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Rationalist of the Absurd

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Steve Martin ironing a kitten, May 1969.   

Born Standing Up is yet further evidence of Martin’s talent for creating intimate distance. The autobiography begins by denying even its genre: “In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know.” The performative gap yawns, apparently, even between Martin and himself. He also frames his onstage experience in terms of distance: “My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare—enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.” The book gives us plenty of opportunity to psychoanalyze this mysterious distance, and its most likely source is, predictably, Martin’s father. (Paint-by-numbers psychologizing—what he calls “ten-cent diagnosis”—turns out to be one of the tics of Martin the autobiographer: His harmless childhood heart murmur “planted in me a seed of hypochondria that poisonously bloomed years later”; his panic attacks expressed his unconscious fear of losing his job writing for The Smothers Brothers; his distance from his family resulted, later in life, in “romantic misconnections and a wrong-headed quest for solitude.”) It is an irony hardly worth stating that Martin, the great prophet of schlocky family comedies, came from a deeply unhappy family. His father was a cold and repressive man who terrified the house with “enraged silences”; once, when 9-year-old Steve misheard his dad and asked “What?” he found himself suffering “a beating that seemed never to end.” After this, Martin cut himself off from his father, and the antipathy between the two survived almost until the latter’s death. (When Martin first hosted SNL, at age 31, his father published a negative review of the show in the Newport Beach Association of Realtors newsletter.) Their emotional reconciliation provides the book’s most moving passages. Not to get too Freudian here, but it’s interesting that someone whose independence began with a traumatic beating would decide to pioneer a style of comedy that withheld the coercive violence of punch lines.

I’m not sure I buy Born Standing Up’s portrait of the young Martin as an avant-garde martyr-hero. He claims that mass success ruined the purity and subtlety of his art, and that, once he felt himself starting to decline, he walked away: “I was becoming, like the Weinermobile, a commercial artifact.” But he walked directly into a film career that has often courted unsubtle mass success above all else—the artistic equivalent of a fleet of Weinermobiles. The cynic in me wonders if this memoir, published in the awkward gap between The Pink Panther and The Pink Panther 2, is a calculated piece of restorative self-mythology: Martin’s attempt to remind people that, although he’s become a tame, family-friendly schlockmeister, he was once a hard-core revolutionary artist. “I was seeking comic originality,” he writes early in the book, “and fame fell on me as a by-product.” It’s a noble thought, but perhaps overstated. In fact, the seeds of his family-friendliness were there in his stand-up from the beginning. His most interesting counterpoint is Andy Kaufman, another conceptual comic who hit his prime at precisely the same moment as Martin, but whose loyalties were very different. Whereas Martin’s innovations were gentle, cartoonish, and nonthreatening—a Disney version of the avant-garde—Kaufman had a severe allergy to catchphrases, audience comfort, and clear comedic signals. He rarely defused his anger and awkwardness into obvious gags. Once his bits became popular, he refused to do them anymore. Martin’s “King Tut” and “Excuuuuse me!” remained ticket-selling staples until the very end.


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