated film I saw at the cineplex, my father taking me to the Enfield Cinemas, and how or why I remember that is just one of those things).

But you needn’t have seen The Jerk, or even heard him say "I am a wild and crazy guy" to learn so much about the long and arduous path a comedian undertakes to get fame, and then see what happens to a comedian upon gaining that fame — watching Seinfeld’s performance not just in Las Vegas last weekend but also in theaters in Boston and Phoenix over the past few years, the thing you notice more than anything else is how much fans treat a Seinfeld show as a celebration more than a performance, shouting out his name and catchphrases from his still-playing everywhere in America nightly sitcom. And Seinfeld only has to deal with crowds of 4,000 or so. Martin, at his height at the end of the 1970s, performed for arena crowds that numbered close to 30,000 at times. His 1977 album Let’s Get Small sold 1.5 million copies. His 1978 follow-up, A Wild And Crazy Guy, hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts while selling 2.5 million copies. As Martin himself writes of that period, "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." Not that he could’ve if he wanted to. The fame forced him into a lonely existence offstage while on tour, and even when he hit the stage, the audience responses backed him into a corner, so different from the truly wild and inspirational performance he aspired to. "The act was still rocking," he writes, "but audience disruptions, whoops and shouts, sometimes killed the timing of bits, violating my premise that every moment mattered." He got frustrated because he didn’t know what had happened to everything he spent 18 years creating. "I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making," he writes. "If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn’t. I still thought I was doing comedy."

But there’s so much that led up to that moment in his life that’s worth reading, from his childhood career that began at 10 at Disneyland to his early efforts at combining magic with comedy, performing for a handful and sometimes no audience at all, to his epiphany on punch lines that would eventually lead him to such great success. Plus you learn such things as why he wore that white suit, how many Tonight Show appearances it takes to matter as a credit, and what he’d look like with shaggy dark hair and a beard.

Whether you’re thinking of pursuing a career in comedy, a relative rookie or a road veteran, there’s something in this book that speaks to you. And that would be all of this book. Read it.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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