If you learn anything from Born Standing Up, Steve Martin’s memoir, it’s that he’s at heart a magician and that a magician never reveals his tricks. Throughout Martin seems to be giving us an almost antiseptic account of the facts of his life. He tells the story of a man named Steve Martin without really revealing anything, offering a wikipedia-like list of highlights and slightly personal moments, but never more.
When discussing himself seems bent on telling rather than showing, keeping the actual memories locked behind the facade of writing. Yet his descriptions of the revolving cast of characters, comedians, and influencers that sidle into his life are always given with a small morsel of detail, a key characteristic or moment that helps ground them and offer the reader a glimpse of the human beings in the story.
These descriptions and the overall arc of his life keep the book interesting, but never really intriguing or revelatory. Key moments of his life and philosophical development are glossed over, like the excerpt below when he questions his comedic foundation:
“I had a short-lived but troublesome worry. What if writing comedy was a dead end because one day everything would have been done and we writers would just run out of stuff? I assuaged myself with my own homegrown homily: Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening. This problem solved, I grew more confident as a writer and slid into steady work”
There’s a cleanliness in the writing of moments like these, a simplicity straight out of Zinnser that makes the book a light read at a brisk pace, never feeling sluggish. But there’s also something just out of eyesight on every page, something lurking behind the simple ‘aww-shucks’ nostalgia of the narrator.
What seems to be missing is the human element, the actual conflicts, the very real problems he purports to face. He appears to have these troublesome worries, but the manifestations are missing. Even his year-long battle with anxiety attacks and nighttime fears seem to gloss by in a few sentences as if they were a footnote in the way of the larger story.
Where then is the larger story? As a high school essay on the rise of Steve Martin, all the appropriate boxes are ticked. In fact, we could convert this into standard biopic pretty easily, as long as we can add some heartbreaking opener from childhood and a more consistent love interest.
But what Steve Martin makes never seems to be about what it’s about. And that’s true of all great pieces of art and literature. There’s always a twist somewhere that comes to us later, driving home, when we realize that what was so funny was the very thing that we’d never before thought was funny.
He’s the master at not giving the audience what they want, and here his master shows. Much like his comedy, we are left wondering what the punch line was. And yet we are left wondering.