Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

by Steve Martin

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The riveting, mega-bestselling, beloved and highly acclaimed memoir of a man, a vocation, and an era named one of the ten best nonfiction titles of the year by Time and Entertainment Weekly.

In the mid-seventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978 he was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. In 1981 he quit forever. This book is, in his own words, the story of “why I did stand-up and why I walked away.”

Emmy and Grammy Award–winner, author of the acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, Martin has always been a writer. His memoir of his years in stand-up is candid, spectacularly amusing, and beautifully written.

At age ten Martin started his career at Disneyland, selling guidebooks in the newly opened theme park. In the decade that followed, he worked in the Disney magic shop and the Bird Cage Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm, performing his first magic/comedy act a dozen times a week. The story of these years, during which he practiced and honed his craft, is moving and revelatory. The dedication to excellence and innovation is formed at an astonishingly early age and never wavers or wanes.

Martin illuminates the sacrifice, discipline, and originality that made him an icon and informs his work to this day. To be this good, to perform so frequently, was isolating and lonely. It took Martin decades to reconnect with his parents and sister, and he tells that story with great tenderness. Martin also paints a portrait of his times—the era of free love and protests against the war in Vietnam, the heady irreverence of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late sixties, and the transformative new voice of Saturday Night Live in the seventies.

Throughout the text, Martin has placed photographs, many never seen before. Born Standing Up is a superb testament to the sheer tenacity, focus, and daring of one of the greatest and most iconoclastic comedians of all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416569749
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 11/20/2007
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 77,507
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Steve Martin is one of today's most talented performers. He has had huge success as a film actor, with such credits as Cheaper by the Dozen, Father of the Bride, Roxanne, Parenthood, L.A. Story, and many others. He has won Emmys for his television writing and two Grammys for his comedy albums. In addition to his bestselling novel The Pleasure of My Company and a collection of comic pieces, Pure Drivel, he has also written a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. He lives in Los Angeles.


Beverly Hills, California

Date of Birth:

August 14, 1945

Place of Birth:

Waco, Texas


Long Beach State College; University of California, Los Angeles

Read an Excerpt

Born Standing 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 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. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.

    My decade is the seventies, with several years extending on either side. Though my general recall of the period is precise, 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.

    Stand-up is seldom performed in ideal circumstances. Comedy’s enemy is distraction, and rarely do comedians get a pristine performing environment. I worried about the sound system, ambient noise, hecklers, drunks, lighting, sudden clangs, latecomers, and loud talkers, not to mention the nagging concern “Is this funny?” Yet the seedier the circumstances, the funnier one can be. I suppose these worries keep the mind sharp and the senses active. I can remember instantly retiming a punch line to fit around the crash of a dropped glass of wine, or raising my voice to cover a patron’s ill-timed sneeze, seemingly microseconds before the interruption happened.

    I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented—I didn’t sing, dance, or act—though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now. A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life—which inevitably touches upon my personal life—and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away.

    In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.

  • Customer Reviews

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    Born Standing Up 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 165 reviews.
    Ross_Hearns More than 1 year ago
    Steve is a very complex individual, with his past relationship with his Father, his ability to create humor, his writing, his musical ability and art appreciation. This book lets you feel like you are a friend. When in public I'm sure Mr. Martin has to always "be on". The public expects this image. I felt like I got to know the real person away from that image just trying to entertain. I would recommend this book to anyone that wanted to get to know Steve Martin a very fun book to read.
    the_protagonist1 More than 1 year ago
    One funny book, from a wild and crazy guy! This autobiography covers from his childhood that formed him up until the height of his stand up career. It contains some interesting stories about life on the road when he was well known but not famous. If you are hoping for some info on the Saturday Night Live Years, they are not there but you will feel you don't need it once you reach the end.<br /> <br /> Review by Curt Wiser Author of BOX CUTTER KILLER.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is the best book I have read in a long time. I love reading about celebrities that had it rough in the beginning and worked so hard to get where they are now. It is awesome to know that he went from living in a van to being famous. I have always loved him and now I love him alot more. He thought so many times about giving up and having a normal life but he didnt, he went for what he wanted and succeeded. I would recommend this book to everyone!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Outststsnding, insightfull and hillarious
    moonimal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I heard about this book on the Nerdist podcast, which is my current fountain of inspiration. John Lithgow and Chris Hardwick were talking about comedians, and they mentioned this book. I read it in a single day - it's short, and I wasn't sleeping well - and it was a great little read."A Wild and Crazy Guy" was the second album I ever bought, and I still have clumps of brain cells dedicated to those routines. I'm amazed at what I can recall word by word.This book was a fun read for a fan of Steve Martin, but didn't hold any amazing insights - other than he was very focused on exactly what he was doing, and that he didn't spend a lot of time with his family. Made me laugh, though.
    Jim53 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A light, fun read, focusing on Martin's childhood and stand-up career. Not terribly deep, although there are a few interesting comments about his family and his developing relationships with them. Not a "wild and crazy" book, but an easy read that gives a few insights into Martin's development. I'll be interested to see the sequel, which should describe his broadening into various sorts of writing and other projects.I have this idea that the title might refer to a mythological hero who was born feet first and therefore "born standing up," but I can't come up with the name and I have no idea whether Martin intended any link.
    brianjayjones on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Absolutely marvelous. Martin explains why he thinks his kind of comedy works, and how he developed it. Plenty of fascinating vignettes about life in the armpits of showbusiness, as Martin worked his way from the magic shop at Disneyland, to Knott's Berry Farm, to dingy clubs, ski lodges, bars, and hotel lounges -- all the while honing his craft, developing the bits that worked and discarding those that didn't. And what makes it so interesting is that Martin will tell you why bits worked or didn't. A terrific book for anyone who cares about developing their own craft -- whether it's standup comedy, acting, writing, music, or even hawking wares at a flea market. Good stuff.
    Unreachableshelf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Steve Martin's memoir of his stand-up career has the perfect balance of eloquence and simplicity of his novellas, short essays, and plays. He has a knack for making himself comprehensible, even somebody with whom one can identify, in spite of the fact that his readers must be nearly 100% lacking in life experiences that truly mirror his. (For that matter, has anybody really had a comparable career to Steve Martin's?) The revelations of where little nuggets of absurdity such as "happy feet" came from delight, and even reading brief snippets of his material will have you laughing out loud at them all over again.
    cinesnail88 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I am a huge fan of Steve Martin's work both as a comic and a writer and I have been looking forward to reading this memoir for some time. It offered great insight into Steve's work, particularly during his stand-up period.If you aren't already a fan of Steve Martin, however, I'm not sure this will come anywhere near converting you. It seems like a book more for the already inducted, and less for just anybody off the street. I, however, enjoyed it greatly.
    Jenners26 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Brief Description: In 1981, at the height of his stand-up career, Steve Martin decided to walk away from stand-up comedy¿and he never returned. This book tells how Martin¿s stand-up career evolved¿from his humble showbiz beginnings at Disneyland and Knott¿s Berry Farm to the long development of his stand-up act over the years to his rise to stardom and eventual decision to leave stand-up comedy. Includes lots of photos!My Thoughts: If you¿ve followed Martin¿s career over the years, you know he isn¿t a one-trick pony who wrote this book to revisit his glory years. After leaving stand-up, Martin went on to become a movie star, playwright and novelist, as well as a relatively serious art collector. His memoir is well-written and moves along quickly; in fact, I read it an afternoon. I loved Steve Martin when I was younger. I had all his stand-up albums and thought he was a comic genius. Learning about the genesis of his act and the origins of some of his more well-known bits was fascinating. His memoir also serves as a history of stand-up comedy in America, as Martin was in the forefront of a ¿new¿ kind of comedy that blossomed on shows such as Saturday Night Live, where Martin was a frequent guest. I was also interested to find out that Martin was a writer on the Smothers Brothers Show! The book is filled with lots of black and white photos of Martin at various stages in his career, and it was fun to learn how his act evolved over time. Although he talks a bit about his family life and how it influenced his comedy, my only real quibble with the book is that I wanted more information about Martin¿s personal life than he provides. The focus is always squarely on his career, with the personal information kept in the background. I think this book provides Martin¿s fans with a unique glimpse into his life and mind and, as celebrity memoirs go, this was one of the best I¿ve ever read. (Take that last bit with a grain of salt though as I¿m not a big reader of celebrity memoirs to begin with.)
    bluejazz1084 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    One of the most resonating, non-indulgent books I've read concerning comedy and life. Martin's perspective is uncompromising, and often witty. His reflections on comedy, the nature of people and life is humble and comforting.
    marad451 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I was already a fan of Steve Martin, but now that I know what makes him tick, why his comedy is so funny, how he instrumental he was in bringing modern day stand up to the forefront of American is an understatement.
    Florinda on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Despite the popular catchphrase associated with him during the peak of his stand-up comedy career in the late `70s, it turns out that Steve Martin never was much of a ¿a wild and crazy guy¿ after all. He actually took being funny very seriously, although until he wrote this book, he hadn¿t taken a serious look back at that part of his professional life since he stopped doing it on stage every night.As the book description says, Martin ¿exploded¿ onto the comedy scene, but he hardly came out of nowhere. He¿d been working toward it ever since he got his first job at Disneyland during junior high, collecting jokes and developing a magic act. By the time he started college (as a philosophy major, eventually), he¿d moved on to the company at the Birdcage Theatre at Knott¿s Berry Farm. After a few years, he left the theme parks and most of the magic tricks behind, taking his increasingly offbeat comedy to bars and clubs by night while writing sketches for popular comedy/variety shows during the day, until he quit the TV work at 28 and gave himself till the age of 30 to make a living as a stand-up comic. He made the deadline.I was in high school during Steve Martin¿s heyday...and I remember not finding him as funny I thought I was supposed to. After revisiting his comedy in Born Standing Up, I¿m pretty sure I was just too young to get it at the time, because the bits he quotes in the book cracked me up. I was fascinated to see how it developed, and now able to appreciate just how groundbreaking it was--surreal and subversive and non-topical, fearless, simultaneously brilliant and stupid. Martin approached it with professionalism and craftsmanship, evolving as an artist; in his arc, I saw some broad similarities to Patti Smith¿s artistic evolution as recounted in her memoir Just Kids, although it¿s possible that I inferred those similarities partly because I listened to both books on audio, read by their authors.By his own admission, Steve Martin is a very private person, and it makes sense that he¿d focus a memoir on his work--and just a portion of it. at that--than on the more personal stuff of his life. But he did some pretty interesting and memorable work, which I appreciate more now than I did before I read this--and I got the sense that, in writing about it, he may have come to appreciate it better himself. I enjoyed his narration of the audio, and the transitional banjo music between chapters that he wrote and performed himself (a replacement for the photos in the print edition); while he may never be as famous for his work subsequent to stand-up, he¿s been pretty successful as a bluegrass musician and author. It turns out he makes an excellent subject for a book, too.
    chuewyc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    always interesting to read about someone's life that you look up to. This book definatly didn't live up to my expectations. I was hoping to hear more stories about what happened when he turned famous and 9/10 of the book is talking about his childhood and people that i never heard of.
    helpfulsnowman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Hmm...even as a big fan of stand-up, this book wasn't all that interesting. And if you aren't into stand-up, interested in the way acts are created, copied, and pushed further, forget it. Martin can write. That's probably a dumb thing to say. What I mean is that he's written a handful of decent books and tons of comedy. But this book, with the exception of the last 20 pages, reads like a long list of jokes, venues, and anecdotes that had all the makings of being incredible, but the pace of the book is so fast that there's no time to enjoy anything.He really hits a personal, emotional core in the last 20 pages when he talks about the difficulty of fame and the resolution he find with his father. Despite the rest of the book not doing much for me, the last 20 were still effective and emotional. But the work it takes to get there just isn't worth it, and it's ultimately disappointing because it gives you just a little taste of how great the book could have been.
    branimal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    For someone who knew nothing about Steve Martin's stand-up career, it certainly was an entertaining read. Martin comes across as a very real and genuine person who's relationship with his parents is easy to identify with. Thoroughly enjoyable.
    dablackwood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I love Steve Martin and have enjoyed his novels immensely, but I was disappointed in this book. It is the simple history of his stand-up career and probably really interesting to someone who either wants to do standup or watches a lot of it. I'm neither of these and so it was pretty boring to me. I did enjoy, however, the family parts - his relationship with his sister and his parents and how that evolved over the years.
    TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Probably it's all been said here already, but I will reiterate that being a successful standup comic implies some pain, and Martin had that in an emotionally distant, occasionally abusive father who'd once had aspirations to show business himself. Some of the best parts of this book are the small glimpses Martin allows of his childhood, and then the difficult last years with his aging parents, during which there is a kind of reconciliation. The truth is, the sadness in Martin's personal life shows through, albeit in a book (like Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays) that often makes you laugh out loud. Martin's anecdotes of his life in comedy often reads like a Who's Who of show business. Because of his youthful and continuing interest in magic, I was also reminded of Sid Fleischman's wonderful memoir, The Abracadabra Kid, and wondered if the two men had ever met. They would undoubtedly have much in common despite the age difference. I guess I hoped for more of the personal from Martin, but what he does reveal is entertaining and even occasionally moving, despite his overall reticence. I hope he'll do another memoir one day, one in which he is a bit more forthcoming and covers his later life as an actor, filmmaker and writer.
    rstuckey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A fun and interesting read for anyone who is interested in stand-up comedy or just Steve Martin in general. It is a very quick read and I wouldn't have minded it to be a little longer.
    figre on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The reviewers raved about this book. A quote from the blurb on the back from Jerry Seinfeld sums up the types of reviews that surround it. ¿One of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written.¿ What all those rave reviews left out was that the book veers away from telling the story of the development of a comedian to telling the history of Steve Martin. And, as good as the parts about being a comedian are, that¿s how bad the history parts are. Let¿s look at it step by step.First chapter ¿ great. A look at one night at a coffee house in San Francisco ¿ just starting out ¿ almost no one there. Our first insight into what it took to get to this point, and what it would take to become more. And our first look at how Steve Martin¿s comedy got started.Second chapter ¿ whoops. Uh, what exactly is this? Oh, I see. This is the obligatory ¿I¿m writing an autobiography, so let me tell you about how I grew up¿ section. Yes, he didn¿t have a perfect family life. Yes, that imperfect family life helped form what he became. But this cursory look and quick psychoanalysis is worse than not delving in at all.Third chapter ¿ Okay, we¿re getting back on track. Disneyland and how his work there helped build his stage presenceFourth chapter ¿ Even better. Working at Knott¿s Berry Farm and really being a performer. Wait, what¿s that ¿klunk¿. Of course ¿ every autobiography has to talk about the first sexual experience ¿ even if it is only a one-liner that feels tacked on.Subsequent chapters ¿ back on stride. How the comedy was developed. How the comedian was developed. The process that led to the comedic icon of the 70¿s. And the end? Well, it clunks a little too ¿ we all get to live kind-of happily ever after.Here¿s the message I get. No one should write their own biography. And, in this case, I don¿t think Martin was trying to write a definitive autobiography; rather, an exploration and explanation of how a comic gets where they are. With both of those in mind, the extrapolations on personal life (while definitely a part of how a person becomes who they are) do not work to greatly support this understanding.But, with all that being said, it may still be one of the best books about being a comedian that has been published, and it is well worth the read (skip the parts you don¿t care about) to gain that insight. It is a good book, a great book, a fantastic book. It should be read.
    marguerlucy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A warm and chuckle-y book. I only wish I knew Martin's work better, as I am not sure his explanations of his comedy translates from the page as he is a very visual comic.
    mojomomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I've always enjoyed Martin and as I read this book I was amazed about the number of Martinisms that I use or refer to: I'm somebody! I'm in the phone book!, All I need is this ashtray....etc. Martin comes across in this biography as a regular guy, trying to do some unlikely comedy in an unlikely time. It was interesting to read about how long it took him, because once I become aware of him in the late 70's he was suddenly everywhere. This book only covers his stand-up career, so his acting and writing career is barely touched. Great read!
    InCahoots on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I love Steve Martin's writing. His "Pleasure of My Company" and "Shopgirl" were a joy. So this memoir was a bit of a let down. Perhaps I was seeking the subtle humor of his fiction writing, and this was the story of a very serious man. I didn't laugh out loud until the last few pages.That said, this story of his life as a stand up is still a worthy read. It reminds me of "Schulz and Peanuts: a Biography". Both men were serious and passionate about their art early on as young teenagers. They worked hard and honed their talent. Both sometimes substituted their work for human relationships, and suffered the consequences. And both were brilliantly successful, and we are the winners for that.
    ElizaJane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Comedian, Steve Martin, shares in this memoir the ups and downs of the eighteen years he did stand-up. He briefly tells of his childhood, then moves on to his teenage years when he worked at Disneyland in a magic shop demonstrating the products. Martin does not get too personal, one can tell from his story that he is a private person. What he does give though is a vivid portrayal of the entertainment scene during the seventies and late sixties. It is a brief book and I would have liked some more in depth details of his experiences but it does give one some insight into the personal man behind the 'wild and crazy guy'. Enjoyable.
    LisaLynne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Really interesting to see how his act and his career evolved.