Monday, June 09, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

I read a great book this weekend: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, by Steve Martin. Anyone who was even partially aware of the world in the 70's heard Steve Martin's absurd catch-phrases and one-liners more than once...quoted by friends, or from Martin himself on his live recordings, on TV (especially on SNL) or in person.

I've always been fascinated with the back-story of any cultural icon, and I appreciate unnecessarily-good writing, and Martin's book delivers on both counts. He shares some info about his early life, and focuses on the story of the progression of his entertainment career from selling programs at Disneyland to performing for tens of thousands of people in a night in venues all over the country, and for millions on the hottest shows on TV.

Between his vivid descriptions and deft phrasing and his quotes of his and others' material, I was alternately admiring his skill with words and laughing out loud (hope my apartment walls are as thick as they should be). But he is anything but flippant in sharing the deep emotional issues that accompanied his success, such as his father's mysterious antagonism toward him even in his moments of show business triumph. But this is not the whining of a spoiled rich guy; Martin's skill as a writer and willingness to be vulnerable make for a very redemptive reading experience, especially as he describes his final moments with each of his parents.

One thing about Martin's story was especially interesting to me, because it supports a theory of mine: during his collegiate studies in philosophy in which he and his friends had endless discussions that (according to the very philosophers under discussion) may have been pointless or even theoretically nonexistent or impossible, Martin decided comedy was a real and meaningful alternative and pursued that. There is something inherent in the act of creativity (and its subsequent presentation) that supports the meaning and value of life; it implies something beyond the immediately apparent world--a creator. Even when the content is at its most ungodly and vulgar, art implies a creator, and the artist is imitating the Creator (even if subconsciously), and is always on the verge of worship. (Martin's book is much funnier than this, trust me).

One of my favorite quotes from the book is a line Martin listed among those that eventually went the wayside as he became more popular:

"I've learned in comedy never to alienate the audience. Otherwise, I would be like Dimitri in La Condition Humaine."

Here's a long excerpt (note the page no.'s at the bottom; click these to advance).

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