Steve Martin, a Mild and Crazy Guy

7 minute read
Richard Corliss

His look was reassuringly ordinary: a smiling, Waspy face under a helmet of graying hair. But what he did onstage was unsettling. His act was in part that of an entertainer at a kid’s birthday party–juggling, fashioning balloon animals, wearing a gag arrow through his head–but the whole thing was set within ironic quotation marks. It was stupid-smart: a clever man playing someone with misplaced self-confidence who didn’t realize he was a buffoon. This guerrilla comic in a three-piece suit was daring the crowd to get it. And for a long time, there were no crowds. He had one 3 p.m. gig at a drive-in theater, in front of an audience in a dozen cars with speakers attached to the windows. If people liked a joke, they honked. Occasionally he played to dead-empty rooms.

But when people finally did get it, around 1976, they couldn’t get enough of it. He had platinum comedy albums and a million-selling single (King Tut). He played to arenas of 20,000 people. As David Letterman once noted, “I think that’s a record for a stand-up comedian in peacetime.” Saturday Night Live’s audience jumped by a million viewers when he was on. His phrases “Well, excuuuuse me!” and “wild and crazy guys” became schoolyard mantras. Steve Martin was the comic as rock star. And then he wasn’t. He stopped cold in 1981 to concentrate on movies and never went back to stand-up comedy.

Till now. In Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (Scribner; 209 pages), this most private of performers commits the ultimate indiscretion: an account of his first 35 years, from his youth in Southern California through the lows and highs of his stand-up career. “The interesting times are as you’re working your way up,” Martin said recently over lunch, his mustache dyed black for his role in the next Pink Panther movie. “After you have success, it becomes a routine catwalk. In most of show business, the successes aren’t as significant as the failures. It’s the artists’ personality. They’re always more vulnerable than they are happy.”

Martin’s tone is not cautious, exactly, but careful. The writing is evocative, unflinching and cool. When he takes a scalpel to his life, what you feel is the precision of the surgeon more than the primal scream of the unanesthetized patient. “My biggest fear,” he says, “was that when you’re writing about yourself, you’re writing about yourself. It could come off like an ego trip.” But Born Standing Up is neither fanfare nor confession. It gives off a vibe of rigorous honesty. With lots of laughs.

He relives his upbringing in Orange County, his isolation from the stern father he wanted to please. Martin doesn’t sugarcoat or spit on this domestic tension, but he sprints through it in a short chapter. “Everybody’s had the same childhood,” he says. “Just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting. Whenever I read an autobiography, I’m always bored by the childhood part. I’m like, Get to it.”

The It for young Steve–the defining epiphany of his youth–was Disneyland, which opened near his family’s home in 1955. In the book, Martin describes the park’s kitsch splendor with the rapture of Marco Polo on first seeing China. There, he quickly located two mentors: Jim Barlow, performing sleight of hand at Merlin’s Magic Shop, and at the Golden Horseshoe Revue, Wally Boag, a comic who made funny balloon animals. From them came the raw material for Martin’s act.

What carried Martin through the years of obscurity that followed was his unshakable sense of vocation. From childhood, he knew he wanted to do comedy and that he could be good at it if he applied himself with a monk’s dedication. “I loved to work really hard,” he says. One of his happiest memories is practicing card tricks all day at Merlin’s. At 15, he had the maturity to realize that a career in comedy wasn’t a matter of “I’m funny. Now I’ll be funny in public.” A disciplined apprenticeship was the prerequisite for overnight stardom.

Which took another 15 years. He was part of a comedy troupe at Knott’s Berry Farm, studied philosophy at Cal State at Long Beach and played banjo (another of his studious obsessions) with guitarist Mason Williams, who’d had an instrumental pop hit, Classical Gas. Williams helped him get a writing job on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, for which Martin won an Emmy at 23. But what he really wanted to do was stand-up–to have people laugh not at the jokes he wrote for others but at and with him.

Laugh, that is, with an uneasy edge. Comedy was about to break off from its ’60s emphasis on topical humor (exemplified, in varying levels of toxicity, by Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Johnny Carson). Young comics of the ’70s were as suspicious of Vietnam humor as they were of mother-in-law jokes. Their stuff was apolitical–but radical. It challenged the very notion of making people laugh. When Albert Brooks impersonated a mime so inept he must describe his movements, or Andy Kaufman turned on a plastic record player and lip-synched to the Mighty Mouse theme song, the laughter was uneasy or unheard. Audiences were forced to wonder: Is this supposed to be funny? And that was funny, in a new way. By renouncing the notion of the stand-up as sage and replaying the silly gags that amused them as kids, these rebels gave birth to post-funny comedy.

If Brooks and Kaufman were the art house of post-funny, Martin was the mall. He bounded onstage with enormous energy, madly strumming his banjo (“I’m a-ramblin’!”), working the balloon animals, exhausting the audience into submission. Even if people didn’t understand that he was playing the character of a jerk, they applauded as a reward for his efforts. After years of one-night stands in cities with interchangeably bland hotel rooms, Martin and his faux-idiocy finally caught on. (Guest spots on the Tonight Show and SNL helped.) The nobody was suddenly the Guy.

“When it was very new, it was very exciting,” Martin says. “When you’re first starting out, you’re amazed that something gets a laugh. When you’re a success, you know something’s gonna get a laugh, it’s just how big. You become like a conductor.” But soon the audience seized the baton. Fans who knew his routines from the LPs would call out punch lines. He felt as if he were doing his greatest hits. So he retired to movies: more comfortable, less daunting.

Unlike Woody Allen, Martin has written only about a quarter of the films he’s been in, and directed none. His movies are popular, but he’s now a paternal presence, not the white-hot, wild-and-crazy guy. And that’s fine. “Time has helped me achieve peace with celebrity,” he writes. “At first I was not famous enough, then I was too famous and now I am famous just right.”

In recalling the ’60s and ’70s, Martin writes revealingly of his sex life (busy) and his drug life (not so much). But the most poignant passages touch on his estrangement from his father and their reconciliation at the elder man’s deathbed. “When I published that part in the New Yorker,” Martin says, “I got a great letter from a woman. She said, ‘I read your article about your father, and I gave it to my husband, and he read it and didn’t say anything. And then he said to me, What’s our son’s phone number?'” For a moment over lunch, Martin clutches his chest–a dramatic display of emotion for this very inward man who may, at heart, be the kid who stayed all day at Disneyland rather than pedal home to spend time with his dad.

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