Lessons from Steve Martin’s Life in Comedy


This week I finally picked up Steve Martin’s brilliant memoir, “Born Standing Up”, and devoured the entire book in two sittings. His writing is witty, conversationally fluid, and punctuated with vivid stories that teach and entertain. His story clips along at a delightful pace, starting from when he was a boy working at Disneyland, to being all grown up and the most successful stand-up comedian in the world.

Even though I’m too young to have appreciated Steve Martin at the height of his fame, I found his story riveting, and highly instructive.

"Born Standing Up" is chock-full of lessons that entrepreneurs (and any innovator) can use to better themselves. Here are some of my notes from the book:

1. Start young. He started performing recreationally as a boy and by his mid twenties was a skilled comedian (if not yet a refined one).

2. Improve with repetition. He learned that it’s “easy to be great, but it’s very difficult to be good, all of the time”. Statistically, there will be magical nights when everything clicks beautifully. Manufacturing success night after night takes practice and hard work.

3. Experiment, make mistakes. During years spent on the road, he relentlessly experimented with new jokes and routines, taking risks and facing failures in an effort to create better material and improve his original act.

4. Success comes when you least expect it. After years of working at it and not yet becoming successful, he was resolved to quit the business and “find a real job”, a day before his big break occurred.

5. When you nail it, money pours in quickly. Once he become popular his fame swept the nation and he became rich very quickly. His career in comedy at the height of his fame also only lasted a few short years.

6. The journey is the special part. At pinnacle of his career success, he became uninspired and actually longed for his days on the road where his act was smaller and less scripted. The journey in getting to the top was where he experienced the most creativity and passion in career.

In addition to these powerful lessons, there are many stories shared that made me stop, think, and appreciate his character a little bit more. Here are a few:

- He used to suffer from severe panic attacks as a regularly. At one point, the onset of darkness was enough to bring them on.

- As a traveling comedian on the road, he developed a rule to not try to pick up waitresses in the venues he performed at for six months, but butter them up over that time instead. As he would return to each city many times over the years, his strategy paid off nicely.

- When he started earning millions, he elegantly describes his new position of wealth as “not having to check the prices of things”. I think it’s a great definition.

- At one point in the book, he states very matter of factly, that to him, “comedy is serious”.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the raw passion oozing out of every page. At the end of the book, I was struck by the realization that Steve Martin is far from done. He consistently strives to reinvent himself and push his art further. We all know that after stand-up, he had a very successful career in the movie business. I can’t wait for him to write a sequel.