Friday, August 8, 2008

#45 Books to Know and Love--Steve Martin and Me

Speaking of pop culture (last post #44), let me recommend Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, before I return it to the public shelves tomorrow. Published last year, the book begins with the horrific birth-event, caused by his abnormal fetal position in Mrs. Martin's womb, almost resulting in her early demise. Steve survived, but his father held it against his son until almost his (Mr. Martin's) last breath. Well, something like that may have happened early on, because the father (who aspired/expired quickly in his attempt at show business) really did resent the son, and son in turn the father, right up to a death-bed reconciliation. Of course it was all jealousy on his father's part, as Steve tells us, but it seemed to take him forever to figure that out ... and cope with it. This is the principal agon of the story and my lasting impression. Not really a funny, laugh-a-minute book. Amusing, though, and very entertaining in content, written in a literal and laconic style that makes for "easy reading," if that's to your taste. (Frankly, since it was self-written by a comic genius, I guess I expected a little more sparkle in his prose.)

But getting back to the story, the only real problem he had in his rise to the top WAS his father (the word "hate" and its forms pop up too many times). He did all the right things--from magician-juggler-banjo-patterer in small clubs up to his national breakout on SatNiteLive, where the book ends, and where he trades in his stand-up act for movie stardom, at which he's been pretty consistently good...even great at times. (My favorite will always be All of Me, though he was very funny/good in this year's Baby Mama--I don't have the heart to watch the Clousseau fiasco, though.) I and family have always been in love with his quirky comedy (had his albums), ever since we first saw him on the Smothers Brothers' show c. 1968, where he was mainly writer and occasionally stand-up guy. "He's a-goin' somewheres, Maw, " I remember muttering at the time. Anyway, there are a couple of other things in the book I found interesting and need further mention. One is Where and How he seemed to acquire his unique comic sense. Well, as he tells it, it was when he was taking Philosophy classes in L.A., while still plying his trade in embryo at Disneyland and Knottsberry Farm. And I guess that this totally explains my sense of humor too, for better or worse, because, as I mentioned in last post, Philosophy was also a major of mine at Kalamazoo. (Yes, Virginia, etc., etc.) But here's how he explains it:

Something about non-sequiturs appealed to me. In Philosophy, I started studying logic....Then it gets real easy to write this stuff, because all you have to do is twist everything hard--you twist the punch line, you twist the non-sequitur so hard away from the things that set it up, that it's easy...and thrilling.

And it worked famously. How about this memorable line I recall from The Jerk: "I came from humble beginnings; I started out as a poor black child in the South." OK, one final thing from the book, and I've got a BONE TO PICK with Steve Martin about it. He talks about getting interested in magic at a young age, as did other luminaries like Johnny Carson and me, and the impetus was a gift from his father (he gave things, not love or encouragement it seems) of a Mysto Magic set. He describes its rudimentary equipment as good enough to get started but "flimsy." Well I'm here to tell you that it's an outright lie. Whether he thought it made a better story, or he was sort of getting back at his father--I don't know. But the VERY SAME magic set that Steve got ... I got when I was 8 or 9, and it was a marvel of quality and design. Sturdy, long-lasting. These sets after all were made by A.C. Gilbert, the guy who also made my Erector Set and my Mysto Chemistry Set. How long-lasting, you ask? Listen carefully: the cups and balls from the "cups-n-balls" trick that mystified my little sister and her little friends were the very same cups and balls from the "cups-n-balls" trick that mystified my sons a generation later. These and other pieces--including the little, real-silk handkerchiefs--are in fact still in storage somewhere or other. It's magic.

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