It can be hard, in these days of Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, to remember exactly how brilliant Steve Martin's comedy used to be. Before the short pieces for the New Yorker, before LA Story, and even before The Jerk, there was Steve Martin the stand-up comedian in the white three-piece with a banjo and an arrow through the head (the $600 professional model, he'd tell audiences), singing "I Can See Clearly Now" as he walked into the mic. After a "Happy Feet" routine, an unexpectedly prescient juggling act, and tales of "getting small," he'd end his set on a lighter note: "Well, we've had a good time tonight, considering we're all going to die someday."
But prior to filling 45,000-seat coliseums, pre-selling more than a million copies of his first album, or walking away from stand-up entirely in 1981, there was Steve Martin the unknown, who did lonely tours of shithole gigs long before helping to usher in a truly new school of comedy. These stand-up years are the era covered in Martin's slim new memoir, Born Standing Up, which thankfully has a lot more interesting of a story to tell than a facile tale of perseverance and cheap hotel rooms.
Born Standing Up hoists Martin's artistic originality onto the shoulders of his dual education: one of card tricks and rope-twirling, the other of epistemology and continental rationalism. At the age of 10, Martin began to work at the newly opened Disneyland, and split his adolescent years between there and Knott's Berry Farm, working eight-hour shifts at the magic shop, making balloon animals, and selling arrow-through-the-head and nose-glasses gags, all of which would famously make their way into Martin's classic routines. Equally formative was his dedication to the study of philosophy in college, which led the nascent comedian to Wittgenstein-inspired ruminations such as, "What if there were no punch lines?"
It was this confluence of the absurd and the intelligent (combined with a magician's dedication to craft and nuance) that provided the creative framework for Martin's eventual brand of "anti-comedy," and Born Standing Up tells the immensely readable story of its development. It also permits Martin to tastefully revisit the self-professed loneliest period of his life, which he also views as one of the funniest. The irony is not lost on him: "Doing comedy alone onstage," reflects the funnyman, "is the ego's last stand."