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February 5, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 5, 2008 |

I suspect this is going to be hard for some of our readers to understand, but there are real live people under the age of 30 who — inexplicably — have never seen The Jerk (probably the same people who hate Catcher in the Rye). I don’t know what kind of family these people grew up in, but I can only assume they were the mildly abusive kind. Going through life with no knowledge of The Jerk seems like a life hardly worth living. It’s a movie that inspired a whole comedy niche: Smart dumb — the smarter the joke, the dumber it felt. Steve Martin is and always will be the master of intellectual buffoonery, and I pity the soul who only knows Steve Martin from his post Father’s Bride oeuvre.

It was Steve Martin’s 10-year career as a stand-up comedian that eventually led to and inspired The Jerk, and it’s that early career that Martin explores in the thin, fast-paced autobiography, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, which Martin describes more appropriately as a “biography, because I’m writing about someone I used to know.” Martin’s career began in 1965, as a banjo-playing magician at open mike night in San Francisco’s Coffee and Confusion, where he began each show with this line, “Hello. My name is Steve Martin, and I’ll be out here in a minute.” It was there, in fact, where he developed his most famous prop — playing a serious banjo tune, he accidentally left his arrow-through-the-head on, and every “earnest thing [he] said was contradicted and deflated by this silly novelty.”

But before the Coffee and Confusion, Martin grew up in Los Angeles (he was born in Waco, Texas, but moved when he was five), about 20 miles away from Disneyland. His father was a sullen, disapproving man, a realtor who resented his family for disrupting his own acting aspirations. Steve got his first job selling guidebooks at Disneyland, eventually graduating to the magic shop as a teenager, where he discovered his love of performing. Later, he enrolled in college as a philosophy major to impress a girl with whom he was in love and gave his stand-up routine an avant garde bent. During college, he fell in love with another woman, Mitzi Trumbo (daughter of Dalton, who wrote Spartacus, Exodus, and Deerslayer, among others), but she eventually left him for John Frankenheimer (the director of The Manchurian Candidate) who, two decades later, also tried to steal Martin’s then wife, Victoria Tennant. “Incidentally,” Martins writes, “Frankenheimer died a few years ago, but it was not I who killed him.”

Martin got his first big break writing for “The Smothers Brothers” (where he also received an Emmy), which led to gigs writing for a couple of other television shows, but he eventually quit to pursue stand-up comedy full stop. At the time, there weren’t any comedy clubs, so Martin had a tough time making ends meet; travel often costs nearly as much as he was being paid to perform. Nevertheless, over a ten-year period he honed his act, and after countless appearances on “The Tonight Show,” a couple of hosting stints on “Saturday Night Live” ultimately launched Martin’s stand-up career into the stratosphere. In the late 70s, he had become the most popular stand-up comedian, ever, booked solid for two years and selling out venues with capacity upwards of 40,000 people, audience sizes that weren’t ideal for his small little act. It was during that period when the backlash began, “I received a bad review in a local newspaper before I even performed,” he wrote. He developed acute anxiety, suffered panic attacks, and began experiencing the “dark side” of fame: “Almost every ordinary action that took place in public had a freakish celebrity aura around it,” he writes. “I would get laughs at innocuous things I said, such as ‘What time does the movie start?’ or ‘Hello.’”

Martin — who most know now is a exceptionally private man with a moodier, more contemplative and intellectual interior life than his early career portended — dealt with fame poorly, though he understood the nature of the business. “Oh yes,” Martin writes. “I have heard that celebrities want fame when it’s useful and don’t when it’s not. That argument is absolutely true.” Determined to parlay his stand-up success into a film career, he developed an idea for a film that came from a line in his stand-up act, “It wasn’t always easy for me; I was born a poor black child.” And the rest … well, most of you know how the his story goes from there, and based on the his first autobiography, I’d gladly read the sequel, especially one that shed light on his decision making process these last ten years, a period that has been his most creative literary-wise, but his most creatively bankrupt on the big screen.

Born Standing Up is notable for being the rare celebrity autobiography that intelligently explores the creative process. Martin is refreshingly modest and, at times, amusingly self-deprecating. It’s far from a tell-all; there’s no gossip inBorn Standing Up, nor is there a lot of name dropping — Martin never attempts to impress his readers. In fact, for the most part, it feels as though Martin is re-living his early experiences right along with us. Indeed, for those of us with a huge appreciation for Steve Martin, but were too young to experience his stand-up years, Born Standing Up is most remarkable for the bits from the various iterations of his routine that he includes in the book (many of which appear later in his movies), which often read as hilariously as they must have looked on stage, including this gag, from midway through his stand-up career: “‘Oh, gosh! My shoelace is untied.’ I would bend down, see that my shoelace was untied, stand up, and say, ‘Oh, I love playing jokes on myself!’”

See: Smart dumb.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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Born Standing Up by Steve Martin / Dustin Rowles

Books | February 5, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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