By Matthew E. Milliken
March 13, 2017
I missed almost all of Steve Martin’s entire career as a standup comedian while it was happening.
I wasn’t yet born when Martin first performed before paying audiences as a latter-day vaudevillian at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theater in 1963; the same was true when he struck out on his own as a Southern California comedian and TV writer three years later, before comedy clubs had even been invented. (Folk-music venues hosted many of his shows.)
I was far too young to watch TV when Martin started appearing irregularly on talk shows in the early ’70s. I was also too young to attend any of Martin’s performances when he became a touring comedian a few years after that, or to watch his early appearances on Saturday Night Live. (He’s served as SNL guest host 15 times, starting in 1976, second only to Alec Baldwin’s 17 stints.)
I did have some friends who were very big fans of offbeat comedy, despite their tender ages, and I do remember them mimicking Martin’s best bits and showing me videocassettes of their favorite routines featuring him. So there was something vaguely familiar to me about seeing Martin appear in bunny ears in the cover photograph of Born Standing Up, his account of his childhood and the first two decades of his performing career. And thanks to catching snippets of SNL reruns and later Martin appearances on the show, I was certainly familiar with characters like his wild and crazy guy.
But even if I hadn’t been — even if I’d just known Martin from mid-career movies such as Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger — I think that I might have enjoyed the actor-author’s 2007 memoir.
Martin comes across in the book as being much like the quirky, charismatic, intelligent and above all thoroughly decent characters that he portrayed in L.A. Story and Father of the Bride. He writes a clear brand of prose and offers wry observations about the shortcomings of himself and others around him, as exemplified by this passage depicting a time shortly after he began touring full-time in the early ’70s:
One week I opened the show for Linda Ronstadt; she sang barefoot on a raised stage and wore a silver lamé dress that stopped a millimeter below her panties, causing the floor of the Troubadour to be slick with drool. Linda and I saw each other for a while, but I was so intimidated by her talent and street smarts that, after the ninth date, she finally said, “Steve, do you often date girls and not try to sleep with them?” We parted chaste.
One late night I was lingering in the bar and talking to Glenn Frey, who was just leaving his duo, Longbranch Pennywhistle. He said he was considering a name for his new five-man group. “What is it?” I said. He said, “Eagles.” I said, “You mean, the Eagles.” He said, “No, Eagles.” I said, “You mean, the Eagles.” He said, “No, I mean Eagles.” The name of the group remains, of course, Eagles.
Mixed reviews continued. At the end of my closing-night show at the Troubadour, I stood onstage and took out five bananas. I peeled them, put one on my head, one in each pocket and squeezed one in each hand. Then I read the last line of my latest bad review: “Sharing the bill with Poco this week is comedian Steve Martin… his twenty-five-minute routine failed to establish any comic identity that would make the audience remember him or his material.” Then I walked off the stage.
One of the interesting things is the number of encounters Martin had with other celebrities. He describes meeting Priscilla and Elvis Presley while opening for Ann-Margret in Las Vegas (the King told Martin that he had “an ob-leek sense of humor” and showed the comedian the three handguns that he was carrying), having Sonny Bono and a business partner express interest in developing a TV show for Martin (the comedian “never heard from them again, not one word”), dating the future Christian author Stormie Omartian as an 18-year-old, and seeing Diane Arbus photograph the castle at Disneyland on Martin’s last evening working at the theme park’s magic shop.
He also describes his time courting one of Dalton Trumbo’s daughters and the time hard-partying Saturday Night Live comedian Danny Aykroyd told him about having been pushed out of a moving car in Manhattan’s pre-dawn streets earlier that day. Writes Martin:
I pictured Danny bouncing down the wet pavement and then said the only thing that came to mind. I asked him if he wanted to go to Saks and shop for clothes. He said, as friendly as he could, “Uh, man, that’s not my thing.”
Martin also describes his troubled family relations. His father was emotionally distant and deeply critical of Martin’s career; he once wrote a negative review of his Saturday Night Live debut for the newsletter of the realtors’ association he led, and he later told a newspaper interviewer that he thought SNL was “the most horrible thing on television.” The comedian was estranged from his parents and his older sister for much of his life, although they later reconnected.
The author also delves into the evolution of his comedic stylings, which resulted from a combination of improvisation, experimentation and consideration. “My teenage attempt at a magician’s grace was being transformed into an awkward comic grace,” he recalls of incorporating gestures into his act, adding, “I tried to make voice and posture as crucial as jokes and gags.
Martin couldn’t believe it when his act blew up in the late 1970s. Audiences for his standup appearances ballooned from around 2,500 at a typical show before the comedian’s first SNL outing to 45,000 just a few years later. He developed an immense distaste for the daily cycles of being a touring standup, which involved a lot of overnight drives and isolation.
He also grew to detest the side effects of fame. One night, while dining with a woman, Martin was startled to learn that she not only had a boyfriend but that he approved of their date. (“I was now famous, and the normal rules of social interaction no longer applied.”) On another occasion, following a panic attack triggered at least in part by a summertime performance at a blazingly hot venue, he “was given a well-attended celebrity EKG”; as he lay on the gurney, a nurse asked him to autograph his test results.
Martin knew that his standup career wouldn’t last, even if he’d wanted it to. He transitioned into a career as a film star starting with 1979’s The Jerk, while his standup up career was at its apex. The rest, as they say, is history, although the author spends a few pages resolving a few family issues, including his relationships with his elderly parents.
Ultimately, Born Standing Up is an engaging and satisfying memoir, one that fans of Martin’s comedy, acting or writing careers will enjoy.