Steve Martin has had a wide-ranging and wildly successful career, spanning over half a century. He’s been a magician, comedian, screenwriter, actor, director (on both stage and screen), novelist, playwright, and musician, to name just a few bullet points on his impressive resume. But those of us who have followed him through the years will always remember him as the over-the-top, absurdist stand-up comic who sold out arenas and cranked out platinum albums in the 70s.
In his act, he contorted himself into a buffoonish caricature of celebrity, wearing white disco suits and performing a grotesque, manic parody of a smooth-talking entertainer who doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize that he is an idiot. Between gags, he played his banjo with the virtuosity of a legit bluegrass picker, often while wearing his trademark arrow-through-the-head prop. This was Steve Martin at his Steve Martin-est.
In his 2007 memoir, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, Martin chronicles his early life and his showbiz career, which he started pursuing, on his own, in his pre-teens. It’s obvious from the book that he was always obsessed with performing and constantly courting audiences. It’s also clear that he spent a lot of time alone: dreaming, working, and perfecting his craft.
Rolling solo in the Magic Kingdom
At the age of ten, Martin got a job selling guidebooks at an amusement park that had just opened up in his neighborhood: a little operation you may have heard of called Disneyland. In his memoir, he writes with nostalgia and wonder of the time he spent roaming the park when he was off duty from the various positions he held during the five years he worked there.
He wandered the attractions by himself, loitering in Merlin’s Magic Shop, where he watched demonstrations of tricks, and taking in Wally Boag’s wild west comedy act at Pepsi-Cola’s Golden Horseshoe Revue so many times that he memorized Wally’s entire shtick.
The young Steve Martin wasn’t a complete loner: he had many mentors at Disneyland, who taught him rope tricks, sleight of hand, and snappy patter, and he was friendly with his coworkers. But even then, he was more focused on his career than his social life. While his classmates were dating and partying, Martin was either working or practicing the skills that would become the basis of his stage act.
He once said of his attitude toward other kids in his school, “I harbored a secret sense of superiority over my teenage peers who had suntans, because I knew it meant they weren’t working.”
In all the stories of his childhood, Martin never mentions playing with his friends. He was completely focused on working and learning to be a performer, and all his enjoyment seemed to be derived from making headway on those fronts. Interacting with his peers was mostly a distraction that he cheerfully tolerated between practicing magic, juggling, and playing banjo.
On stage, in his own world
In his teens, after a stint demonstrating tricks in Merlin’s Magic Shop had provided him with some prestidigitation chops, Martin started performing at any place that would have him: the Kiwanis Club, Cub Scouts, or his own high school theater when it staged a vaudeville show.
In addition to the nuts and bolts of pulling off illusions, he studied stagecraft, which included, naturally, humor. Had Martin been interested in hanging out with his peers, he probably would have been hip to comedians such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor and perhaps modeled his humor after theirs. Instead, he looked to his vaudevillian mentors and an obscure 1943 text called Showmanship for Magicians, by Dariel Fitzgee, which, he says, “was more important to [him] than Catcher in the Rye.” Being “offbeat” would prove crucial to Martin’s huge success later on, and his self-imposed isolation from the cool kids ensured that he would remain quirkily out of sync.
Upon graduating from high school, Martin enrolled in junior college but continued to pursue his passion for performing. But instead of heading to acting classes and auditions in nearby Hollywood, he got a steady gig at Knott’s Berry Farm—Disneyland’s much smaller theme park competitor—doing old-fashioned melodramas for tiny audiences, who had probably just ducked into the theater for the shade. He admits that he had no idea how to audition for movies or television at the time and wasn’t even familiar with the trade papers that would have told him that; so he took whatever work he could find near his suburban home. Among the other misfits and old-timers working at The Bird Cage theater at Knott’s Berry Farm, Martin honed his craft with little influence from mainstream show business.
Eventually, Martin’s doggedness and work ethic landed him gigs writing and acting for TV shows and performing at clubs in LA proper. Once he made his way onto the talk show circuit, his oddball style—bred of old-school sensibilities and the introvert’s power of unadulterated self-exploration and expression—caught the imagination of the American public. He became, in what he describes as a “lightning strike,” the biggest concert comedian ever, playing for tens of thousands.
We tend to think of stand-up comedians as outgoing class-clown types, who thrive on interaction with their peer groups. But in Steve Martin’s case, it was the love of the craft and creation, rather than his personality, that led him down that path. In reply to his own question as to how he ended up doing stand-up, Martin answers: “Was my ego out of control and looking for glory? I don’t think so; I am fundamentally shy and still feel slightly embarrassed at disproportionate attention. My answer to the question is simple: Who wouldn’t want to be in show business?”
After walking away from stand-up in 1981, Martin was only beginning his career. Although he would never again tour as a stand-up comedian, he continued to delight audiences with his early screwball movie romps like The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and The Man With Two Brains. For the last three decades, he has not only written and starred in movies of varying degrees of hilariousness and box office viability but also written novels, short stories, and plays and enjoyed a successful side gig as a bluegrass banjo player. Had Martin not been the introverted youngster afforded all the alone time he needed to nurture his weird obsessions, we may have been denied his amazing body of work.