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.
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."
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 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.