Monday, March 2, 2009

Mr. Martin

Continuing to work my way through my recently purchased Stack O' Books, yesterday I finished reading Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up.

I'm not happy with that sentence. "Work my way through" makes it sound like a chore, but I couldn't think of an analogous construction describing an extended activity that's interesting, satisfying and fun.

Perhaps . . .

Continuing to gaily traipse my way through my recently purchased Stack O' Books, yesterday I finished reading Steve Martin's autobiography, Born Standing Up.

I was a teenager when Martin's stand-up act exploded into popular culture through early Saturday Night Live, bestselling record albums, and concert appearances. Just the right age to lay claim to a phenomenon that, like Monty Python from a similar time and sensibility, Old Folks Didn't Get™. In Born Standing Up, Martin calls his act a parody of a comedy act, and quotes someone else who called it "anti-comedy." I'd call it metacomedy: not just a performance, but a performance about a performance. At the end of the book, Martin wonders if his material would still hold up, or whether it was such a product of its culture that it'd just befuddle a modern audience. So do I. I'm tempted to try it on my kids. All I can say is that, at the time, I found Steve Martin's unfunniness profoundly funny.

Martin is a good, honest, stylish writer. What I got out of Born Standing Up is the best self-examination of an artist's creative process I've read since Stephen King's On Writing, which I'd recommend to any writer hoping to get better at it. Martin cites his influences and describes how his act developed, from the cowboy rope stunts and magic tricks he learned at Disneyland through conventional comedy routines consisting mostly of borrowed jokes and, finally, the realization that if he wanted to accomplish anything in the business, he needed to be original--a leader instead of a follower. He dissects his theories of comedy, and describes how his attempts to apply them succeeded, failed, and evolved into a polished performance that eventually embodied what Martin's idol e.e. cummings called "that precision which creates movement."

It didn't escape my notice that "precision which creates movement" also perfectly describes cartooning, which involves choosing exactly the right words and images that seem to move both space and time to take the reader on a journey. I also noticed that Martin's notion of doing comedy about comedy sounded similar to one of my goals for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, which is partly a comic book about being a comic book.

I'm not making any comparisons, just saying that I maybe got something a little different out of Born Standing Up than some other readers might've. If any of that resonates with you, in whatever field you're in, Born Standing Up might have something special to offer you as well. It's going on my bookshelf (once I get around to building enough bookshelves to get my stacks of books off the floor) next to On Writing.

3 comments:

Mike Lynch said...

Yeah, Steve Martin was a comedy god. "Here we go with professional show business!" still gets quoted around the house every now and then. And "Rambling Man" too.

I don't know if younger people care, but he was like The Beatles or The Far Side newspaper comic panel; a seminal, popular force that also changed the aesthetics of the form.

Otis said...

"Martin is a good, honest, stylish writer. What I got out of Born Standing Up is the best self-examination of an artist's creative process I've read since Stephen King's On Writing, which I'd recommend to any writer hoping to get better at it."

Stop stealing my thoughts. I'll sue.

-Otis

Brian Fies said...

Mike: Yep.

Otis: Wait until you see my new webcomic about a plucky kid named Zoey. You're gonna love it!