Sunday, 11 January 2009

Funny boo hoo

As I said some time back in December, I usually end up reading the most unsuitable books at Xmas – books that make it even harder to 'ho ho ho' and 'isn't it all lovely?' - so this year I made a concerted effort to read something that would not clang so badly with the intended cheerfulness of Xmas festivities for the under 10s. This year I read the autobiographical book by comedian and film star Steve Martin 'Born Standing Up' (first published 2007). It is an account of how Martin became a stand-up comedian until the time he ended that part of his career and moved into films - it is in no way meant to be the full story of his life to-date or anything of the kind. I don't get a lot of time to read in the holidays (what with visitors, child-centred activities etc.) but I managed to read the book here and there, whenever possible, and I finished it today. I finished it in tears! So much for reading something a bit more 'ho ho ho...'

To be fair it's not all down to Martin. There is a lot of family stuff going on just now (like, for starters, my brother in New Zealand will be having brain surgery Monday morning their time...is it an emergency...is there any other kind of brain surgery?) and my emotions are fairly easily stirred at the best of times (never mind the worst). But still he did make me cry, Mr Martin, more than he's ever made me laugh probably as I'm not particularly a huge fan of his comedy (though I do like him...the way he thinks, what he says, how he's made his career...as much as you can like someone you've never met). It was probably the same brother (4 years my senior) who first showed me Steve Martin 'live' shows (on video...probably) because he has always loved American entertainment and comedy in particular (a lot of 'Cheers' was watched in our house on his account).

I wanted to read the book after seeing Martin interviewed on the Jon Stewart TV Show a couple of months ago. There was something so enticing about the way he described his book that I was well and truly hooked (and I now know from the book what an experienced talk-show guest he is – no wonder he can sell a book in five minutes!). But I don't mind being won round now and again and anyway I'm glad I read it. It's a simple but at the same time very interesting read (only 217 pages) and it is completely free of all the long tales of celebrity drinking and failed relationships that we were talking about in that last epic post on biopics. This, in contrast, is a serious look at the business (or indeed science) of making people laugh as well as a study of his own route to the huge time (taking in a lot of hours working at Disneyland when quite young, jobs in various bizarre variety theatres, a lot of relentless performing, some lucky breaks and a lively, hungry brain).

Comedy is one of the subjects that interests me more and more as time goes by. I wrote about poems that dare to contain humour back on 29th October 08 and Xmas TV humour even more recently. I think humour may even be this year's subject for me (hooray, you cry, no more banging on about the song...if you're lucky). I was fascinated to read how a quote from e.e.cummings was very important to Martin and his understanding of his own brand of humour (in fact in very early shows in the early 1960s he even read poems by cummings, Eliot and others as part of his act). The quotation was “Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement”. Yeh, me too. Precise, huh?

I was also thrilled to read about his panic/anxiety attacks. I've had more than my share and they're fairly foul and phenomenally frustrating. Martin took a far more sensible approach than I did (he focussed on work and kept away from stimulants once he was aware of a problem...) but even so he shows what a complicated type of mind-mess they are - “Though panic attacks are gone from my life now – they receded as slowly as the ice around Greenland – they were woven through two decades of my life. When I think of the moments of elation I have experienced over some of my successes, I am astounded at the number of times they have been accompanied by elation's hellish opposite.” Two decades? Yes, it's been about that so far. Tiresome business.

The book has lots of clever insights and funny little details. The sadness comes in when Martin writes about his parents (a fairly standard 'no-one ever showed any emotion' story but no less sad for all that...in fact possibly sadder for all that...). Above all though it is the story of one man's determination to succeed at that bugger of a task – amusing a crowd of people on a regular basis using just your wits and still managing to feel good about yourself (and not just taking an easy, well-worn path to the laugh). Martin learned the hard way (and is there any other?):

“The consistent work enhanced my act. I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”

And life is full of abominable circumstances, isn't it? So send your best vibes to Christchurch, NZ please...and a few other places too.

x

26 comments:

Dave King said...

In truth it doesn't sound my sort of book - though your write-up makes me think it might be! I may get the book, just in case. Every good wish to your brother. Hope all the news will be good from now on.

The Solitary Walker said...

What a fabulous post, Rachel. I was entertained and moved by it. Very best wishes to your brother and sympathetic thoughts for your whole family.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Dave and SW. There are couple of issues in the family just now. Hard times.
x

hope said...

You know you and your family are in my thoughts.

Steven Martin is a bit of a conundrum...sometimes I love him, sometimes I wish he'd shut up and sit down. :) That would be more during his "arrow through the head" stuff. As he's aged, his humor has matured as well. Sadly, the world sees him as a clown when he is, in fact a well read, intelligent man.

I love him funny but to me his best movie was "Roxanne". Anyone who can make you forget how ridiculously LARGE his nose is, has talent. But don't ask me about "Shop Girl"...didn't like it.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Hope, I'm not a huge SM fan, as I say, and yet even so I loved the book.

I'd never even heard of 'Shopgirl' before reading this - I don't think his novels have done that much over here.

On his films I once shared a house with someone who was very keen on the 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' one so I've seen that many times. I liked 'LA Story' too but haven't seen it for ages. A lot of the early films were too silly for me. I'd like odd lines here and there but couldn't really take the whole package. I remember my brother roaring with laughter at the live shows but they didn't have quite that effect on me. It's interesting to read in the book about how he developed that act though and how it was different to other humour of the time.
x

Sorlil said...

We watched a lot of Cheers in our house as well. I don't think I've watched a Steve Martin film since I was a kid, used to love his movies. Sorry to hear about your brother, hope everything goes well for the operation. x

Liz said...

Rachel, sending the very best of wishes and healing vibes to your brother for tomorrow.

Love your insight into the book and the man. I could be tempted to read it too.

Take care
x

hope said...

Martin actually made "Shop Girl" into a film, which made me wonder if the book was perhaps better?

Ah, yet another one to add to the reading list. I've always liked biographies...guess looking into someone's backyard at a safe distance. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, except, as I say, he doesn't really include a lot of backyard (a bit of childhood but not much). It is mainly about the work of being a comic and performer.
x

Poetikat said...

I bought my husband a book for Christmas. It's written by comedian Jimmy Carr (I don't find him particularly funny, and didn't realize the book was by him until I got it home - it was a steal at $5.99, so I kept it.)
Turns out, it's a great book, my husband's actually reading it, and we're both enjoying all the little jokes at the bottom of each page.
The book is entitled, "Only Joking: What's so funny about making people laugh?" and it's about the business of writing jokes, rather than just a load of Carr's material.

(I sincerely hope, Rachel that your brother's operation goes well and he has a smooth recovery.)

Kat

SUSAN SONNEN said...

Your brother is in my prayers, Rachel.

Rachel Fox said...

Good news from NZ. Surgery went well. Thanks for all your thoughts.
x

Jim Murdoch said...

I've bought my daughter both of Martin's novels, The Pleasure of my Company and Shopgirl and she loved them both rereading them as soon as she'd finished then. I actually loved the film of Shopgirl - Martin gives such a restrained performance (quite an eye-opener) - and would highly recommend it.

Glad to hear the surgery went well.

Sorlil said...

That's great, glad to hear that.

McGuire said...

Life is full of abominable circumstances - Amen. I live such a comfortable life yet it is still wrought with much pressure and madness, but then you consider the world, and I am laughably unhurt.

Oddly, I'm looking at going to teach english in NZ this year, in ChristChurch, so upon reading about the story of your brother I was surprised as the coincidence. May everything go his way in the surgery.

Rachel Fox said...

I've never been but it sounds like a lovely place. Sounds like a big adventure for you too.
x

Poetikat said...

I'm so pleased to hear that your brother's surgery went well. I will keep him in my prayers and thoughts.

Kat

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Kat.
It's weird when someone is so far away. There's nothing we can do but wait for news. At least news gets through quicker these days...
x

hope said...

Glad to hear of your good news!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes my sister-in-law was pretty excited too! Fingers crossed that the recovery all goes smoothly.
My Mark is over your way (US of A) on sad family business of a different kind (his family this time). In the meantime my mother and Small Girl have started a Mamma Mia marathon that may still be going when he gets back next week! I feel like I'm at a very strange hen night...
x

Dominic Rivron said...

Just read your post and the comments above - glad to hear your brother's surgery went well.

My reading over Christmas was Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (I blogged about it a few days ago). I suppose it was "ho ho ho", but not in a traditionally festive way! I'm now into Iain M Banks' Matter and have a Chagall biography to look forward to. I've not read an autobiography in ages.

(Come to think of it, if you tried to come up with the least festive author to read at Christmas (a kind of "Anti-Dickens") Iain Banks would be a good candidate).

Rachel Fox said...

Last Xmas I was reading the Anne Michaels book 'Fugitive Pieces' which I followed up with a biography of Primo Levi. Neither blended well with tinsel and mince pies and 'come on Mummy it's Xmas'. No, not at all.

Ken Armstrong said...

I'm glad it's good news mate, sorry to be late with the good thoughts.

I also read unsuitable material over Christmas. This year's was 'rough'.

Some other time, though...

x (see?)

Anonymous said...

Rachel, How do I subscribe to your blog? Can't work it out.

Rachel Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Fox said...

OK - I did put details about how to subscribe but I was a bit out-of-date so tech support has now added all the subscription options up near the top in the right hand column. If you're not using google etc just subscribe by email which is very easy (now!).
Phew!
x