Initially, when I started reading Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, I was not sure I would be able to complete it. I lost my interest in between. But momma raised no quitter and as I kept reading page after page, I ultimately found myself looking forward to the next chapter.
In the mid-seventies, Steve Martin exploded onto the comedy scene. By 1978, he was making a killing as a stand-up comedian. However, in 1981 he walked away, never to look back. This book, in his own words, is the story of
“Why I did stand-up & why I walked away.”
A versatile artist, he can be seen in movies like The Father Of The Bride, The Jerk, The Pink Panther, among others. He even composed “Love Has Come For You” – a song that went on to win the Grammy Award for “Best American Roots Song” at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards in 2014.
Martin had humble beginning and began his career from a small stage. He began as a magician but later discovered that it was not the magic tricks that he loved, but rather it was the performance that he loved. He then decided to become a comedian. The early years of his stand-up career were not that fascinating; in fact they were uneventful and boring. But he practiced, practiced and practiced. From the smallest of shows to the most uneventful stages, he performed 5 or 6 times a day. He copied the content from friends and other sources to eventually build up his confidence. It wasn’t until college that Martin realised he needed to come up with original content to truly leave a mark of his own. Martin did stand up for 18 years or as he would likes to put it,
“10 years spent learning, 4 years spent refining, and 4 years spent in wild success.”
Eventually he started writing his own content, believed in it and thus, slowly built up his confidence!In his early days he only used to do odd comedy jobs – pieces that lasted for like two or three minutes, at most. With time, he started doing skits which went up to be five or six minutes long. And finally, he took the big step when he started taking up longer stand-up acts. Movies came much later.
He continued meeting different comedians, poets, musicians, and other artists to feel inspired and learn different skills from anyone and everyone het met. He started writing his own content, making his own stories and transforming it into performances.
Martin became one of the most loved comedians of all time. From being the biggest concert comedian in the show business to travelling to 60 cities in 63 days – he saw and lived through it all! 18,695 people attended his single show in Ohio. 45,000 tickets sold for his show in New York.
From being able to run 5-6 shows in a day, his business grew to only accommodate one show per day. This was because he could no longer repeat his content and had to innovate accordingly. The stakes were sky high and he could feel the pressure weighing on his shoulders.
“This was no longer an experiment. I felt a huge responsibility not to let people down. Arenas of 20,000 and three day gigs of 45,000 were no place to try new material.”
Heavy lies the head that wears a crown, and so was with him. Success brought its own set of problems – from inter-personal relationships being tested to his daily life becoming a public spectacle – he struggled through his most successful years. The fear of losing it all, also kept him on his toes, He visited the old theatres he had performed in, during his initial years. The empty seats screamed of the inevitability of everything coming to an end. He no longer had the freedom to interact with people without being scrutinised for his every move. All this lead him to depression and his successful years slowly turned into the loneliest period of his life.
He eventually made peace with the relentless hands of the clock. Towards the end of the book, he talks about how the old must always make way for the new. His life stands testimony to the philosophy at Focus. Even as we move towards a brave new world, keeping ourselves grounded and avoiding burn-outs has become extremely important. Even as we do everything in our power to adapt and innovate, taking care of our mental and physical health should be of utmost priority. The frailty of success and the undeniable need for inter-personal bonds are the two key take-aways from this book for me.
I encourage you to share your experience of this uncertain and constantly changing VUCA world with us!