bornstandingupWho doesn’t like Steve Martin?

I’ve loved him in many of his later period movies (Roxanne, Housesitter and, once upon a time, Three Amigos!) but have never seen The Jerk. (“You’ve never seen The Jerk?!”) He’s very likable, sharp-witted, classy and I kind of thought Bringing Down The House was funny…I know, I know.

When it came to his stand-up comedy, though, I didn’t quite get it. I remember watching a performance of him doing “King Tut” on a Saturday Night Live rerun, and not understanding what was so funny about “he’s my favorite honkey!”

I knew that he was a talented writer–Shopgirl was slight but beautifully done–and I stayed up until early morning to finish Born Standing Up, his memoir of (mostly) his stand-up comedy years.

Written in his classic smooth, eloquent style (you can imagine him reading it quite easily), the book describes his strained relationship with his strange, angry, distant father. It talks about how he worked at Disneyland for most of his childhood right up until he was a teenager, and how he transitioned smoothly from an aspiring magician to an aspiring performer. (Comedian is too narrow a word: he sings, plays banjo, tells jokes and does a few funny tricks, including an “exploding dove” and a “bouncing baby rabbit.”)

Unsurprising, the road to megastardom was as “dark and twisty” as Dr. Meredith Grey, and even though we know how it all turned out, Martin’s gift is for making you care what happens to him. A touching sequence at the end sees him, hugely successful with a smash movie (The Jerk, of course), yet unable to get his father’s approval and burnt out, returning to the playhouse at Knott’s Berry Farm where performing was still carefree fun.

The comedy bits he mentions are both weird and wonderful: I laughed out loud at many of the bits he’d do onstage, because his persona as a comic was quite different from the affable, white- haired dad-of-Hilary Duff in Cheaper By The Dozen: mean-spirited, smart and quite (yes) jerky. He did comedy his way: stupid/smart but brilliant, and he deserves all the success he’s enjoyed.

I loved this book and I’d highly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you love comedy or Steve Martin. Its appeal is summed up for me in the cover image: wearing bunny ears and his trademark white suit, a fuzzy-looking Steve seems to lean up against something onstage: dapper and foolish and charming and quirky and off-kilter all at once.

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