Steve Martin - Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

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From Inglewood to King Tut

Feb 22, 2010
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Quick, absorbing read, with lots of great details about Steve Martin's rise to fame.

Cons:Not a complete autobiography by any means.

The Bottom Line: Not the whole picture, but worth reading anyway--especially if you've ever enjoyed Steve Martin's work or stand-up comedy in general.


I was born in 1977, right when Steve Martin was hitting the apex of his stand-up career.  So I don't recall any of what's in this autobiography, though I have long been a huge fan of some of his movies.  In my family, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a holiday staple, and I play that movie over and over on Thanksgiving day.  His work on Saturday Night Live also shaped my nascent sense of humor as a schoolboy, trying out jokes meant for adults with kids my own age.  As you can imagine, I wasn't quite successful.

That broad anecdote gives me a funny feeling, because I am writing about my youth in the same way Steve Martin writes about his youth in Born Standing Up.  Over these 200 pages, Martin recounts two main things: his somewhat dysfunctional upbringing, and the evolution of his stand-up routine.  Both of these topics are interesting, but strangely Martin does not try to directly link the two.  Reading this book is kind of like studying The Enlightenment and the French Revolution side by side.  It's all good stuff, but it would be nice to see more connections made from a motivational standpoint. 

Certainly he explains how his early comedy influences shaped his later work, which is useful to anyone trying to make sense creatively out of what they most enjoy in popular culture.  But the more personal lessons Martin learned from this period in his life are often implied or even glossed over.  The best he does to explain this is at the end, in a friend's quote: "In psychoanalysis, you try to retain a discovery; in art, once the thing is made, you let it go."  This seems true to an extent, but it's hard to square that theory with a book as retrospective and autobiographical as this one. 

Very little of Martin's screen acting career is discussed here, but that's by design: he's talking about his career as a stand-up comedian.  Even with the title in mind, I was expecting to get a more complete view of Martin's life, so that was a bit of a disappointment.  On the plus side, there are a lot of great period photos.  He is always identifiably Steve Martin, the comedian man-child, and his hippie look is embarrassing and chuckle-worthy.  (One of his captions: "No comment.") 

Born Standing Up is a quick read (I devoured it in an evening) and provides a heck of a lot of insight into comedy and live performance in general.  With that in mind, it is an ideal book for anyone trying to make it in show business, although nowadays a YouTube video probably gets you more fame than a good night at a comedy club.  It's also a good throwback for the Baby Boomers who made his reputation in the first place.


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