Friday, August 28, 2009

Born Standing Up

Why do stand up clubs have a bright light facing the stage with the rest of the room dark? Why do people laugh? Why did the eggplant cross the road?

Answers to the first two questions will be found in Steve Martin's seriously interesting autobiography Born Standing Up. I first read this book when it came out two Christmases ago (yes, it was a Christmas gift) and just finished listening to the audio version this week. Martin reads it with a suitable mix of charm and gravity.

When I read the book two winters ago I was making my own fledgling first steps in stand up comedy. Before I even started down that path I knew I was not going far. Though I was born feet first, I was not born standing up. But I enjoyed the experience (comedy, not birth) and learned a few things about myself, and comedy, as well.

Martin's book shows how very difficult the climb will be if you are seriously seeking fame in the entertainment field. It is much more than being at the right place at the right time, as some suppose. One must be prepared and that preparation takes years. Martin learned the rudimentaries of entertainment as a teen selling magic tricks at Disneyland. He worked in one of those little slots where the guy does tricks to attract an audience, then sells the secret along with the trick. The patter, the timing, the confidence... it doesn't all come together in six hours in front of a mirror. Entertainment of all kinds involves audience response, and usually a venue.

Stand up comics seldom have a perfect venue. There is always background noise, other activity going on and sometimes even hecklers. Learning how to deal with these distractions is all part of the prep.

The book, however, is also about a guy from a family with a sister, a mom and a dad. Without dwelling on it, early in the book he shares the degree of abuse he endured from his father. In summing up this chapter he writes, "I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am well qualified to be a comedian."

The many anecdotes about other comedians, television personalities and musicians whose lives criss-crossed his own all help to place Martin's story into a context. But the family stories are important because in the book's summing up, there is closure with both his mom and dad. And he uses this experience, and the wise words of another friend, to remind readers that life is short and the opportunity for closure will not always be there.

For people who find this wild and crazy guy to be funny, the book spells out the philosophy behind what he was trying to achieve with his humor. If you did not always get it, it might be because sometimes there was nothing to "get".

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