The square route of stand- up
Steve Martin bypassed the indulgences of fame to hone a radical style of comedy, writes Sam Anderson
YOU may expect a memoir of Steve Martin’s wild- and- crazy stand- up years to be a vomit- soaked monument to 1970s excess, a tale of vision quests, bad perms, handlebar moustaches, luge races down the hills of San Francisco in garbage cans full of bodily fluids and marathon orgies with generations of Belushis.
Instead, the great revelation in Born Standing Up ( Scribers, $ 34.95) — a chronicle that stretches from Martin’s childhood magic tricks to his postSaturday Night Live super- fame — is that, unlike Robin Williams ( whose mania seems organic and genuinely debilitating) or Richard Pryor ( who famously set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine), Martin did not live the shamanistic high life of ’ 70s comedy.
Indeed, he was relentlessly square. He honed his comic chops working at Disneyland. At college, he got As in philosophy and puritanically renounced the wearing of jeans. He gave up his only real countercultural indulgence, marijuana, after a panic attack in a picture theatre. Excluding a brief flirtation with hippie- ism, Martin settled early on his look: clean- shaven, with a neat suit to match his neatly parted hair. ‘‘ My look was strictly wholesome Baptist,’’ he writes. ( It’s unclear why this is in the past tense.) Every aspect of his famous wackiness, it turns out, was precisely calculated; he was a rationalist of the absurd. When he leaped and waggled his arms, it was less a Belushi- style spontaneous barbaric soul- explosion than a precisely calibrated sequence built up, gesture by gesture, with the patience of a mathematical proof. His reputation is a paradox: in the wildest and craziest decade of US pop culture, the only figure to emerge with the official tag of ‘‘ wild and crazy’’ was someone with the disposition of an accountant.
Modern audiences who know Martin mainly as the star of family films to be avoided at all costs ( Bringing Down the House , Cheaper by the Dozen , Cheaper by the Dozen 2 ) will be pleasantly surprised by the version of him in Born Standing Up, an ambitious intellectual loner who harboured radical theories of comedy. In 1965, Martin was a 20- year- old banjo enthusiast with an awkward 10- minute act. ( He’d pad the show, when necessary, by reciting T. S. Eliot poems.) ‘‘ And for the next eight years,’’ he writes, ‘‘ I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus.’’
By 1975, he’d painstakingly assembled four solid hours of material and won the papal endorsement of Johnny Carson. Martin describes his persona as ‘‘ an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one’’. Much of this routine is timeless. He loved to parody audience interaction and to deliver absurdities in the cheerful, stentorian voice of a news anchor: ‘‘ Hello. I’m Steve Martin, and I’ll be out here in a minute.’’ He’d play an aimless, unsingalongable banjo tune called Ramblin’ Guy, and try to make the audience sing along in impossible configurations: ‘‘ OK, now this two- fifths of the room, now this three- fifths! Twosevenths! Five- sevenths! OK, in Chinese now!’’
To end the show, he’d lead the crowd on field trips out of the theatre; once he took them to watch someone else’s act across the street. By the late ’ 70s, fuelled by a couple of legendary Saturday Night Live performances, he’d become the most successful comedian in the history of jokes; his albums sold millions, and his live audiences topped 45,000.
Martin conducts his chaos from a cool remove; what you admire is the ordering intelligence behind the mess. There’s always this distance, an odd performative gap between himself and whatever he happens to be doing, a doubleness that is the keynote of his career. Martin does things. Instead of actually being wild and crazy, like his SNL co- stars, he does wild and crazy. Even in his latest incarnation as a half- funny highbrow author of novellas, plays and polite humour essays, that sense of distance survives.
Born Standing Up is further evidence of Martin’s talent for creating intimate distance. The autobiography begins by denying even its genre: ‘‘ In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography because I am writing about someone I used to know.’’
The book gives us plenty of opportunity to psychoanalyse this mysterious distance and its most likely source is, predictably, Martin’s father. ( Paint- by- numbers psychologising — ‘‘ what he calls 10c diagnosis’’ — turns out to be one of the tics of Martin the autobiographer: his harmless childhood heart murmur ‘‘ planted in me a seed of hypochondria that poisonously bloomed years later’’. His panic attacks expressed his unconscious fear of losing his job writing for The Smothers Brothers ; his distance from his family resulted, later in life, ‘‘ in romantic misconnections and a wrong- headed quest for solitude’’.)
It is an irony hardly worth stating that Martin, the great prophet of schlocky family comedies, came from a deeply unhappy family. His father was a cold and repressive man who terrified the house with ‘‘ enraged silences’’; once, when nineyear- old Steve misheard his dad and asked ‘‘ What?’’, he found himself suffering ‘‘ a beating that seemed never to end’’. After this, Martin cut himself off from his father, and the antipathy between the two survived almost until the latter’s death. ( When Martin first hosted SNL, at age 31, his father published a negative review of the show in the Newport Beach Association of Realtors newsletter.)
Their emotional reconciliation provides the book’s most moving passages. Not to get too Freudian here, but it’s interesting that someone whose independence began with a traumatic beating would decide to pioneer a style of comedy that withheld the coercive violence of punchlines.
I’m not sure I buy Born Standing Up’s portrait of the young Martin as an avant- garde martyr hero. He claims that mass success ruined the purity and subtlety of his art and that, once he felt himself starting to decline, he walked away. But he walked directly into a film career that has often courted mass success above all else. The cynic in me wonders if this memoir, published in the awkward gap between The Pink Panther and The Pink Panther 2 , is a calculated piece of restorative self- mythology: Martin’s attempt to remind people that, although he has become a tame, family- friendly schlockmeister, he was once a hardcore revolutionary artist. ‘‘ I was seeking comic originality,’’ he writes early in the book, ‘‘ and fame fell on me as a by- product.’’ It’s a noble thought, but perhaps overstated.
In fact, the seeds of his family- friendliness were there in his stand- up from the beginning. His most interesting counterpoint is Andy Kaufman, another conceptual comic who hit his prime at the same moment as Martin but whose loyalties were very different.
Whereas Martin’s innovations were gentle, cartoonish and non- threatening — a Disney version of the avant- garde — Kaufman had a severe allergy to catchphrases, audience comfort and clear comedic signals. He rarely defused his anger and awkwardness into obvious gags. Once his bits became popular, he refused to do them any more. Martin’s King Tut and Excuuuuse me! remained ticket- selling staples until the end.
Copyright 2007 New York Media New York Magazine. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.
Comic giant: At the height of his career, comedian Steve Martin played to audiences of 45,000