Driven to perform at an early age, Steve Martin spent much of his young life honing a stand-up act like nothing else out there. By the mid-'70s, he'd succeeded beyond any goal he'd ever imagined. By 1981, he'd had to walk away from it. In Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, a brisk, slim first attempt at autobiography, Martin details his live career from its beginnings at Disneyland to an end filled with depression and rage. It's part memoir, part nuts-and-bolts account of how he shaped his craft. But in spite of the glimpses into the personal life of a generally private man, the professional details are the real draw.
As a young employee at Disneyland—first selling programs, then working in the magic shop—Martin studied at the feet of aging vaudevillians. Learning rope tricks, teaching himself the banjo, and committing others' comedy routines to memory, he picked up skills that would serve his grab-bag performance later on. After all, when a joke fails, it never hurts to have a song at the ready. Martin clearly takes great pride in his craftsmanship, and the book is never more engaging than when he delves into the details of the trade, most of which he seems to remember as clearly as if he were still on the road. (Of a long-forgotten Florida club named Bubbas: "There was no depth at all, and most of the audience saw only a side view of the performer.") He also offers a convincing case for leaving it all. Locked into performing the same expected routine for a crowd of tens of thousands each night drained the joy from the job. (But could it possibly be any less joyless than showing up on the set of Cheaper By The Dozen 2?)
Martin is compelling when chronicling Steve Martin the performer. The passages dealing with Steve Martin the man, on the other hand, feel guarded in spite of the expected memoir revelations. (Hey, who knew that he lost his virginity to future Christian self-help author Stormie Omartian?) Details of Martin's difficult relationship with his parents frame the book, but even this comes off as somewhat memoir-by-numbers in a book that, by accident or design, reveals Martin as a man far more at home in intellectual pursuits and the world of show business than anywhere else. "At the end of the act, Sammy [Davis Jr.] came over and hugged me," Martin writes of a Tonight Show appearance. "I felt like I hadn't been hugged since I was born." Is that a cue to laugh, or to cry?