A master class in the art of stand-up

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

In the 1970s, Steve Martin was one of the US’s top comedians, playing sell-out tours to huge audiences, and regularly appearing on Saturday Night Live and the Johnny Carson Show. After eighteen years, worn out by it, and noticing the first empty seats in an audiences appearing again, he turned his back on stand-up.

He went on, of course, to have a great career as an actor, script-writer (although he had always written material for himself and others), and latterly as novelist. Having read and enjoyed his 2010 novel An object of Beauty, (reviewed here, I was really looking forward to reading this memoir of his stand-up years, (and its my first non-fiction read of the year!)

Martin makes it clear from the start that to become a good comedian takes time, hard work, and dedication to one’s art…

I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spend in wild success. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being 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.

Born in Waco, Texas, it was when the Martin family relocated to LA, that young Steve realised he wanted to become and entertainer, and as a young teenager, he caught the bug by selling guidebooks, and then demonstrating magic tricks in one of the shops at Disneyland.  He had entertainment jobs all the way through college where he studied philosophy and ethics, before turning to drama, and eventually giving up classes.

He got a job in the script-writing team for a TV comedy show, whilst he honed his routines at night, and when his show was cancelled, he became a full-time comic.

We’re more used to seeing him in either preppy garb or later his trademark white suit, but for a while in the late 60s, he grew his hair (right).  He appears not to have liked this look, (I rather do in comparison!).

In the early 1970s, he was still working hard at developing his stand-up…

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.

He tells us how his act became more physical, more nuanced and more precise, and always touched by the surreal, and at last success did come.

Martin’s account of his stand-up career was fascinating, being effectively a master-class in developing a comedy act.  This is a totally serious memoir, not having been written for laughs at all, although naturally any life has its funny moments. Martin’s passion for self-improvement shines through and he’s a great writer too – I hope he writes some more memoirs of his film years some time.  (9.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin. Pocket Books paperback, 208 pages.

5 thoughts on “A master class in the art of stand-up

  1. Juna says:

    I’m curious whether you’ve read Shopgirl. And if so, what you thought of it.

    In general, I find him extremely funny (Irecently introduced my daughter to his “King Tut” on youtube) but found myself needing to make a psychological shift in order to see his as a writer of fiction.

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