Born Standing Up
by Steve Martin
(Scribner, $25)

Steve Martin got his first job peddling guidebooks for 2 cents apiece at Disneyland. The Anaheim, Calif., amusement park was dazzling and new, and it provided a welcome escape for the 10-year-old. At home, his father, Glenn, swung a mean belt. But inside the shops and theaters of Disneyland, young Steve met magicians who were willing to teach a kid sleight-of-hand tricks and a comedian who found time to talk timing. At 15, while still a Disneyland hand, Martin decided he wanted to become a stand-up artist. “I was not naturally talented,” he writes. Indeed, he was well past 25 when he finally landed upon an absurdist stage style that felt right. He was just 35 when he walked away from stand-up for good. In between, he became the most popular and successful comedian in the world.

Though Martin long ago put away his trademark white suit, bunny ears, and banjo, said Jeff Giles in Entertainment Weekly, this “smart, gentlemanly” new memoir is almost entirely focused on the evolution of the act with which he filled arenas and sold millions of records. It includes tidbits about Martin’s romantic life and his bout with anxiety attacks. But its high points are moments of artistic discovery. The young performer realized that he’d be funnier without punch lines. At that moment, he decided to trade in his hippie fashions for the white three-piece suit, which instantly relocated him from the “tail end” of one movement to the “front end of a new one.”

You can’t help admire Martin’s decision to quit the stage in 1981 when his act began to grow tired, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. He couldn’t be as funny when the audience was anticipating his every move. Though Martin doesn’t spell it out, said the London Sunday Times, it’s obvious that his difficult, distant father was a major influence on that decision. When critics were raving about Martin’s guest spots on Saturday Night Live or in the 1979 movie The Jerk, his father only cut him down. When Martin started writing serious plays and novels, his father couldn’t stop boasting. “It’s tragic” that Martin has never gone back to stand-up, “but that’s show business.”