Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re roughly my age, there’s a good chance you developed the same Pavlovian response I did to Steve Martin’s voice or face: the moment I heard him or the moment I saw him, I’d burst out into laughter. He was, quite simply, the funniest man in the world at the moment I first understood what comedy was, and he shaped a large part of what I understand a comedian can do. His guest host appearances on Saturday Night Live not only made him famous but they shaped that show into what it is at its very rare best: the one place outside sports where something entirely unpredictable can happen.

This memoir started a bit slowly for me. Martin tells us he’s recounting not his life but his life in stand-up. As such, he has a clear point. Everything he tells us has to do with understanding how he came to do what he did and how he did it.

Hearing his voice narrate this (and I mean that literally since I read this as an audiobook) I kept getting my laugh response triggered. “This is Steve Martin talking,” I’d think. “This is supposed to be funny.”

But just because he is talking about funny things does not make this funny. The more I read, the more I picked up on the genuineness here, the genuine impulse to make sense of something he’d put behind him. This is, as in the classes I get to teach, “essaying,” it’s an effort on his part to try to plumb something he already knows.

For a while I felt as if I’d happened into the chance to hang out with Martin, as if I were one of those lucky fans who’d won a day with him, during which we’d eat, walk, drive, and spend time together. And I felt as if he were saying to me, “Can’t we just talk? I’m not funny all the time, and I really want to go over some things with you.”

And yet his story, particularly as it goes along, includes more and more of the familiar bits, “Mind if I fart?” or the police can tell if you’re “small” when they pull out a balloon and you can walk inside it. I’d find myself laughing and then worry I was falling back into sycophantic mode, trying to please the big man by giving him the laugh I presumed he wanted.

A little bit of that is this book’s fault. It doesn’t always telegraph the tone it’s after.

Most of that, though, gives way to a really compelling look into the practice behind an act that defined so much for so many of us.

Martin offers, as I count them, two key insights into what distinguished his comedy.

First, he tells us that, though he came of age in political comedy and practiced it himself, he was, first and last, committed to silliness in his humor. With a combination of modesty and retrospective awareness, and an acknowledgement of his fortunate timing, he proposes that he hit it as big as he did because – while preparing for his moment for roughly 15 years – he burst onto the scene with an antidote to a ‘seriousness’ that had come to define comedy. He offered a break from what comedy had become under George Carlin and Richard Pryor (both figures he deeply admires and, in many ways, hoped to emulate): extended social commentary. In its place, he offered pure goofiness.

Second, he describes his realization that the comedy he’d loved, in many ways the goofy comedy of the Catskills variety (though, as a West-Coaster, he doesn’t call it that) had become too formulaic. It began to trouble him that audiences responded not to the actual material but to its predictable rhythm. In one interesting anecdote, he talks of watching an old-time comic on T.V. who’d announce it was time for the audience to laugh by punctuating his punchlines with a blow to his own chest. At one point in the act, he garbled the punchline – it was inaudible, Martin said – but the audience still laughed on cue.

From that observation, Martin described how he set out to overturn such conventions. He decided he would not offer punch lines. Instead of inviting audiences to release the tension of a joke, they’d have to figure out their own breaking point. He might use older fashioned material – stuff taken from observations or logical contradictions – but he was going to use a very new-fashioned delivery. Some people would call it anti-comedy, and it could be, at its beautiful best, ugly. (He himself released an album, “Comedy Isn’t Pretty.”)

He reached a point where he didn’t know how to end his shows. With the audiences so unfamiliar with his cues – and with his own commitment to a kind of spontaneity that made him the perfect complement for the more traditional improve of the Second City/Saturday Night Live crew – he’d sometimes take his audiences outside the theater. He told of one occasion where he hailed a cab, had it drive him around the block, and then came back to jump out and keep going. On another his audience followed him down the street to a McDonald’s where, looking behind him, he ordered 300 cheeseburgers. Then, still in manic mode, he quickly changed it to a small French fry.

By the end of this, I’d finally found the balance I needed to be part of Martin’s “inner circle” here. I got comfortable with the thoughtful/silly contrast of what he was doing, and I found myself with new tools fort appreciating not just his stand-up but the larger art of it.

And then, right about the time I was ready to push on and see what’s next, this ended. I laughed my fair share, and I got some good insights. And, as always seemed to happen with Martin on Saturday Night Live, I found myself wanting the show to keep on going.

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