I grew up loving Steve Martin's comedy. As a kid I remember his stand up (arrow through the head) and his appearances on Saturday Night Live (King Tut) stretching my bedtime later and later. Never once did it occur to me the immense amount of hard work and risk he put into his comedy act; it all looked so effortless and silly. Over the holiday break I picked up his recent autobiography, Born Standing Up, of which Martin said, "The is something about the genesis [of a career], that I think is worth writing about." For his book he wanted to roll back the clock to all the long unsuccessful years that built up to his rock star comedian status, filling stadiums of 45,000 people. His failures and his passion line the book. There are valuable ideas here for anybody starting out to create their own something.
"First of all, it's vital that you remember what got you a laugh and what didn't. ... It's very Darwinian, because a mistake can lead to a success. So if something goes wrong, it's actually an avenue to something going right later." Steve Martin
Martin was passionate about his craft ("I just wanted to make people laugh.") and learned analyze everything for clues about how to improve each time he stepped out on stage. From the book it's clear that one of the keys to his success was his aggressive drive to try and fail, try and fail, again and again for something he loved. This focus did not lead to overnight success though:
"The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances." Steve Martin
His consistency and passion carried him through to where bit by bit, over time, he gained a sense of mastery over his art and could command stadiums of people to roll in the aisles.
On being prepared:
Charlie Rose: "You're one of those people who prepared really, really hard, knowing that if you do this well, it's great for you. Some people just sort of take it lighter than others do. I'm told, and maybe you've told me this, you really concentrate on the week that you're gonna host."
Steve Martin: "I do, I find it very stressful. I want it to go well. ... I work hard on it, or at least feel comfortable. And I do that for Letterman show... It's being a professional."
On the influences of friends:
Steve: "I had grown up with some close high school friends and we laughed all the time. The kind of laughter where you're holding your sides and you're wishing you could stop laughing because you're almost sick. And I thought, gee, where's that kind of laugh? Where are the comedians who get that kind of laugh? And what creates that kind of laugh? I know we weren't telling each other jokes. And I thought, I think what creates that kind of laugh is inexplicable--in other words, you had to be there. . . . What if I had the kind of act where you had to say, 'You had to be there.' . . . That it would be so kind of personal in that moment, that it's almost inexplicable to someone else."
On lousy shows:
Charlie: "And what's the difference in ones that are really good and those that are lousy? The audience?"
Steve: "It could be that. It's just that the ignition wasn't there. You know, I read an article by Jerry Lewis one time and he said, 'I was standing back stage in Las Vegas about to go on and I listened to the audience and I knew I was dead.' And I think all comedians have felt that. There's just a kind of enervaton and you can feel it. Oh, it's gonna be quiet. But the hard thing to learn is because they're not laughing it doesn't mean you're not going over."
Photograph by Sandee O. Check out Born Standing Up, highly recommended. For the iPod you can't miss with Let's Get Small, one of his double platinum comedy records. View his interview with Charlie Rose or a short clip of Steve performing at the LA Universal Amphitheater in 1979: