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.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects