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"Born Standing Up"
June 18, 2012 - Mike Donahey
The first time I saw Steve Martin was on a television show — it’s name I’ve long forgotten.
He stood there, with banjo in hand, wearing a white suit. On his head was a toy which made it look like an arrow had entered one side of his skull and exited the other. He performed a stand-up routine I considered average.
Consequently, that critique indicates this blog is not going to be “I knew Martin was going to be a success early on,” because I didn’t. I recalled seeing him again on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson hosting. Again, I did not find Martin’s humor exceptionally funny.
My attitude about him changed when he started showing up on “Saturday Night Live.” Several gigs as guest host and his pairing up with cast member Dan Akroyd as “the Festrunk brothers” — two clumsy Eastern European wanna be sybarites got my attention. A performance of “King Tut” on another SNL episode closed the deal for me and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Martin’s book “Born Standing Up (2007) gives one insight into Martin’s strict work ethic and infatuation with practicing routines at length, which helped pave the way to standing as show business icon. The secret to Martin’s success is there is no secret, as the book explains. Martin worked his way up the ladder in that cut-throat business, initially performing magic tricks before classmates, friends and family to working in small night clubs all the while honing his skills. In between, he worked at Disneyland, selling guide books on weekends and full-time during summer breaks. Again, he worked his way up from the park’s menial jobs to those with more responsibility, all the while learning how to meet customer’s needs — a valuable tool. His interest in magic attracted him fittingly, to Disneyland’s Main Street Magic shop. He learned more magic skills and added juggling and creating balloon animals to his repertoire. From those tricks he learned how to gauge an audience’s interest and what and what didn’t work in routines – all which proved valuable later in his stand-up routines.
Comedy is but one arrow in his quiver. (It is a big arrow, he won a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy in 2000). He moved from stand-up comedian into film successfully — no easy task — with movies such as “The Jerk,” his first film and a box-office smash. “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Man with Two Brains” and “All of Me,” all followed and earned him critical acclaim — and importantly — made money. Martin's won an Emmy for comedy writing. He has written successful books and screenplays such as “Shopgirl” and a play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” He’s won four Grammy awards — two for comedy albums, one for best country instrumental performance and another for best bluegrass album. Actor, comedian, musician and writer all describe Martin. While much success has come Martin’s way there has been pain — he candidly describes in the book his father, who was at home, but one he barely knew and was estranged from for many years. His first marriage resulted in a divorce from Victoria Tennant, who co-starred with him in “L.A. Story.” He described performing a skit on stage which was widely criticized and left him depressed for a week. My take on the book is this — anyone considering show business or writing as careers should read “Born Standing Up.” Wrote Kyle Smith in People magazine: "How often does a genius open up his box of tricks and explain how it all works?"