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Born Standing Up

This post features guest contributor Emile Wang, CEO of EWB Podcasts, and founder of the charity effort, 2019 Miles to Water!

Video Length 2:28

Who Should Read It

Anyone who wants to share some laughs while reading Steve Martin’s memoirs on the development of his craft in stand-up comedy

Why Should We Read It

Everyone thinks the entertainment industry is glamorous and easy. Once in a while, we should recall the real hardships and struggles one must endure to succeed.

What Will We Learn

The roots of famous comedian/actor Steve Martin, his rise to fame, and his eventual decision to leave stand-up comedy.

Book Summary

Greetings! My name is Emile Wang, and the editors of this wonderful website have kindly allowed me to guest post for this month. I am an amateur podcaster with an eye for comedy. I’ve taken some classes in stand-up, and even performed at several open mics in Seattle and New York City. Stand-up in this day and age has revolutionized what people think is funny- from political issues weighing our world, to women simply being crass (thanks Amy Schumer!) (*sarcasm*). Steve Martin is by no means the father of modern comedy. It is, however, very fascinating to read how such a talented household name got into stand-up, what helped him succeed, and ultimately why he chose to walk away.

"Steve Martin realized early, 'I was not naturally talented – I didn’t sing, dance, or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive.' "

Born Standing Up begins with Steve Martin’s early childhood years. He tells stories of a physically and emotionally abusive father who created a household rift that was irreparable for decades. His family eventually moved to Southern California, where a Disneyland happened to open down the street from him. Steve began working there as an 8 year-old selling guidebooks. In his off-time, he shadowed magicians and grew to love the performing arts. To further his craft, he performed outside of Disneyland for groups like Cub Scout troops and Rotary Clubs. With time, he began doing his own Disney performances. Once he became well-known within the Los Angeles entertainment scene, he decided to move away from magic to pursue comedy and succeed under his own originality.

Steve Martin realized early, “I was not naturally talented – I didn’t sing, dance, or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive”. In that regard, he had no shortage of opportunity to practice. Many of his initial performances were in empty bars and theaters. He recalls that those times were full of consecutive weeknights in which his bits were more misses than hits. Eventually, Mr. Martin found his voice, and he became a regular at famous comedy venues like The Birdcage and The Ice House (to name a few). It was not long before he began work in sketch comedy writing for television. In fact, it was his work for the Smothers Brothers (a sketch comedy show notorious for its political commentary during the Vietnam War) that helped springboard him to the likes of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

“A laugh is formed when a storyteller builds tension and then releases with a punchline… What if I created tension and never released it?” – Steve Martin

Comedy in the 1960's and 1970's was broken down to a simple formula: “A laugh is formed when a storyteller created tension, then, with a punchline, released it.” Steve Martin knew that some punchlines were not obviously punchlines in the moment they are delivered- there always had to be vocal or physical cues that told the audience a joke had been told and that it was time to laugh (here’s looking at you, Dave Chappelle and your stupid microphone knee slap). He equated this phenomenon to an automatic applause placed at the end of a song. It inspired him to think, “What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it?” This led to one of Mr. Martin's most famous (and ballsy) moments in stand-up, where he finished a set by leading the audience outside of a club and told them he had something to show them. He then hailed a cab, waved goodbye to the audience, and left for the evening. The audience waited at the curb for him to return, and the rest is history.

"He had lost contact both with his craft, and with the inventive originality that had helped him navigate the seedy, underground bars that attracted only 5-10 unpredictable patrons a night"

At the height of his stand-up career, Mr. Martin was hitting 85 cities in 90 nights, and selling 29,000 tickets for one show. Eventually, the loneliness on the road began to take a toll on him. Moreover, his performances for large audiences had him feeling like he “…had become a party host, presiding not over timing and ideas, but over a celebratory bash of (his) own making.” Making personal connections became difficult; even basic questions like “When is the movie?” were received as jokes because it was what everyone had perceived his real-life persona to be. He had lost contact with both his craft, and with the inventive originality that had helped him navigate the seedy, underground bars that attracted only 5-10 unpredictable patrons a night. After 18 years of stand-up comedy, Steve Martin walked away from stand-up comedy for good in 1983.

Mr. Martin has performed only one stand-up set since writing this book, 35 years after his last comedic performance. Born Standing Up gave me a good understanding, not only of the commitment needed to the craft, but also of the constant innovation required to stay ahead of the trend. I still remain inspired to pursue stand-up comedy. If you want to read some materials I have prepared, feel free to turn to page 2 of the blog.

-Emile Wang

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