Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, reviewed.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 3 2007 11:57 AM

A Shy and Brainy Guy

Steve Martin explains how he got so funny.

(Continued from Page 1)

But what's special about the book is the way it presents a cogent, step-by-step account of how a major comedian developed his aesthetic and his chops. When Martin was 10, in 1955, Disneyland opened about two miles away from his house, and he got a job selling programs. At 15, he was demonstrating tricks in a Disney magic shop that "purveyed such goodies as the arrow-through-the-head and nose glasses, props I turned into professional assets later on." (It's one of several fun moments in the book that feel like something out of a biopic—Buddy Holly at the eyeglass counter thinking that pair looks pretty cool.) Three years later, at another theme park down the road, Knotts Berry Farm, he started performing in a hokey neo-vaudeville revue where, as Martin puts it, "I formed the soft primordial core of what became my comedy act."

Already, he was developing an onstage self that was the opposite of his own. Martin says, "I am fundamentally shy and still feel slightly embarrassed at disproportionate attention." The wild and crazy guy with the microphone ached for applause. That fellow wasn't too bright; his creator was majoring in philosophy at Long Beach State and, later, UCLA. Indeed, Martin can explain his comedy in the book because, unlike most comedians, who stay on the level of instinct and craft, he approached it intellectually. From his studies of the great writers, he tells us, he got the core principle of his aesthetic—originality. "Any line or idea with even a vague feel of familiarity had to be expunged," he writes. "There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren't seeing something utterly new." He drew inspiration from Nichols and May (the importance of vocal emphasis and nuance), Lewis Carroll (the logic of absurdity), e.e. cummings (his verbal rhythms and belief in precision), and Jack E. Leonard (the ultimate unimportance of the classic punch line). In 1966, he wrote in a letter to his girlfriend: "I have decided that my act is going to go avant-garde. It is the only way to do what I want."

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The white suit came when he started playing bigger arenas and wanted to be clearly seen from the cheap seats. The vest was to keep his shirt from getting untucked. And while his act had been shaped by reading and rumination, he never forgot the importance of movement: "My routines wove the verbal with the physical and I found pleasure trying to bring them in line. Each spoken idea had to be physically expressed as well. My teenage attempt at a magician's grace was being transformed into an awkward comic grace."

There were pans from critics who didn't get it, raves from those who did, bigger and bigger venues, and, in 1974, a triumphant moment on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, where a fellow guest was Sammy Davis Jr. Martin went into a bit where he speed-chanted, "Frank Sinatra personal friend of mine Sammy Davis Jr. personal friend of mine Steve Martin I'm a personal friend of mine too and now a little dancin'." Happy feet ensued. Then: "The camera cut away to a dimly lit Johnny, precisely as he whirled up from his chair, doubling over with laughter. Suddenly, subliminally, I was endorsed. At the end of the act, Sammy came over and hugged me. I felt like I hadn't been hugged since I was born."

Reading Born Standing Up, you're not surprised that Martin's stand-up career should have ended so suddenly and definitively. A tummler like Mel Brooks will do shtick as long as he can aspirate, but Martin's comedy was the cerebral and premeditated project of a shy man, and when he perfected the act, the only places to go were repetition, self-parody, or diminishing returns. So, as tempting as it would be to wish that he were back on stage instead of making Father of the Bride 4, it would also be wrong. Rather than begrudge him his Hollywood paydays, I'd rather thank him for the great old stuff and for this wonderful book. Back in the stand-up days, he had a bit that started out, "You know, a lot of people come to me and they say, 'Steve, how can you be so fucking funny?' " On stage, he'd say the secret was, "Before I go out, I put a slice of bologna in each of my shoes. So when I'm on stage, I feel funny." In Born Standing Up, he gives us the real answer.

Ben Yagoda is the author of a new e-book about recent language trends, You Need to Read This.

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