Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Monday, December 31, 2007
Born Standing Up
All about my father
Steve Martin crosses the lobby of New York's Algonquin Hotel in what I at first take to be a disguise of some sort. It's not entirely his fault: the toothbrush moustache he wears is a condition of his lead in the second Pink Panther movie, currently filming in Chicago. But the wide-brimmed hat, our-man-in-Havana-style suit and sunglasses the size of wing mirrors are all wardrobe decisions that, along with his mildly self-conscious air, announce his arrival as subtly as a town crier.
I'd seen Martin's public persona in action at the New Yorker literary festival the day before, where he'd appeared before a full house to discuss his new memoir, Born Standing Up. The book covers the period from his childhood to his early 30s, when, with audacious ambition, he left stand-up comedy to take a shot at movie stardom. Martin reprised some of his early routines, sang a satirical song and, to the delight of the bookish audience, successfully executed a rope trick. His demeanour throughout was extravagantly pained, "I can't believe you people are making me do a rope trick," he said. "You're killing me up here." Then he sat back down to answer questions. After an hour, someone at the back got up to leave, whereupon Martin bent double and cried, "We have to finish now. People are leaving. Oh my God, I'm boring them, this is the worst possible..." He wasn't joking.
Martin admits in the book to being unhappy talking about himself, and the memoir skilfully circumvents much of his personal life to focus on his early career and his relationship with his parents. It's hard to reconcile its self-possessed tone with the guy we think of as Steve Martin, rubber-faced and on the receiving end of chaos. From his first film role in 1979, as The Jerk, onwards, his characters have tended to be uptight and good-hearted, lovable idiots pushed to breaking point by children, rogue weather systems or his country's hardline insistence that everyone be happy and fulfilled at all times. In 1991's LA Story, which he wrote and produced, he obliquely comments on his own comic style by playing a surrealist weatherman whom nobody understands. Harris K Telemacher is dismissed as "wacky", with its connotations of childish stupidity, when his jokes are actually absurd in the style of Spike Milligan. It's all in the delivery. At one stage in the interview, Martin looks at my voice recorder, observes pleasantly that he once had a gadget that went wrong and delivers the explanation - "complicated battery stuff" - with such mordant regret that it somehow manages to be funny.
What Martin does best is a combination of schmaltz and satire, and it has its roots in a childhood spent wandering around Disneyland. The most vivid scenes in the book are the early ones, in which the 10-year-old Martin scores an after-school job selling guide books at a theme park that opened a few miles from his home in California in 1955. It entitled him to free rides and provided him, if one is minded to look at things this way, with an almost mythological basis for a career in showbiz. For the next eight years he worked in the park in one capacity or another, finding an eventual home demonstrating tricks in Merlin's Magic Trick Shop. This suited his disposition exactly. The teenage Martin loved the nerdy showmanship of being a magician, and started doing gigs for local Cub Scout troupes and the Rotary Club. He spent hours in his room, practising his act, keeping a notebook in which he reviewed his performances with agonised sincerity. "Bad psychoanalysis would say I enjoyed pleasing people," he says, "working really hard and pleasing people, which is probably related to my father in some way. But I really liked working hard. When I worked at Disneyland, I'd do 12 hours straight and go home thrilled."
He is still obsessed with the theme park of that era, going online to find old snapshots of the place, and its appeal was probably amplified at the time by its contrast with his home life. A nuclear silence pervaded the Martin household; his father was a bully, his mother supine in the face of it, and Martin was desperate to get out. He diagnoses his father's problem as being one of disappointment: he'd wanted to be an actor but ended up in real estate and took it out on his son. There's a scene in the book in which his father takes umbrage at something Martin says at the table, leans across to clout him and gets carried away and beats him up. It happened only once, but the incident looms large in Martin's imagination, surfacing in his second novel, The Pleasure Of My Company, as a flashback that the narrator implies has some connection with his autism.
"It was typical of the times, the spankings - I don't think in the [memoir] I really blame him; I only comment that one day it was a little bit too much. The air of fear. But I really think that he was... I think he was under duress when I was an adolescent. I think he found himself in a place he didn't want to be."
By the time Martin was 18, his magic act was good enough to appear before a paying audience, at a local theatre called the Bird Cage. It was morphing into a combination of tricks, banjo-playing and joke-telling by then. At some point he realised that the magic tricks were funnier if they didn't work. His comedy, he decided, was not comedy so much as "a parody of comedy". Inspired by the college course he was taking in philosophy, Martin went through the inevitable phase of smart-arse student humour, during which, for example, he stood on stage and dramatically recited the periodic table (no one laughed). He was inspired by the word play of E E Cummings and by Lewis Carroll's syllogisms, which he thought silly and sophisticated, brainy and funny.
"I was an entertainer who was playing an entertainer," he writes in the book, "a not so good one." He told jokes without punchlines that left the audience puzzled and sang songs with corny tunes that included words such as "obsequious" and "geology". Martin says now, "Only looking back did I realise that what I did was completely fabricated."
This sounds like a strange kind of modesty. Isn't everything in showbiz fabricated?
"I guess I'm talking about natural talents," he says. "What I mean is that none of my talents had a - what's that great word - rubric. A singer, an actor, a dancer - there was nothing I could really say I was. The writing came much later. And, actually, thank God, because if I had said I'm a singer, I would really have just had one thing to do. But stand-up comedy was a synthesis of various things I did. So I said, OK, I guess that's what I am."
For a while he thought about doing a doctorate in philosophy and becoming a teacher. But the pull of the comedy clubs was too great. Photographs of Martin from that era are startling: he went grey young, as had his parents, and it never bothered him, he says, though for a short while in his 20s he had a Kris Kristofferson-style bouffant-and-beard combo. His experience of the 60s was mostly disastrous. He had a panic attack after smoking dope one night and had to leave a movie theatre in the middle of the film, the upshot of which was that he never took drugs again and - this gives you a sense of the absolutist in him - didn't enter a movie theatre for the next 10 years. He nearly had an affair with Linda Ronstadt, but was so intimidated by her that after a couple of outings she said to him, "Steve, do you often date girls and not try to sleep with them?" He toured the country with his comedy act, every night in a different city, and was lonely and depressed. He was pursuing what he calls a "wrong-headed quest for solitude".
I ask what he means by that. "I think I meant that, given the circumstances of my childhood, I had the illusion that it's easier to be alone. To have your relationships be casual and also to pose as a solitary person, because it was more romantic. You know, I was raised on the idea of the ramblin' man and the loner. It was just easier to," he smiles here, "not be a person than to actually be a person." He was also, he says, "very shy. So maybe it's just a cover for your insecurity."
Success, when it eventually arrived, didn't do much to fix this. He started landing TV spots on Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live, won an Emmy as part of the writing team on a TV show called The Smothers Brothers, and then in 1977 his comedy album, Let's Get Small, sold one and a half million copies. After more than a decade of hard graft, he could suddenly command live audiences of up to 22,000 people. Clips of those shows are still funny. The image of Martin jack-knifing across the stage is reminiscent of John Cleese and implies a certain link between absurdism and repression. Martin turns diffidence into the Wasp version of Woody Allen's neurosis, an internal angst that eventually bursts out as slapstick and causes him to fall over.
He had always been commercially savvy; when every other 60s comedian was dressed as a hippy, he wore a suit and tie. He realised pretty quickly that if he was to have a long-term career, he should use his profile as a stand-up to try to get into the film business. Looking back, he's proud of the lean years in a way that suggests he is still essentially a romantic. One of his favourite parables is Brer Rabbit. "The rabbit is caught by the hunter," Martin says, "and says to him, 'Please, please, whatever you do, don't throw me in the briar patch.' And he convinces the hunter to throw him in the briar patch because it's the worst possible thing that could happen to him. So the hunter throws him in the briar patch and the rabbit laughs and says, 'I was born in the briar patch', and scampers away."
It is one of Martin's great regrets that his parents never understood his work. He suspects they were embarrassed by it "all this absurd, silly comedy, with dirty words sprinkled here and there". After the premiere of The Jerk, he went out to celebrate and one of his friends said to his father, "You must be very proud." And his father replied, "Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin."
By today's parenting standards, this would be practically cause for arrest. "Yeah," he says, "today most parents say to their kids, 'I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW GREAT YOU ARE'. I think that it was kind of naive on his part - it was a feeling of being an honest critic. He did that with a lot of people. So it's not to hurt, but to be honest. But..."
The kind of father Martin plays in Parenthood and its lesser imitations, Father Of The Bride and Cheaper By The Dozen, is the soppy modern kind and is why audiences regard him with such warmth. His own family life was constricted, he says, by the unhappy example set by his parents. For 10 years he was married to the English actress Victoria Tennant, with whom he appeared in LA Story. They divorced in 1994. Earlier this year he married Anne Stringfield, a writer, who is 34 to his 62, and so the question of whether Shopgirl, his novel about a young woman who falls for a man twice her age, was based on their relationship is an obvious one. Martin doesn't welcome it. "Not entirely," he manages.
It's a curious book, full of people making small gestures that denote vast psychological movements, and as the narrator Martin comes across as the sort of guy who takes pride in being A Man Who Understands Women - the heroine is at one point discovered to be "bearing her anguish so solitarily" and is said to be "aware of every incoming sensation that glances obliquely against her soft, fragile core" - a sentence so dank it's one stop short of describing the influence of the moon on "female behaviour". Martin says his aim was to write about relationships as they really are, but as he lusts after Claire Danes' soft, fragile core in the film version, all you can think is: ugh, midlife crisis fantasy. (He admits that he probably shouldn't have taken the lead, that he was too old and that Tom Hanks might have done a better job. But he was on set every day and thought, "Well, I may as well put on some make-up.")
It may be that audiences simply can't accept Martin in anything other than his traditional comic role. He doesn't have children, and so I wonder if it strikes him as strange that this image of him as America's favourite dad predominates.
"It's funny but I don't think that about myself. I think I did some age-appropriate father roles - well, I was a little too old, frankly" - he laughs - "but I never thought I'm going to make that my thing. I'm not an action star, so I can't be a guy out there with a gun." In his 30s and 40s, he found a lot of the scripts that came his way boring. "You know, the guy-who-always-treated-women badly-but-now-falls-for-someone-and-learns-his-lesson. The characters are so stereotyped."
He doesn't like gross-out comedies, either. "I wouldn't want to do a movie that is just an assault on your senses." And while he thinks Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat is great, "The lower practitioners of [that genre of comedy] are really cruel - prank phone calls," he says. "Of course you can call up an old lady and lie to her on the phone and make her feel stupid. Of course you can. But I thought Borat was a breakthrough comedy, because it was really funny. It wasn't some studio-produced script with 14 writers."
The films he said yes to were ones that "did what early films did to me: they affect people, even at a sentimental level, and I don't mean that in a negative way." Planes Trains And Automobiles, in which he co-starred with John Candy as the dad trying desperately to get home in time for Thanksgiving, is what he calls a "good sentimental film. Listen, I would love to be in a fabulous art film, or a mystery - I'd love to be in a mystery - but I'm not known for that, and people can't quite... I affect the movie negatively, I think." Over the years, directors have asked him to do cameos in other genres and he has always told them, "I'll ruin your movie." He's aware of the pitfalls of certain pretentious types of film-making. "It's like my ex-wife, Victoria Tennant, was doing a film and she said, look, I have to tell you something, there's a scene in the bathroom with my husband and I think for authenticity I should be topless. And I said, well, OK. But while you're being authentic, everyone in the audience will be looking at your breasts." He laughs. "I think she ended up not doing it."
In 1993, Martin wrote a play called Picasso At The Lapin Agile, an imagined meeting between Einstein and Picasso in a Paris bar in 1904. It's the only thing his father straightforwardly congratulated him on. "I tried to figure out why, and I think it was because it was in an area in which he had no ambition." Ouch. Martin's other straight dramas have had mixed results. After The Jerk he made Pennies From Heaven, a film version of the Dennis Potter drama that was, he says, "audience-jarring", and he wishes now that he'd made The Jerk 2. "But by then I was tired of my own persona. I just couldn't do it. And Pennies From Heaven gave me a great gift of having my time completely occupied, learning to dance. Class every day, hours and hours and hours, and there was no time to over-think."
These days, he channels his over-thinking into novel writing. The Pleasure Of My Company is much better than his first novel. It's told from the perspective of a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Martin understands a little of this from his days obsessively rehearsing his magic tricks. As a kid he would go through phases of doing things like "counting tyres" when being driven down the street, things that "when you exaggerate them and write them out, start to sound nutty". It's a book about loneliness, as is Shopgirl, and it's funny and touching and tender. After falling for the girl next door, the hero says, "I stared at the ceiling and wondered how I could be in love with someone whose name had no anagram."
For 10 years or so, Martin informally studied psychology in a way that puts one in mind of this character - studying the way people behave from what seems like a special distance. It was partly an intellectual pursuit, he says, and also a way of understanding himself. He read books on the subject and would question his friends intensely about how they came to be the way they were. "I was always very interested in how people broke up. Not so much how they got together, that's so easy. If I ever hear about people having affairs, I really get interested in exactly what's done and what's told." The conclusions, if that isn't too formal a word for them, reveal an acquired optimism in Martin's nature and also a release from all those years of bad relationships and blaming his dad.
"Let me tell you a story," he says. "I had two female friends. One was extremely outgoing - she lit up a room when she walked in and was always talking and laughing. And I have another friend who is very shy and doesn't want to upset people - you know, 'Did I offend you? Did I hurt you?' Both very likeable, but opposite personalities. And I asked the outgoing one, I said, how did you become this way? And she said, well, when I was a kid, my parents just loved everything I did. Everything I did they said, 'That's fabulous, you're so great', and I felt so confident. And to the shy one I said, how did you become this way? And she said, 'Oh, when I was a kid my parents just loved everything I did and I didn't feel inspired to do anything else.'"
Martin's father died in 1997 and his mother in 2002. Both death scenes as he describes them in the book are extraordinary. They are quoted verbatim. On his death bed his father expressed regret for "all the love I received and couldn't return", and told his son, "you did everything I wanted to do". Martin replied, "I did it for you", and in the book adds, "I was glad I didn't say the more complicated truth: "I did it because of you." While she was dying, his mother said, "I wish I had been more truthful", by which Martin took her to mean she wished she had stood up to his father's silent tyranny. "I wanted to remember those words always," he says, "because they were so moving. They were untranslatable. You couldn't paraphrase those sentences and have the same power."
As we part, I fleetingly imagine I see the same look on Martin's face that he had the day before when the man walked out of the theatre - that have-I-bored-you panic.
From The Sunday Times
November 11, 2007
You’ve had your laugh everyone, now listen to this
The comedy star is firing off fewer jokes these days, and his new memoir
Steve Martin used to be a funny guy. Only the most curmudgeonly critic would deny cracking a smile at the daft poem he uttered as The Man With Two Brains: “Oh pointy bird, so pointy pointy, anoint my head, anointy nointy.” Or marvelling at the comic’s zany performance as the adopted white son of black sharecroppers in The Jerk. But somewhere along the way, the original wacko from Waco, Texas, stopped making people laugh.
Now the 62-year-old actor has offered some clues as to why he began posing as an intellectual while making mediocre films. His autobiography, Born Standing Up, published next week, describes the violence he suffered at the hands of his father and his miserable early career as a stand-up comic.
“I was not naturally talented,” he writes. “I didn’t sing, dance or act – though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not destructive, though I almost destroyed myself.”
No wonder Martin’s hair went white by the time he was 30 – but at least he didn’t have to parrot Bob Hope’s gag: “I can turn on the TV and watch my hairline recede through my old movies.” Watching Martin’s own films sometimes makes him wince. He felt he was “letting myself down” in Sgt Bilko and in flops such as Leap of Faith and Mixed Nuts: “It just wasn’t fun any more,” he told interviewers. Disillusioned fans could add last year’s reboot of The Pink Panther, which Martin scripted and also starred in.
When not announcing that he is leaving the movies to become a serious writer, Martin yearns to return to his screen persona of the tidy suburban patriarch whose life is unravelled by some grotesque intrusion, such as his daughter’s wedding in Father of the Bride, or the travel partner from hell in his favourite film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Sceptics say that it is easier to motor out from the ornate gates of his Beverly Hills home to pick up $6m for working on a dreary family comedy than rekindle the manic energy of old. Yet nobody can accuse him of being a failure. He has been honoured as a comedian, scriptwriter, playwright and author (his collection of stories and sketches, Pure Drivel, was a bestseller). He is also an avid art collector who counts among his friends Damien Hirst, Charles Saatchi and David Hockney, a neighbour who lives in the same canyon.
Some argue that Martin mislaid his humour on the tempestuous seas of love. It had been plain sailing in 1986 when he married the British actress Victoria Tennant, with whom he had starred in LA Story. After their divorce eight years later he went on to a high-profile relationship with the actress Anne Heche, only to be devastated when she left him for the lesbian sitcom star, Ellen DeGeneres.
Martin’s broken heart was a matter of national concern. “I date. It’s hard,” he sighed. He claimed his disappointments had prompted him to write Shopgirl, released in 2005, the story of a “beautiful wallflower” in her early thirties whose quest for love is fulfilled when she meets a millionaire in his fifties. The note of wish-fulfilment was unmistakeable.
Eventually, in July this year, Martin was married to Anne Stringfield, a 35-year-old writer for New Yorker magazine. This was an auspicious union, for Martin has reserved his funniest material for the journal, including a fantasy in which he believed he was having a baby with Gwyneth Paltrow. It was Stringfield who encouraged Martin to unburden himself of his memories in his new book. The result is not a bundle of laughs, but rather a classic “tears of the clown” memoir.
Born on August 14, 1945, Martin grew up in Waco and later California with his elder sister Melinda, in the care of upright, religious parents. His father Glenn was a failed actor who took out his frustrations as a real estate agent on his timid wife Mary and their son. Few “funny or caring words” passed between son and father, who was always called Glenn in the house.
Martin was punished for his worst misbehaviour by spankings with switches or a paddle and became “sick with fear” when his mother warned: “Just wait till Glenn gets home.” Once, when the boy was nine, Glenn came home in an “ominous mood”, and angered by his son’s mumbled response, “pulled his belt out its loops and inflicted a beating that seemed never to end”. The next day at school he wore long trousers to hide the welts.
This beating and the rage directed by Glenn at his mom made Martin resolve, “with icy determination” that “only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me”. For almost 30 years neither attempted to repair the rift. This disconnection would result in what Martin calls “psychological debts” that would arrive years later “in the guise of romantic misconnections and a wrongheaded quest for solitude”.
Martin’s first stage performance was as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at kindergarten in Hollywood, where the family briefly lived. Watching television, he fell under the spell of Laurel and Hardy, Jack Benny and Red Skelton.
He broke away from home when he started selling guidebooks in Disneyland and learnt to play the banjo. Honing his skills by appearing at Knots Berry Farm, a theme park theatre, he closed the four daily playlets with a medley of juggling and conjuring tricks. Here he fell in love with Stormie Sherk, with whom he performed melodramas. “I was a late-blooming 18-year-old when I had my first sexual experience, involving the virginal Stormie, a condom and the front of my car, whose windows became befogged with desire”.
A course in symbolic logic at California state university led him to consider becoming a philosophy professor until he made a discovery: “They were talking about cause and effect, and you start to realise, ‘Hey, there is no cause and effect! There is no logic! There is no nothing!’ ” In 1967 he transferred to UCLA and switched his major to drama, while moonlighting at local comedy clubs.
Thanks to another girlfriend who was a dancer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy House, he landed a job writing jokes for the show and won an Emmy award with the other writers in 1969. Even then, his father advised him to go back to college. With his balloon tricks and vaudeville gags, he was out of sync with the fashionable antiestablishment humour of Lenny Bruce, although he smoked pot and wore a groovy white suit. The shy Martin tried to romance the singer Linda Ronstadt, but gave up when she told him: Steve, do you often date girls and not try to sleep with them?"
In the mid 1970s he frequently appeared as a comedian on Johnny Carson’s show. Real fame arrived on Saturday Night Live, the 90-minute television launchpad for such talents as Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, where his verbal tic, “Well, excuuse mmmeee” became a national catchphrase. True to form, his father wrote a scathing review of his son’s performance in an estate agent’s newsletter: “His performance did nothing to further his career.”
To celebrate his first Hollywood movie, The Jerk, in 1979, he took his father out to dinner after the premiere. Asked by a mutual friend what he thought of his son’s performance, Glenn replied: “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.” Martin privately admitted later: “The Jerk had been a smash hit, but my comic well was dry.”
In 1981 he began to notice empty seats in his Las Vegas stage act and during an exhausting week in Atlantic City he lost control when a stage prop failed to descend. “In the wings I began swearing to myself. I ripped off my coat and threw it against the wall... I had lost touch with what I was doing.”
In the 1990s his father’s attitude began to mellow, prompted by Martin’s serious play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, about an imagined meeting between the artist and Einstein at a Paris cafe in 1904. “My father flipped over it, bragging to friends and telling me I should win a Pulitzer prize.”
One afternoon Martin was surprised when his father hugged him and said in a barely audible voice: “I love you.” Later, when Glenn was bedridden, he confessed he wanted to cry. About what? his son inquired. “For all the love I received and couldn’t return,” his father replied, adding: “You did everything I wanted to do.”
Martin insisted: “I did it for you.” Then, he recalled: “We wept for the lost years. I was glad I didn’t say the more complicated truth: ‘I did it because of you’.”
The comic does not need to spell it out: the father envied the son his talent and success, while the son came to regard comedy as secondary to intellectual acclaim in an effort to win his father’s respect. It’s tragic, but that’s show business.
From The Sunday Times
November 18, 2007
Born standing up: a comic's life by Steve Martin
An earnest and almost masochistic self-analysis of the comedian's life
Reviewed by David Schneider
In 1981, when Steve Martin finally hung up his mike or whatever stand-ups do when they retire, he was, if not bigger than Jesus, then certainly up there with some of the disciples. Playing to stadiums of 20,000 people, with platinum-selling records topping the charts and his face on the cover of Rolling Stone and Newsweek, he was the first comedian as rock’n’roll star, with an act honed over 18 years and thousands of gigs, a totally original mix of gags, physical shtick, rubbish magic and hard-core stupidity (think Tommy Cooper as performed by Robin Williams, or, as one critic put it at the time, “Disneyland on acid”).
At first glance, Martin is an unusual candidate for membership of the traumatised outsider/bullied-at-school comedian’s guild. He’s not Jewish, black, gay — hell, he’s not even that funny-looking (the slightly premature greying hair barely counts). And then there’s the name — Steve Martin, as if one bland moniker weren’t enough. But within 20 pages of Born Standing Up, his memoir of his years as a performer, any doubts about his psychological qualifications for Club Comedy are brusquely kicked offstage: a terrifyingly dominant and volatile father who barely spoke to him; an early heart murmur that prompted a lifelong battle with extreme hypochondria; panic attacks that plagued him for two decades and included a phobia of night-time (quite a drawback, one would have thought, for a would-be stand-up). This guy was born to be a comedian.
Martin began gigging in the 1960s, not a decade generally associated with comedy. Flower children dabbling with drugs and making love not war do not a good comedy audience make. Back then, there were no dedicated comedy venues, and Martin had to try out his act in folk clubs, or, on one occasion, at a drive-in movie theatre where the cars were hooked up to the sound system through window speakers and patrons honked their horns if they found a joke funny. His first influences were old vaudeville acts (“I’m in the dark side of the cattle business.” “Do you rustle?” “Only when I wear taffeta shorts”), but slowly he sculpted his act into something completely ground-breaking and modern, the missing link between 1950s vaudeville and alternative comedy.
What is unusual about the book is the detail with which it charts this journey, like some manual for students of comedy: his fanatical pursuit of “originality” and “precision”, where every second, every gesture mattered; his conscious decision to be avant-garde, to abandon the punchline, to experiment and take risks (before he became stadium-big he would end his shows by taking the audience out onto the street and seeing where the comedy took him, marching them into McDonald’s or into another act). His approach is obsessive. Even as a 15-year-old starting out, he would keep a diary recording how every joke had been received (“Excellent!”, “Big Laugh”, “Quiet”) and suggesting improvements for the next gig. Every second was analysed, dissected, taped, played back in the quest for the Perfect Comedy Moment. To borrow from philosophy (his other big love), there’s a Nietzschean drive and compulsion to it all, a sort of unstoppable Will-to-Funniness.
The danger is that nothing is quite as dull as a comedian talking about comedy. (I should know. I am one.) And there are certainly times when he makes you want to shout “lighten up, dude!” But it is this very earnestness and almost masochistic self-analysis that make the book so fascinating. When success finally came, it was huge and frightening. He found himself cursed with the comedy equivalent of the Midas touch, unable to say “hello” or “what time does the movie start?” without people falling about laughing. He fell into depression, and after one particular panic attack had to be taken to hospital. As he lay on the trolley, terrified that he was dying, a nurse asked him to autograph the printout of his erratic heartbeat. Celebrity noblesse oblige. He signed.
His mother had no such problems with his success, telling him at one point to get out of the car so she could watch people staring at him as he walked down the street. He is incredibly moving both about her death and that of his father, and you suspect that the book’s raison d’être is to justify his career choice to them, especially to his estate-agent dad whose response to his son’s breakthrough performance on Saturday Night Live was to write a damning review in the local real-estate newsletter. It is as if his whole career, that manic, obsessive toiling for perfection, was merely an attempt to get his dad to say “I love you” (which he finally does, if only in an awkward whisper). And that’s something anyone can relate to, not just students of comedy.
Steve Martin’s childhood was dominated by his father’s resentful anger. Generally, this expressed itself in “enraged silences”, but one night when he was nine years old, a seemingly innocent reply to a question resulted in his father giving him a severe beating with a belt. The thrashing “never seemed to end,” writes Martin. “I curled my arms around my body as he stood over me like a titan and delivered the blows.” So severe was the beating that Martin had to wear long trousers into school the next day to hide the welts. After that, he resolved “with icy determination that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me”.
With Mustache, Without Arrow
The New York Times
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: November 17, 2007
BOSTON — In person, Steve Martin, now 62, is far from a wild and crazy guy — if he ever really was one. His hair is snow white. Though still youthful, his famously mobile face is mostly in repose. He’s a lot like your tax accountant, only a little shyer.
Lately, however, he has been sporting a mustache that you would hate to see on your accountant: a little pair of sleazy Gallic brackets outlining his lip and the groove beneath his nose. This is part of his get-up for his role as Inspector Clouseau in “Pink Panther Deux,” a sequel to his 2006 remake of the classic Peter Sellers film. “It’s growing on me,” Mr. Martin said of the mustache last month. “In both senses.”
For much of the autumn, Mr. Martin was living in Boston — the new Toronto of the film industry — where “Pink Panther Deux” was being filmed. He and Wally, his yellow Labrador retriever, shared a trailer equipped with a flat-screen television, a gas fireplace and a couple of industrial-size dog dishes.
Mr. Martin is also publishing two books this fall: “The Alphabet from A to Y With Bonus Letter Z!” (Flying Dolphin Press), illustrated by Roz Chast, which is just what the title suggests, and “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life” (Scribner), a memoir of his years as a stand-up comedian.
Reviewing the second book for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it a “lean, incisive” work that was “smart, serious, heartfelt and confessional without being maudlin.”
Mr. Martin discussed the memoir on set on a recent Friday when the script called for Clouseau to marry his colleague Nicole (played, as in the first film, by Emily Mortimer) at a ceremony conducted by John Cleese as Chief Inspector Dreyfus. His wedding uniform consisted of red-striped trousers and a tunic with epaulets the size of scrub brushes, which kept getting knocked off as Mr. Martin walked through the trailer door.
“I’m not used to ones this big,” he apologized to the wardrobe assistant, who sewed them back on.
Mr. Martin’s career as a stand-up comedian lasted roughly 18 years, from the early 1960s when he was performing sketches at the Bird Cage Theater at Knott’s Berry Farm in California, to 1981, when he was the most successful comic in America. He had such a following that, wearing a mock arrow through his temples, he could, and did, lead audiences out of the theater and ask them to pick him up and pass him over their heads. He made so much money that, as he used to say, he could afford a gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater. In a foreword to “Born Standing Up,” he notes, “In a sense this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know.”
He says now that that part of his life seems part of another era, almost ancient history. Recently he came across a photograph of the sign outside the Bird Cage, which he had with him in the trailer: It says, “World’s Greatest Entertaiment.”
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to the missing n. “I don’t think anyone ever noticed.”
The book came about, Mr. Martin said, because he felt the urge to write something, and following his two best-selling novellas, “Shopgirl” and “The Pleasure of My Company,” he had temporarily run out of characters and ideas. “It’s the old adage: write what you know,” he said. “I realized that I had had this unique experience, and then I happened to see the show ‘Jersey Boys,’ which reminded me that it’s the years before you make it that are interesting. And then it all seemed navigable to me. I always like to begin with an ending, and I had one: it was when I quit stand-up.”
Mr. Martin, who says he is “neurotically punctual” about turning up at the set, had to break off so he could head over to the Sûreté for his wedding. He crossed a parking lot, entered the warehouse and made his way through castoff scenery (bushes, walls, a giant backdrop of the Eiffel Tower) to the Chief Inspector’s Office, already packed with dignitaries, including the pope.
A makeup assistant dabbed powder on Mr. Martin’s forehead and fussed with his hair; another groomed his mustache with a tiny comb, and then Mr. Martin took his place at the front of the room. A bell rang, the cameras rolled, and as Ms. Mortimer, in a strapless gown, walked toward him up the aisle, a little leer crept over Mr. Martin’s face, and he gave a shudder of pleasure and pomposity. He half-turned to whisper something to Mr. Cleese, and his voice came out in that famously fractured French accent, with gargling r’s, and vowels so ripe they lingered in the air like little zeppelins.
“I really like the collegiality of movies,” Mr. Martin said, back in his trailer, and speaking unaccented English again. He insisted that he didn’t miss stand-up. “It’s really, really hard,” he said. “The solitude, the traveling, the sense that every night you’re being judged.”
The appeal of writing, he added, was that “I feel like I can get to the point where I know I did the best I can. I really love the sense of finality in writing, the sense of getting it right in a way that only I can know about. In comedy, if they’re not laughing, there’s no doubt.”
In the book Mr. Martin describes a career that seems more accidental than ordained, the story less of an irrepressible, Mel Brooksian sort of funnyman than of a shy, introspective young man looking to find a place for himself. He grew up, in a not terribly happy family, in Orange County, Calif. For most of his childhood, he and his father, a failed actor, barely spoke. Like a lot of sensitive, gifted boys — Johnny Carson and Woody Allen, for example — he drifted into magic.
His early acts were a hodgepodge — some juggling, some magic, some balloon tricks, some banjo-playing — and to a great extent his style remained eclectic, with the crucial addition of irony; the act became in some ways the parody of an act, with no punch lines, and audiences found it even funnier.
“It was a great discovery,” Mr. Martin said. “There I was making fun of what I was doing, and yet I was still getting to do it.”
The only relic Mr. Martin keeps from those days is his banjo, which he taught himself to play as a teenager from a Pete Seeger instruction book, practicing alone in his car with windows rolled up even on hot summer nights. Waiting for the knock on the trailer door, and the summons to don his epaulets and marry again, he picked up the banjo and played a bluegrass song he had been learning. “When I play music, it’s like an alternate form of living,” he said.
A little later he remarked: “Every now and then I suppose I get a little nostalgic for the stand-up days. They were so — redolent, I guess you could say. I can still smell those hot, smoky clubs, the cigarettes, that awful nightclub wine. It was years before I learned there was such a thing as good wine.”
Once Upon a Wild and Crazy Time
By Louis Bayard,
a novelist and reviewer Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Steve Martin has become such a reliable and (if we can just blot out the memory of his Clouseau film) such a beloved figure in film and TV that it's hard to recall that time -- roughly the second half of the 1970s -- when he was one of America's first great counter-countercultural comedians. Somehow, when we least expected it, the politically barbed satire of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin was supplanted by a banjo-strumming "rambling man" who wore an arrow through his head and repeatedly assured us (as if we doubted him) that he was wild and crazy. With his yokel grin and his white three-piece suit, Martin delivered an act that was willfully silly and weirdly wholesome and, by design, politics-free.
More than that, content-free. Like Andy Kaufman, Martin was a funnyman who made it his business not to be funny. ("Okaaay," he crooned as each joke came splatting to earth.) As he himself writes in this touching and modest memoir, his act was "a parody of comedy," in which he was "playing an entertainer, a not so good one." It shouldn't have worked, but it did -- resoundingly. With the help of "Saturday Night Live," whose ascent mirrored and abetted Martin's own, and best-selling comedy albums like "Let's Get Small," Martin planted himself so squarely in the zeitgeist that soon there was no getting around either him or his King Tut dance. (Even the squares were swept along. My high school guidance counselor surprised me one afternoon by letting loose with Martin's signature cry: "Excuuuuuse me!")
Then, in 1981, at the peak of his arena fame, Martin walked away. Not into the sunset, but onto the Hollywood soundstage, whose hermetic confines have suited him so well he's remained there ever since. It's a quiet existence he leads now: collecting art, penning humor pieces for the New Yorker, churning out family movies on the order of "Cheaper by the Dozen 2." He is, by all reports, eminently cultured, a former philosophy student, a patron to painters. Who can blame him for looking back on that long-ago tumult as "the war years"?
He enlisted young: an Orange County, Calif., kid, selling guidebooks at nearby Disneyland, "my Versailles." The Disney magic shop beckoned, and by the time he got to high school, he was doing magic tricks for local Boy Scout troops and Kiwanis clubs -- and keeping rigorous tabs on his act. ("Relax, don't shake," he advises himself in one early memo.) He moved on to repertory work at Knott's Berry Farm's Bird Cage Theatre, where at the age of 18, he made a signal discovery: "I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting." But he had perseverance, and he had "the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do."
For a time, he made a decent living as a gag writer for the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher, but Martin wanted his own spotlight. So ensued a long comic apprenticeship through the muck and mire of folkie basements and Playboy clubs and sad, sad, empty bars where the waitresses were the only ones laughing. "I gave myself a rule," he remembers. "Never let them know I was bombing: This is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet."
The one who really didn't get it was Martin's father, a stymied actor who took every chance to belittle his son's achievements. ("He's no Charlie Chaplin," growled Dad after the release of Martin's feature film debut, "The Jerk.") Only on his deathbed was the older man able to confess: "You did everything I wanted to." "I did it for you," Martin answered. But the truth was something more bittersweet: "I did it because of you."
We know by now that Martin is a real writer. If anything, his well-praised comic novels ("Shopgirl," "The Pleasure of My Company") have such airtight prose there's almost no way into them. "Born Standing Up," by contrast, has some wheel-spinning, moments of bland sociology. ("Vietnam, the first televised war, split the country, and one's left or right bent could be recognized by haircuts and clothes.") And yet on the whole I prefer its rawness, its essentially found nature, if only because, after more than three dozen movies, Steve Martin's soul can at last be seen -- a fraction of it, anyway, peeping through the clouds. "I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts," he writes, before adding, with characteristic understatement: "I am qualified to be a comedian."
San Francisco Chronicle
Steve Martin tells how he made it big
Sunday, November 25, 2007
In the late 1970s, before he was a movie star, Steve Martin did stand-up comedy in arenas that packed in thousands. He appeared repeatedly on "Saturday Night Live" and Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show and sold millions of copies of his comedy albums, "Let's Get Small" and "A Wild and Crazy Guy." He made the covers of Rolling Stone and Newsweek.
"I was now the biggest concert comedian in show business, ever," Martin writes with more awe than hubris in his memoir, "Born Standing Up," which chronicles the long, hard road to that success. Of his 18 years as a magician and stand-up comic, beginning at the age of 15 at Disneyland, he says he spent 10 years learning, four refining his act and four in "wild success."
Along with Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor, Martin belongs to an elite trio of American humorists who simultaneously made their names performing and writing. All three not only write their own material but also have published extremely funny books as well as polished "casuals" in the New Yorker.
Early in his career, Martin realized that if his goal was originality, he would have to create every gag himself. For a time, he supported his stage habit with writing jobs, including a stint at "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," for which he was one of eight writers who won an Emmy after the show's demise. When Martin segued from stand-up to movies, like Allen, he wrote (or co-wrote) his screenplays - including "The Jerk," "L.A. Story" and "Roxanne" - although he did not direct. And like Keillor, he also writes novels, including "Shopgirl."
Given his literary chops, one brings higher expectations to Martin's memoir than to the usual celebrity tell-all. And it is better written than the standard star turn. That said, don't expect anything on a par with his more creative work, such as his wonderful Stoppardesque play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." He's traded his signature zaniness for a (relatively) straightforward earnestness. We keep expecting punch lines and deflations - but that's the performing Martin. He'd have us believe this is the real, sincere Steve Martin.
"Born Standing Up" isn't actually a tell-all: Martin, like Carson, whom he defends from accusations of aloofness, is too polite to tell all. But he does mention his strained relationship with his angry father (who once raised welts in an unprovoked beating), his first sexual experience (with a fellow performer who became a Christian proselytizer), his panic attacks and hypochondria, his "abundant and selfish" sex life in the free-love 1970s and, movingly, his later reconciliation with his family.
Mostly, though, he tells us about his work: a classic story of perseverance, guts, unrelenting drive and focus.
Martin was drawn to magic early. In 1955, at 10, he got a job distributing guidebooks at Disneyland, 2 miles from his home. His lovely description of opening day: It was "so sweltering the asphalt on Main Street was as soft as a yoga mat." Through his adolescence, he worked in the magic shop, honing his skills. "Disneyland was my Versailles," he writes.
One of the more remarkable stories Martin tells is about encountering a photographer taking a shot of the Magic Castle on his last day working at Disneyland. Nearly 40 years later, Martin, by then an avid collector of modern art, bought that photograph: "The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus." He wonders whether Arbus saw the ersatz castle as kitsch. "Perhaps," he writes hopefully, "she saw it as I did: beautiful."
Martin paints a portrait of a man with a mission. He learned timing from playing 25 short shows a week at the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm through his college years. Studying philosophy at Long Beach State College yielded a lifetime's worth of inane material. He kept notes on his performances, constantly tightening and revising his act, aiming for surreal, strange, physical, "unbridled nonsense."
His 20s were spent on the road playing bars and coffeehouses in the days before comedy clubs. It was grueling and lonely. He opened for Ann-Margret in Las Vegas, where Elvis told him he had "an ob-leek sense of humor."
Martin enriches his saga with recollections of "odd little gags such as 'How many people have never raised their hands before?' " and the origin of his signature, "Well, excuuuuse me." His closing line was typical of the goofy, existential, absurdist nature of his comedy: "Well, we've had a good time tonight, considering we're all going to die someday."
Martin was elated with his hard-won success, but not happy. "By 1981 my act was like an overly plumed bird whose next evolutionary step was extinction," he sums up succinctly. He says he moved on to movies without a backward glance - until he came to write this book. He seems to have enjoyed the nostalgic trip. Fans will, too.
Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Chronicle, Newsday and other publications.
November 25, 2007
Steve Martin spills all
By JIM SLOTEK -- Sun Media
No less an authority than Jerry Seinfeld recently opined to me that standup comics are the opposite of actors. That is to say, one is judged on his portrayal of other people, while the other is judged on his portrayal of himself.
By this criterion, Steve Martin should never have become a comedian. I’ve had the chance to question the man in one-on-one situations, round-table interviews and at press conferences. And I assess him to be intelligent, almost-surgically analytical when you could get him to open up about nearly any subject except himself - when he turns cold-fishy. (He also doesn’t care to be funny when he doesn’t have to be but this is true of most comedians).
And yet, this painfully shy man managed to become the comedy sensation of the ‘70s, the first standup comic to fill 20,000-seat arenas (a feat sporadically accomplished since, by the likes of Dice Clay and, lately all at once, Larry The Cable Guy, Russell Peters and Dane Cook.)
It shook the comedy world when Martin walked away from the stage - at the height of what turned out to be, for him, hellish success - to devote himself entirely to film.
In his partial autobiography Born Standing Up, a book limited to his early life and standup career, we get a look at the strange dichotomy that created Steve Martin. From his days as a teenage Disneyland carny and rookie magician at Knotts Berry Farm, we get every “Eureka” moment that still lives in his memory of the mechanics of making people laugh. Example: he discovers that a crowd reacts much more favourably to a trick that screws up than to one that works (pulling a dead rabbit out of a hat, for example).
It was a realization that began the left turn from magic to comedy, and lived on in classic sketches, like the one that gave birth to his catchphrase “Well, excuuuuuse me!” (one of the bits included in his platinum-selling album of the era Let’s Get Small). In it, he demands a “blue spot” from the techs at the Boarding House in San Francisco, doesn’t get it and begins a hilarious and increasingly furious rant about “giving and giving and giving” and getting nothing back. The whole thing was a set-up, yet some techs tried to give him the spot anyway, he was that convincing.
Clearly he had a mind that was created to dissect how comedy works - even before he enrolled in logic classes in college and became enamored of Lewis Carroll’s silly syllogisms.
And yet, almost from the first, Martin began to suffer panic attacks - the first of which occurred at the theatre while watching Mel Brooks’ The Producers, high from a joint, “I sat in stoic silence as my heart began to race above 200 beats a minute and the saliva disappeared from my mouth so completely I could not move my tongue. I thought it was the heart attack I had been waiting for, but I wasn’t feeling pain. I was, however, experiencing extreme fear. Fame, for someone like that was a curse.
“I was unsuited for fame’s destruction of privacy, Martin writes. “I had never been outgoing, and when strangers approached me with the familiarity of old friends, I felt dishonest returning it in kind.
And as in an aside to the likes of me,” he adds “I admit I’m a lousy interview. My magicians’ instincts make me reluctant to tell Œm how it’s done, whether it’s a book, play, movie or aspects of my personal life.”
It’s actually brave for a person like Steve Martin to write an autobiography considering how uncomfortable the most personal stuff clearly makes him. His explanation is that he and his family had kept all kinds of archival material from his (‘60s and ‘70s standup days, and it was a period of his life that would likely be forgotten otherwise (it’s not as if he’s likely to tell it all on Inside The Actors’ Studio). To fans of comedy, this seems reasonable and not at all egotistical.
So here he is, spilling on his emotionally abusive father, a failed showman who developed a seething anger toward his attention-getting teenage son. (Though there’s a detachment to his self-analysis that suggests he regurgitates the thoughts of his actual analyst).
The psychological journey is interesting, as is the history (he dated the daughter of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, got his job on The Smothers Brothers show with a joke he borrowed, with permission, from comedian Gary Muledeer (though he lied about writing it). The line: “It has been proven that more Americans watch television than any other appliance.” There’s plenty of name-dropping, fly-bys with the likes of Johnny and Merv, Linda Ronstadt (who ostensibly was flummoxed by the fact that they “dated” platonically), arguing with Glenn Frey over whether the band should be called Eagles or The Eagles (as Martin insisted).
And of course, his entry into Saturday Night Live is de rigueur (biggest admission: he and fellow “wild and crazy guy” Dan Aykroyd never really “got” each other).
But it’s how Steve Martin ventured in small steps to smash convention that should appeal to fans of standup comedy. His absurdities - saying “It’s great to be here,” then moving 10 feet and saying “No, it’s great to be here,” - influenced two generations of comics, from Steven Wright to Mitch Hedberg. And years before Andy Kaufman, he was indulging in acts of anarchy, like taking an audience of 300 to McDonald’s, ordering 300 hamburgers and then suddenly changing the order to one small fries.
And I’m happy to say the book has a happy ending (though rather melancholy as those things go). That is to say, he walked away from standup comedy for all time after filming The Jerk with Carl Reiner.
“The world of moviemaking had changed me,” Martin writes. “Movies were social; standup was anti-social. I was not judged every day by a changing audience.” Just by critics and audiences he would never have to see.
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