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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

"Born Standing Up" is what Steve Martin calls his new memoir, a reference, of course, to his years as a stand-up comedian.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor): And now let's repeat the nonconformist oath. I promise to be different.

AUDIENCE: I promise to be different.

Mr. MARTIN: I promise to be unique.

AUDIENCE: I promise to be unique.

Mr. MARTIN: I promise not to repeat things other people say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: The Steve Martin whose demented physical comedy made him a huge star walked away from stand-up in 1981 at the height of his fame. 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. In fact, Steve Martin calls his book a biography of a guy he used to know, one he views now with surprising warmth.

He joined us from our New York bureau.

Hello, it's Renee Montagne.

Mr. MARTIN: Hi. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thanks. How are you doing?

Mr. MARTIN: Nice to meet your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Yeah, nice to meet yours as well. This book is - you really explain what breakthroughs you're making in your own thinking about comedy. But there's another layer here, which is you talk about your family life and your father in particular. You're very careful about describing him, but honestly, he seems - it borders on cruel.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think if - what you really mean is it was quiet.

MONTAGNE: He didn't speak, for instance, as you described it.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. There were - he didn't speak much, only to criticize or be stern. But you know, we were from Texas, which had a certain ethic, a way of being, which was very much the Old West - staunch, stern. You could feel it from the movies of the period, what men were and what women were. But I had a - and I never thought of my childhood as difficult or hard until later. You know, I had great friends. I just had a load of laughs, but not at home.

MONTAGNE: You were actually lucky enough to live only a couple of miles from the then-new Disneyland...

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: ...when you lived down in Orange County. Tell us about being 10 years old and your gig at Disneyland.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Well, I - a friend up the street, he told me they were hiring kids at Disneyland to sell, actually, the Disneyland news guidebooks. And so I said, really? So I got on my bike and I went down - I don't know what gave me the courage - and I said, I heard you were hiring kids. And they said, oh yeah, come in, and they gave me a job almost immediately.

And I stood out in front of Disneyland with a stack of guidebooks and I wore a straw hat and I wore a vest and I wore a candy-striped shirt, and I was making a fortune - two cents a book. But the main thing was I was let loose in the park. Then I started getting further into the park, into better jobs. And I was a trick-roper in Frontierland when I was about 14 - cowboy trick-roper. And then I got a job at the Magic Shop at Disneyland, and that sort of changed my life, because I - that was a way I could perform.

MONTAGNE: There's notes that you took. There's a picture of one of your - I guess it's sort of a diary or it's a notebook.

Mr. MARTIN: A little notebook. I was about 15.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, notes on how it went.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: I guess this is in front of, what, you know, Kiwanas clubs and things like that.

Mr. MARTIN: Yes. Yes. Cub Scouts. I used to play Cub Scouts.

MONTAGNE: I mean, the notes say things like relax, don't shake.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: Or - then you see something like, oh, right, Hindu rope.

Mr. MARTIN: That's the name of the trick - the Hindu Rope, the Hippity Hop Rabbits.

MONTAGNE: Right. And then on rapport.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: I guess this was like a hint of your future as a possible philosopher.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

MONTAGNE: French.

Mr. MARTIN: I like that I said get A on rapport with the audience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: It seems like there was a big turning point when you realized that you wanted to do comedy with no punch lines.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I was in college at that time studying philosophy, and the thing I learned from studying philosophy is that 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, and the moment you say the punch line, then the audience either laughs sincerely or they laugh automatically or they don't laugh. And 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...

MONTAGNE: And the kind of moment where you had to be there.

Mr. MARTIN: Right. Exactly. You can't describe it to anyone; that's a much stronger kind of laugh. Anyway, it sounds like a lot of theory, and it was a lot of theory. And I'm not even saying it's valid, but it worked; it helped me create something new.

MONTAGNE: Could you give us an example?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I had a bit called the nose-on-microphone routine, and I'd say, And now, ladies and gentlemen, the nose-on-microphone routine. I think I even went on to say you've probably heard of this, you know, whatever. Then I would just sort of prepare myself and then I'd put my nose on the microphone and just hold it there, and then I would take it off and say thank you, and take a lot of bows. You know, I'd also - I did things that seemed unprofessional, like tune my banjo for a long time, pretend to never get in tune. And it was struggle because some of it was bad. You know, I mean you can have bad bad material rather than bad good material.

MONTAGNE: Through all of this and when you became quite, I mean famous - hugely famous - your father, you still couldn't, for the most part, quite get him to...

Mr. MARTIN: I couldn't get him to say job well done. But I always - when I was a kid, I would listen to, let's say Little Richard. And Little Richard was a great rock and roll performer who screamed his songs, and I kept thinking what does his mother think? Is his mother proud or embarrassed? And I always thought my father was a little embarrassed.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. MARTIN: I like to have my own individual odor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: That's why I wear tuna fish sandwich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Going back. And then it looks like you, gosh, talked to everyone and looked at old posters. You say you developed an affection...

Mr. MARTIN: Well...

MONTAGNE: ...for this other guy that isn't you now.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. I had boxes and boxes of, you know, yellowed newspaper clippings and reviews and photos, old set lists, and I just believe that the interesting time in a career is pre-success - what shaped things, what - how did you get to this point. I think it's somehow an American story in a strange way, because I started untalented. I didn't have any gifts except perseverance, so I guess that's where the warmth comes from, is that, you know, 25, 30 years later it still provides some kind of excitement in my life.

MONTAGNE: Steve Martin. His new memoir is "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life." To hear why he walked away from stand-up, go to npr.org.

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