In his memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
(2007), American comedian, actor, and screenwriter Steve Martin looks back on his early life, from early childhood through a day job at Disneyland, various odd jobs, and his first forays into comedy. Martin uses these formative experiences to contextualize his later years at the Bird Cage Theatre, his friendships and romantic relationships, and his ascent to stardom. Martin, who quit his first passion, stand-up, in 1981, explains what motivated him to move on, and his philosophy that no career path should dictate one’s ultimate life course. The memoir reached a large popular audience, mostly due to Martin’s high visibility as an actor in the year of its publication.
Martin begins his memoir with an ambivalent reflection on his early childhood, a time characterized by abuse from his father. Due to some psychological problem inexplicable to Martin, his father seemed to dislike him increasingly as he got older. He postulates that it was a combination of his floundering real estate career, his family’s financial difficulties, and his forgone hope of entering show business. Martin’s mother feared her husband, often speaking under her breath and cautioning Martin and his sister, Melinda, not to repeat her words. His father readily resorted to corporal punishment using a paddle, a relic of his own childhood in Texas.
In the latter years of Martin’s childhood, he and his father barely spoke, and he rejected most social engagements with him. Despite the trauma he endured, Martin expresses regret that he did so little to repair his relationship with his father, and by association, his sister and mother. He suggests that these “psychological debts” bled into his future preferences for solitude and dysfunctional friendships and romantic relationships. Later in the memoir, Martin recalls how he eventually reconnected with both of his parents, and that his sister did the same with him by placing a phone call when they were well into adulthood. Though he was unable to fully heal from the psychological wounds inflicted by his parents’ abuses and silences, he obtained enough closure to be content.
After high school, Martin went to work at two theme parks in Southern California: Knott’s Berry Farm, and the ubiquitous Disneyland. At Disneyland, he sold magazines, which netted him only two cents per sale. Martin characterizes his early working life as meandering and often depressing. The most rewarding aspect of this experience was that it motivated Martin to take the risk to begin a career in stand-up. At first, he drew minuscule audiences, failed (but learned) often, and garnered mixed reviews. The career lasted for eighteen years; in the final four of them, Martin enjoyed fame. In 1981, he decided to retire from stand-up, content with the evolution of his routine, and suspecting that it had gone as far as it could. He takes this opportunity to comment philosophically on the work of the comedian, arguing that, like much of popular culture, it becomes irrelevant almost instantly upon its exposure to the public. He suggests that young adulthood tends to be the most rewarding time for immersing oneself in the experimental and impermanent world of stand-up.
Martin dedicated the next years to his fledgling acting roles, and was, once again, hugely successful. He recalls both subtle and profound changes that occurred during these years. He describes shifts in the film and entertainment industries’ motivations and goals, as well as changes in American society. These factors and others ultimately changed what Americans were interested in. Martin acknowledges that the comedy that was funny in the 1980s is commonly considered corny, slapstick or obsolete in the terms of his present day.
Martin’s memoir characterizes the comedian as someone who uses his sensitivity and proclivity for expression to make sense of very personal misfortunes and confusion. He suggests that ultimately, his artistic work, which is constantly in a state of renewal and confined to no single genre, has helped him transcend and transform the taxing everyday world, fashioning a more positive outlook on life.