Monday, September 20, 2010

What I Learned Reading* Steve Martin’s "Born Standing Up"

© 2010 Leighann Lord

Everyone said I should read Steve Martin’s book, "Born Standing Up." And by everyone I mean comedians I love and respect. They said they’d gotten a lot out of it and I would too. But I really didn’t want to read it. Why? I’ve been angry at stand-up and haven’t been in the mood to give it any more of my time and attention.

Even the best of relationships have their disappointing moments and unfulfilled expectations. And yes, not counting my parents, stand-up comedy is my longest relationship. For the amount of time I’ve invested I should have a Ph.D., or at the very least the title of comic laureate.

Sometimes I think about quitting comedy, but I don’t know where I’d go or what I’d do. I’m ruined for "regular" work. But even if other areas of my career blossom – TV, film, best-selling books — I can’t picture myself leaving stand-up. But Steve Martin did and I have to admit it bothers me. If he could leave it without ever looking back did he really ever love it or just use it?

I also wasn’t keen on reading Steve Martin’s book because despite a few earnest years in college, I’m just not a wild and crazy girl. I’ve always been more partial to writers than flamboyant performers. Sometimes I wonder if the real reason why Rome burned is because a prop act set himself on fire and it got out of hand. It has taken me a while to learn that physicality can enhance a joke, making it clearer, stronger, better and more memorable. It’s not always just a cheap trick to counteract the effect alcohol has on the audience.

My own shortcomings play a big part of my bias for pure monology. I came to comedy as a better writer than a performer. Better is, of course, a relative term. Most comedians, if we’re honest, are horrible when we start. Like a hooker trying to quit the business, some nights the goal is just to suck less than you did the night before.

I finally decided to read the book for selfish reasons. I wanted to know if there was something in Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy experience that would make mine less painful? Surprisingly, yes.

It resonated with me when he said, "Comedy death is worse than regular death." That’s because you can relive it over and over again until you really die. When he recounted doing so horribly at the Play Boy Club that he bailed on the gig I felt as though I were right there. Although if I had been — given the times — it would most likely have been under a pair of bunny ears.

It was a poignant reminder that comedy shows can be the ultimate blind date. The comic and the audience show up not knowing each other, yet hoping it will be the start of something wonderful. But sometimes it doesn’t work out. The chemistry isn’t there. Then the happiest part of the evening is the knowledge that you’ll never see each other again.

"Distraction is the enemy of comedy," he said. I’ve never heard it phrased so perfectly and succinctly. Comedy is so delicate, I’m amazed it ever works at all. What do we need besides funny material and courage? Proper sound, lights, and the audience facing the stage would be a nice start. What can mess it up? Almost anything: a chatty audience, a ringing cell phone, loud wait staff . . . a big gapping dance floor between the audience and the comedian? Awesome! There is, of course, no guarantee that a show will go well even if the set up is physically and technically perfect, but as the saying goes: I can do bad all by myself.

I was surprised to learn how meticulous Steven Martin was about his act. Every word, gesture, and nuance meant something. It was precise. This spoke to the perfectionist in me, the comic who writes down everything and arranges her set book categorically with a color-coded table of contents.

I think every comic can nod their head in understanding when Steve Martin talked about what it was like when people met him and expected a performance. "The performance is just that," he said, "a performance and that’s on stage." I’d like to put that on a T-shirt. I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t mind talking with audience members after a show. If something funny comes up organically in the course of the conversation, that’s great. Hell, that’s ideal. But if it doesn’t, can’t we just be happy with the pleasure of each other’s company?

I am ever grateful that he dispelled the legendary and deeply believed myth that "one ‘Tonight Show’ appearance can make you famous." In fact Steve Martin’s career, though stratospheric, was not meteoric. It was a progression. Each gig built on the one before it. There was a good deal of trial and error, persistence, disappointment, luck, hard work and self doubt.

After reading "Born Standing Up" I understand why he quit stand-up comedy, but I find myself wondering what an older, wiser and perhaps even funnier, Steve Martin would be like on stage today. And in the end it doesn’t matter if you leave stand-up or have the mic pried from your cold dead hand, on some level we’re all wild and crazy for ever having the stones to stand-up at all. Ain’t love grand.

* In the interests of full disclosure I listened to the "Born Standing Up" audio book, read by the author. Now, any audio book lover will tell you that "read by the author" can be disastrous. Not all writers are meant to be readers (Stephen King) but I really enjoyed listening to Steve Martin. It made perfect sense, of course, for him to read his own story. And he did so with a sweet sincerity that made it an easy listen.

Leighann Lord is a stand-up comedian, who's style is best described as "Thinking Cap Comedy." If comedy were music, she'd be Jazz. She's George Carlin if he'd been born a Black Woman. Check out her upcoming shows @ Join her on FaceBook. Follow her on Twitter.

No comments: