Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

"In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years."

-- Steve Martin in "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life"

Though the name of our blog is Novel News, I am guessing that a non-novel would be ok. "Born Standing Up" is the candid autobiography of comedian/author Steve Martin that showcases his early years as a stand-up comic. The book reveals the fascinating journey of a kid who once sold guidebooks at Disneyland and later worked in the magic shop there and then went on to command audiences in stadiums that comedians had never seen before him.

As a big fan of Martin's published works, "Shopgirl" and my favorite, "The Pleasure of My Company", it was no surprise to me that Martin's story would be written beautifully and with humor. But the book also reads kind of sad -- the kind of sadness that comes when you look back at your long gone "salad days" before life made you jaded. So while you enjoy the ridiculous photos of Martin that are interspersed throughout the book (instead of having all of the photos crammed into the center of the book like most biographies) as a hippy-wanne-be or with ballons on his head, you also feel the sober whimsy behind the photos as you read about his loneliness and estrangement from his parents and sister (though he did eventually reconcile with them). You get the sense that being a comedic avant-garde genius isn't all that it's cracked up to be and that to get to the top took a lot of struggle not to mention fine-tuning of an act that often people didn't quite get.

On a more personal note, as I read this story I couldn't help thinking of my brother, also named Steve, who like Martin got his start in entertainment at a Disney property and went on to become a professional juggler. I felt compelled to share this book with him and just as I hoped he found a lot in the book that felt familiar, especially dealing with audiences who don't quite appreciate what you do. Just as a juggler has to qualify a trick (doing the trick without a drop a certain amount of reps), so Martin had to qualify his act through hard work, repitition and fine-tuning. The message of the book was not a blueprint for fame -- at time the regret that's implied in the book would be a discouragement to would be comedians. I found it more of a cautionary, "be careful for what you wish for" tale. In the end, fame would cause Martin to lose his desire to do stand-up but the struggle for the fame would make him a comedic juggernaut for years to come.

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