Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up
Sometimes I wonder where all of Steve Martin’s energy comes from. Has he made a supernatural pact along Faustian lines? Or is there a secret little factory of Steves who write his novels, stage and screenplays, his comic and satiric pieces for The New Yorker, at the same time acting in films, many of which he writes and directs, while he appears on stage playing a banjo solo at Lincoln Center in tribute to his old friend Diane Keaton at the gala in her honor last fall? “Where do you find all the time?” I ask him.
“A film takes three months,” he says, “leaving me nine more.” Steve, I want to say to my old friend, Steve, give us mortals a break.
I leave out for the sake of credibility that Steve gives dinner parties, which may include a banjo recitation or a few of his magic tricks to cap the night, or that he is an avid and serious art collector with an eye and taste more original and open than many art historians I know, or that he has friends who love him and a wife who loves him and for whom he is starry-eyed.
It’s not just that he is good at all he does; he excels at all he does. His play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, is a gem of intelligent, witty theater; his novel, Shopgirl, which he later adapted for the screen, rivals the best of first novels for its skill and heart, and The Pleasure of My Company, his second novel, the second often being the bane of many writers, may be more original, more tinged with the brush of sadness than was his first.
Imagine that he has now written a memoir, Born Standing Up, of the 18 years he was a stand-up comic and of the childhood days that were the foreground of his self-invention. For he is a self-invented man, one who has created himself from the grounds of bone-dry middle-class, suburban California, in a tract home whose otherwise conventional sunshine was punctuated by his father’s fits of rage and physical violence. Steve was beaten, often brutally, by his father. The marks on his psyche were long-lasting and for many years kept him estranged from his father, a story Steve tells with dignity and purpose. Or as he wryly puts it, “I have heard that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you the story of my father and me to let you know that I’m qualified to be a comedian.”
The other side of the comic, as we all have come to know, is the man or woman haunted by some psychic injury, whose temporary redress—and at the risk of courting further pain—is success and approval. At 10, Steve found his escape from household terrors as well as discovered the source of all that would later transform and bring him more public approval in a day than most of us receive in a lifetime.
Disneyland had opened just two bike miles from his home. “Disneyland was my Versailles,” he says, a kingdom of the exotic and the magical, where he sold guidebooks for two cents a copy and thrilled to the sense of pride of money earned. It was at Disneyland that Steve first saw live comedy acts, which gave him a longing to be on stage. He also haunted a magic shop and bought his first elementary tools of prestidigitation. For young Steve, there was magic in doing magic.
Imagine him then, at 10 or 11, performing magic tricks and comic routines for his family, the archetype of all later audiences whose approval and love he would seek. Imagine, too, that all his efforts for affirmation seemed small to his father, a failed actor whose life motif was rancor and a sullen indifference to his son. But this is not the whole story.
The other and thrilling side is the story of a young man seeking the road to success, to an identity, a quest shared by all the sensitive young and especially those dreaming of being an artist. It is this that makes this memoir not just about a famous actor.
Steve had little means, no support and no particular skills. He tried a magic act, a comedy act, a magic and comedy act—he would try anything to bring himself on stage and anything that would work to keep the audience alive. He read self-help books on showmanship for magicians; he practiced magic tricks; he taught himself to play the banjo by slowing down records and following the notes one by one. Later, he performed in bars and clubs, often to the echo of an empty house. He slept in his car. He scrounged about for gigs that would put him on a stage; he went to college to study philosophy, thinking even to become a professor—another form of showmanship.
But there was no going home on weekends, no cheering-on phone calls from Mom and Dad. His was a self-improvised, lonely world of work and dreams. But there is not a word of “poor me” in the memoir. In fact, it may and should be read as a tribute to the very American themes of independence, industry and will. The ever-aspiring Ben Franklin would have liked this kid, so too Emerson, who would have found him a model of self-reliance.
This is a book of climbing, self-doubts, defeats and restarts, of facing each time on stage the prospect of “Comedy Death.” Which Steve says is “worse than regular death.” But the slow climb toward success also had its rewards, not the least of which was the notice through word of mouth by wider and wider audiences who howled at the freshness of his wacky brand of patter, banjo playing, wild dancing fits and his now-famous arrow-through-the head shtick (not to mention the balloon animals). His repeated presence on The Tonight Show helped make him a national figure. And when, at the end of Steve’s act on his 16th appearance on the beloved Johnny Carson show, Sammy Davis Jr. gave him a warm, approving hug, Steve said he felt like he hadn’t been hugged like that since he was born.
Even when Steve star’s had risen high enough to be visible and when his mother publicly reveled in his success, his father was “not impressed.” He remained unimpressed even after Steve’s great screen success in his classic The Jerk, saying to one of Steve’s friends, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” But slowly, things turned, mostly due to Steve’s need for resolution and reunion before it was too late. He reconnected with his parents, taking them to lunch every week, and even enlisted his father’s advice in real estate matters. It was a slow process but one that produced deep, lasting rewards.
One afternoon after lunch, Steve and his father hugged goodbye and Steve heard him say very softly, “I love you.”And later, shortly before he died, his father confessed to Steve: “You did everything I wanted to.”
“I did it for you,” Steve said. Not adding the more complicated truth: I did it because of you.
“He was a more cheerful man at the end,” he says. “He had come out of his financial difficulties and had come to terms with his failed dreams.”
“So what made you decide to write this book?” I ask.“I had been looking for something to write,” he says, “perhaps another novel.” But then he adds, “I wanted to write a memoir, but I could not figure out where to end it. My stand-up life had a beginning, middle and end.”
“Is there anything in the book that you wish you could now take out or put in?” I ask.
“I would take out nothing,” he says. “I didn’t say much about my high school years because I thought they would not be as interesting as the time I spent at Disneyland. At high school, I was always the class clown.”
“What was it about writing the memoir that would have been different from writing another novel?” I ask.
“I did not want to write another made-up story,” Steve says, “but one with my heart in it.”
His heart is surely in this book. Ours, too.
This article was originally published in WWDScoop, a supplementary publication of Women’s Wear Daily.