Book Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
By Steve Martin
Scribner. $25. 224 pp.

Jan. 22, 2008 - Steve Martin's comedic genuis is rooted in some pretty serious childhood sadness. In his new book, "Born Standing Up," the retired comic explains that the isolation he experienced while growing up was the reason he chose the life of a perfomer. When he was on stage, he was able to insulate himself from the pain of his father's rejection and the perception that his sister, Melinda, was his family's favorite. He used humor, music and magic tricks to connect with others, even if it was only a connection with a paying audience.

When he was young, Martin's father, Glenn, moved the family, including his mother and sister, from Waco to Southern California to pursue a career in acting.

Instead of succeeding on film, the elder Martin found his fortune in real estate development.

His father ruled the house. Even his mother, Mary Lee, could not protect her young son from his father's put-downs. Martin remembers one time that he and his father played ball in the front yard. One time.

After Martin had carved out a comfortable niché for himself in the world of comedy, he received no encouragement or kind words from his father. However, the two men did make peace prior to the elder Martin's death. The retelling of the moment is touching and insightful. Addtionally, Martin and his sister are no longer estranged.

Martin, now 63, escaped the oppressive atmosphere at his house by working at Disneyland. He wound up as a clerk in the magic shop on the property and found male role models among retired magicians and vaudevillians.

After Disneyworld, he landed a gig at the fledgling Bird Cage Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm. It was on this small stage that Martin really came into his own. His magic tricks worked and, as time went on, he found out how good it felt to be funny.

Martin spent most of his 20s traipsing all over the country, playing in small bars, sometimes to no more than a handful of people. He cut down on the magic tricks, added a banjo, and some crazy props - like an arrow through his head and bunny ears - to the act. When the crowds were still small, he often ended the show by taking his audience out into the street and riffing on bystanders and taxicab drivers.

Like most of the world, I discovered Steve Martin on "The Tonight Show." His humor laid me out. I was in college at the time, and he was one funny guy, standing there in his white suit, with an arrow through his head, strumming a banjo, singing nonsensical songs with lyrics like this:

Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike,

Be witty and happy and wise,

Be honest and love all your neighbors,

Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant.

Be pompous, obese, and eat cactus,

Be dull, and boring, and omnipresent,

Criticize things you don't know about,

Be oblong and have your knees removed.

Learning about his comedic journey was nice, but the real draw of this book is being able to see how he found his voice - from the "EXXXXccuuuuuseeeeee me!" to his bit with Dan Aykrod as wild and crazy guys on "Saturday Night Live." He was original, hilarious and he did it, for the most part, without the blue language so prevalent these days. More insight into his romantic life would have been nice, but I'll take what's here.

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