David Letterman has often said he has a theory about the people who become stand-up comedians: They either got too little attention from their parents growing up, or they got way too much. Steve Martin falls clearly into the first category.
Martin's "Born Standing Up" retraces his life from a lonely boyhood in Texas and Southern California to when he became a superstar of stand-up comedy in the 1970s. His beginnings were quite ordinary. Martin's penny-pinching mother kept the heat turned down so low that the family "nearly froze into statues" on cold mornings. Martin's father, whom even the children called "Glenn," had given up an early interest in acting for a more sensible career selling real estate. The decision filled him with bitterness ever after.
One night when Martin was about 9 his father's usually silent brooding gave way to a sudden outbreak of temper. Glenn didn't like something Steve said at the dinner table and the dad took out his belt and gave his son a beating "that never seemed to end." His father never became physically abusive again, Martin says, but the incident "made me resolve, with icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me."
The family lived in the Inglewood section of Los Angeles in a neighborhood in the path of the bulldozers that were clearing the way for the building of the San Diego Freeway. His father's decision to relocate to Orange County "profoundly affected" his life due to his new home's proximity to Disneyland, which opened in 1955. Martin was 10 when he pedaled his bicycle to the new theme park and landed a job selling guidebooks, at a profit of two cents per book. Disneyland became his great escape, the place where he discovered the allure of show business.
Martin was particularly drawn to the performances of the magicians and comedians. He apprenticed himself to them and studied the way they practiced their craft. He eventually moved on to Knott's Berry Farm, where he was first paid for performing magic and comedy in a small theater called the Bird Cage. The long arc of his show business career had officially begun.
For those of us who remember Steve Martin as the wild and crazy guy in the white suit who played to packed arenas in the late 1970s, one of the striking parts of his story is how long and hard he worked to get there. When he was 18, Martin juggled philosophy classes at Long Beach State College with four to five performances a day at the Bird Cage. His act, which comprised magic tricks, jokes, banjo playing and sometimes poetry reading, began to take shape. As folk clubs popped up in the early 1960s, Martin ventured all over California to audition. He sometimes played three different clubs on the same night.
His first serious girl friend, named Stormie, turned him on to learning. He seemingly inhaled books of poetry and philosophy. He realized that though he knew nothing about writing comedy, that he'd have to drop all the borrowed lines and old gags he had accumulated in his act and come up with entirely original material.
College friends took Martin on trips across the country, widening his horizons in every way. The '60s happened, and Martin dabbled in Flower Power politics, free love and the so-called mind-expanding drugs that were everywhere. One night he had a bad trip that turned into a panic attack. Martin say he swore off drugs immediately. Though the attacks would come and go for 20 more years, he says they saved him from getting hooked on cocaine and other controlled substances.
One girlfriend helped Martin land a spot as a writer on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS. Martin felt like he was in way over his head, but eventually he held his own. He appeared in a few skits with Tom and Dick Smothers, whose popular program soon got canceled largely due to its lampooning of the United States government over its conduct of the Vietnam War. Martin landed a job with Sonny and Cher, but he realized that writing for others could be lucrative but ultimately was unrewarding. He dedicated himself again to becoming a performer.
Despite the show business connections he had made in Los Angeles, his career climb was tortuous. He landed spots on daytime talk shows with Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and others, but his offbeat style didn't quite mesh with the daytime audience. Even his first appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson -- comedy's great kingmaker at the time -- didn't have the effect Martin expected. For several years he was exiled to appearing only with guest hosts, on nights when Johnny was absent.
In September 1974, Carson invited Martin back onto his A-list. Martin did a routine about a speed-talking Las Vegas nightclub act. "The Tonight Show" cameras caught Carson doubled over with laughter, and Sammy Davis Jr. then greeted Steve with a big hug after the bit. It was Martin's 16th "Tonight Show" appearance, but "the first one I could really call a smash."
It was time to cue the cliche about overnight sensations who were years in the making. In August 1975 Martin bounced back from a "depressing" engagement at the Playboy Club to a career-defining one at the Boarding House in San Francisco. It was the first time in his career that Martin felt everything was clicking, that he was mastering his craft. He was entering a phase of his life "when three things would occur: I would earn money; I would grow to be famous; and I would be the funniest I ever was."
There was much more to his comedy than the King Tut song and the catchphrases such as "Excuuuuuuse me!" Anyone who spent time listening to Martin's '70s albums on a turntable will remember bits about cat juggling, or lines like "I've learned in comedy never to alienate the audience. Otherwise I would be like Dimitri in 'La Condition Humaine.' "
Martin's first appearance on "Saturday Night Live" soon followed and his stock shot up. But his father still wasn't buying it. Glenn Martin reviewed his son's appearance in a real estate newsletter. "His performance did nothing to further his career," the elder Martin wrote.
Steve felt the sting, but tried to ignore it. And it was easy to lose himself in his work. The crowds attending his shows seemed to grow exponentially, reaching some 45,000 one night at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum.
There are two chapters summarizing this period of Martin's career, when he was a national phenomenon playing to packed arenas. His life became a blur of bus trips, hotel rooms and live concerts, and even the shows themselves brought diminishing returns as far as he was concerned. The crowds and venues were so large that he no longer felt he had the control and comic precision that he enjoyed back in his nightclub days.
Off the stage he led a mostly joyless existence. "It was, as the cliche goes, the loneliest period of my life."
Martin eventually gave up stand-up altogether to begin his movie career.
Through most of the book Martin writes with a certain amount of emotional detachment, perhaps echoing the "icy determination" he decided upon at an early age as a response to his father's moods. The ice melts away, though, when he describes death-bed scenes with both of his parents in which they described their regrets about their lives together. These tearful exchanges provide an unexpectedly rewarding coda to a life that could be summarized in the title of one of Martin's hit albums, "Comedy is Not Pretty."
Greg Connors is a Buffalo News copy editor and blogger.
Born Standing Up
By Steve Martin
204 pages, $29.95