Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life



The Pequod Review:

It is clear from the opening pages of Steve Martin's superb autobiography Born Standing Up that it is going to be one of unusual intelligence and wisdom:

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. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare — enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.

My decade is the seventies, with several years extending on either side. Though my general recall of the period is precise, my memory of specific shows is faint. I stood onstage, blinded by lights, looking into blackness, which made every place the same. Darkness is essential: If light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet. The audience necessarily remained a thing unseen except for a few front rows, where one sourpuss could send me into panic and desperation. The comedian’s slang for a successful show is “I murdered them,” which I’m sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you.

Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern “Is this funny?” Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be. I suppose these worries keep the mind sharp and the senses active. I can remember instantly retiming a punch line to fit around the crash of a dropped glass of wine, or raising my voice to cover a patron’s ill-timed sneeze, seemingly microseconds before the interruption happened. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented — I didn’t sing, dance, or act — though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now. A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life — which inevitably touches upon my personal life — and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away.

Martin's extraordinary book proceeds to cover key moments in his personal and professional life, including his adolescence in California (where he performed magic tricks at Disneyland), his strained relationship with his family, and eventually his massively-successful stand-up comedy career. Through it all, Martin has intelligent observations on the nature of stand-up. In an early section, he describes how his trademark spastic style was born out of necessity, not artistic inspiration:

I was contracted to be onstage for twenty-five minutes. I had a solid ten minutes, and the rest of my material was unreliable. If I got some laughs, I could almost make it, but if the audience was dead, my twenty-five-minute show would shrink to about twelve. Afraid of falling short, I ad-libbed, wandered around the audience, talked to patrons, joked with waitresses, and took note of anything unusual that was happening in the crowd and addressed it for laughs, in the hope of keeping my written material in reserve so I could fill my time quota. The format stuck. Years later, it was this pastiche element that made my performances seem unstructured and modern.

He also has good insights into what makes a successful performer:  

The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances. 


Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.

Martin would experience a burst of stand-up success in the late 1970s, when within a few short years he went from performing as an opening act to headlining 20,000-seat arenas. But by 1981, he sensed his comedy act was starting to become stale:

The act was shifting into automatic. The choreography was in place, and all I had to do was fulfill it. I was performing a litany of immediate old favorites, and the laughs, rather than being the result of spontaneous combustion, now seemed to roll in like waves created far out at sea. The nuances of stand-up still thrilled me, but nuance was difficult when you were a white dot in a basketball arena. This was no longer an experiment; I felt a huge responsibility not to let people down. Arenas of twenty thousand and three-day gigs of forty-five thousand were no place to try out new material. I dabbled with changes, introducing a small addition or mutation here and there, but they were swallowed up by the echoing, cavernous venues. 

Though the audiences continued to grow, I experienced a concomitant depression caused by exhaustion, isolation, and creative ennui. As I was too famous to go outdoors without a discomforting hoopla, my romantic interludes ceased because I no longer had normal access to civilized life. The hour and a half I spent performing was still fun, but there were no band members, no others onstage, and after the show, I took a solitary ride back to the hotel, where I was speedily escorted by security across the lobby. A key went in a door, and boom: the blunt interior of a hotel room. Nowhere to look but inward. I’m sure there were a hundred solutions. I could have invited friends to join me on the road, or asked a feel-good guru to shake my shoulders and say, “Perk up, you idiot,” but I was too exhausted to communicate, and it seemed like a near-coma was the best way to spend the day. This was, as the cliché goes, the loneliest period of my life.

I was caught and I could not quit, because this multi-zeroed income might last only a moment. I couldn’t imagine abandoning something I had worked so hard to craft. I knew about the flash in the pan, I had seen it happen to others, and I worried about it happening to me. In the middle of all this, I saw that the only way I could go, at best, was sideways. I wasn’t singing songs that you hum forever; I was doing comedy, which is as ephemeral as the daily newspaper. Onstage I was no longer the funniest I ever was; my shelf life was expiring. I recently found a discarded joke among my papers: “You might think I’m making a lot of money, but you have to understand my expenses. Twenty percent to a manager, ten percent to an agent, thirty percent to travel, and .000000005 percent to develop new material.” It was 1979, and I was already booked for the next two years.

The prospect of the remaining stand-up dates loomed over me. The glowing reviews changed; I was now a target. Critics who once lauded me were starting to rebel. Easy headlines appeared: STEVE MARTIN, A MILD AND LAZY GUY. I received a bad review in a local newspaper before I even performed. The backlash had begun. My tired body had rebelled, too. One summer night I was midway through my show in a southern college gymnasium when the temperature reached 120. In a resurrection of my old anxiety, my heart began to skip beats, and I panicked. I abruptly walked offstage and went to a hospital, where I was given a well-attended celebrity EKG. Fine. Stress and heat, I was told, but as I was lying on a gurney, with the sheet up to my neck but not quite over my head, confident that I was dying, a nurse asked me to autograph the printout of my erratic heartbeat. I perfunctorily signed to avoid further stress. The concept of privacy crystallized at that moment and became something to protect. What I was doing, what I was thinking, and who I was seeing, I now kept to myself as a necessary defense against the feeling that I was becoming, like the Weinermobile, a commercial artifact. Once, in Texas, a woman came up to me and said, with some humor and a lot of drawl, “Are you that Steve Martin thang?”

Being the good Baptist-raised boy I was, I honored all my contracts and did the shows, though with mounting frustration. The act was still rocking, but audience disruptions, whoops and shouts, sometimes killed the timing of bits, violating my premise that every moment mattered. The days of the heckler comebacks were over. The audiences were so large that if someone was calling or signaling to me, only I and their immediate seatmates could hear them. My timing was jarred, yet if I had responded to the heckler, the rest of the audience wouldn’t have known what I was talking about. Today I realize that I misunderstood what my last year of stand-up was about. I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making. If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn’t. I still thought I was doing comedy. 


In 1981 my act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction. One night in Las Vegas, I saw something so disturbing that I didn’t mention it to my friends, my agent, or my manager. It was received in my mind like grim, inevitable news. I was onstage at the Riviera showroom, and the house, as usual, was full. The floor tables were jammed, and the club was ringed with tiers of booths. There were soft lights around the interior wall, which silhouetted the patrons in halos of light. My eyes scanned the room as I worked, seeing heads bobbing and nodding; and then, in one booth in the back, I saw something I hadn’t seen in five years: empty seats. I had reached the top of the roller coaster.

This is a feeling I'm sure many successful artists have had at some point. But Martin was talented enough that he could transition to a career in film, which seemed to him more sustainable:

I was determined to parlay my stand-up success into motion pictures while I still had some clout. A movie career seemed to foster longevity, whereas a career as a comedian who had become a fad seemed finite. Plus, the travel was exhausting me, and I swooned at the idea that instead of my going to every town to perform my act a movie would go while I stayed home.

As these excerpts show, there is something in this book for everyone. It not only captures the true-to-life details of stand-up comedy, but it's also a great memoir about focusing on a craft for decades until you master it. Highly recommended.