Remembering the 'war' years

Steve Martin's new memoir, 'Born Standing Up,' is a thorough analysis of the thought processes that helped the Texas-born comic take his banjo and his balloon animals, and turn them into the biggest draw of the 1970s.

Memoir / Born Standing Up

People who wear white suits tend to have pretty high opinions of themselves: Take Tom Wolfe or Mark Twain. Steve Martin just wanted to be sure the people in the back rows could see him on stage.

His slim, intelligent memoir, "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life," is a thorough analysis of the thought processes that helped the Texas-born comic take his banjo and balloon animals and turn them into the biggest draw of the 1970s. He was always analyzing the nature of comedy. Even as a teen performing for Boy Scouts, he took notes on his act, which he includes, misspellings and all. Some early advice included, "don't shake" and "charge money."

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People who have read his short stories in The New Yorker will know better than to expect a celebrity tell-all. Martin eschewed clichés (even the standard punch line) in his act; and a strained relationship with his dad is the only typical trope of a memoir found here. ("Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin," Glenn Martin commented on his son's first starring role in "The Jerk.")

When an exhausted Martin walked away from stand-up in 1981 to reinvent himself as an actor and writer, he quit completely. "I ignored my stand-up career for twenty-five years," he writes, "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." Grade: A–Yvonne Zipp

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