Born Standing Up

Back in the late 80s, I spent a tiny fraction of my life in the theatre, on an invitation by my best friend Anton, predicated on our friendship and my love of Shakespeare. I’ve held those moments as my most cherished, and credit the time with the New York Parks Shakespeare Company for what little presentation and speaking skills I have.

Over the last few days, I’ve revisited my microscopic time on stage, thanks to Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up, an autobiography of his life as a stand-up comic, which I listened to as an audiobook, read by Steve himself.

Born Standing Up isn’t a story-of-my-life style biography; instead it recounts how Steve honed and perfected his stand-up act—an early yet influential part of his career—how working at Disneyland, learning lasso and magic tricks, and pecking away at a banjo led to his massive success as a world-famous comedian, and why he walked away from stand-up and never looked back. It talks about how his act was influenced as much by philosophical discussion as it was by physical displays. He describes his realization that comedy is about creating and releasing tension:

In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. I didn’t quite get this concept, nor do I still, but it stayed with me and eventually sparked my second wave of insights. With conventional joke telling, there’s a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it’s the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song.


These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.

The audiobook, despite it’s all-to-brief four hour running time, was my companion on my daily walks, and on some days pushed me beyond my set distances, so enthralled was I by his soothing tone, remembered comedy bits and performance insights.

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Anyone with a modicum of creativity—or someone looking for that spark—would do well to read Born Standing Up. The lessons that great performances are crafted, that they take work, that creativity is as much perseverance as it is inspiration, is something everyone—even if it’s just preparing a ten minute presentation in front of peers—should take to heart. I was fascinated by Steve’s recollections of the odd interests and insights he gained throughout his life that influenced him and his act, and that, as Johnny Carson once told him, “you’ll use everything you’ve ever known.”

Steve’s accounts of his time on stage triggered in me—even though I’m merely a footnote on an aside in the history of theatre—a rueful remorse that I didn’t—or perhaps wasn’t good enough to—pursue my theatrical passion. But those lessons from my days on stage remain with me. I use them every time I help craft presentations with engineers, engage customers in trade shows, or persuade colleagues in meetings.

YouTube has a bunch of Steve Martin clips (and another) and Smithsonian Magazine offers an extended excerpt of Born Standing Up; if you like it, you won’t regret buying the book or audiobookicon (miniscule kickbacks come my way).