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Once Upon a Wild and Crazy Time

By Louis Bayard,
a novelist and reviewer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

BORN STANDING UP

A Comic's Life

By Steve Martin

Scribner. 209 pp. $25

Steve Martin has become such a reliable and (if we can just blot out the memory of his Clouseau film) such a beloved figure in film and TV that it's hard to recall that time -- roughly the second half of the 1970s -- when he was one of America's first great counter-countercultural comedians. Somehow, when we least expected it, the politically barbed satire of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin was supplanted by a banjo-strumming "rambling man" who wore an arrow through his head and repeatedly assured us (as if we doubted him) that he was wild and crazy. With his yokel grin and his white three-piece suit, Martin delivered an act that was willfully silly and weirdly wholesome and, by design, politics-free.

More than that, content-free. Like Andy Kaufman, Martin was a funnyman who made it his business not to be funny. ("Okaaay," he crooned as each joke came splatting to earth.) As he himself writes in this touching and modest memoir, his act was "a parody of comedy," in which he was "playing an entertainer, a not so good one." It shouldn't have worked, but it did -- resoundingly. With the help of "Saturday Night Live," whose ascent mirrored and abetted Martin's own, and best-selling comedy albums like "Let's Get Small," Martin planted himself so squarely in the zeitgeist that soon there was no getting around either him or his King Tut dance. (Even the squares were swept along. My high school guidance counselor surprised me one afternoon by letting loose with Martin's signature cry: "Excuuuuuse me!")

Then, in 1981, at the peak of his arena fame, Martin walked away. Not into the sunset, but onto the Hollywood soundstage, whose hermetic confines have suited him so well he's remained there ever since. It's a quiet existence he leads now: collecting art, penning humor pieces for the New Yorker, churning out family movies on the order of "Cheaper by the Dozen 2." He is, by all reports, eminently cultured, a former philosophy student, a patron to painters. Who can blame him for looking back on that long-ago tumult as "the war years"?

He enlisted young: an Orange County, Calif., kid, selling guidebooks at nearby Disneyland, "my Versailles." The Disney magic shop beckoned, and by the time he got to high school, he was doing magic tricks for local Boy Scout troops and Kiwanis clubs -- and keeping rigorous tabs on his act. ("Relax, don't shake," he advises himself in one early memo.) He moved on to repertory work at Knott's Berry Farm's Bird Cage Theatre, where at the age of 18, he made a signal discovery: "I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really just shouting." But he had perseverance, and he had "the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do."

For a time, he made a decent living as a gag writer for the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher, but Martin wanted his own spotlight. So ensued a long comic apprenticeship through the muck and mire of folkie basements and Playboy clubs and sad, sad, empty bars where the waitresses were the only ones laughing. "I gave myself a rule," he remembers. "Never let them know I was bombing: This is funny, you just haven't gotten it yet."

The one who really didn't get it was Martin's father, a stymied actor who took every chance to belittle his son's achievements. ("He's no Charlie Chaplin," growled Dad after the release of Martin's feature film debut, "The Jerk.") Only on his deathbed was the older man able to confess: "You did everything I wanted to." "I did it for you," Martin answered. But the truth was something more bittersweet: "I did it because of you."

We know by now that Martin is a real writer. If anything, his well-praised comic novels ("Shopgirl," "The Pleasure of My Company") have such airtight prose there's almost no way into them. "Born Standing Up," by contrast, has some wheel-spinning, moments of bland sociology. ("Vietnam, the first televised war, split the country, and one's left or right bent could be recognized by haircuts and clothes.") And yet on the whole I prefer its rawness, its essentially found nature, if only because, after more than three dozen movies, Steve Martin's soul can at last be seen -- a fraction of it, anyway, peeping through the clouds. "I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts," he writes, before adding, with characteristic understatement: "I am qualified to be a comedian."

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