Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book report Saturday: Born Standing Up

Steve Martin has written a memoir of his performing career, cleverly entitled Born Standing Up. He hasn't done stand up since the early eighties, and now it's easier to think of him as actor Steve Martin or writer Steve Martin, but it was as stand-up comedian Steve Martin that he first gained fame, and that fame was at a remarkable level. Like so many overnight sensations, Martin was on stage for a very long time with slowly growing and sometimes shrinking success before everything came together for him.

The book reminded me of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One, not that Martin's act is anything like Dylan's, but that both broke with the past so completely, almost violently, it's interesting to see what they considered their influences and to hear them recall fondly old-fashioned entertainment that they grew up with.

Martin was on stage from an early age. In the late 1950s, he lived a short bicycle ride away from Disneyland, and at the age of 10 he started selling guidebooks there. He gravitated towards the Magic Shop, where he bought some tricks, some of which worked and some of which didn't, and began performing as a magician, but at the same time learning the timing of comedy from old vaudevillians who worked at some of the stores in The Magic Kingdom. He started out backstage and yearned to be onstage. Home was not where he wanted to be, due to a difficult relationship with his father.

He actually got onstage working at Knott's Berry Farm, playing in corny melodramas at The Bird Cage theater. He recalls all of his time on stage with genuine affection. An indifferent student through grade school and high school, he becomes a seeker after knowledge as a late bloomer, not only seeking knowledge about being on stage but about the arts and humanities, and even symbolic logic, where he finds the funny side of logic (and illogic) in the silly but formally correct syllogisms of Lewis Carroll.

He was performing onstage and writing comedy bits for others at the same time, getting work (mostly offstage) on The Smothers Brothers Show and The Sonny and Cher Show. While writing, he was also performing what Rick Moranis would later call "anti-comedy". He was trying to put together an act with no punchlines. Those of us who saw him when he became a star in his white suit and immaculate haircut might think this was a guy who completely missed the whole sex and drugs part of the late sixties, but that was not the case. A few painful experiences moved him away from the drug culture, and his belief that his act could only work due to precision made him decide that he couldn't perform even slightly buzzed.

The big leap was when he decided to leave the steady pay of writing behind and tried to live entirely on the act. This was before comedy clubs were in vogue, and it often meant being an opening act for a musician, from folk acts to rock acts to Ann Margret in Vegas. He fondly recalls The Tonight Show, but debunks the myth that the first time you come on, you are suddenly a real performer. Because there was no club circuit, a lot of his apprenticeship was on the daytime talk shows that shot in Los Angeles, like Merv Griffin and Virginia Graham. He was resolute in his ideas that his act would be completely original and not like anyone else's, a difficult prospect for someone who was more like a performance artist today than he was like a comic from the generation that came before him.

His name is so closely tied to Saturday Night Live, it's odd to note that he wasn't on the show until its second season. He saw the first show on TV after he had performed on the road, and let out an expletive. They were doing "the new comedy" and they were on TV. He fretted that his best chance might have passed him by, but as history shows, it was actually moving ahead at a breakneck speed and waiting patiently for him at the same time. As useful as Carson's Tonight Show was for him, it was the appearances on Saturday Night Live that took him from crowds of 300 to crowds of 25,000 in a matter of a few years.

A story he returns to several times is the reconnection with his parents and his sister. He hadn't stayed in touch with them during the struggling times and was only sporadically in touch during the hectic glory years, but he was surprised at how much they miss him, and how much he misses them in return. He isn't sentimental about it; all his stories are written sparsely with well focused detail, as a comedian should write. He does show sympathy towards his largely unsympathetic father, and acknowledges that he avoided contact with other nicer family members due to his desire to limit contact with his dad.

Martin credits a lot of his growth as a performer and a person to the women he was romantically involved with in the time just before, during and just after the "era of free love". He ends one chapter with this paragraph about one of his girlfriends in the time before his act was a success, Mitzi Trumbo, daughter of the famed blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.

Once, on the way to the Trumbo house, Mitzi warned me, "Pop's in a bad mood today. He's got a screenplay due in four days and he hasn't started it yet." The screenplay was for the movie The Fixer, starring Alan Bates. Eventually, the work got done and the movie was ready to shoot. Trumbo encouraged Mitzi to join him and she was whisked off to Budapest for the duration of the film. After I'd received several charming letters from her then noted a lag in the regularity of their arrival, Mitzi sent me a gentle and direct Dear John letter. She had been swept away by the director John Frankenheimer, who, twenty years later, tried and failed to seduce my then wife, the actress Victoria Tennant, whom he was directing in a movie. Mitzi was simply too alluring to be left alone in a foreign country, and I was too hormonal to be left alone in Hollywood. Incidentally, Frankenheimer died a few years ago, but it was not I who killed him.

If you like that paragraph, by all means, read the book.

Yay, Flags of Many Lands™! Yay, the tropical paradise that is Aruba!

Also, my first official visitor from the tropical paradise that isn't, Iraq!

And in what is a rare occurrence now that I have had visitors from 113 different places sporting different flags, the Netherlands Antilles finishes off three new flags in a 24 hour period. Yay!

Now playing: Fats Waller - You´re Laughing At Me
via FoxyTunes


Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I remember his glory days as a stand up and all his SNL hosting jobs. I'm looking forward to reading this book soon. Thanks for the review.

Karla said...

I remember seeing him in Berkeley live - in the late 70s???

Big audience, and we laughed so hard we were in pain. His comedy was so revolutionarily different that it just brought out shocked paroxysms of laughter in everyone. I remember falling onto the floor in front of my seat just so I could get some air.

The dude was a master and a maverick. I love how his autobiography is so honest about his sense of futility and his fear that his voice just might not be heard.

He reminds me about how brave and insane you have to be to do something truly different.

Thanks for posting about the banjo man!

Anonymous said...

I watched the Train, Planes movie with him and John Candy a hundred times. What a classic! This is a really good review Matty. Thanks.

Matty Boy said...

Thanks to all. I think we were together at that show at the Zellerbach, Karla. It's a good book, and for those of you with time limits as well as cash limits, Martin reads the unabridged book on the audio version.

dguzman said...

Cool review of a great great man, Matty Boy. Thanks!

FranIAm said...

Thanks for this review- I'd like to read this.

I saw him live in his SNL heyday of the later 70's, I am guessing 77 or 78? He came to our college and he was hilarious.

One thing that I really like about him is that he has kind of kept reinventing himself along the way; not a one trick pony by any means.

Matty you 'splained this one real good.

Hope moving day went ok today- or is going ok I should say.