Monday, February 29, 2016

Born Standing Up

The other day I checked out Steve Martin's book, Born Standing Up:  A Comic's Life from our public library.  I'd been meaning to read it for a while now.  I've never really had the urge to do stand-up.  I've never been that great in front of an audience.  I've only ever tried it once in a bar at the insistence of a friend who was there playing in the bar's band at the time.
That night at the club they had the bar band for the main entertainment, and then had a stand-up Gong show-type night.  It allowed folks to do some stand-up, tell some dirty jokes or act silly, and this was totally on the fly for me.  I had no preparation or clue I was going to do this at all when I went there that night, so in about a few milliseconds I decided I'd just launch into a Woody Allen routine I'd heard on one of his nightclub records I had.   Well, I'm not that much of a performer as I stated, and was quickly booed and then gonged by the MC, so my life in show business was short lived thankfully.

I have to admit I'm still interested in comedy, although don't watch a lot of comedy movies these days.  I don't care too much for most of the raunchy comedies that come out on the big screen.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I guess I better backtrack a bit.  I do and I don't.  Some of those films, I have enjoyed.  I have liked some of the Judd Apatow movies like Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, The 40-Year-Old Virgin was pretty fun.  I've enjoyed many of the Farrelly Brothers' films like Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There's Something About Mary, Me, Myself, and Irene, and Shallow Hall.  I still enjoy Woody Allen.  Airplane, Spinal Tap, Monty Python, Silver Lining Playbook, and many others I've enjoyed.  After I just typed all those films (and I could type more), I thought, well, I'm a bigger fan of comedy than I thought I was.  

I've not watched much of Saturday Night Live lately either since, I don't know, five to seven years.  I'd tune in ever so often when Kristen Wiig was a cast member, and nothing against her, but I think they overused her.  And many of the skits that she was in were just dumb, not funny.  At least not to me.  I'm glad she could move forward and is getting better roles.  But back when I was watching Saturday Night Live I used to love it when Steve Martin was a guest.  I liked it wherever he popped up on  Letterman, Johnny Carson, etc.  So I was interested about his start in showbiz.

Evidently he got a very early start.  His folks moved from Waco, Tx to California when he was still a kid.  Once in California, they moved again, and where they landed was not very far from Disneyland.  He was one of the first generation of kids to experience that complex when it opened.  He could actually ride his bike down there and mess around.  He got his first paying job there when he was around junior high selling program books to the tourist as they entered the theme park.  That gave him free access to the park and from there and when he had free time, he would scout out the park itself.  He enjoy the magicians, who incorporated comedy into their acts.  He also acted a bit in some of their small skits and acted in plays when he got a bit older.  He grew up enjoying some of the same acts I did that he saw on TV like Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, as well as the Jack Benny show.

All that was well and good, but Steve's home life wasn't all that funny.   He states he called his mother, Mama, and his father, Glen.  That should give you an indication that he and his father didn't exactly get along well.  He would get the occasional spanking with switches and belts (pretty normal coming from at Texas).   But once his father asked him something one night while they were seated around the TV, which Steve didn't hear, and responded with a "Whut?" or something perhaps that just struck his dad the wrong way, he got a pretty good beating for it.  That pretty much sent up a red flag in his mind to watch what he said around his dad, better yet, don't say anything.  He states, "I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts, hence I'm qualified to be a comedian."

Once he started working at Disneyland, the less time at home, the better.  I can imagine how a profound effect Disneyland might have been to a kid his age, and in Martin's case not only for the escapism mentally, but also to physically get out of the house.  Heck, Disney and the theme park were huge to all kids back then.  It was for me as well, and I just watched it on TV.  I also saw many movies made from Disney at the time too.  It almost became the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for children's entertainment back then.  At any rate, Steve Martin became an employee of Disney at age ten.  Age ten, can you imagine?

He goes on to talk about some of the colorful characters that he met while at Disneyland.  He started to get into magic acts and bought some of the tricks to preform them.  The magician hooked him up with Cub Scout troops and Kiwanis Clubs to perform whenever talent was needed.  Over time he got to be a pretty good performer, and got used to being in front of people.  He bought a gag book and would include some of the jokes into his act, which was also influenced by some of the performers at Disneyland.  He got so independent with his odd jobs that he moved out of the house at age eighteen.   Pretty incredible.

Around the same time, he started to play the banjo and would include that into his act.  It seems the hardest thing starting out is to cobble together enough original material so that you can perform it for around thirty minutes.   With all that he just expanded out as much as he could.  He also started working at the Bird Cage at Knott's Berry Farm.  This was more of a vaudeville type act where he'd act with other performers.  His life was seemingly just a natural progression of stage, going to college, meeting new people, working on his own act, watching a few other performers and picking up whatever he could along the way.  One thing lead to another person, who would open a new door. 

So all of this just grew and grew.  He continued to network and hone his skills.   He was not an overnight success.  There was a quote in the book that I can't find but it goes something like this: he hone his craft for ten to fifteen years, got famous for about five to six, and then just left (meaning his stand-up).  He went on to write and act in movies, write plays, and make appearances on other television shows like Saturday Night Live and be a guest on late night shows.  I will say this, the book is a fun read.  It made me laugh out loud many times.  It was also terribly engrossing to get a bird's eye view of all of that.  It made me want to check out other books where a comedian talks about their creative years.  If you enjoy Steve Martin at all, it's a must read.

Here's a recent episode of Jerry Sienfeld with Steve Martin, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  


At 8:15 PM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

Steve Martin is a likable comedian and more talented an exposure only to some of his sillier material might lead one to think. Bowfinger, for which he wrote the script, is a good little movie, for example.

My first time in Disneyland was 1958. It didn’t occur to me to try to get a job there, but perhaps it should have. Return visits felt like coming home.

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

...more talented *than* an exposure...

At 7:52 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

I've never been to Disneyland though I'd love to go. I would have really loved it had I gone there when I was younger. Here in Texas we have a Six Flags, which is a fun theme park, but it doesn't have all the lore and icons associated with the Disney franchise. And now Disney are adding to that with the Star Wars stuff.

Yes, Martin knew his comedy routines were of a certain time, he has stated that type humor worked best coming out of the dark period of Vietnam, Nixon, etc. Although his humor still gets silly and absurd, which is evident in some of his earlier films as well. It would be hard to continue and maintain that sort of energy that he did on stage with the happy feet bits. You could tell Robin Williams had a hard time maintaining his manic, zany act too. Jonathan Winters did a pretty good job of aging along with his comedy. With Martin though, he went back to his roots and started writing, which you can be any age for that. It's a treat whenever he does show up on TV though.

At 8:02 PM, Blogger Roman J. Martel said...

Steve Martin is a pretty smart guy too. I saw an interview with him once and he seemed to be pretty knowledge about a whole array of subjects. I actually first encountered him because of movies like "The Man with Two Brains" and "Roxanne". It wasn't until later did I find out he started out in stand up and on Saturday Night Live. One of my favorite films of his is "L.A. Story". It is so surreal and yet pretty darn funny all at the same time.

Disneyland is really a cool place. Growing up near it I kind of took it for granted. My wife and I had season passes for about ten years and we'd head over there on Sundays and have a good time. But they've been raising the rates to get in and the drive to the park got worse and worse. We eventually let our passes expire and started hitting the zoo and museums that were closer and cheaper. We miss some of the attractions and the wonderful atmosphere there every once in a while.

Disneyworld was something else. We were there about six years ago and wow... it was impressive in both scale and logistics. How they keep the whole thing operating so well is a marvel.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

Yes, Martin is a smart guy. I think I only have two of his films, Roxanne and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which are two of my favorite ones by him. Dead Men reminds me a bit of the Woody Allen film, Play It Again, Sam probably because of the crime noir, Sam Spade influence. I've kept my eyes out for any other DVDs by him that I can find. I've yet to watch Shopgirl (and haven't read the book either), but it's in my NF queue.

Yes, I'd still like to go to Disneyland. Even as an adult I think I would enjoy it somewhat, and that's one of the things that I think Disney sought after when creating his whole universe--having a place that the whole family can enjoy. The same holds true for many of his films. Kids and adults can enjoy them so there's several levels there, or it appeals to the kid in us all. Yeah, I bet it would have been fun to have season passes, if for no other reason than to people watch. But you are right, just the facility itself and the upkeep are a marvel. I can't imagine growing up living near there.


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