A Shy and Brainy Guy
Steve Martin explains how he got so funny.
According to the census bureau, roughly 40 percent of the American populace was born after 1981, which means that Steve Martin has not been a stand-up comedian in their lifetime. What do these youths make of Martin? I guess they think of him as a reliable, profoundly Caucasian presence in glossy Hollywood comedies (I use the term loosely) like Father of the Bride, Bringing Down the House, and Cheaper by the Dozen, and in mirthless paycheck specials like The Pink Panther and Sergeant Bilko. They may have read his small, well-made novels, The Pleasure of My Company and Shopgirl, or his adept and droll humor pieces in The New Yorker.
But do they realize how revelatory a performer he was? Gather 'round, and let me explain that from the mid-'70s until he abruptly walked away from stand-up, Martin was a phenomenon. He completed a long comic apprenticeship just at the moment when a new TV show called Saturday Night Live was able to give him a creative home and a major shot of buzz. As for his shtick: Never has anyone been so smart at playing stupid. A slim figure in a three-piece white suit, his every gesture screaming a need for wild applause, his torso periodically quaking from the brilliance of his own wit, he embodied all known strains of self-regard. What I had forgotten, until I looked at this YouTube clip from 1979 of Martin constructing his balloon animal headdress, donning Groucho glasses, and giving a sanctimonious speech ("It's important to be able to laugh in today's world. … ") was his grace. He perambulates to an inner, syncopated rhythm, one minute bopping, the next stone-still with portent, the next solo-jitterbugging away under the spell of … "happy feet!!!"
But Martin's moment was brief. As he explains at the opening of his new memoir, Born Standing Up, "I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success." By the end of that last period, in 1981, he was filling 20,000-seat arenas with people who had memorized his routines and wanted to shout out, "Let's get small!" and "Excuuuse me!" Singalongs are fine at Bruce Springsteen concerts, but in live comedy they tend to ruin the mood. Moreover, he writes, at this point "my comic well was dry. … [M]y act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction." After a particularly disheartening weeklong gig in Atlantic City, N.J., he walked away and never looked back.
Comedians' memoirs aren't usually very good: Stand-up is a series of intense right-brain sprints, while book-writing demands reflection, self-scrutiny, endurance. Indeed, the bookshelf of great autobiographies by American comics for a long time consisted of Lenny Bruce's How To Talk Dirty and Influence People. Well, it's now twice as big. Born Standing Up doesn't deserve its place there because it's well-written, but it is well-written: full of amusing anecdotes and well-crafted character sketches of the famous and obscure, and, given how nonpersonal if not impersonal Martin's work has always been, surprisingly and touchingly candid.
Especially revealing is the portrait of his childhood years. Along with his sister and his parents, he moved as a young kid from Texas to Southern California so that his father, Glenn, could pursue his show-business dreams. When these went bust, Glenn blamed the family—especially, illogically, Steve: "My father seemed to have a mysterious and growing anger toward me. He was increasingly volatile, and eventually, in my teen years, he fell into enraged silences." The son's response was simply to stop talking to his father about anything but the most mundane pass-the-ketchup matters. By so doing, he writes, "I was incurring psychological debts that would come due years later in the guise of romantic misconnections and a wrong-headed quest for solitude." You can almost see the price tag for decades of psychotherapy stamped on that sentence. It's no less credible, or poignant, for that.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.