Ever since I saw him on Saturday Night Live, I have considered Steve Martin one of the funniest men alive. So, when I saw his memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life on the bargain table at a bookstore in West Chester, Ohio (that I visited with a reader after we lunched together), I quickly snatched it up. I mean, at six bucks, it seemed a steal.
The book alas wasn’t worth more than its (marked down) cover price. I had been reading it since I bought it, carrying it with me on at least two trips out of LA, but only finishing it last night. At times, the prose is stale, with Martin merely jotting down the facts of his life, as if he were just typing up his notes without trying to craft a narrative.
He seems reticent about his feelings, rarely going into much depth about his various relationships with women or describing his friendships with his fellow entertainers.
Yet, we do learn that he had a trying relationship with his father. When he was a boy and his father suggested they play catch. “This offer,” Martin writes, “to spend time together was so rare that I was confused about what I was supposed to do.” Later, the elder Martin wrote a “bad review” of his son’s first appearance on SNL (leading a co-worker to chide the action as “wrong”).
He got his showbiz start selling guidebooks at Disneyland, soon moving on to the magic shop there. While in the park, he would visit the shows, watching and learning from the performers. Later, he performed himself at nearby Knott’s Berry Farm and at various theaters around Los Angeles, then at small venues across the country. He wrote for television, appeared on “The Tonight Show” and finally got the call for “Saturday Night Live.”
While we only get rare glimpses into what he was going through emotionally at the time, he does occasionally offer some important insights into show business.
Early on, he knew he wanted to be on stage. Unable to sing or dance, he quipped that “Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent.” When he thinks “of the moments of elation I have experienced over some of my successes, I am astounded at the number of of times they have been accompanied by elation’s hellish opposite.”
Toward the end, when he becomes personal, the book becomes more engaging. Traveling while doing standup, he comments on his occasional hookups:
When necessary, I could still manage to have a personality, and sometimes I was rescued by a local girl who actually liked me. Occasionally the result was an erotic tryst enhanced by loneliness. Perhaps the women saw it as I did, an encounter free from obligation: the next day I would be gone.
Perhaps, he was not as forthcoming with his feelings because of the nature of celebrity. He wants to protect part of himself. When, at the height of his fame, he lay on a gurney after experiencing a panic attack during a show, a nurse asked him to “autograph the printout” of his “erratic heartbeat”:
I perfunctorily signed to avoid further stress. The concept of privacy crystallized at that moment and become something to protect. What I was doing, what I was thinking and who I was seeing, I now kept to myself as a necessary defense against the feeling that I was becoming, like the Wienermobile, a commercial artifact.
The book becomes touching at the end when he faces his father’s death and revisits his old haunts at Knott’s Berry Farm. With his parents’ passing, he becomes closer his sister.
The comedian’s memoir may be disappointing, but his screenwriting often sparkles, with three phenomenal scripts to his name, The Jerk (a credit shared with others), Roxanne and L.A. Story, that last one offering an affectionate, humorous and insightful understanding for this strange and wonderful city.
And that’s no even mentioning his numerous screen performances, his times hosting the Oscars (which he does better when not accompanied by actors with actors less funny than he), his musical tribute to an ancient Egyptian king and his stand-up routine, seared in the memory of the hundreds of thousands so fortunate to have seen this shy funnyman on stage.