Friday 30 September 2022

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

I have always found Steve Martin, the imaginative comedian and author, not only to be a “Wild and Crazy Guy” but also a very clever and entertaining human being, so I was curious as to how his life developed.  Born in 1945 into a family headed with a cold and uncaring father who wanted to be a movie star, in 1950, his father moved the family from Waco, Texas to Hollywood.  His father’s stardom failed to materialize and so he ended up selling real estate.   Steve’s childhood was unexceptional, but when the family again had to move, this time because a highway was planned through their house, they settled in Orange County, and the move changed the direction of Steve’s life.

His new home was very close to Disneyland which had just been built.  A friend told Steve that kids could a job at Disneyland selling guidebooks, so Steve rode his bike over and got a job.   Selling the guidebooks meant that Steve got into Disneyland free and after he was done selling, he would spend the rest of the day exploring the “Magic Kingdom”.    In particular, he spent hours watching and studying one of the comedy acts and also one of the magic acts, until he was thoroughly versed in comedic timing and magic.  He then got a job in a Disneyland magic store selling and demonstrating magic tricks.

At the age of 18, Martin left his employment at Disneyland and took a job at Knott’s Berry Farm, a similar attraction that had been established before Disneyland.  There he was able to live and earn a living as part of a group that showed off their talents and did skits for the audiences.  Later after doing some standup comedian jobs, he was called to do a standup temporary job in Aspen, Colorado after the professional comedian they had hired, broke his leg skiing.  Steve’s comedy acts included a lot of sight jokes, banjo playing, and stupid magic tricks.

Through a girlfriend he become enamored with philosophy and sought a university major in Philosophy during his free time, while he worked as an entertainer.  After switching universities, he took both a beginners course in Advanced Symbolic Logic at the same time he was taking a beginners course in Advanced Symbolic Logic.  Simultaneously taking the two courses, fried his brain and so he switched his major to theater, and began to realized his future was in show business.

Steve met and fell for a girl named Mitzi Trumbo, who turned out to be the daughter of Dalton Trumbo, a famous screen writer, who was one of the Hollywood writers who had been investigated and then black listed from his job during the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s.  Trumbo ended up having to write the screen plays of very famous movies, Spartacus, Hawaii, and Exodus, under fake names.

Steve was often invited to be a part of Mitzi’s liberal family occasions, and was amazed at how warm and stimulating their family life was compared to his own cold upbringing.  I particularly enjoyed this bit about the Trumbos because Dalton Trumbo is someone I have always admired and his novel, Johnny Got His Gun has always been one of my favorites.

Through another girlfriend, Steve got a job as one of the writers for The Smother Brother’s Comedy Hour, one of my favorite political/comedy/music shows, of the late 1960’s.   As a comedy writer, Martin felt out of his depth and at one point, when asked if he could come up with some lines, he tried to act confident and answered, “Sure”, but after spending hours trying to come up with something and getting nowhere, and figuring his job was on the line, in desperation he called a comedic friend and ask if he could use one of his lines.  The friend said sure.  The line he had borrowed was a big success, and later when Martin asked if he had thought it up, he lied and said yes, then felt guilty about lying for years.  

While he eventually became successful as a writer for the Smothers Brothers’ show, inwardly he was very stressed about thinking he couldn’t do it and this led him to have panic attacks at night for years.

When CBS cancelled the Smother’s Brothers show because of political pressure from Nixon, Steve and the other writers lost their jobs.  He and Dave Epstein, who later became famous as “Super Dave” began writing for The Sonny & Cher Show, but eventually, Steve Martin decided he didn’t want to be a comedy writer, but rather, a standup comedian.  

It took years of him doing gigs on afternoon talk shows like Merv Griffin and Steve Allen, practicing routines and perfecting his act, before he eventually he made it to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  This gave him nationwide public recognition and he was able to then play in clubs across North America, but he still only played in smaller venues, whose pay was small and once he had deducted all of his travel and accommodation expenses,his wage was even smaller.  To make more money he started working for the “Gate” money, not a set fee.

After more appearances on the Tonight Show, his status grew and his audience numbers at his gigs started to skyrocket.  He was soon performing for hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people during a show.  He became very famous and wealthy.  

As his fame grew, his happiness declined.  He was no longer a private person who could walk down the street or do things anonymously.  Everywhere he went,  people would coming up to him.  He tried to be polite, but there were just too many.  He felt trapped in his house and depressed.  Eventually he quit doing standup comedy.  He wrote and made the successful movie “The Jerk” and wrote several novels.

His father, shortly before his death, did reconcile with Steve, confessing that he wished he would have been more loving toward Steve during his life.  All through Steve Martin’s amazing career, his father never said any thing nice or positive about Steve’s rise to fame and fortune, or his work.

It had been a long time since I had seen anything by Steve Martin and so after reading this autobiography I went to youtube and watched a few of his old sketches.  They are still very  funny and they stand up so well, even decades later.

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