Steve Martin is exactly the only comedian who has ever made me laugh, then left me scratching my head and wondering, “Why was that funny?” I remember trying to break down the SNL sketch where he and Gilda Radner lock eyes from across the room, share a perfectly choreographed dance, then part without a word. It’s brilliant. It’s timeless. I just can’t tell you why. Thankfully, Martin’s new memoir Born Standing Up goes a long way to explain his comedic intentions.
Martin’s tendency to analyze humor may go back to his childhood fascination with magic, and his constant need to see how tricks worked. He applied the same theory to stand-up, asking, “what makes an audience laugh?” One comedian proposed that the set-up of a joke creates tension, and the punchline (and the subsequent laugh) is the release. What, Martin wondered, would happen if there was no punchline? Wouldn’t audiences eventually break down and laugh on their own accord? Suddenly his style makes so much sense!
Martin’s passion for art, philosophy, and literature also informs many of his works. Simply knowing that he loved Lewis Caroll’s whimsical logic puzzles makes his rather esoteric book Cruel Shoes infinitely more relatable. You would think that seeing the mechanics behind the humor would somehow destroy the magic, much like seeing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard Of Oz, but I simply walked away with a better understanding of his work and a greater appreciation for the risks he took. It doesn’t take long to realize that this “wild and crazy guy” is actually far more thoughtful and intelligent than he might appear.
Though there are glimpses into Martin’s personal life, Born Standing Up focuses almost exclusively on his years in stand-up comedy. It’s like looking back at his career with commentary, and the result is something like a textbook for comedians. Never have I seen comedy analyzed so sincerely or so intelligently, and the fact that Martin is a truly gifted writer only makes the package more perfect.
There are books you read because you can’t wait to see what happens, and there are books you read because you enjoy spending time with the author. Martin has evolved considerably as a writer over the years, and his recent works have found him writing with refreshing candor and vulnerability. There’s a sober quality to his writing, and somehow this only makes the witty bits more hilariously deadpan. They strike so suddenly that it’s nearly impossible not to laugh out loud or smile at the page in front of you. Born Standing Up is the sort of book you could read indefinitely, and as such, my only complaint is that it’s not longer.