Steve Martin spent 18 years performing stand-up comedy, culminating in phenomenal success. In the throws of acclaim, he left stand-up, and the accompanying overwhelming anxiety, behind and has never looked back – until now. In this memoir, Steve revisits this early foundation of his diverse career with the expected humor and unexpected pathos. This book is an illuminating study of the immense effort and polishing required to design even the most spontaneous appearing comedic blurb and the forces that drive someone to want to make that effort.
It turns out that – just as in the famous last words attributed to Edmund Gwenn – comedy is hard.
From a shy but enterprising child magician hanging around magic shops to a fledgling banjo player and bit actor, Steve Martin was in the forefront of inventing a style of absurdist visual comedy that echoes in the works of current stand-up comedians. Steve admits to having none of the basic performance capabilities but regarded that as merely an inconvenience on the way to being a performer. The book features classic Martin bits and their origins, drawing a chuckle of recognition from those of us old enough to remember the early Saturday Night Live.
The book recounts Steve’s early appearances as a magician and the development of the act as he added little comedy bits and music and props until it became the pastiche of white-suited controlled insanity revealed in many a YouTube video.
The book’s namedropping is, as it is in most contexts, both a guilty vice and somewhat tedious. Steve has an opening musical act in a small club; they are two young singer-songwriters named Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, later to join Fleetwood Mac. Director John Frankenheimer seduces Steve’s girlfriend during a movie shoot. His brushes with the famous and heirs to throne are many, making one think that California is just one big sound studio. Sadly, these linkages titillate but do not lead to meaningful revelations. What were these people like before fame? How did Steve feel about the situation? We never succinctly know.
He does not kiss and tell and is in most ways the gentleman that his parents raised, but one wonders how a disembodied wife appears in a throw away line with no explanation of how she got there or what effect this relationship had on his craft. Steve is open about his former drug use and the cycles of pain and profit throughout this phase of his career but circumspect, or perhaps too distant from, his emotional development. Steve’s inner dialog is the driving force behind his successful career, though one can’t help but wonder if, with a more accepting father, Steve would have been a very wealthy and well-rounded insurance agent and hobby novelist. While this book has the subtitle, "A Comic’s Life," it is really more the story of "The Act" and how it developed. Is the Act the totality of the life of the comedian? In Steve’s all-or-nothing choice to abandon stand-up after success brought him crushing anxiety, we can perhaps read an affirmation.
Steve Martin has delivered a well-written and informative celebrity memoir that not only gives the reader a heightened appreciation for the difficulty of comedy writing and performance but also moments of fun and nostalgia. It’s that unique celebrity book that doesn’t make you feel embarrassed to be caught reading.
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