One of my all-time favorite movies is Roxanne, a spoof on Cyrano de Bergerac; it’s one of the best things ever done. But don’t go and look up the trailer – it’ll ruin the surprise right at the beginning. I would even have someone else go and buy the movie for you so that you can’t see the cover: the reveal is that good.
What I will tell you, though, is a moment in the film I think about a lot – roughly every day. Steve Martin, who plays the main character, goes up to a newspaper dispenser. He inserts a quarter, takes out a newspaper, glances at the headlines, and then, pow! He starts screaming, fumbling in his pocket: he puts in another quarter, returns the paper, and walks off with a bounce in his step. It’s a moment of perfect comedy, and it hasn’t aged a bit (which is saying something for a movie that was made in the 80s).
I’ve loved everything I’ve seen Steve Martin in: the blend of intelligence and sheer goofiness is irresistible. Born Standing Up belongs in a slightly different category: Martin writes with a smoothness and with an instinctual sense of what the reader needs. The intellect and the absurd are still there, but this isn’t a comedy: it’s a memoir, and perhaps more than that, an explanation.
Steve Martin got his start with standup, over the course of a decade of plodding followed by a few years of frantic stardom. And then, seemingly suddenly, he quit. He generally doesn’t talk much about this time in his life in interviews, so I get the sense that this book exists so that he can throw it at nosy interviewers who are more interested in the past than the present. (And the present is pretty great – he’s a renowned banjo player.)
I listened to the audiobook version – read, naturally, by Martin – so I can’t bring you deeply specific impressions of what it was like to go through the book. There were, however, a few moments that have stuck around.
Martin addressed his childhood, living in an emotionally distant and sometimes abusive household. I won’t give any specifics, because even as I heard him speak about his early years, it felt like an imposition, as though Martin felt somewhat obligated to give us this part of the story. It did, however, blossom into a beautifully poignant conclusion. But what I really remember is that he told us that his childhood, like that of many other comedians, had been difficult – “just so you know that I’m qualified.”
My heart thumped.
An unfortunate detail of many discussions of comedy is that Bill Cosby keeps coming up, like bad sushi. The problem is that he provided such an incredible departure from the other kinds of comedy on offer, and that he was so freaking funny. I love his bit about Noah and God, though I cringe even as I listen. Almost inevitably, Steve Martin talks about Cosby: Cosby said that if the audience doesn’t laugh but if the waitresses do, you’re still in good shape. Is there a way to separate the good comedy (and the good advice) from someone I’d like to see cry himself to sleep every night in prison?
Steve Martin’s success took him a monumental amount of time. Years and years of playing in marginally bigger and better comedy clubs and in other venues, years of developing new material, new both to Martin and to the world. Years of driving around the country, years during which success seemed almost impossible. When he finally did make it, he hit it so big that it boggles the mind. He packed venues with thousands of seats, had to slink out of arenas so he wouldn’t be mobbed by autograph-seekers. He became dizzyingly wealthy, had the world at his fingertips.
He wasn’t anonymous anymore, which meant that he spent most of his time either working or in hotel rooms. He had plenty of private space, and not enough contact with people. Worse, as the years went by, he could feel his material get stale. And then he started seeing empty chairs. His star was waning. He was tired, travel-weary, not to mention lonely. So he quit.
Many, many people were shocked – how can you just quit at the pinnacle of fame? Perhaps what they hadn’t noticed was that Martin had already seen the top, and knew that he was likely only to go down from there. He wanted a break, and he wanted something new. And thank goodness for that – we wouldn’t have The Three Amigos, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, or, of course, Roxanne.
I’ll round us out with a couple of my other most-favorite things Steve Martin has done: