Brief Book Reviews - Born Standing Up

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''Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life'' by Steve Martin; Scribner; 209 pages; $23.

Steve Martin lied.

He lied, and facing that truth is like taking a fake arrow through the heart. Or, perhaps, through the head.



And if he did not lie, at the very least he told a half-truth.

For a good part of his career in stand-up comedy, you'll recall, Martin famously claimed to be a "wild and crazy guy." Now, as he reveals without apology in his new memoir of those years, it turns out Martin was indeed wild.

But crazy? Not even close.

The most fascinating aspect of "Born Standing Up," in fact, is how rational, methodical - scientific, even - the groundbreaking comic's approach was to the labor of making people laugh.

Martin, who in the 1960s studied philosophy for several years at California State University Long Beach and University of California Los Angeles while moonlighting at folk clubs, details how he applied the principles of logic and even the witty syllogisms of Lewis Carroll to his own, increasingly inventive concepts of comedy.

From early on, he also kept detailed charts documenting how each joke went over at each gig.

In the beginning, Martin's act was based heavily in the illusions he'd learned during a boyhood spent working in Disneyland's magic shops, before moving on to variety shows at Knott's Berry Farm.

From his meticulous record-keeping emerged a startling discovery that rocked his ideas about comedy and eventually fostered the act that made him a star: As Martin describes it in the book, "They love it when the tricks don't work."

"Born Standing Up" is not a comedy book. While it has plenty of funny moments, it's also earnest and analytical and even, when Martin talks about his family and childhood, nakedly confessional.

Most of all it's a brisk, engaging yarn from a guy who knows how to tell a story (Martin also has written two novels and two plays, plus a string of amusing New Yorker magazine pieces), and has plenty to pick from.

Some surprises sound like punch lines. Martin weaved serious readings of the poets T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings into his early folk-club act. He once met Elvis, who called his humor "ob-leek."

When he went to the distinguished composer Aaron Copland's home to help with an interview for a college project once, Martin recalls, he was greeted by the sight of several men sitting in Copland's living room "wearing only skimpy black thongs."

And along the way, Martin was insulted by the best of them, from the manager of a dive club who told him to "lose the arrow" (which later became his most famous prop); to the old-school comic Morey Amsterdam, who sniped at his humor as "unconventional"; to the pop-rock star Linda Ronstadt, who voiced her disbelief that Martin hadn't tried to sleep with her by their ninth date.

About the oddest revelation, though, is that after Martin's first appearance on "Saturday Night Live," his father panned his performance in a review that appeared in the newsletter of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors. (The late Glenn Martin, a frustrated actor, was its president at the time.)

Martin is blunt about the friction with his dad, which rippled through decades of the son's life (although he achieved a poignant peace with both his parents at the end).

But he still can't resist tweaking the cliche of the performer with the tortured past.

"I tell you this story of my father and me," Martin writes, "to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian."

Martin also jokes about his own reputation for offstage reticence. Although he says he's "a lousy interview," he admits often wanting to tell journalists who asked why he was so private that "someone who's private would not be doing an interview on television."

And somebody who's private also would not be writing a book about himself. Martin doesn't seem entirely ready to embrace that idea; in fact, the book's only significant fault is the occasional false note of humility.

"Comedy Is Not Pretty" was the title of one of Martin's late-1970s hit albums, and "Born Standing Up" lays bare the truth behind that joke. It's a fascinating trip through a kind of comedy sausage factory, displaying the gory details of how a career was created over 18 years of struggle and frustration and experimentation. No wonder Martin calls those "the war years."

Early on, he describes the dawning realization that he was "an entertainer who was playing an entertainer, a not so good one" - in other words, that he was becoming a self-satirist, something mainstream comedians weren't doing much of at the time.

Eventually, the act brought him huge fame. Then, it brought him burnout and boredom and the specter of another room service dinner being "delivered by four people wearing arrows through their heads."

People wanted him to be funny all the time, "but my show was only that, a show," Martin writes. "It was precise and particular and not reproducible in a living room.

"(I)n fact, to me my act was serious."

And that, as "Born Standing Up" makes seriously clear, is no lie.

- James Hebert
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