Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Born Standing Up

For Christmas I received Steve Martin's new Autobiography "Born Standing Up". It chronicles his childhood, adolescence and his rocky, meandering road to stardom as a stand-up comedian. It's very short and I read it in a couple of nights, unfortunately - I wish it had been longer. I found it to be fascinating and inspiring - very well written and a very candid portrait of an artist as he struggles to find his own artistic voice. For whatever reason, he was able to articulate many of the things I felt as I developed and struggled as an artist, and it made me feel so much better to hear someone else put it all into words.

I hate recommending things like this, because everyone feels differently and what seems revelatory to me will surely seem obvious and irrelevant to someone else. If you read the reviews on you will see that most people really enjoyed the book and were struck by how honest it was and how sensitively it was written. Then again a few people seemed to think it was going to be more gossipy and have more "funny stories" in it, or that it was going to be more "wacky", like his stand up routines. It is neither - it was just the story of how he found his voice in a field where there was no precedent for what he was doing, and how hard he had to work to overcome everyone that told him that it wouldn't work, and how he had to face his own doubts and fears and how he was able to defeat these things so he could succeed.

Listening to Steve Martin albums was one of the few things my family seemed to do together when I was a kid that we all enjoyed. I can't imagine why my parents let me listen to them but I'm really glad they did. I didn't understand much of it back then but his enthusiasm, delivery and timing always made me laugh no matter what he was saying. In an era where I thought "The Muppet Show" was the greatest thing ever produced by mankind, it seemed to me that Steve Martin's irreverence and silliness were all there were to his act, that every performer ought to be that way, that being a good-natured goofball was his whole repertoire and that was just fine with me. Now, thinking back on what I remember of his act, I realize I was missing all of the irony to it, that what he was really doing was "anti-comedy" (as he calls it), making fun of the shtick that comedians have been doing for ages as well as pretending to be a failure to get laughs out of his own faked discomfort and frustration.

Anyway, here are a few of my favorite passages from the book:

Writing about an old book written by Dariel Fitzkee about performing magic:
"Fitzkee starts by denigrating the current state of magic, saying it is old-fashioned. Though published in 1943, this statement contains an enduring truth. All entertainment is or is about to become old-fashioned. There is room, he implies, for something new."

"At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent."

"Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity; naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do."

"Throughout the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration."


Smook said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Smook said...

Hey Mark,

I just bought this book too and am looking forward to reading it (hopefully this weekend). I remember seeing him on the Muppet's Show playing one mean banjo when I was a kid.

All the best to you this year.

Sorry about the deleted comment above, should have proof read my writing before publishing it.

sir jorge said...

i've heard nothing but good things about this book, i'll have to check it out for sure

Matt J said...

Happy new Year Mark-interesting lecture here by JJ Abrams on story 'magic boxes'

Robert said...

I wonder how accurate his claim of no talent at 18 is? There are a lot of people with no talent who never develop into anything no matter how persistent they are. So I'm thinking there must have been more inside him than he is admitting to.

But I remember he was huge. I don't think any stand-up is ever going to duplicate the level of attention that Steve Martin was getting.

DanO said...

GRANDPAAAW.....bought a rubber!

matt said...

This sentence jumped out at me:

"Precision was moving the plot forward, was filling every moment with content, was keeping the audience engaged."

Kevin Barber said...

I cheated a bit and listened to the book on cd read by him.As a kid i wore out my Steve Martin 8-tracks.As an adult,...and as a professional artist ,...i really loved the insights of his artistic journey. I related to alot of his feelings and trials as well in my own journey. Brilliant and i hope for a sequel that discusses the movie years .