Memoir Monday: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up

by amy

It was a passing reference in David Orr’s piece in last week’s Sunday Book Review that got me to finally read Steve Martin’s 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up, which had been sitting on my shelf for the last three years.

The piece itself was about James Franco’s newest publication, a book of poetry titled Directing Herbert White, recently published by Graywolf Press–itself a serious publisher of poetry. Ott’s review of Franco’s latest show of dilettantism was not what kept me reading–rather, it was this question he posed: “why it is that artists who are vastly successful in one genre feel the need to dabble in another?” In the next breath, he mentioned Steve Martin–as one who is quite talented in multiple genres (comedy, film, writing, and music) and I was reminded that this book was still on my to-read list.

Though a lean volume that is written with the kind of chronological pattern that may recall Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography for readers (especially some of the archival pieces included, like notes on various comedy acts, are reminiscent of Franklin’s daily schedule list), there are enough moments of emotional impact that intrude upon the orderly sequence, allowing the reader a glimpse into Martin’s interior world. After recounting an early fissure in his relationship with his father, Martin writes, “I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”imagesThe book covers Martin’s childhood and his early adolescent desire to become a magician–his comedy act (infused with his banjo playing) was something that evolved largely out of a lack of resources (the various accouterments needed by a magician were quite expensive). Slowly, Martin grew a stand-up career that sprouted out of jobs at Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and eventually the small clubs of San Francisco. Along the way, he also took college courses in poetry and philosophy and “half believed [he] might try for a doctorate in philosophy and become a teacher, as teaching is, after all, a form of show business” (love that).

For readers interesting in knowing how someone builds a career in the creative arts–step by step–and for fans of Martin’s work in any genre, read this. And then read his 2011 novel, An Object of Beauty, one of my favorite reads in recent years. Fun fact: sometimes New Yorker contributor Martin also teamed up with cartoonist Roz Chast on this 2007 project.