Book Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

This is an excellent memoir. If I have a complaint, it is that it is too short. I would have loved to have heard many more details and to have Martin not stop at the end of his stand-up comic days but continue the story onward into the next stages of his career. I hope he writes a sequel someday.

I appreciate the fact that Steve Martin, unlike many celebrities who choose to write their life stories, does not need a ghost writer. He is a writer, and he got his first big break as a writer for the splendid and infamous Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As I mentioned, the book does not tell the story of his whole life. He does recount briefly a portion of his childhood, but it mainly starts when he gets his first real job working in the magician’s shop at Disneyland and ends when he decides to give up stand-up comedy altogether.

I took away two main insights as I read this book, and I can recount the main content as I share them.

First of all, this book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The main premise in Outliers, and what Gladwell emphasizes through example after example, is that people with true talent who have achieved extraordinary measures of success did it not because they were born with it and it was handed to them on a silver platter but because they worked on it. He illustrates this with high profile examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles. Before Bill Gates founded Microsoft, he spent untold hours in his high school computer lab working on programs, so that when faced with the opportunity to excel in this new field, he had the background to be able to take advantage of it. The Beatles did not erupt fully developed into stardom. They paid their dues in shoddy nightclubs and other dives, working many hours a day seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany, and in England. By the time they had sufficiently developed their talent to be recognized, they had paid enough dues to be able to survive on their arduous concert tours.

Steve Martin worked incredibly hard for years in humiliating circumstances before reaching any measure of success. He started, as I mentioned, at the magic shop in the original Disneyland in Anaheim, which happened to be just a few miles from his house. His first shows were demonstrating magic tricks for the customers, and with his earnings he would buy some of the tricks for himself and spend countless hours at home practicing with them. At a certain point he decided he needed to move on, so he got a job irregularly performing magic and doing skits at Knott’s Berry Farm. From there he branched out to coffee houses and other places, blending more and more comedy into his magic act. He would take just about any show he could find, no matter how little it paid and sometimes for no pay. Even after getting his first big break writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and afterwards for other comedy and variety shows, he continued to take stand-up gigs all over the country. This gave him practice; he was able to hone his act in front of all sorts of live audiences. As a rising young comedian, he began to get interviews on daytime talk shows and eventually on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but his big break came when he was asked to appear on the new cutting-edge comedy show Saturday Night Live. He became a true celebrity, so that instead of performing for fifty or a hundred people a gig, he was performing for thirty to forty-five thousand. It was, ironically, this incredible success that caused him to decide to stop doing stand-up comedy, as he became isolated and burned out in the midst of the fireball of fame.

The point, though, is that he kept working hard during those lean years when he was living broke and sometimes in debt and rushing from place to place to accept any gig he was offered. Once in a while he’d get a good paycheck, but much of the time he was just barely getting by. And he could never anticipate audience reaction. There were good nights and bad nights.

The second insight I had concerned the work he accepted during these years. He would take almost anything just to stay busy as an entertainer. It reminded me of myself and how I have often been forced to submit my stories to semi-professional markets that pay much less than professional markets just so they can get published somewhere so someone can read them. I could, of course, self-publish them right away after they make the rounds of the professional markets, but instead I am patient and keep sending them out, as I want them in those other venues first before I publish them through my own company. And the truth is, sometimes I desperately need those smaller paychecks when they come in. Martin’s story encouraged me to keep going, keep striving with the understanding that you do what you can, even if it’s not in the ideal situation, instead of sitting back and waiting for success to somehow bump into you by accident.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book, and well worth reading for anyone who is attempting to succeed at any endeavor. It’s a fairly short and easy read, so take the time to absorb it.

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One Response to Book Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

  1. S. Pollard says:

    I’ll have to read it. I must say I have enjoyed his novels too.

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