Martin’s new memoir, Born Standing Up (Simon & Schuster), grants us our best access yet to this remote and brilliant figure — the cool architect of the comedy. “My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future,” he writes on the first page. Show business, unlike life, tolerates few genuine accidents, and it should come as no surprise that the big-visaged, flapping-limbed, borderless and random-seeming exhibitionist who went by the name “Steve Martin” for a couple of hours onstage was a comic calculation that had been tested and re-tested through decades of experiment. Born in Texas in 1945 and raised in California, the young Martin served his apprenticeship in a vivid and dusty showbiz crazyworld that already seems two centuries away. His first job was in a magic shop in Disneyland; his first sexual partner was a vaudeville actress who would go on to become a million-selling author of Christian how-to books. Vintage figures stroll back and forth across the early chapters of Born Standing Up — the promoter Claude Plum, to whom Martin was briefly indentured, or the singer/comedian Martin Mull, drawling his way through Morrissey-esque numbers like “I’m Everyone I Ever Loved” and “(How Could I Not Miss) a Girl Your Size.”
As the ’60s gathered momentum, Martin wrote for TV (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), worked on his stand-up, got high, and suffered his first panic attack, the classic telescoping of the self into the vertical dimension: “I felt my mind being torn from its present location and lifted into the ether.” He stopped getting high. The attacks diminished, though slowly, melting away “like ice around Greenland,” and he learned something terrible about everyday life: “Now I could be funny, alert, and involved while nursing internal chaos.”
But there are gifts that come with distance, painful as it can be. Road-hardened, newly skeptical of the drug culture, and flexing paranoid powers of self-surveillance, Martin was ideally positioned — as the ’60s flopped into the ’70s — to make a zeitgeist-piercing leap with his comedy. “Around this time,” he writes in Born Standing Up, “I smelled a rat. The rat was the Age of Aquarius.” The revolution had foundered in bitterness and mysticism. Burnout was in the air; the culture had become faddish. It was time for some laughs that were post-political, post-psychedelic, even post-laughter.
Martin cut his hair, shaved his beard, and bought his white gabardine suit: “Instead of looking like another freak with a crazy act, I now looked like a visitor from the straight world who had gone seriously awry.” Shining, dressed like an evangelist for a new religion of nonsense, he clattered gleefully among his joke-shop props. “I’d like to get serious for a minute,” he’d say, banjo round his neck, and then so position himself that the ensuing monologue, full of earnest head movements and faraway gazes, would be rendered inaudible by the scraping of his banjo-strings against the mikestand. Visually, the last lunatic touch was his hair — bushy like a young man’s but completely gray, as if aged overnight by some private catastrophe. The venues got bigger: 5000-seaters, 15,000, 20,000 . . . His success itself became ridiculous — a scalar distortion, part of the joke. Not everyone dug it, of course. After watching his son on Saturday Night Live, Martin’s father felt obliged to note in the newsletter of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors (of which he was president) that the performance “did nothing to further his career.”