Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Steve Martin

Just finished Steve Martin’s new book, BORN STANDING UP. It is the perfect holiday stocking stuffer for anyone interested in comedy. Like most funny people he is very introspective, very neurotic, and with his talent comes a whole closet full of demons. But he’s very candid and revealing. He shares his failures – professional and romantic, his anxiety attacks, his dysfunctional family, where the back entrances are at Knotts Berry Farm.

Side note: It seems that every artist growing up in LA in the 60s had a distant somewhat abusive father. What was it with these guys? “Son, it’s beautiful and sunny all the time. You never have to shovel snow like many other kids your age, so I’m going to have to beat you.”

There’s also a book-on-tape of this book with Martin himself reading it. (On the one hand you say, “Of course he reads it himself, it’s first person” but knowing Martin, I would not have been shocked if he had gotten Stuttering John or Elaine Stritch to do it instead.) But the thing you miss with the audio presentation is the pictures. And they’re great. Most never before seen. And even better – he includes a handwritten critique of his act when he was 15. Wow. You really feel that he’s giving you the inside stuff.

Martin contends that he had no gifts, that his success was just a product of sheer will, hard work, and endless repetition. I think he sells himself short. His stand-up act was inspired, totally original, and yes, polished over many years but you need the comic chops to pull it off and he had ‘em.

The book takes you into his thought process. Martin was (and is) a student of comedy and everything he did was painstakingly thought-out and carefully crafted. He was no “wild and crazy guy” by accident. I learned a lot and I've been doing this for awhile now.

From his days in Disneyland, writing for the Smothers Brothers, losing two girlfriends to director John Frankenheimer – Martin tells it all. It’s a great and very informative read.

The thing I admire most about him is how he continually re-invents himself. From stand-up comedian, to actor, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and now memoirs writer. There's really only one frontier he hasn't conquered -- probably because it's the toughest. And maybe someday, if he has the courage, he'll try his hand at blogging.

Steve, if you need any tips give me a call.


Anonymous said...

Reviewed this for my local newspaper's entertainment section as one of three suggestions in a column called "Holiday Gifts for Class Clowns." That, and another book called "Christmas Letters from Hell," and the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live on DVD.

I figure that class clowns should always know where they come from, but most importantly, study their ancestors and be inspired by them.

Howard Hoffman said...

Seconding the praise for this book. I took it along to Jamaica. I ended up enjoying Jamaica the whole time without cracking it open. I devoured it on the flight home. It's time extremely well spent. Anyone who worked local theater will bond immediately with every chapter.

And who of us didn't have a Mitzi Trumbo sometime along the way?

Anonymous said...

Agreed in the 70s, even early 80s he was stellar or coming-from-stellar. But his film career borders on lunacy, and not in a good or even inspired-by way. I've seen him on talk shows where he can be great. I've listened to his records - also great. But please - did you see all those films? That isn't a career but a cautionary tale. He gives chevy chase a good name. It can't be just for the money...

Rob said...

I'm number 64 in line to get this from my local library, so I'll probably get to read this sometime in 2009. (Sorry, I'm cheap.)

His film career is indeed a bit odd. To his credit, he seems to have found a way to sell tickets to crap, something Chevy Chase can't even do. Still, The Jerk, Bowfinger, Parenthood, Pennies From Heaven, and LA Story are all decent movies. (I may have missed some others I liked.)

Interestingly enough, I read Chevy Chase's "authorized" biography recently. It talks of Chevy's being abused as a child and even touches on his vicious Comedy Central roast in which a bunch of nobodies savagely attacked him, primarily for how his career turned out. Chevy's spin is that he's made many of his recent decisions for his family and/or done roles that sucked either as a favor or because the project didn't start out the way it ended up.

Still, I think Chevy has a bad rep in the industry that keeps him from getting decent parts. And while he was passable on Brothers and Sisters, he was awful in his first stab at TV drama on Law and Order.

Anonymous said...

I always followed Martin's career because we had some similarities; I too grew up in OC, went to CSULB, worked at Knott's (unfortunately the similarities end there).

I haven't read the book yet but saw his interview with Tim Russert and he seemed painfully uncomfortable. A few days later I caught him on Charlie Rose and he was much more at ease, maybe because he's done a few interviews with him before.

In any case he's obviously a very intelligent and introspective guy. Like a lot of people back in the 1978 I bought his "Wild & Crazy Guy" album. It's funny seeing video clips of his act now because some of it seems more like performance art than stand-up comedy per se (happy feet for example). I'm not sure it holds up that well, but that's the nature of comedy. He was certainly one of the very few comedians to achieve rock star status.

Here's one anecdote I bet isn't in the book... years ago I was at an agency who was representing his then wife. Apparently this was near the end of the marriage and they had some sort of blow-up. Martin called his wife's agent to inform them that he had thrown all of her clothes on the front lawn and that she should dispatch someone to come collect them. I'm not sure if the agent passed on the message. Sometimes you really earn that 10%.

Unknown said...

Back in my teens, his album "Wild and Crazy Guy" was THE comedy album. We gave away copies at my bar mitzvah (I'm sure parents loved that!)

I have always enjoyed Steve Martin, and I especially enjoy comedians that move across different mediums, and do it well. While many of his movies are of questionable quality, he is no "one trick pony" and I look forward to reading the book.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that in L.A. STORY the camera fawns so often over his then-wife (or then-fiancee?) that I can't enjoy watching it anymore, despite his decently funny script. But I think he had a good string of movies with Carl Reiner before that; one day I will probably own my own copy of THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.

His choices of other people's movies to act in have been kind of weird lately, or maybe he just hasn't been simpatico with their directors. For example, 4 years ago he played the chairman of Acme Co. in LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION and he must have thought he was being funny, but I sure didn't.

Anonymous said...

Steve Martin is also a fabulous banjo player. Seriously. He picks it better than a lot of bluegrass musicians.

Anonymous said...

His movie career has definitely been spotty, but "The Lonely Guy" is an all-time classic.

Every scene with Steve and Charles Grodin is a riot.

Danny Cohen said...


Here is a recent interview with Steve Martin on Charlie Rose where he talks about the book

Anonymous said...

I listened to "Comedy is not Pretty" until the record melted from over use.

"Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" trumps "The Lonely Guy" only because the latter stalls without Charles Grodin onscreen.

Warren Fleece said...

Martin's "The Great Flydini" vaudeville bit on Carson's last show.


Captain Obvious said...

This has to be one of the best blogs ever. With WKRP, weird museums, and Steve Martin in the mix... I'm about to die of an overdose of awesomeness.

Anonymous said...

"Here's one anecdote I bet isn't in the book... years ago I was at an agency who was representing his then wife. Apparently this was near the end of the marriage and they had some sort of blow-up. Martin called his wife's agent to inform them that he had thrown all of her clothes on the front lawn."

I think I remember that fire.

Knuckles Buchanan said...

I'm still slightly bitter about the Christmas where my brother REALLY wanted to buy me the album of "Wild and Crazy Guy", but my mom nixed that purchase, saying I was too young. On the plus side, I did get Bill Cosby's "To Russel, My Brother, Whom I Slept With", but still...

Anonymous said...

I read his book over Thanksgiving. Couldn't put it down. Loved his experiences with the Trumbo's...

In '92, I actually watched him meticulously rehearse his Flydini routine at camera blocking on the Tonight Show. I think it was a routine that Carson requested - and it took a few weeks to get it up to speed. Anyway, it was incredible watching/learning from him and his approach.

When I met him (and his then wife) after the show, I felt like a complete idiot.

Mark B

Anonymous said...

I remember when his song King Tut came out. I played the Sally Goodin' side to death.
He's played on several different albums with other bluegrass artists but I wish he'd put out his own bluegrass album.


Tim W. said...

While Martin has had a couple of duds on the big screen, most comedians would kill to have films like Roxanne, The Jerk, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Parenthood and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on their resume. Hell, even Bowfinger, Father of the Bride, Grand Canyon, All of Me and L.A. Story were highly watchable.

I normally am not interested at all in celebrity memoirs, but you made me quite intrigued.

Anonymous said...

Even before reading your recommendation, Ken -- but after reading the excerpt in the New Yorker -- I've bought three copies; two for Christmas presents.

Forty per cent off at Borders (30% for nonmenbers) is a nice plus.

As for his films: certainly he's done Bilko, etc. (what was he thinking?) for the money. But then there's L.A. Story, the Man with Two Brains, Roxanne...even, in its way, The Jerk. A lot of brilliance there.

Anonymous said...

I saw him opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1973, had no idea who he was and was blown away. He was the comedian of the 70s for sure. While I've been very disapointed with his movie choices over the years, I try not to judge him too harshly. It seems as a person gets older, they start going for the safe, easy choices and become more interested in accumulating wealth than being "cutting edge". That is for when you are young and hungry.

Unknown said...

I've been trying to track down a DVD of Martin's stand up routine, but I can't find any. Sadly, I'm too young to have witnessed it firsthand. Anyone know of some video of Martin's routines?

Anonymous said...

Ken, I take something valuable and insightful away from your blog just about every day. Not being in the business of show, I have learned much from your cinematic and TV picks and pans, musical oddities, insightful sports commentary, Hollywood lore, travel adventures, comedic deconstruction, strike chronicles, and, of course, plastic surgery 101.

I seek out your recommended motion pictures, I’ve rented DVDs – but, now, you want us to read? Hold on there, somebody’s really crossed the line this time. When would any of us have time left to fritter away cerfing the Internet? Might never even have found you.

Thankfully, although it explores everything from A to Zell, Mr. Martin’s is a short book. Not far into it, one comes to the unavoidable realization that one's own lack of success in the world of mirth is almost certainly due to having been insufficiently abused as a child. To make a long story short, this is how I seriously injured myself with a regrettable variation on The Great Flydini. Only too late came the discovery that the instrument actually is a five-string banjo, and not a tambourine in heat. Enough said.

It is almost certain Martin spent years searching for that void in his own life, ultimately realizing it was his family's having left Waco for Southern California in 1950 – three years before that city was leveled by the tornado of 1953. Martin realized one can never be totally safe. With the occasional exception, Texas tornadoes only get you in a trailer park. The Northridge earthquake moved everything but Shelly Winters.

More significantly, Martin never had the opportunity to experience the full intellectual scope of Waco’s Dr. Pepper Museum, to which you recently drew our attention. That didn’t open at the corner of 5th St. and Mary Ave. until 1991. Forty-one years is a long time to go without satisfying one’s insatiable curiosity with regard to the provenance of a beverage. Then, of course, there came the Cadbury Schweppes acquisition, and all was lost.

There is, of course, still much to admire about this enormous talent, if only the steadfast resistance to changing his name, because “Steve Martin” sounded just a tad too Jewish. Although he did relent and agree to restructure the early prop comedy, which initially involved an arab through the head. The most important thing I took away from BORN STANDING UP is that Martin is everything Rip Taylor might have been, had the latter been willing to show a little restraint. OK, that’s a stretch.

rob! said...

i love his line about Frankenheimer, and how Martin wasn't the one who killed him. i wonder if he had met Anne Heche, would Frankenheimer have made a play for her, too?

Anonymous said...

It's a great book, and I have given it already as a Christmas gift. I always find it fascinating when famous lives intersect. His revealing story about losing his virginity to a young woman who would later become Stormie Omartian, a famous Christian personality, is just one of the many small pleasures of Steve's book.

Sometimes you just want to give these comedy figures a big hug, and say it'll be OK.

Anonymous said...

Friday is our anniversary, and I just hinted to my wife that Born Standing Up is a steal at only $17.50 (B&N). Front page today's Dallas Morning News: Founder of Carlyle Group buys Magna Carta from Dallas' H. Ross Perot for $21 million."

Who says you can't put a price on freedom?

jimhenshaw said...

I first saw Steve in a club in NY, where he was opening for folk singer Danny O'Keefe.

It was an album release evening and Danny wanted to go to the party, so he did the first set instead. When he left, so did the audience and Steve came out to entertain a total of 5 customers.

But he was brilliant, at one point doing jokes to the manager's German Shepherd -- "What's black and white and wet all over?"

It was an inspired night I'll never forget. You just knew he was destined for greatness.

Anonymous said...

Nice Ken. I didn't know about the pictures. I loved the audio version mainly because it is so nice to hear it in Steve's own voice.

Here is my take from my blog

Anonymous said...

I'd say Martin's movie batting average isn't that horrible. I skipped some of the more egregious-sounding items (Sgt. Bilko, Mixed Nuts, The Out-of-Towners, The Pink Panther), but as many here have noted, he's got a number of respectable credits, particularly the ones he had a hand in writing. I'm even one of the few allegedly sentient beings who liked stuff like HouseSitter and Bringing Down the House.

I just saw the adaptation of his novella Shopgirl a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it greatly (although I did think the casting of Martin was, surprisingly, a misstep).

I'm still stunned that Robin Williams has an Oscar win and 3 other nominations, while Martin has zero (despite some critics awards and Golden Globe nominations for All of Me and Roxanne, among others).

Rob said...

Cool. Thanks for bringing up Housesitter, for I just realized that I am three degrees away from Steve.

An actress in my last lousy student film was in a scene in Housesitter with Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin.

And I'm only two away from Kevin Bacon.

And I'm 800 degrees away from the talent of either.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I was able to get my parents to buy me a copy of "Wild and Crazy" guy when it came out (I was about 11). Bless their well-intentioned souls, they clearly had no idea how filthy it was, thinking it would just be a guy dancing around with an arrow through his head (which would provide very exciting listening, obviously).

I memorized every bit of the album and did it for my friends during lunch hour. I still shudder to think what I was teaching those kids. "C'mon, I was talking about her CAT! That disgusts me--you can't say anything without people thinking you're saying something dirty!" Utterly inspired lunacy.

I was surprised, considering his candor otherwise, that he said nothing in the book about his relationship with Bernadette Peters.

Anonymous said...

I'm John R. (above) by the way--I know you hate anonymous comments.

VP81955 said...

Martin is splendid in "All Of Me," one of the 1980s' more unheralded comedies. He's all right in "Housesitter," too, although to be honest it's Goldie Hawn who carries that movie.