Steve Martin Memoir Recalls A Past Life

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The comedian, actor and author Steve Martin looks back on his life as a stand-up comic and talks about how he put some distance between himself and the person he used to be.

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year. For our first show of 2009, we have an interview with Steve Martin.

(Soundbite of album "Wild and Crazy Guy")

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Comedian): Thank you. Well, thank you very much. Great to be here for the closing night show here at the - where is this? Is this San Francisco? OK, I've been here for two weeks and this is the closing night. We do two shows tonight, and I'm really looking forward to it. So...

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: So, let's get going, huh? I mean, I think there's nothing better for a person to come out and do the same thing over and over for two weeks.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: This is what I enjoy, so I'm just going to do the same thing over and over and over. And I think rather than do it just twice, I think I'm going to do it over and over. I'm going to do the same joke over and over in the same show. This would be like a new thing. Looking for a little different kind of thing tonight (unintelligible). OK. Hey, I'm not trying to be a big shot or anything like that, but I get my drinks half price.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: That's right, for every one you buy, I get two. So I can just have about as much as I want, you know what I mean? And it doesn't affect me.

(Soundbite of someone falling)

GROSS: That was the opening of Steve Martin's 1978 album, "Wild and Crazy Guy." He did stand-up comedy for 18 years. His memoir, "Born Standing Up," looks back on those years and analyzes how and why he put together his act. I spoke with Steve Martin when it was published last fall. He became famous from his appearances on "Saturday Night Live" in the '70s. As we'll hear, the fame that brought him huge audiences also eventually made it impossible for him to do the kind of comedy that made him original.

Martin is still making movies and in recent years has also written plays, essays and books. He won the Mark Twain prize for American Humor in 2005 and was one of the Kennedy Center honorees in 2007. Steve Martin, welcome back to Fresh Air. I love your new book.

Mr. MARTIN: Great to be here, thank you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: I'd like you to open with a reading from the beginning of the book, and we've edited this slightly to make it just a little shorter for the broadcast.

Mr. MARTIN: Great, be happy to. (Reading) I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four years were spent in wild success. I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a byproduct. The course was more plodding than heroic. I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented. I didn't sing, dance or act, though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back until now.

A few years ago, I began researching and recalling the details of this crucial part of my professional life, which inevitably touches upon my personal life and was reminded why I did stand-up and why I walked away. In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seem to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. I ignored my stand-up career for 25 years, but now, having finished this memoir, I view this time with surprising warmth. One can have, it turns out, an affection for the war years.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Steve Martin reading from his memoir, "Born Standing Up," which has just been published in paperback. And I guess I didn't realize how much you'd closed the door on your comedy year. How much there was, like, a before and after. It ended. You were done, and that was it.

Mr. MARTIN: Right. It was about 1981. I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue. But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.

GROSS: Why would you have had to create an entirely new show?

Mr. MARTIN: Like I say, the act was really - there was a passage in the book which I cut because it was so hard to explain. But the act, essentially, besides all the jokes and bits and everything, was conceptual, and once the concept was understood, there was nothing more to develop. It's like painting the same blank canvas over and over and over and over and over. Once the concept is known, you don't need to see two. And that was in the back of my head, that I was really done artistically with what I had created or pastiched(ph).

GROSS: In the reading that you just did, you described yourself as not being naturally talented. Did you think of yourself as naturally funny?

Mr. MARTIN: I didn't think of myself in that way, no, although I just loved comedy. I was raised with "Laurel and Hardy" and "I Love Lucy" and Jerry Lewis, and I just loved it. And I had a friend in high school and we would just laugh all day and put on skits. You know, it's the Andy Kaufman thing or the Marty Short thing where you're performing in your bedroom for yourself. And I loved magic, and so I would practice my magic tricks in front of a mirror for hours and hours and hours because I was told that you must practice, you must practice and never present a trick before it's ready. But I was just inclined toward show business, but I didn't know what. I just liked being on stage.

GROSS: Now, you got your start working in Disneyland. You were living in Southern California. And when you were ten, you were selling guide books there, then you later worked for a magic shop demonstrating magic tricks. And I get this sense from your memoir that demonstrating those magic tricks, you know, hours a day, and really getting them down because you were doing them so much, that that gave you a sense that performance required a great deal of craft, that even comedy wasn't just a question of going out on stage and saying funny things, that there was enormous amounts of work and practice and thought that would have to go into it.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, that idea that you really had to work at this stuff didn't necessarily come from Disneyland. I mean, yes, in terms of presenting a trick, but having it so well-honed in your mind was really giving me a sense of security. It was. I don't want to go out there half-baked. You know, you'd learn that through the years. You know, you do a magic show with a friend and you rehearse it a couple of times, and yes, all the timing has to be exactly perfect, but while you're out there, it's a different world. It's not your mirror.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: So you have to make on-the-spot adjustments, but that's just, you know, what every entertainer does. But actually, working at the magic shop really gave me a sense of comedy because it was all jokes. We did the tricks but we had all these jokes. I had a friend, Jim Barlow(ph), who - you know, he was the guy I worked with there, but he had patter worked out, you know. He would go up to customers and say, may I take your money - I mean, help you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: And you know, call them suckers. It was really funny and kind of friendly rude.

GROSS: What was your patter?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, I just took all of Jim's patter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I'm trying to think of other ones. Oh, yeah, I'd say - somebody would buy something and we'd say, and because you are our hundredth customer today, you get a free paperback.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: You know, so little silly things like that, but at Disneyland and I'm 15.

GROSS: Right. Now your early act was a combination of banjo playing, juggling, magic tricks and comedy, and some of that stayed in your later act, too. But it sounds like a vaudeville act.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. I was very interested in vaudeville. It was the only sort of discipline that was a five-minute act on stage, which is what I really enjoyed and saw myself doing. And I bought books on it. I went to the Long Beach Pike, which was a carnival fair, you know, for - it was really a place for drunken sailors to get tattoos but there was also sideshows. I was very interested in that. You know, there were these - oh, and there were these short acts that - one of the employees, a Disney man that I worked with was named was Dave Steward(ph), and he worked in vaudeville. And he did his act for me one day on the floor of the magic shop. He had a couple of great gags. One was - that I actually used, and I asked him if I could use them because I was very strict about using any material that wasn't mine or that was taken from somebody else. Well, let's put it this way. I became strict. I wasn't strict at first.

There was one trick that - one joke that Dave Steward did where he said, and now - he had a glove, white glove in his hand, a magician's glove - and he said, and now the glove-into-dove trick. And he threw it into the air and then it hit the floor, and he just look at it and said, for my next trick. and he went on. And it was the first time I saw comedy created out of nothing, of nothing happening, and I glommed(ph) onto that.

GROSS: But what you're doing, I think, is not only making comedy out of nothing but making comedy out of people's expectations, what you are going to fail to fulfill.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, yes, exactly. And I really started that when I became a semi-professional, meaning I was working the local folk-music clubs, going around either working for free or for a week. And I quickly decided that, you know - the material was, you know, good or weak or whatever, but I decided whatever it was I was going to pretend like it was fantastic and how great am I, how great is what you're seeing. And I think that's what really the audience tuned into because they couldn't believe that someone actually was that confident.

GROSS: With such wierd - you know, like the head(ph) material because some of the material was like consciously not funny.

Mr. MARTIN: Right. Well, I had one bit that I opened with and said, and now, I would like to do the nose-on-microphone routine, and I would lean in and put my nose on the microphone and then stand, and you know, hold my arms out like ta da! And the laugh came not then but when I said, and next. You know, because nothing had happened. And you know, I found that you could laugh at something that happened 30 seconds ago now, only because you changed the subject. And at one point in my show - these are the local folk clubs around Orange County - I had trouble figuring out how to end, so I just dragged the ending out, walking through the audience. I started saying good night, it was so great, thank you so much. I have to leave. I have to leave. I'm sorry I have to leave. I have to beg off. And it went on for, you know, five minutes. And eventually. I could never end it, and I ended up taking the audience out into the street and walking around with them.

GROSS: Well, you tell the whole genesis of that. I mean, it started off you were performing in a class in Vanderbilt University. Go ahead.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. Yes, Vanderbilt University, and you know, you perform in all kinds of odd performing situations. You might be outdoors, indoors, on a riser, no riser. But this was one of these college theaters for - it wasn't an actual theater. It was a practice theater. So it had a stage but it had no wings and or it had little small wings but there was no exit from the wings. You had to exit through the class. And so we did this show in this classroom and I end it, and I said, you know, whatever I did to end - I mean, this was just when I was, you know , I don't - I don't remember how my act ended, but I ended and I went off, and the audience just sat there.

Now there is not way out for me except to go through the audience. So I actually went out and I said, it's over. It's actually over. And they still sat there. And I packed up my stuff and I thought, well, they're just not leaving. So I went - this was the first time I ever did this - I went through the audience and I just started talking. I have no idea what I was saying, but I was talking, and then they followed me out into the hallway. And you know, I had a little repertoire of lines and stuff and things that I was saying, and then we ended up outside, and there's like 200 people and me.

And I came across an empty swimming pool. It was drained. And I said, everybody get into the pool. And so they all got into the pool and I said, now I'm going to swim over the top you. And they all, you know, stiff-armed me over their heads. But anyway, you can imagine it was, you know, kind of a wild night, at least for them - this whould be the early '70s. But I went home that night and I thought, oh, something happened that was good.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Martin. His memoir, "Born Standing Up," has just come out in paperback. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Steve Martin. His memoir, "Born Standing Up," has just been published in paperback. It's about his 18 years as a stand-up comic.

This was, I think, must have been around '68 or '67. You had a really bad experience. You were going to see "The Producers," the Mel Brooks movie...

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, right.

GROSS: Yeah, and you got high, smoked marijuana beforehand and had a panic attack in the theater but didn't know what a panic attack was so had no idea what it was that you are experiencing. What were you experiencing that was so terrifying in that movie theater?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I had just gotten my job on "The Smothers Brothers," and you know, pot was a daily ritual. Never at work, you know, at night or something, and I was a cowardly drug taker. But actually, I view this as a positive experience even though it was horrifying. It was an anxiety attack, and for those who have them or had them - I don't get them anymore, thank God - but it's a terrifying experience of disassociation from your own self, and it's a morbid sense of doom and you feel like you're dying.

But what it did was it kept me from drugs going into the late '60s and early '70s because I never - I couldn't take aspirin. I was so afraid of this event happening again, which it did for several years and then it finally calmed down. But it kept me from, as I say in the book, the scourge of cocaine, which was common, and never took LSD. I never took anything after that.

GROSS: When you had that first anxiety attack after smoking marijuana, did you ask yourself, is it the marijuana that's transforming me and creating a false feeling in me of this panic or the marijuana bringing out some - something that is genuinely me that's just been hidden from my sight and the marijuana is bringing out this like really larger truth about who I am and what the world is?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I believe the latter, that - first, I believe, for some people, they can smoke marijuana and have no bad physical reaction. But I noticed that, you know, in the first two months of smoking marijuana, it's fantastic. It's the greatest thing in the world. You're laughing. You're - you know, I could play the banjo for hours and hours and hours and practice the banjo and get into music. It's very good for the senses, but eventually, for me and other people I've talked to, it produces paranoia, and I don't mean - paranoia was a big word then, and people kind of intended it to be about the police, are we going to be get busted? But I believe the word was subconsciously being used because people were becoming paranoid, meaning that they're a little out of touch with the world around them and feeling that there is something going on that I am not in on.

And it got so severe with me I believed that it was actually happening, this kind of paranoia that people didn't like me and they were whispering. You know, really, looking back, kind of extreme, but it was only related to marijuana. And then it lead into this state of anxiety which could come over me then. But I never smoked pot again, but I would still get these anxiety attacks for several years until I finally understood them. And that was a big moment when I did research on it and found out what they were because for some reason, no doctor told me what it was, that it was harmless, essentially, because I thought it was damaging me every time it would happen.

But I believe it was a nervousness created from my new job at "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." I was 21 years old, I stumbled into this next level of show business, and I was insecure but I could not afford to be insecure, and so I had buried that insecurity, and of course, it came out physically.

GROSS: It's kind of interesting, in a way, that you were doing this comedy that was so associated with getting high and your humor was so kind of keyed into the experience of being high, in a way, and some of the absurdity that you might experience with that, yeah, and yet...

Mr. MARTIN: I have to contradict you because my material was not anything to do with drugs - I had maybe one or two lines...

GROSS: No, I don't mean literally. I don't mean literally. But the sense of like absurdity or non-sequitor that certain things didn't make sense, that certain things were absurd - it was very compatible.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I guess so. Right. And people would accuse me - I'd be accused after I got off stage, they'd say, you're so stoned up there. No, I'm not.

GROSS: Right, right. And yet you're the person who is going to be totally staying away from drugs.

Mr. MARTIN: I'm the last person you're going to see stoned.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Steve Martin in the second half of the show. It was recorded last fall when his memoir, "Born Standing Up," was published in paperback. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of Steve Martin performing)

Unidentified Man: Hey, this guy's good.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I'm a rambling guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing) Well, I'm rambling, rambling round, I'm a rambling guy. I'm rambling out in San Francisco, get a car get a hotel, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh ,yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, oh no. A rambling guy. Hey, r-a-m-b-l-i-n, apostrophe o ramblin.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: OK, everybody. Come on, sing with me. A rambling guy.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: What's the matter, you people uptight or something? OK, ladies only. He's a rambling guy, ooh, oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: OK, now the men. Rambling, rambling, rambling. This afternoon, OK, not this afternoon. There's two pairs faces in the room, now there's threee faces. Two seconds, five seconds, OK. And in Chinese now, mongol, mongol, mongol...

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I am rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, rambling, blum(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Steve Martin. We're talking about his years as a comic and why he walked away from standup after 18 years. His memoir, "Born Standing Up," has been published in paperback.

On your first album, "Let's Get Small," you do a bit about the spotlight, and before we actually hear the recording of it, I want you to tell us about the first time you did it.

Mr. MARTIN: When I worked at Disneyland, I worked with a woman named Irene who was from Biloxi, Mississippi. Missouri? Mississippi. And she had an expression that she used all the time, she said, well, excuse me for living! It was just kind of funny. And it always stuck in my head, so I thought, I think I could use something, do something with that. And so I told the spotlight operator, I said, whatever I say, do not change the spot. I am going to ask you to change the spotlight to blue. Do not change it to blue. I had a friend that night up in the - next to the booth, John McKewan(ph), whom I still work with - we're recording a banjo album, as a matter of fact - and I started telling the spotlight operator to change the spot and...

GROSS: This is on stage you're telling him this.

Mr. MARTIN: On stage.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: I started telling him, and at one point - this is the first time ever I ever did it on stage, and at one point, he was so convinced that I was sincere, he started to reach to change it, and John said, no, don't. I don't think he wants you - anyway, so this is the bit.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. So this is the spotlight bit.

Mr. MARTIN: OK.

GROSS: And this is Steve Martin, and he has a new memoir...

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, I don't stand behind any of these routines 40 years later but go ahead.

GROSS: OK. So here's Steve Martin.

(Soundbite of album "Let's Get Small")

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. MARTIN: Can I have a little moonlighting on this, please? I'd like to do a thing now that's kind of a departure for me. It's going to be more into this - it's moonlighting. It's moonlighting like a blue spot or something.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Hello? Nobody back there? That's OK. I thought there might be somebody back there.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: OK. I guess they figure, closing night, you know, what the heck, doesn't make any (bleep) difference.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I'm kind of pissed off about this because I'm going on all week, and you'd think by now they'd have it under control but just - you see, this club is - I've been in business about five or six years. It was first, actually, the Troubadour at first, and then it became the Boarding House, and you know, they still have a lot of - hippees working here and...

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I can understand the drug thing, you know. So they feel that it's more important to take the drugs than to do a good show for the people.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: You know, I'm really up to here with this.

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: It's - it's just a matter that, you know, I am on stage, and it's my ass out here, you know what I mean? And I come out, and I'm giving, and I'm giving, and I'm giving, and I keep giving, and I give some more - and I make a simple request. I say, hey, could I possibly have a blue spot? But I guess the lighting crew feels they know a little bit more about selflessness than I do. Although I've been in the business a few years and I think I know what works best! I'm sorry! But I am angry! I come out here and I can't get a little cooperation from the backstage crew?

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Excuse me!

GROSS: So that's Steve Martin from his first album, "Let's Get Small." Now, people seem to be with you throughout this. Were they already hip to what you were doing?

Mr. MARTIN: They were in San Francisco because that was a home base for me. And I was really stupid in that it took me a while to figure out - oh, this act doesn't work everywhere. I was just reading in the book before we started the passage about the Hub Pub Club(ph) in Winston Salem, North Carolina, which was a members-only, bring-your-own-booze, you know, club that - I just died. I remember one night I was on stage getting no laughs, and a guy said to his date, I don't get any of this, really loud. And I heard it, the audience heard it, and it actually made me laugh because I didn't either, at that time. I was - it was going so badly, but then I would go to San Francisco and - where the audience was younger and more with it and more stoned...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: And it would go great. And it took me so long to figure out, oh, it's a different type of audience. I shouldn't be playing these other places, they're soul-killing to me. So the Boarding House and the Troubadour in L.A. were very good, and the Ice House and different clubs around the country.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steve Martin, and he's written a memoir about his years as a standup comic, and it's called "Born Standing Up." It's just been published in paperback. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of banjo music)

GROSS: My guest is Steve Martin, and he's written a memoir about his years as a standup comic before he started making movies, and it's called "Born Standing Up." It's just come out in paperback.

When you started in comedy, it was before the Comedy Club era, so you couldn't play the comedy clubs, there weren't any. But there were a lot of like folk music clubs. Did the fact that you had the banjo in the act give clubs the opportunity or the excuse to hire you even though you weren't a conventional musician?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, looking back, I never thought of that but I think - the clubs would hire comedians. They were always the opening act unless they were big names. But you know, I put the banjo in, I put the magic in to fill time because I didn't have enough comedy material, and all that just stayed. But I liked to play the banjo and it - like I said, it filled time and I could get - eventually I worked out bits with it. I love doing my surreal sing-along that had words that no one could follow.

GROSS: Let's play an example of that, and this is the one we...

Mr. MARTIN: OK.

GROSS: "Be Courteous, Kind and Forgiving." Before we hear it, tell us about writing it. Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: As much as I remember, I just thought, I want to sing a song that starts normal and ends crazy. And that's all that was.

GROSS: It not only it starts normal, it starts so kind of like aphorisms. It's just like...

Mr. MARTIN: Yes, yes, tender. It starts tender.

GROSS: Tender and aphoristic, and then it gets, it gets nuts. Let's hear it because you recorded this on your first album.

Mr. MARTIN: Mm hmm.

GROSS: So this is Steve Martin from his first recording, "Let's Get Small."

(Soundbite of album "Let's Get Small")

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. MARTIN: You know, folks, when I was a kid, I was very close to my grandmother. And she used to sing a song to me when I was just so high and it always meant something to me, and I'd like to do it for you right now because it does have meaning into this world even all these years, you know this - even during the hip drug days, you know, everybody was supposed to be so cool and everything had double meaning, and this - this little simple tune would keep coming back to me, and I think it kind of guided me through those years, and I'd like to do this song for you right now. I think it might have a little meaning for you.

(Soundbite of banjo)

Mr. MARTIN: (Singing)

Be courteous, kind and forgiving. Be gentle and peaceful each day Be warm and human and grateful And have a good thing to say Be thoughtful and trustful and childlike Be witty and happy and wise Be honest and love all your neighbors Be obsequious, purple and clairvoyant

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Be pompous, obese and eat cactus

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Be dull and boring and omnipresent Criticize things you don't know about Be oblong and have your knees removed

(Soundbite of audience laughter)

Be tasteless, rude and offensive Live in a swamp and be three dimensional Put a live chicken in your underwear Get all excited and go to a yawning festival OK, everybody.

GROSS: That's Steve Martin from his first album, "Let's Get Small." He's written a memoir about his days as a standup comic, and that's called "Born Standing Up." It's just been published in paperback.

There's a terrific photo - there's a bunch of photos in your memoir. My favorite is the one where you're standing with - holding your banjo, and your hair is really kind of long and...

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, right.

GROSS: Scruffy. You have a beard. You're wearing a shirt with a big collar that's open, and you have like a necklace of shells that you're wearing.

Mr. MARTIN: Squat - no, it's a squash blossom turquoise necklace which was very...

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. Excuse me.

Mr. MARTIN: Popular at the time. Yeah.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MARTIN: Indian jewelry was very big.

GROSS: And your belt is filled with that too.

Mr. MARTIN: It's a concho(ph) belt. It's made from, you know, it's made by Navajos, I believe.

GROSS: OK. At some point, you decided to cut your hair, shave the beard and wear a suit on stage.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. It sounds so frivolous now but it was a crucial decision then. I - you know, the Vietnam War was raging but it was winding down. America was very politically conscious. There were protests, you know, there was political humor everywhere, and I just sensed that the era was ending, that it - you know, it was a kind of - I don't like this word but it was an implosion because you know, you just can't keep taking drugs and have a philosophy, live on. People are dying, and you know, Charles Manson came on the scene and besmirched everyone with long hair. And so I decided, OK, I'm putting on a suit, I'm putting on a tie and I'm cutting my hair. And I cut every political reference out of my act, which was a staple for comedians at the time because it was such an easy laugh. You just mentioned the word Nixon or something - everybody would cheer, I mean, meaning because they didn't like him. And so that was, at that point, the difference between me and them.

GROSS: Well, I love how you describe it in the book. You write - after you put on the suit and cut your hair - instead of looking like another freak with a crazy act, I now look like a visitor from the straight world who had gone seriously awry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: So, did you feel like you had kindred spirits in the performance world when you were getting started who had a more, like, conceptual or avant garde approach to what they were doing like you?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I'm trying to think. I just respected comedians whether they were or they weren't, you know, from, you know, new or old. Bob Newhart I loved, and George Carlin was hilarious at the time, and Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. And there was a comedy magician who's still alive, Carl Valentine, who did an act of all magic tricks that didn't work. And it was - well, still is one of the funniest things I've ever seen, and of course, there was influence there, too.

But talk about kindred spirits, I thought I was alone, and that was uplifting. I thought, I'm the only one doing this, and then I saw "Saturday Night Live," and I thought, oh, no, no, there's somebody else doing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But think how that worked out for you. I mean, you found your people there and your audience and fellow comics who are on the same wavelength.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, yeah, right, and it was - I was so fortunate to have been invited into that group too. You know, I went in there and then my career exploded.

GROSS: I love the review that your father wrote of your first "Saturday Night Live" appearance, and this is in his newsletter, in his comment in the newsletter for the New Port Beach Association of Realtors.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: He was the president of the association. And do you want to quote the line or should I read it?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, you can go - you can go ahead.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MARTIN: And I'll comment on it.

GROSS: He wrote, his performance did nothing to further his career.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

GROSS: Of course, nothing could be further than the truth, but did that - did that - like, what was your reaction when your father gave you a bad review?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, first, he felt terrible about it later.

GROSS: Well, he couldn't figure it out beforehand that that wasn't the thing to do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: Well, you know, that was my father. But he always thought he had to, you know, speak the truth. But you know, when I was a kid and I would listen to, let's say, Little Richard. And I'd listen to Little Richard and say, God, he's great but - and I'd see photos of him and everything and I'd think, what does his mother think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: When he's singing, whap ba ba lu bop ba lap bam boom? Is his mother proud or embarrassed? Well, I think my father, you know, he couldn't quite be proud of an unconventional showbiz act that he didn't quite understand. And I think this was a, you know, misguided effort to say to his friends, look, I know it's not very good. You know, but by that time I had been so kind of alienated from my father that these negative comments and reviews were actually my encouragement.

Like, I talk a moment in the book about being - I was a writer for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," and I was going to - I had moved on to "Sonny and Cher" and different - I decided, I'm going to quit this because it's keeping me from my performing career. I'm going to go on the road. And then I went to an agent in Hollywood, my agent - my writing agent, I said, I'm going to do this. He said, stick to writing. And - but I didn't take it as an insult or discouragement. I took it as encouragement because I saw it as, oh, this is that classic showbiz moment when you say, Joe Lee(ph), you're never going to be a singer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's good you'd seen all those movies.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, was it hard for you to change your image from like, you know, the wild and crazy guy of the standup years but when you decided to give up standup and devote your life professionally to movies?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, it took a long time, but I did know this, that one day it will be forgotten. So I just did what I was going to do, and there was this, you know, hangover effect of wild and crazy guy, wild and crazy guy. And now it's a dim memory. And it was actually with the film "Roxanne" that I wrote and performed in, and I sensed something new. Before, there was kind of celebrity - it's not worship but it's the celebrity effect. But I sensed something new with that movie, which was respect.

GROSS: It was like your Cyrano De Bergiac film.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes, exactly. Oh, I like this better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It has been so great to talk with you. I really want to thank you a lot.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you very much. It's really fun to talk about myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you, Steve Martin.

Mr. MARTIN: OK. Thank you.

GROSS: Steve Martin, recorded last fall when his memoir, "Born Standing Up," was published in paperback. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward tells the story of producer Jerry Ragovoy, who wrote or co-wrote the songs "Time is on my Side," "Cry Baby," and "Piece of my Heart." This is Fresh Air.

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Steve Martin: 'Born Standing Up'

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Steve Martin, moovin' and groovin' onstage. i

Steve Martin, movin' and groovin' onstage. Courtesy Steve Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Steve Martin
Steve Martin, moovin' and groovin' onstage.

Steve Martin, movin' and groovin' onstage.

Courtesy Steve Martin

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In one of his early performances, Steve Martin does magic for a group of Cub Scouts. i

In one of his early performances, Steve Martin does magic for a group of Cub Scouts. Courtesy Steve Martin hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Steve Martin
In one of his early performances, Steve Martin does magic for a group of Cub Scouts.

In one of his early performances, Steve Martin does magic for a group of Cub Scouts.

Courtesy Steve Martin

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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A Comic's Life

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