Excerpts from "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" by Steve Martin

martinGot my mitts on an advance copy (available in November) of "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" by Steve Martin. It's all about his years doing standup and how he got started. It's a quick read and really interesting if you're a fan. Some highlights below.

His most persistent memory of stand-up:

I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success. 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 boy 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 best opening lines he ever heard:

The best opening line I ever heard was from Sam Kinison...He said, "You're going to see a lot of comedians tonight; some will be good, some will be okay. But there's a difference between me and them. Them, you might want to see again sometime." But wait — maybe the best opening line I heard was Richard Pryor's, after he started two hours late in front of a potentially miffed crowd at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. He said simply, "Hope I'm funny."


He developed material by translating what made him laugh in life:

I came up with several schemes for developing material. "I laugh in life," I thought, "so why not observe what it is that makes me laugh?" And if I did spot something that was funny, I decided not to just describe it as happening to someone else, but to translate it into the first person, so it was happening to me. A guy didn't walk into a bar, I did. I didn't wat it to appear that others were nuts; I wanted it to appear that I was nuts.


He believed in contradiction:

Lewis Carroll's clever fancies from the 19th century expanded my definition of what comedy could be. I began closing my show by announcing, "I'm not going home tonight; I'm going to Bananaland, a place where only two things are true, only two things: One, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green." Not at Lewis Carroll's level, but the line worked for my contemporaries, and I loved implying that the one thing I believed in was a contradiction.


Defense against loudmouths:

I developed a few defensive lines to use against the unruly: "Oh, I remember when I had my first beer," and if that didn't cool them off, I would use a psychological trick. I would lower my voice and continue with my act, talking almost inaudibly. The audience couldn't hear the show, and they would shut the heckler up on their own.


Try to make the waitresses laugh:

There was a sign of encouragment from these early jobs, and years later I heard it phrased perfectly by Bill Cosby. He said that early in his career when the audience wasn't laughing, he could hear the waitresses laughing, and they saw the show night after night. I noticed that the waitresses were laughing.


Making an audience remember him:

At the end of my closing-night show at the Troubadour, I stood onstage and took out five bananas. I peeled them, put one on my head, one in each pocket, and squeezed one in each hand. Then I read the last line of my latest bad review: "Sharing the bill with Poco this week is comedian Steve Martin...his 25 minute routine failed to establish any comic identity that would make the audience remember him or the material." Then I walked off the stage.


What's hard is being consistent:

It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking...What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.


How he worked in new material:

When I had new material to try, I would break it down into its smallest elements, literally a gesture or a few words, then sneak it into the act in its shortest form, being careful not to dsirupt the flow of the show. If it worked, the next night I would add the next discreet packed until the bit either filled out or died. I can remember bailing out of a bit because I didn't want to be trapped in it for the next five minutes. The easiest way was to pretend I'd gotten distracted by something and then completely change track.


Other quick thoughts:

Comedy's enemy is distraction.


[On Laurel and Hardy] This is where I got the idea that jokes are funniest when played upon oneself.


Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.


"Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life" at Amazon.

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