“…my memory of specific shows is faint. I stood onstage, blinded by lights, looking into blackness, which made every place the same. Darkness is essential: if light is thrown on the audience, they don’t laugh; I might as well have told them to sit still and be quiet. The audience necessarily remained a thing unseen except for a few front rows, where one sourpuss could send me into panic and desperation. The comedian’s slang for a successful show is “I murdered them,” which I’m sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you.”
Steve Martin, Born Standing Up
Of my somewhat limited collection of LPs growing up, somehow I ended up with a Steve Martin comedy album. Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with his movies, Father of the Bride, Parenthood, et.al, but I remember the stand-up Steve fondly – the King Tut song, the “I’m just so mad at my mother” bit, and the song about being “obsequious, purple and clairvoyant”. Steve Martin was part of the wallpaper of my life during that that unforgettable time we call high school.
I had recently tried to quit Audible.com, and when they threw $20 at me to induce me to stay, I found myself shopping their $9.95 Holiday sale. That’s when I decided to take a trip down memory lane and chose Born Standing Up, Martin’s chronicle of his early years culminating in sold-out stadiums and phenomenal success. It was a delightful read (listen).
First, he’s a great writer, and captivated me: I started listening at night on New Year’s Day and was finished on January 2nd. Okay, it was admittedly short (4 hours – in comparison, I listened to a George Washington bio last year that ran about 50), but still, I didn’t want to stop. I also liked his honesty. I suppose it’s possible to write in a way that seems transparent, but really is a pretend transparency. I have a hunch people see through that eventually.
He called his dad “Glen.” That was weird, and Martin knows it. His mom was “Mom”, but he called his biological father by his first name. And far from creating a closeness, the relationship with Glen was distant, and in his reflective amateur psychoanalysis, Martin felt that the angst of his childhood home fueled his desire to be on the stage.
How wild to find out that he lost his virginity to none other than Stormie Omartian, of Power of a Praying fill-in-the-blank fame, obviously in her pre-Jesus days. He calls her a very successful author and proselytizer now, but also remembers her quite fondly. Since she writes about prayer, not evangelism, I’m guessing that “proselytizer” came about because Stormie has made one or two tries to tell Steve about grace. Keep at it, Stormie.
Though he doesn’t claim it, I would have to say that before Seinfeld, Martin’s was the original “show about nothing”. Over the years, with his banjo and magic tricks and silly songs, Martin morphed into what became the “wild and crazy guy” that we late baby-boomers remember. His fame was fueled by day after day, year after year laboring – on the road and in small clubs. He admits to the power of the protestant work ethic informing his life and labor.
Panic attacks – something I dealt with in 1985 – were also part of his life. At once awful and non-sensical, anxiety attacks were with him for 20 years. I can’t imagine. But on the bright side, since they started on the night he was using an illegal substance, he credits the debilitating condition with delivering him from drugs once and for all.
All in all, Born Standing Up was a joyful glimpse into the world of a very bright man (IMDb reports that Martin is a member of Mensa) but also a man who was very lost. Like the rest of us, Steve needed to find something to fill Augustine’s God-shaped hole, and found it on the stage, and then eventually…on the screen.