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Book Review: 'Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life' by Steve Martin

BooksKristina PinoComment

"Reviewing" a memoir isn't the easiest task. I mean, it's not like I'm going to say someone's life isn't interesting enough to put into a book. The events aren't always the important part so much as the retrospective look we get by reading what someone has to say years after the fact. In Steve Martin's case, his eloquent (and visual) diction presented his life events in a vivid way. After he'd put all these memories aside for years, that is.

Incidentally, the first book review I published for GeekeryDo happened to be a memoir, and I think it's the first one I'd ever read. I kept going on and on about how amazing Michael Crichton's life was, because I didn't have a clue he'd achieved so much in such little time. I also kept mentioning that reading Travels felt like he was being honest with me. I felt the genuine frankness pouring out of every page. But, isn't that the point of a memoir?

Besides Travels, I've also read George Carlin's Last Words. It's another book that completely took me by surprise, because I was once again reading about someone's life that I knew nothing about. I wasn't prepared for a story about life and failures and everything else that George experienced which might have a few parallels with my own life.

Because of this experience, I was more prepared for Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, a book I didn't know existed until I saw this review on BoingBoing. I didn't know Steve Martin wrote books at all until I was browsing a book store maybe two months ago and noticed his name on the cover of An Object of  Beauty, which I do also plan on reading soon. And since I was born in the 80's, I wasn't much aware of Steve Martin's stand-up career until I saw him come up in George Carlin's Last Words described as a comic juggernaut who completely changed the game and took live comedy by storm (paraphrased).

Born Standing Up starts with a little bit of jumping around between some family background stuff and his first experience gigging in a club at San Francisco. Then he backs it up, and gives you the story of how he fell in love with performing, starting with falling in love with magic tricks. It's easy to relate to Steve right from the beginning as he talks about buying magic cards, hoops and other tricks and then spending hours in front of a mirror to then perform little magic shows for his family and their friends. Lots of kids do that. But he took it and ran, all the way to fame.

What started out as working at shops (and later, doing performance bits) in Disneyland and Knott's eventually turned into this sort of goofy, visual comedy he applied on the stage at other places. The book doesn't really cover his entire life - only his early life leading up to his stand-up career, so nothing is rushed. Steve takes us through everything, starting with his initial steady jobs and comfortable gigs, then his failures or triumphs on his way up from there. Eventually, he starts borrowing more jokes and performing less magic, then he drops the borrowed jokes and develops his own style. And that isn't even all of it.

What initially appears to be a short-lived career turns out to be a long and winding path at the time when comedians weren't really a "thing" yet, comedy clubs didn't exist and entertainers didn't just stand there telling jokes. Eventually, his brand of comedy caught on and he became a giant. And he became lonely, unable to really connect with his audience in the same way with 5,000 (or more) people in it instead of 40. He reached this trap, this cage where he had little room to improvise and try new things, and was confronted with his own jokes everywhere he went. It was because of this change, when he was no longer a stand-up comedian but more of a "party host" as he describes it, that he decided he needed to stop.

Instead of ending right there, the book does go into his involvement with The Jerk and the successes that brought, which of course leads into the Steve Martin we know and love today: a goofy guy in movies who also happens to write a few of them.

By following him on Twitter I'd learned he had a thing for playing Banjo, and Born Standing Up not only confirmed that he really plays it, but reinforced that it really is a part of his life (sometimes, I can't tell when people tweet things to be funny). Finally, I learned that Steve Martin regularly contributes to the New York Times and The New Yorker. It's funny how you could admire someone, and I really have always liked Steve Martin, yet never take the time to look more into why these people are awesome.

Besides the book, you've got the option of listening to Born Standing Up as narrated by Steve himself, which I'll probably do eventually. While I could definitely imagine him speaking the story to him as I read it, I'm sure that listening for real will be a treat.  I highly recommend the book to anyone that likes a well-told story and is interested (even a little bit) in Steve Martin's life or what it was like to be a comic in the 60s and 70s. It's all a true story, characterized by his wit and humor, and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion.

[Extra: There was a point in the book when Steve talks about his "Happy Feet" bit, how he'd start dancing around the stage and pretend his feet were acting against his will. It reminded me of the animated film Happy Feet (a movie about a penguin that dances uncontrollably and can't sing despite all the other penguins being singers), and I did a few searches to see if there was any connection. But at least according to the first few results, one doesn't seem to have to do with the other. I'm slightly disappointed, though I'm not sure this matters to anyone else.]

Books-A-Million: 

Born Standing Up - Steve Martin - Paperback

Born Standing Up - Steve Martin - Paperback

Buy Born Standing Up by Steve Martin in Paperback for the low price of 12.99. Find this product in Biography & Autobiography > Personal Memoirs.