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Steve Martin: 'Born Standing Up'

Nov 27, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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Steve Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981, at the height of his fame, moving on to acting and writing. Martin calls his new book Born Standing Up a biography rather than an autobiography of a guy he used to know.

In the beginning, there was a string of small, quirky stages like the drive-in movie theater, where the audience honked at the punch lines. In the end, there were giant arenas and a life suffused, as he puts it, with a "freakish celebrity aura."

Martin now views his early self with surprising warmth.

"I just believe that the interesting time in a career is pre-success, what shaped things, how did you get to this point?" he tells Renee Montagne. "I think it's somehow an American story in a strange way, because I started untalented. I didn't have any gifts except perseverance."

Martin spent much of his life looking for affirmation from his father, who didn't speak to him much — "only to criticize or be stern .... I had great friends," he says. "I had a load of laughs, but not at home."

As a kid, Martin worked at Disneyland, first selling guidebooks ("I was making a fortune, 2 cents a book"), then as a cowboy trick-roper in Frontierland and later in the magic shop. "That sort of change my life because it was a way I could perform," he says.

When he was about 15, Martin kept a notebook with self-criticism of his early performances in front of the Kiwanis and Cub Scouts. "Relax, don't shake," one note said.

For Martin, a big breakthrough came when he realized he wanted to do comedy with no punch lines.

Studying philosophy in college at the time, Martin says he learned you can question anything. "So I turned it on my little comedy act, thinking, 'What could I change, what would be different, what would be original, what would be new?' And I realized that comedians of the day were operating on jokes and punch lines.

"The moment you say the punch line, the audience either laughs sincerely or they laugh automatically or they don't laugh. The thing that bothered me was that automatic laugh. I said, that's not real laughter. What if I could get real laughter, like the kind you have at home or with your friends, where your sides are aching."

"That's a much stronger kind of laugh .... It worked. It helped me create something new."

He would do his nose-on-microphone routine — where he would do just that — and take a bow. Or seem to tune his banjo for an uncomfortably long time.

"It was a struggle because some of it was bad," he says. "I mean, you can have bad bad material rather than bad good material."

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