An Uphill Battle: Steve Martin's chronicle of the long road to success in his book Born Standing Up

Tim Farrand

"Part of my goal was to be absurd in a very serious time." - Steve Martin [1]

Born Standing Up opens with Steve Martin giving the following description of his stand-up career:

I did stand-up comedy for 18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success. [2]

ABC/Retina LTD

Steve Martin's autobiography is unlike other memoirs which skirt over the early years and go straight to the stories of celebrity life that people enjoy reading in People magazine and scandalous tabloids. Instead of focusing on the tip of the iceberg—those four years of "wild success" and his life afterward—Martin gives an in-depth look at the entire icy mass, spending most of the time underwater, surveying the fourteen years spent out of the starlight and uncovering the reality of what the process looks like to go from a kid with a dream to spending years seemingly treading water—years where the world tells you to stop and any rational person would give up—to the breakout of unimaginable yet overwhelming success.

This is the story of that journey and the truth behind the sacrifice and loneliness it takes to get there as well as the compounded sense of isolation felt when one finally does breakthrough to find that they are a bright tip in the middle of a vast ocean unable to dip back into the safety of the sea.

The Uphill Struggle

Comedy may not always be taken as seriously as other art forms but it takes just as much craft and courage as any act of performance or creation. There is something incredibly lonely and terrifying about presenting your art in real-time to an audience where the laughs don't lie. It is direct, visceral, and the risk of failure is extraordinarily high as Martin expresses:

The comedian’s slang for a successful show is “I murdered them,” which I’m sure came about because you finally realize that the audience is capable of murdering you. [3]

Steve Martin's artistic vision for his performances was informed by early exposure to magic, juggling, banjo playing, and watching other great comics and performers. He was perhaps equally as influenced—when it came to the finding of his own voice and style—by his studies at college of literature, poetry, the visual arts, music, philosophy, and the avant-garde scene of the 1960s and '70s.

Early on he had developed a solid ten minutes of material for his act. When given a 20-minute gig he scrambled to fill out the rest of his time:

I threw in earnest readings of the poets e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg, and Stephen Vincent Benét, all aimed at stretching my act to show length. Nobody cared about hearing Eliot and cummings in a nightclub, but the Benét piece, a socko narrative poem about a fiddle contest in Georgia, stayed in the act for at least a year until I canned it. [4]

Developing comic material is difficult and takes a long time. In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld asks Martin why, when he felt the act he was doing was getting worn out, he didn't develop new material and keep going:

Because I knew it took me ten years to get this much material. [5]

Keys to Success: Originality and Courage

Reading this book two things stand out as major takeaways of Steve Martin's success:

  1. He learned early on the value of being original
  2. He used other jobs to give him stability while he developed himself as an artist but knew when it was time to cast off that security and jump into the sea of the unknown

Early on, Martin's act was a combination of tricks, routines, and one-liners taken from a variety of comedians, magicians, and joke books. Through observing the success of other performers, as well as the individuals he was studying in classes at University, Martin realized that he would need to develop his own "originality" if he was going to be successful.

There was one major problem, as Martin states:

At age eighteen I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance and the only acting I did was really just shouting. Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent. [6]


It was in college that the first major lesson—needing to be original—became apparent to him:

Now comfortable with indulging in overthinking, I was walking across the quad when a thought came to me, one that was nearly devastating. To implement the new concept called originality that I had been first introduced to in Showmanship for Magicians, and was now presenting itself again in my classes in literature, poetry, and philosophy, I would have to write everything in the act myself. Any line or idea with even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance had to be expunged. There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.

This unfortunate fact mortified me. I did not know how to write comedy—at all. But I did know I would have to drop some of my best one-liners, all pilfered from gag books, and consequently lose ten minutes from my already strained act. Worse, I would lose another prime gag I had lifted, Carl Ballantine’s never-fail "Appearing Dove," which had been appropriated by almost every comic magician under the age of twenty. Ballantine would blow up a paper bag and announce that he was going to produce a dove. “Come out flyin’!” he would say. Then he would pop the bag with his hands, and an anemic flutter of feathers would poof out from the sack. The thought of losing all this material was depressing because, after several years of working up my weak twenty minutes, I was now starting from almost zero. [7]

Martin came to the realization that he would never develop into a creator if he continued to be an imitator. True developments in art only occur when originals, after spending years, like Martin did, learning from others, have a moment when they branch out on their own and find their unique voice.


Martin showed immense courage in being willing to let go of the safety net of an act that was guaranteed to perform well for one of his own ideas, material that would develop slowly and flop many times before finding threads that were worth keeping.

The fame that eventually emerged would take many years of plodding uphill to accomplish. The ability to let go of safety and walk straight into the dark forest of uncertainty is exemplified in the second major takeaway from the book—Martin's ability to let go of security when it was necessary for his own development.

Martin had a number of jobs throughout his life from working in a magic shop in Disneyland to performing as part of a theatre troupe at Knott's Berry Farm to being a comedy writer for programs such as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. These all provided security for him to develop his ideas on the side but staying too long would stunt his ability to reach new levels. He realized that in order to find his true voice he would need to jump headfirst into the risk of failure and learn how to swim. After leaving Knott's Berry Farm, he writes:

I continued to attend Long Beach State College, taking Stormie-inspired courses in metaphysics, ethics, and logic. New and exhilarating words such as “epistemology,” “ontology,” “pragmatism,” and “existentialism”—words whose definitions alone were stimulating—swirled through my head and reconfigured my thinking. One semester I was taking Philosophy of Language, Continental Rationalism (whatever that is; what, Descartes?), History of Ethics, and to complete the group, Self-Defense, which I found especially humiliating when, one afternoon in class, I was nearly beaten up by a girl wearing boxing gloves. A course in music appreciation focused me on classical music, causing me to miss the pop music of my own era, so I got into the Beatles several years late. I was fixated on studying, and even though I kept my outside jobs, my drive for learning led to a significant improvement from my dismal high school grade average. I was now an A student. I switched to cotton pants called peggers because I had vowed to grow up and abandon jeans. My look was strictly wholesome Baptist. [8]

It was a long road to success. He says of his act, after truly branching out on his own, that "for the next eight years I rolled it up a hill like Sisyphus."[9] Many of his first gigs had very small audiences with mixed reactions. Hard work and perseverance over an extended period of time allowed him to achieve unbelievable success but not without just as staggering costs.

I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic: I did not strive valiantly against doubters but took incremental steps studded with a few intuitive leaps. I was not naturally talented—I didn't sing, dance or act—though working around that minor detail made me inventive. I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from stand-up with a tired swivel of my head and never looked back, until now. [10]

What is great about Martin's surveying of his past is that the reader gets the full picture of the reality of the long and difficult road to success. He shows the truth of how hard it was and what it took for him to keep going. Even when he speaks of his success, he speaks of how much difficulty he still faced in terms of finding ways to keep being original and how isolating it was to play for a crowd of 45,000 people to then be escorted back to his hotel room and be locked in like he was in a cage until the next show, being too famous to even attempt walking down the streets.

Reading this autobiography gives you an inside look behind the curtain at what it takes to become and maintain being a world-class performer. You come to completely understand Martin's decision to give it all up at the height of his fame. He said that writing this book felt more like a biography of someone else he used to be instead of an autobiography of who he is today.

In a sense, this book is not an autobiography but a biography, because I am writing about someone I used to know. Yes, these events are true, yet sometimes they seemed to have happened to someone else, and I often felt like a curious onlooker or someone trying to remember a dream. [11]

Martin is grateful for all that he did but is equally as happy to move on to new phases of his life and other projects.

The book is really best experienced as an audiobook read by Steve Martin, lasting only four hours, but offering a lot of valuable insights into his life with a few laughs along the way.

Perhaps a great encapsulation of Steve Martin's artistic genius is summed up by Steve Carell in his "Steve Martin Tribute" at the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors:


1. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Special Blend, episode 3, "Steve Martin: If You See This On A Toilet Seat, Don't Sit Down," featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin, released on Netflix in 2012,, 6 minutes. Steve Martin on the content of his stand-up comedy in the era following the Vietnam War.

2. Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, read by Steve Martin (New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 2007), Audible, chapter "Beforehand," 00:13.

3. Ibid., 1:22.

4. Ibid., chapter "The Bird Cage Theatre," 12:04.

5. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, "Steve Martin," 10 minutes.

6. Steve Martin, Born Standing Up, chapter "Disneyland," 27:13.

7. Ibid., chapter "The Bird Cage Theatre," 18:17.

8. Ibid., 17:09.

9. Ibid., chapter "Television," 20:42.

10. Ibid., chapter "Beforehand," 2:47.

11. Ibid., 3:32.

February 16, 2022

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