The square route of stand- up

Steve Martin by­passed the in­dul­gences of fame to hone a rad­i­cal style of com­edy, writes Sam An­der­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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