I just finished reading Born Standing Up, Steve Martin’s memoir of his career as a stand-up comedian. Although he quit stand-up more than 30 years ago, many of the performances that launched his movie and writing career stand out as memorable still. (I think) I vaguely recall my brother telling me of Martin’s performances in Nashville in the mid-1970s and I specifically remember my brother’s impressions of “Let’s Get Small.” But in Born Standing Up, Martin recalls two Nashville gigs that he cites as remarkable in the development of his act.
The first was at Vanderbilt, where he says he played “in a classroom with a stage at one end.” According to Martin, the show went fine, but when it was over the crowd, of about 100, didn’t leave.
“Then I realized there were no exits from the stage and the only way out was to go through the audience. So I kept talking. I passed among them, ad-libbing comments along the way. I walked out into the hallway, trying to finish the show, but they followed me there, too. A reluctant pied piper. I went outside onto the campus, and they stayed right behind me. I came across a drained swimming pool. I asked the audience to get into it – “Everybody into the pool!” – and they did. Then I said I was going to swim across the top of them, and the crowd knew exactly what to do: I was passed hand over hand as I did the crawl. That night I went to bed feeling I had entered new comic territory.”
The second episode was at the Exit/In which he describes “as a low-ceiling box, painted black inside, with two noisy smoke eaters hanging from the ceiling, to no avail.” Martin said during this tour stop, he realized that he was selling tickets without hit records as the Exit/In shows were “oversold, riotous and packed tight.” He again took to the streets at the end of the shows, one time taking the crowd to McDonalds, another to a club across the street to watch another act. As he remembered, “Even though I had done the act hundreds of times, it became new to me this hot, muggy week in Nashville. The disparate elements I’d begun with ten years before had become unified, my road experience had made me tough as steel, and I had total command of my material. But most important, I felt really, really funny.”
Born Standing Up, published in 2007, is a very enjoyable read, providing glimpses of what resulted in a hugely successful comedic quest, and ending with an unexpected and emotional story of reconciliation. The book and the stand-up career, like humor, builds tension as it rolls along, and then the tension is released somewhat, but not completely. It’s not anticlimactic; it’s not unresolved. He just walks away and lets it go.
As a footnote, after finishing the book, I found this post and recording of Steve Martin on WRVU in the early morning hours, sometime in 1973. The events described don’t exactly match the episodes above (he took the crowd to Krystal’s, not McDonald’s, after this particular show), but listening to this impromptu radio session, including a live one banjo version of “Dueling Banjos” and inviting phone calls from Vandy co-ed fans, is entertaining on its own.