Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

I've always admired Steve Martin. He's smart, funny, and avoids engaging in the kind of behavior that ends up in celebrity tabloids. (He's also a terrific banjo player.) I recently read his autobiography, Born Standing Up, and now I admire him even more.

This short book is about Steve Martin's career as a stand-up comic, which lasted about 20 years and ended abruptly (by his decision) in the 1980s. Martin starts with his childhood, which is full of wonderful anecdotes about working in the magic trick store at Disneyland as a young teenager, and doing magic and comedy routines at Knott's Berry Farm. Martin highly praises the old vaudevillians and magicians he worked with at the theme parks. These stage show veterans took Martin under their wings and mentored him in the art of timing, patter, trick presentation, and joke delivery. Fortunately for Martin, the Orange County high school he attended didn't assign homework, so he was able to spend every waking minute outside of school at the theme parks, learning his craft. (If he had been required to do as much homework as a student does today, he may very well have ended up working alongside his dad as a real estate agent, albeit a funny one.)

Martin goes on to describe how he went on the road, spending years developing his unique style of stand-up. As he describes it, he was not doing stand-up. Instead, he played the role of a foolish comic doing stand-up. In the 1960s, he experimented with his routines in the small clubs of San Francisco's North Beach, sometimes to a completely empty room, save a bartender.

Martin's rise to fame was gradual. But that all changed in the late 1970s when his brand of quirky humor caught on in a big way (thanks in large part to his frequent appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show). Martin went from filling 100 seaters to 1000-seaters. His success begat more success. In a period of months, his audience grew to arenas filled with 20,000, then 40,000, then 60,000 people. His brand of physical humor was impossible for most people in a mega-sized venue to appreciate. Martin was just a white dot on the stage.

The resulting fame, while not entirely unwelcome, was often a drag for Martin. An admittedly shy and private man, Martin said he felt uncomfortable when people on the street would excitedly recite his jokes back to him and expect him to be a wild and huh-razy guy."

Martin rode the wave for a few more years, but when he realized that he was no longer doing stand-up, but instead had become a kind of party host for giant throngs of people who wanted to hear him deliver the same stuff over and over again, he called it quits and never did another stand up show. Martin says that until he wrote this book, he rarely gave a thought to the stand-up up career that had made him famous.

I think the best way to read Born Standing Up is to listen to the audiobook, read by Steve Martin himself. That way, you get to hear the way he says his stock lines ("Excuuuuse meeee!") and you get to hear his emotions when he talks about his father (a cold-hearted man who wrote a negative review of Steve Martin's movie The Jerk first appearance on Saturday Night Live, in the company real estate newsletter he produced).

I hope Martin writes a follow-up book that covers his movie and music career, too.

[Update] commenter Petzl says:

Speaking of Martin's self-effacing manner, for years he's been (quietly) famous for handing out these cards.

They're brilliant: he doesn't have to give his personalized signature (which must get old after the first 1000 or so); he gives his fan something uniquely Steve Martin to take away, as well as giving them a "funny story"; it allows him to exit cleanly and quickly.

Born Standing Up


  1. I remember seeing Steve onstage in Kingsbury Hall opening for the Deseret String Band in Salt Lake City, Utah some time around 74 or 75…  Was just a small kid, but did not understand what the whole rabbit ears and arrow through the head meant, even though the entire hall was teary eyed from laughing.

  2. He wrote an article in Smithsonian Magazine in 2008  about (among other things) the genesis of his meta-comedy act: 

    I’ve re-read it a couple of times. There are interesting things about the very nature of comedy in there. He didn’t deliver jokes, just things that had the components of jokes re-arranged into the cargo cult approximation of a comedy routine, and people wept with laughter.

    There is some sadness in the fact that such a fearless dude ended up in Cheaper by the Dozen 2, but he’s also done some great movies I suppose.

    1. He didn’t deliver jokes, just things that had the components of jokes re-arranged into the cargo cult approximation of a comedy routine, and people wept with laughter.

      Well when you put it that way…

    2. I look at the stuff that he’s doing today – not the movies, but the music, the writing, the occasional Tweet that encapsulates his humor in short bursts – and I give the movies a pass. He’s earned them. He can take the money from those and continue to do awesome things, thank god. Not that’ll go see them, but I’m glad he can get paid for what looks to be a reasonably fun time.

    3. I’m pretty sure Jeff Garlin (from Curb Your Enthusiasm) said something like this about doing “crappy” movies on a podcast a few years back.  Complete paraphrasing, but his attitude was, “I get paid $10,000-$15,000 to work on a set for one week… Who cares if the film is bad? I got paid. These are disposable movies. Everyone knows that.”

  3. His brand of physical humor was impossible for most people in a mega-sized venue to appreciate. Martin was just a white dot on the stage.

    When he was touring, I was in Nassau Colosseum in some really bad seats and he was just such a dot.  He pointed at us and said, “Here’s a little something for you all in the back…. The Disappearing Dime Trick…. There!

    1.  Now THAT’S funny… but no other comedian in the world could have pulled it off.

  4. Yes, I agree, Mark, the audio book version by Martin himself is really great.  I was struck by just how UNfunny the book was, and in a good way.  He never goes for the laugh, or tries to build up to some kind of amped-up anecdote /punch line.  A very interesting and thoughtful explanation of his approach to comedy/entertainment and  his career. (Being a banjo picker myself I was interested to hear about his interests there, too. (BTW- cool that both Martin and John Hartford brought intelligent and witty banjo AND humor to the The Smothers Brothers TV show!)

    1. ” He never goes for the laugh, or tries to build up to some kind of amped-up anecdote /punch line.” 

      Very good point, Bob. The book is much better for it.

      1. Speaking of Martin’s self-effacing manner, for years he’s been (quietly) famous for handing out these cards. 

        They’re brilliant: he doesn’t have to give his personalized signature (which must get old after the first 1000 or so); he gives his fan something uniquely Steve Martin to take away, as well as giving them a “funny story”;  it allows him to exit cleanly and quickly.  I guess the obnoxious fan says “can I have 2 more for my friends?”– but so what?

  5. Saw him when I was in high school, when he came to a comm. college in Troy, NY. Mostly young audience (we brought our Mom, though, he was her favorite comic), and the kids were treated to 90 minutes of classic Steve. Afterward, he came outside and riffed for yet another half hour with about a hundred or so kids out in the quad. At the time, I was a stubborn lout as kids sometimes are, and I would look down my nose at anyone who didn’t agree with me that Carlin was the greatest comic ever and no one else came close. But I came away from that night in Troy with a much more measured attitude. Martin effortlessly overcame my snotty prejudice and won me over that night.

  6. I had the pleasure of working as a changeperson on the slot floor of Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe, way back in the summer of ’77.  Sadly, the tickets for Martin’s show were sold out and I couldn’t see him. But I worked the midnight shift after his shows finished and was treated to the best crowd of customers ever.  There were spontaneous outbreaks of Happy Feet throughout the entire shift. 

  7. Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned the audiobook – that’s totally the way to go. Agreed, it’s quite good and highly literate.

    I’ve been thinking about reading Gene Wilder’s autobiography for some time – he seems similarly thoughtful and reflective.

  8. I actually met him a month or so ago.  He unexpectedly stopped by my workplace.  I got a picture with him, and I got the opportunity to tell him that LA Story has remained my favorite movie.  He was a quiet guy, which was to be expected, but he actually seemed a little more shy than I expected.  Still, it was a joy to meet him.  He’s my only non-fictional hero.

    1. Steve had the idea and the outline, but I forget who he credits with making it drop dead funny.  The Jerk seems like spontaneous silliness, but it took a couple years to do the script.  There’s a lot of workmanship behind his style, and he’s not stingey about crediting other people contributions.

  9. In the shallow riverlands of Kansas, a city with enough farmers to supply Singapore in bread and corn, there was a man, we assumed homeless, who looked exactly like Steve Martin. He must have been told this, or discovered it in some previous life with easy access to video machines or CRT devices. And despite his need to carry warm clothes or a ramblemancy of found treasures, he spent energy, allotted space to a lamp. A near replica of the same damn lamp in the jerk.

    We created a game called the “homeless steve martin watch”.  Indeed my friend documented his ramblemancy, his detours into alleys or the books he scribbled in at the library. He, as eventually the rest of us, was convinced this just might be the real Steve Martin. That perhaps he had become lost between movies, crumbled under hollywood pressures and was trapped in some looping memory.  We took to leaving him notes with questions and money, but the homeless steve martin never replied. After a few months, homeless steve martin disappeared. A friend swears he saw a white haired, fatherly figure, all freshly suited, get into a fancy black car, placing a box with a lamp in the trunk.  

    1. I was happy to surrender the lamp. It was getting harder to find places to plug it in. I found a bunch of CFL bulbs behind a Stater Bros. market in Anaheim and tried them since I was trying to be green. I thought they would light up on their own. The ashtray and paddle ball game are now part of some kid’s cardboard arcade in East LA.

      1. For a few weeks homeless steve martin did trail a cord, a thick orange electrical extension. It stretched around corners as he shuffled and seemed to provide a small red light on this back with power. And when the cord pulled too tight, he’d track back, rolling it into a backpack with a Warner Brother’s logo. Sadly his cord was cut by a street sweeper, electrics arcing up into the shabby trees that made sidewalks something other than a road.

  10. Steve Martin changed my life.

    At one point, I considered a career as a philosopher.  But, then my professor told a story about Steve Martin. About how Steve thought about becoming a philosopher. Then, he read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which pointed out that language is subjective and thus any conclusion based on language is also subjective. In other words: BS. After that – or so the story goes – Steve Martin discarded philosophy in favor of something more serious: comedy.

    Don’t know if the story is true. Maybe it was part of his standup routine. But, after hearing the story, reading the tract, and dropping some – well never mind about that – I changed my mind (quite literally) around career choices.

  11. What I remember from the book is how he says he studied what people found funny and recreated it. This is an unflattering comparison but he made it sound like when a psychopath imitates charm. I don’t think Steve Martin is a psychopath but I always think of that when I hear of Martin’s reputation for being a bit dull in real life.

    1. Comedy is a science. For instance, it’s well known that odd numbers are funnier than even numbers, and prime numbers are the funniest of all.

      1. I’ve thought about what the funniest city is. Too ridiculous is no good (Intercourse, PA). Too well-known doesn’t work either (Yonkers, NY). That’s why Sheboygan, WI is the funniest city.

          1. Three months of being taught COBOL by Kalamazoo Training Consultants beat the humour out of that one for me.

          1.  Poughkeepsie is funny solely for hearing people who don’t know how to pronounce the name give it a try.

          1. Neither would I.  They’re home to Hot Poop, “Walla Walla’s Finest Bing-Bang Record Store, Because It’s Walla Walla’s ONLY Bing-Bang Record Store!”

  12. Great post on this great book!  Truth be told, I am not a big reader but I excitedly purchased & read this book when it first came out.  It’s really an excellent bit of insight into his career & motivations.

    Speaking of which, some might not know but there are tons of folks in the comedy community who hate this book to death.  I have never been able to completely understand why, but after dealing with comedians for a long time I think I know why, and this is definitely a  *SPOILER*:

    Basically the book ends with Steve Martin reconciling with his father & is a reflection on how much his comedy stemmed from his highly dysfunctional relationship with his father.  It’s as if the moment he had this epiphany about his family & his relationship to it he simply no longer had the desire to react the same way to the world as he did before if that makes any sense?  I found that a profoundly wonderful part of the book, but many former comedy friends of mind (former because I can’t deal with their negative B.S.) can’t cope with that concept. 

    1.  Comedy seems to have one of the most dysfunctional set of practitioners of any of the performing arts, which is saying something.

  13. Steve is the MAN!! Loved the book. ( btw, Michael Palin also has an excellent series of his diaries that are an absolute treasure to read..covers everything from 1969 on up to now) Always thought “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” was his funniest work. Here is the odd clip from YT that shows, barely, a young Steve, caught by chance on a tourists camera at DisnyeLand back in the day.

  14. Sounds like a great book, will have to re-look at a few of his films.  Definitely one of the old school, taking decades honing his craft.

  15. Wasn’t he born a poor, black child?  Either way, it still took four wash downs with Formula 409 to clean my computer screen.  That is sad.  won’t let it happen again.

  16. Hi –

    I don’t know why, but perhaps due to his slightly smug stage persona, Steve Martin had always seemed a bit egotistical to me.  Well, by coincidence I just “read” this book on CD as I drove for a few days, and boy was I really wrong.  He seemed surprisingly modest, realizes he had a variety of lucky breaks, and gives ample credit to a wide range of people who helped him on the way up.  To paraphrase what some said when he burst onto the scene in the 1970’s, he spent 10 years becoming an “overnight sensation”

    – TWR

      1.  G.E. Smith has been a supporting bandleader for many people, including Bob Dylan, but for the past couple of years he’s been touring with Roger Waters’ The Wall production. After seeing the show in Nashville, we were at a guitar store the next afternoon when … we spotted him! Most likely having a bit of work done while in town. We didn’t bother him, but I sort of wish I had approached to tell him he’s one of the unsung heroes of rock and roll. Unlike many celebrities, he looked younger and quite fit and hale up close in real life.

        1. G.E. Smith is seemingly unchanged since the first time I ever saw him in a Hall & Oates video.  

      2. G.E. Smith is finishing touring with Roger Waters The Wall. I saw him in DC on Thursday.

  17. I think I love Steve Martin more. (No worries, Steve!) He looks, he sees.

    This might be a little micro, but Born Standing Up kind of touches on the freelancer’s isolation. At least, SM indicates that’s why he started segueing into feature films, and he indicates this in a very credible way.

    When it comes to the question of “Now, what?” I think you could do a lot worse than ask Steve Martin. Give him a (@#*&$#@ of money, and ask him.

    1. Keep workshopping that one. Maybe try a funnier book, or just an older book, or an old book that begins with P…

    2. So basically you are a consumer who has become so used to reviews being issued for new items by so-called “professional” reviewers you really do not understand the concept of someone reviewing something just because they like the item & not because it fits with some publicist’s schedule.

    1.  That was his Kris Kristofferson phase. I mean, he actually was Kristofferson for a few months.

  18. That Steve Martin exists and is so prolific puts me to shame.  I was inspired to start playing music again by him, and trying to write.  If anyone asks about renaissance men, I’d mention Brian May and Steve Martin, and not be sure who I am more impressed with.

    1. Anyone who can hold their own, magically speaking, on a show with Ricky Jay is pretty impressive.

      Likewise, anyone who can hold their own, picking a banjo, on a show while standing next to Bela Fleck is pretty impressive.

  19. He clearly developed his humor and work ethic during his college years at Long Beach State.

  20. Seriously, if you haven’t read Cruel Shoes … it’s so dry and funny it nearly comes out the other side and isn’t funny any more. ALMOST. Cruel shoes? Folding soup? 

  21. He’s a guy with ludicrous stage presence and charisma but almost zero funny. Goes to show people come for the former, not the latter.

  22. Re-read the book. His father’s comment in the RE newsletter was about his first appearance on SNL (p.171), not about “The Jerk” and he later admits his mistake “shamefacedly” (p.172) to Steve and said that he loved “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” (p.196)  Martin resented his father comments as you said but maybe we all benefitted.

  23. I enjoyed the book greatly. When I was in high school (new thought here), somebody brought in a response they’d gotten when applying for his fan club, consisting of a series of pictures of Martin with captions explaining how carefully he checks out everyone who applies for the club. “After all, who wants to be worshipped by a bunch of jerks?” I kept enjoying his material, even after finding out I wasn’t the only one who got it.

    It may be that my favorite thing he did was the “I’m Not Gonna Phone It In Tonight!” opening on SNL (though I’m a bit surprised to find that it doesn’t actually have the part where he runs into himself in the audience — something else to look for out there).

  24. I remember buying this book at the Denver airport and reading all of it on the plane ride to Boston. It was that engaging, to me. I bought it thinking it would cover some of his movie career, but I was so glad after that it didn’t, because after reading this book I was acquainted with Steve Martin the stand-up comedian, and not Steve Martin the movie star, who I had  known all my life till then. This is a wonderful book, and I might just buy the audio version, just to experience it again.

    By the way, I highly recommend those of you on twitter to follow Steve, as well as Garry Shandling and Albert Brooks. The three of them frequently go on some great one-liner sparring matches on twitter that are always hilarious.

  25. Steve Martin is a classical American actor who’s high calibre is seldom touched by fellow counterparts. 

  26. Steve Martin is a comedic genius. And I agree that because the book is so dry, it’s one of the things that makes it so great.

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