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Born Standing Up

Steve Martin’s autobiography wasn’t as funny as I was expecting. I assumed it would be the same flavor of wacky banjo silliness as he’s done elsewhere, or the SNL Wild and Crazy Guys-type goofiness. It’s not. He’s calm and introspective, even sedate, in his analysis of his own life–the events which shaped him, family, career, cultural context, and education–and of his approach to comedy and the evolution of his method.

I didn’t like reading about his relationship with his father growing up, and the resulting period of isolation from his family. His father wanted to be an actor, but gave up on it, and disapproved of Martin’s work–even when he was selling out massive arenas and raking in the money. That sort of selfishness is repugnant to me, and it’s heartbreaking to hear of fathers treating their children so poorly.

His pursuit of originality strikes a chord with me, as does his shy, magician’s preference for privacy. He says, in what becomes a mantra, when you’re on stage, every second counts, every gesture matters. The glib, formless veneer of his routines hides the currents of thought flowing beneath. He describes his perception of stand-up in the introduction:

My most persistent memory of stand-up 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. Enjoyment while performing was rare–enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.

Also, I never realized how smart Steve Martin is. The theory, planning, and thought that went into his routines is astounding, and took about fifteen years to develop. He’s well-read, an art collector, and a writer of considerable skill. And he’s funny.

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