Monday, April 26, 2021

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s “Make it a Double” selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. Starting this year, because a bunch of us have a bit of extra time on our hands due to a certain malevolent virus, our hosts decided to add an optional second book for those who wanted a bit more to discuss. In this case, a number of our club members had read this and mentioned it as a humorous and well-written book. And, I have to agree with that assessment. It was a lot of fun, even though I read it in book form, rather than experience the audiobook read by Martin himself.


Born Standing Up is an autobiography, but only tells of Martin’s early life, from a little of his childhood through his career as a stand-up comedian. It ends before his movie career, which is what most of us younger (relatively speaking) sorts actually know of him. 


Thus, we hear of Martin’s first gig, at Disneyland as a kid, and his comedy theater days at Knott’s Berry Farm, before we even get to his actual solo gigs. Also interesting was the time he spent writing for the Smothers Brothers and other acts, and his connections to a number of unexpected people of the era. All of this is more fascinating than I expected, in large part because of Martin’s writing style. 


Martin does not use, nor does he need, a ghost writer. In his early career, he wrote as well as acted, and continued to write throughout his career. He also decided early on to stop borrowing jokes and routines, and make his shows completely original. All of this hard work shows in the book, because it is quite well written, excellently paced, and never boring. 


I was also struck by the fact that Martin is never even close to mean-spirited in this book. He is so overwhelmingly nice. He says kind things about his ex-girlfriends, gives credit to anyone who helped him along the way, and even shows sympathy for his dad, who was a pretty unmitigated asshole. 


One of the disadvantages of a book like this is that it is difficult - impossible actually - to capture exactly what makes Steve Martin funny. He himself admits he had difficulty getting a record contract because his schtick is very physical. Sure, he has great comedic timing, but the facts, the body language, everything put together is what makes him great. Seriously, I haven’t seen much of his early stuff, but even in his later movies, he steals his scenes by virtue of his incredible body language. My first experience of him was in Father of the Bride, many years ago, and he is hilarious as the straight man. Even with the sound off, he’s funny. 


I read it pretty quickly, because I only got it a week before our meeting, so I didn’t take many notes. There are a few moments I loved, though. One is the sign on the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm, that for a literal decade, said “Entertaiment” before someone eventually noticed. 


It was also fun to see some call-outs to people I had no idea were connected to Martin. Most notably, Bill McEuen, who worked with Martin for many years and produced several of his albums. Martin was also friends with Bill’s brother John McEuen, founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. (Martin apparently was pals with them when they cut that amazing double album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken - one of my favorite discoveries as a teen, and another album that Bill produced.) 


Also surprising was that a very young Martin dated (and lost his virginity to) Stormie Omartian, who later became a popular Christian author - my mom had a few of her books over the years, if I recall, although I never read any of them. As with all his exes, Martin has nothing but kind words for her, and some belated sympathy for the abuse she endured as a child (but never told him.) It was an unexpected connection for both my wife and I - in part because it was weird to see something from our religious history meet pop culture. 


Along with reading this book, my wife had me watch Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with the kids. Silly to be sure, but watching Michael Caine is always fun, and, despite some dated gags, Martin’s phenomenal control of his body and face and timing is still riveting. 


This was definitely a fun, quick, light read, but one that is thoughtful and well written too. 


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