Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
I was introduced to comedy by my father. I can honestly say I got my sense of humour from him, and I am eternally grateful for that. He was a connoisseur of off-the-wall comedy, showing me my first Monty Python sketch when I was 7, playing me records of Beyond the Fringe shows when I was 6, and first playing me Steve Martin's "King Tut" when I was 5. I still remember how wacky that song was: "Born in Arizona but he moved to Babylonia... born in Arizona, had a condo made of stone-a, KING TUT!" My brother and I thought the song was awesome. (That and the more obscure "Basketball Jones" by Cheech and Chong that Dad would play us all the time, complete with the George Harrison guitar solo in the middle... I think I was 9 before we discovered one day when our parents weren't in the room that there were FAR racier tracks on that record.) My mom, meanwhile, would roll her eyes at And Now For Something Completely Different while my brother, dad and I would be laughing so hard we were crying, and she couldn't understand what we saw in any of this.

So naturally, when I heard Steve Martin had written his biography, I bought the book for Dad for Christmas. And because I was going on about it all the time, my husband bought it for me. I just read it, and it's one of the most fascinating memoirs I've ever read, mostly because of the tone of it.

Steve Martin is, simply, a terrific writer. His talent stretches beyond writing crazy hilarious films like The Jerk and one of my all-time favourites, Bowfinger. I've never read Shopgirl, but by all accounts it's amazing (I was halfway through Born Standing Up when I went out and bought it, and that's next on my reading list). The guy's been in show business for 40 years, and one would think his biography would be a 600-page brick. But instead it's a slim volume, quick read, and very succinct. The tone throughout is very matter-of-fact, simply stating the facts and moving quickly through his years, stopping at The Jerk. He tells us how he got his start in showbiz by being a ticket-taker at Disney World, followed by working in the gift shop where he would show off the magic tricks. His magic became his thing, and he began incorporating some comedy into it, and then comedy became the main instigator. About 4/5 through the book he's still playing tiny clubs and giving himself one more year to "make it" before swearing he'll throw in the towel, when he suddenly finds himself the biggest draw in the country.

One theme repeated throughout the book is his difficult relationship with his father. No matter how successful he becomes, his father never seems to be proud of him, and he keeps coming back to that. He talks about playing clubs, and his father saying he's not funny. He mentions being on SNL, and his father actually writing a bad review of the show in the company newsletter (!). Eventually, as a writer, Martin sees this theme as one that must be resolved, and he does so right near the end of the book.

Like most people who have work in the public eye, he remembers every word of every bad review, and glosses over the good ones. He recalls every screw-up onstage, but he also references some of his funnier bits. There were moments in the book where I was laughing out loud, and other times where I was cringing. He doesn't get so far in his life as to talk about his masterpieces, like Planes, Trains and Automobiles ("You're going the wrong way!!" "How does he know which way we're going?"); Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Ruprecht the Monkey Boy is still one of my all-time favourite moments in a film); or Bowfinger, that movie that I can pretty much quote from beginning to end, and the one that made all of us go, "Oh my god, he's still got it! So why the HELL is he doing crap like Cheaper by the Dozen II?"

Maybe it's because of that perception that he stays away from his later career. This is a guy who never did well in high school, yet has developed such a mastery in creative writing that I could see him writing a lot more fiction in the future. He talks about discussions he has with friends about the differences between psychoanalysis and art, or reading articles about social history in journals. The guy is so smart, and that's what sets him apart from other Hollywood entertainers, or memoir writers.

This is an amazing book, full of wit, nostalgia, love, and just a little regret. I'd recommend it to anyone who's a fan of Steve Martin, or off-the-wall comedy, or Hollywood in general.


Unknown said...

I read this book last winter and was totally impressed with it.

Adelita said...

Great read. Disappointed you didn't mention The Pleasure of My Company. Far better than Shop Girl.

Nikki Stafford said...

Adelita: Like I said, this is the first thing I've read by Martin, and Shopgirl is the much-touted one. I'll definitely check out Pleasure of My Company, thanks for the recommendation! :)