A Serious and Funny Man

A Comic's Life CoverShopgirl Cover

When I started Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, I didn’t expect to think it might be a good book for discussion.  But when I finished it, getting misty on the Metro bus, I began to think otherwise.

Funnyman, comic, writer, playwright, and actor Steve Martin is as much a topic for discussion as any other subject.  Born Standing Up finds Martin reliving his hungry days, 18 years of honing and perfecting his unique take on new comedy.  From his upbringing in California in the 1950s, his fraught relationship with his father, and his life on the road, Martin shows us just how serious comedy can be and how much his rise cost him. 

Years ago, I had seen his play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, performed in a small Vermont theater house.  At the time, I had no clue that the “wild and crazy guy” I knew from Saturday Night Live had writing talent up his sleeve.

Then novels like Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company started coming out.

But what really caused me first to take a second look at Steve Martin was an essay that he wrote about his father’s death for The New Yorker.  That article remains one of the most moving, emotional pieces about a father-son relationship that I had ever read, made more striking for the effort and release it obviously must have provided for the writer.  Parts of this essay ended up incorporated into his memoir, but the essay is still more powerful to me.

It wasn’t until I saw Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary, Comedian, that I realized how much work and thinking is involved in comedy.  I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that is like any other art. 

But Steve Martin grew up in a different time, and his brand of comedy took years to create and perfect.  Martin also talks about how and why he left stand-up and got into filmmaking, and after following him on his arduous journey, you understand why.

Born Standing Up would be a wonderful book for discussion.  It could be paired with one of Martin’s novels or plays, or could be enhanced by listening to one of his comedy albums.  You could discuss and watch Shopgirl, in which Martin also acts.  The possibilities are limitless.  And if your group chooses to do so, let me know how it goes.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library.

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