Born Standing Up

November 16, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

The history of Western culture is full of artists who bled, starved, or courted madness for their work and their audience. But come on: How many of those phonies stuck an arrow through their head for us? Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up is a spare, unexpectedly resonant remembrance of things past, the things in question being balloon animals and bunny ears, as well as the awkwardness Martin felt with his sullen father and the profound silliness he himself unleashed on stage. The book is unexpected not because fans have forgotten the sunburst that was Martin’s stand-up but because you’d be forgiven for wondering if he has. It’s been decades since he began reinventing himself as a wry, quietly powerful novelist, a snowy-haired movie dad, and a real, as opposed to ironic, sophisticate. ”I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years,” he writes, ”but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.”

Martin’s prose is unusually meditative for a guy who once insisted that the ozone layer had to be saved because it was shielding us from another, more distant layer — of farts. Off stage, he always tended toward the non-wild and not-so-crazy. By 15, Martin was doing magic acts for Cub Scouts and making notes: ”Leave out unessasary [sic] jokes… relax, don’t shake… charge money.” At 20, he performed for a week at a club in San Francisco, where a sign in the kitchen read ”Anyone giving money to Janis Joplin before her last set is fired!” It was here that his act became not comedy but ”a parody of comedy.” Every desperate thing he’d done just to fill a 25-minute set — balloons, banjo playing, nose-glasses — suddenly cohered.

Describing the road to his colossal fame, Martin drops tidbits about being intimidated by Linda Ronstadt (”Steve, do you often date girls and not try to sleep with them?”) and passing Elvis backstage in Vegas (”Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor”). He talks about anxiety attacks and his father’s death. But this is not some star’s tell-all. Martin’s one true subject is the evolution of his comedy — the transcendent moments when he realized, say, that punchlines were the enemy, that a white suit could be seen better in a concert hall. Born is a smart, gentlemanly, modest book. That it comes from a man who’s spent his life lampooning arrogance makes it all the more winning. In 2001, while hosting the Oscars, Martin had a one-liner that deserves to be remembered as one of the great skewerings of celebrity vanity. ”Please hold your applause,” he said. ”Until it’s for me.” Fair enough. Here it comes: A

Want more Steve Martin? See the roles — from The Jerk to Little Shop of Horrors to Shopgirl — that turned this Wild and Crazy Guy into a movie star in our photo gallery.

Born Standing Up

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Born Standing Up

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