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Thursday, July 09, 2020

Review: Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up is Steve Martin's memoir of his time as a comedian and why he gave up stand up comedy. Contrary to my expectation, it wasn't a very funny book. What does come through is how much his relationship with his father affected his life:
MY FATHER, GLENN VERNON MARTIN, died in 1997 at age eighty-three, and afterward his friends told me how much they had loved him. They told me how enjoyable he was, how outgoing he was, how funny and caring he was. I was surprised by these descriptions, because the number of funny or caring words that had passed between my father and me was few. He had evidently saved his vibrant personality for use outside the family. (Page 19)
The story of how he went from performing as a demonstrator at the Disneyland Magic Shop to becoming a full time stand up comedian is low key and interesting: I've never actually seen him live (or even recorded), though I don't remember him being particularly funny in the movies where I saw him.

What was fascinating was his decision to quit at the peak of his success:
 Though the audiences continued to grow, I experienced a concomitant depression caused by exhaustion, isolation, and creative ennui. As I was too famous to go outdoors without a discomforting hoopla, my romantic interludes ceased because I no longer had normal access to civilized life. The hour and a half I spent performing was still fun, but there were no band members, no others onstage, and after the show, I took a solitary ride back to the hotel, where I was speedily escorted by security across the lobby. A key went in a door, and boom: the blunt interior of a hotel room. Nowhere to look but inward. I’m sure there were a hundred solutions. I could have invited friends to join me on the road, or asked a feel-good guru to shake my shoulders and say, “Perk up, you idiot,” but I was too exhausted to communicate, and it seemed like a near-coma was the best way to spend the day. This was, as the cliché goes, the loneliest period of my life. I was caught and I could not quit, because this multi-zeroed income might last only a moment. I couldn’t imagine abandoning something I had worked so hard to craft. I knew about the flash in the pan, I had seen it happen to others, and I worried about it happening to me. In the middle of all this, I saw that the only way I could go, at best, was sideways. I wasn’t singing songs that you hum forever; I was doing comedy, which is as ephemeral as the daily newspaper. Onstage I was no longer the funniest I ever was; my shelf life was expiring. (Pg. 183)
So that's why comedians frequently are depressed --- the nature f the job seems counter-productive to having a good social life. Towards the end he of the book he realized he'd stopped doing comedy:
 I had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making. If I had understood what was happening, I might have been happier, but I didn’t. I still thought I was doing comedy. During this time, I asked a woman to dinner, and she accepted. After the salad course, she started talking about her boyfriend. “You have a boyfriend?” I asked, puzzled. “Yes, I do.” “Does he know you’re out with me?” I asked. “Yes, he does.” “And what does he think of that?” “He thinks it’s great!” I was now famous, and the normal rules of social interaction no longer applied. (Pg. 185)
The book is filled with interesting insights --- and yes, he does eventually reconcile with his parents. Worth the short reading time. Recommended.

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