Steve Martin: Man of many hyphens

Gee, I thought Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up would be funny. What it lacks in humour, though, it makes up in tenderness. Subtitled, A comic’s life, the book focuses on Martin’s life and career as a television comedy writer and stand-up comedian. As the book jacket says, by 1978 Martin was the biggest concert draw in the history of stand-up. Three later, the rock-star comedian quit stand-up.

Martin’s story is a portrait of discipline and hard work, punctuated by long-time difficulties with family relations, particularly with his father. On the comedy-circuit road, Martin was often alone and lonely. He eventually manages reconciliation with family and lovingly describes his last meeting with his 91-year-old mother.

I cried more than I laughed while reading Born Standing Up.

At the height of his stand-up career, Martin wrote an outline for a screenplay and pitched it to Paramount Pictures. At the time, Carl Reiner was writing and producing the Dick Van Dyke Show. Reiner became The Jerk’s director and the movie’s success sent Martin into orbit.


With the same kind of impeccable timing as a comedic performer, Martin’s writing is a study in timing. Just when I thought I couldn’t bear hearing his struggles on this stage or that stage, he moves on. He never lingers too long anywhere.

Along the way, many people helped and inspired Martin. One vignette describes Ann-Margaret bringing Elvis backstage to meet Martin. With a Mississippi drawl, Elvis says to Martin, Son, you have an ob-leek sense of humor.

Steve Martin claims to be shy by nature. He enjoys how fame can be an icebreaker. But he also hates that fame destroys privacy. He is never comfortable when strangers act as familiar as old friends. So if you run into Martin, ignore him. He’ll really like you.

Martin says he lost a hyphen when he quit writing television comedy. No longer a TV comedy writer-comedian, he’s earned many more hyphens: comedian-actor-author-novelist-screenwriter-producer-musician-and perennial Saturday Night Live host.

What bloggers and critics say

By mistake | A brisk read | New York Times | Slate.com

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