Review: ‘Born Standing Up’ by Steve Martin

Again, it was one year ago today when I suggested Steve Martin’s skill now seems to lie in his precisely-written novels, and this non-fiction memoir of his experiences doing stand-up comedy seems to suggest this is still, or indeed, the case.

As noted in m’colleague’s mini-review, there was a time when Steve Martin’s stand-up talent was such that he could well have been voted the funniest man in the world; he filled huge venues and sold vast numbers of LPs (yes, it was back in the days before CDs and downloads), and in this book he tells you how he did it.

Well, not exactly, as his comedy was far more fragmented and intuitive than that, so it’s not like it worked to a formula which you could learn from this book and then copy – unless the lack of a formula could be seen as an approach in itself, much like I often fear that the ‘ethical relativist’ stance is, in its way, a positive position. But in this book, Steve talks about how his stage act gradually developed, what worked and what didn’t, and how he felt about his success.

If you’re interested in comedy, both the jokes at the front of it and the process that goes into their creation, this book will almost certainly be of interest; his writing is very precise and easy to understand, and the book’s short and to the point – given that it’s a small-sized hardback (a format I really like), the phrase that kept coming to mind as I read it was that it’s ‘a bonsai book’ – there’s not a lot of it, but everything that’s there is there for a reason.

I’ve read a few books purporting to tell you how to write and/or perform comedy, but they’re usually written by people I’ve never heard of, which hardly inspires confidence; this book, though, is written by a man who rose to the very top of the comedy ladder, and who honed his act carefully and thoughtfully for some time before finding success. A great read, and most definitely recommended – but if you have any lingering doubts about whether it’d be for you, you can read the first chapter here.


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  1. I’ve heard that it’s a good read. I was a huge fan of Mr Martin having first discovered his vinayl albums ‘Wild and Crazy Guy’ and ‘Let’s get small’ in my late teens. I still have them to this day (and MP3s of course!) I thought it was the best new original stuff I’d heard in years. Then came the films – ‘The Jerk’ is in my top 10 films definitely. Also loved ‘Man with two brains’ and ‘All of me’ was pretty good. ‘Dead men don’t wear plaid’ was the last good film I reckon – he started getting all sentimental and serious and, apart from some decent performances in ‘3 Amigos’, ‘Little shop of horrors’ and ‘Trains, planes and automobiles’, I sort of gave up on him. Sad really.

    Dennis Pennis summed it up when he caught him at a premiere and shouted, ‘Steve Martin! Why aren’t you funny any more?’

    Ah, the truth hurts.

    Good interview here:

  2. I like ‘Roxanne’ and the other ones he’s written, but the ones he just appears in leave me utterly cold, I have to say.
    Not a million miles from the Woody Allen ‘earlier films are the best’ path, I guess.
    Ta for that link – it’s a much bigger sample from the book than the one I linked to in the original post!

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