Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What I'm Reading Now...

"Born Standing Up : a Comic's Life," a review by Laura Skinner, Technical Services.

He grew up two miles from Disneyland and got his earliest gigs there and at Knotts Berry Farm. Elvis Presley once told him he had an "ob-leek" sense of humor. Many of us know him as that "wild and crazy guy" that pranced, together with Dan Ackroyd, around the Saturday Night Live stage, but Steve Martin, in Born Standing Up, reveals himself as neither wild nor crazy, but rather as a shy and quiet artist who spent his down time between shows alone, watching The Brady Bunch in the dimness of a motel room somewhere, scouring antiques shops for forgotten treasures or perfecting his art with the devotion of a master sculptor. His rise to fame was not meteoric but rather a slow and deliberate ascent up a steep hill, the product of old-fashioned hard work and perseverance and also some old-fashioned good luck.

This isn't a celebrity tell-all book, full of dirty secrets and juicy tales of wild nights spent drinking, carousing or having sex with fans. Born Standing Up focuses tightly on the evolution of Martin's comedic style over the years. Inside the comic with an arrow through his head lives a thoughtful, passionate student of the art of comedy and all its nuances. His comedy was never improv; on the contrary, every line, every word, every gesture had been tested and re-tested, had been rearranged until all the bits fit into one coherent tapestry of gags that were placed just so to create a desired (and hoped for) response from the audience.

Martin's writing style is gentle and intimate, and he tells his story with heartfelt humility and honesty. There is no flash and no scandal to be found in this book. In some ways, it is a book about the harsh realities faced by those who pursue fame. Fame didn't come easily for Steve Martin. Along the road to his colossal success he struggled with anxiety, panic attacks, hypochondria, depression and a difficult relationship with a father who resented and envied him. Looking at fame through Steve Martin's experience is realizing that fame is a very tough, capricious mistress and that it takes a very strong individual to withstand its whims, cruelties and humiliations. Talent doesn't guarantee success; the road to fame is littered with talented unknowns who never made it into the winner's circle.

Getting to the top takes perseverance (which, according to Martin, is "a great substitute for talent"), a lot of work, an ability to withstand loneliness and to be in the right place at the right time. Martin's first stroke of luck was landing a writing job for the Smothers Brothers, which eventually led to Johnny Carson, and then to Saturday Night live, and then to sold-out shows. Then one night there were some empty seats, and Martin decided to hang up his King Tut costume and move on to the more social pursuit of movie making. His success continued in this new field and in others, and today he stands as a respected comic, actor, author, playwright, musician, magician and composer.

Part biography, part memoir, part confessional, this book is ultimately the endearing story of a 10-year-old child who sold guidebooks in Disneyland and dreamed of being a magician, and how that child became a white-suited, gray-haired comedian whose silly antics and catchphrases have kept us laughing for decades.