Warning: if you only know Steve Martin as the Wild and Crazy Guy from “Saturday Night Live,” or as the popular star of Hollywood comedies, be prepared to wrestle your envy at discovering yet another of his multiple talents: writing.
In BORN STANDING UP, Martin sets out to examine the roots and flowering of his hugely successful standup career. He starts at the beginning, with his Southern California childhood, the only son of a gregarious, stylish mother and a mercurial and frustrated actor-turned-realtor father. Fate placed him a bicycle ride away from newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, and at age 10 his first job was selling guidebooks at the gate. Thus began a nine-year stint at the Magic Kingdom in various capacities. His fascination with magic and performing steered him to Disneyland’s magic stores, where he worked all through high school, stocking and studying magic tricks and learning customer patter from a couple of old timers. From there it was a short hop to the vaudeville stage shows both at Disneyland and nearby Knott’s Berry Farm.
Names, places, photos of himself and significant friends grace the pages of this well-researched book as we follow Martin through various acting jobs and college, where he studied philosophy. What is funny and why? As Martin’s magic act morphed into comedy, this question consumed him. He moved up to LA and hobnobbed with sons and daughters of Hollywood professionals. “Were they beautiful? We were all beautiful. We were in our twenties.” He got a job writing for the Smothers Brothers and appeared numerous times on daytime talk shows like “The Merv Griffin Show.” Finally, he broke into the big time as a comic: “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
Still, Martin became frustrated with writing for television and decided to hone his act on the road. Hiring a roadie and booking himself into nightclubs, he traveled the country refining his act. He decided to give himself until age 30 to “make it.” By 1976, his shows were selling out, and his appearance as guest host on “Saturday Night Live” only swelled the ranks of people willing to pay top dollar to see the strange young man in the white suit with the arrow through his head.
For people of a certain age, this delightful book is a trip back through time to when we were all young and beautiful --- always a welcome treat. Martin is thorough, engaging and of course funny as he embarks on this honest exploration of his huge success as a standup comic. His treatment is balanced, acknowledging the role of luck but also detailing the hard work and angst. This is not a “tell all,” but where his personal life intersected with his development as a comic, such as his complicated relationship with his parents, Martin comes clean. All in all, BORN STANDING UP is a joyous, witty romp through one wise and deservedly famous man’s past.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on November 20, 2007