Born Standing Up

I can remember sitting on the living room couch, my feet barely hanging off the edge of the cushion, listening to records—or LPs as my parents still call them—through speakers that flanked our upright piano. Two of my favorites were comedy albums—Bill Cosby and Steve Martin. When I listened to my musical albums, like Sha-Na-Na or Disney’s Mousercise, I danced or turned cartwheels in the open space of the living room. But those comedy albums were like read-aloud stories, and for those I sat quietly and listened.

I don’t know how many of the jokes I understood, or exactly what it was that I found funny. I’m not really even sure if the comedy bits I think I remember being on those albums actually are, or if I’ve just mixed in later memories of their comedy routines. My recollection is spotty (I just typed “my recollection is potty”—tee-hee), but I listened to those records so many times as a kid, I’m sure it would all come back to me if I listened to them again today.

That was my introduction to Bill Cosby and Steve Martin, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I mean The Cosby Show—come on! I so wanted to be Denise. And I wanted a two-story house like theirs with a basement office for my dad to work in, just like Cliff. I wanted three sisters (because I already had the brother) so we could do lip sync performances on special occasions, just like the Huxtables.

Steve Martin was hilarious to me because he wore that arrow through his head or a balloon animal hat while he talked, but acted like there wasn’t anything weird about it. My all time favorite was his happy feet dance. That prompted many happy feet dance interpretations from my family. We do them today still. My dad will come in from the garage on his way to get a handful of chocolate chips out of the freezer and he’ll break into a sudden happy feet shuffle in front of the TV. It’s guaranteed to make me laugh.

Steve Martin won me over as a solid, lifelong fan when he appeared on both The Muppet Show (remember him playing the banjo and singing the Ramblin’ Guy song?) AND he was the surly waiter in The Muppet Movie. I watched his skits on Saturday Night Live with my parents and my brother. (Wild and crazy guys, of course. Another favorite was the one where he did a beautiful, romantic dance with Gilda Radner and then they’d suddenly break into a goofy, happy feet dance, and then go back to their traditional waltz. That description probably doesn’t sound funny, but trust me, the skit was. At least to my sense of humor anyway.) I grew up on Steve Martin’s movies, enjoyed reading Shopgirl, and there are passages in Pure Drivel and Cruel Shoes that made me cry I was laughing so hard.

So I was very excited to read Born Standing Up, his recently published autobiography. And you know what? It was better than I had anticipated. Seriously, if you are a fan of his, it’s a must-read. If you are interested in stand-up comedy or the entertainment business, especially circa the seventies, you’ll get a lot from it too. But what surprised me was that I took away a lot from the book not only as a Steve Martin fan, but also as a writer.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. I mean, by now he’s proven himself to be an accomplished and serious (but funny) writer between his movie screenplays, his novels, his comedy books, his essays for the New Yorker, his plays. I was expecting the book to be good, but it was different than I expected and better than I expected.

Some of the things I took away as a writer: He told the essential bits, and that’s it. Nothing felt extraneous, everything applied to the focus of the book, which is the story of how he became a stand-up comedian and what that experience was like for him. There have to be so many stories and events that aren’t included here, but what is included is entertaining and is exactly enough to give me a decent idea of what this time in his life was like for him.

There was most definitely care put into how he told his story. It wasn’t just a string of anecdotes. In the book he talks about how he always gave his stand-up acts a beginning, middle, and end and he clearly does that here as well. There’s a nice structure with the beginning talking about his early days working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and a couple anecdotes about his family life, the middle is his climb to unbelievable success and achieved dreams, and the ending comes full circle, reconnecting with his first comedic stomping grounds and his family.

He is self-deprecating and humble and gives a lot of credit to his mentors and friends along the way. In fact, a lot of the funniest lines are attributed to other comedians. But it is also clear that he worked really, really hard. This is a guy who, when he’s passionate about something, does his best to study it, and practice, and dedicate himself to improving his craft, whether it be magic tricks, banjo playing, telling jokes, or performing in front of an audience. This is a good reminder for any artist, I think. It’s easy to look at people, like Steve Martin, who have reached a certain amount of success and fame with the arts and think: “Well yeah, but he’s naturally funny. If I was that funny, I could do that too.” And while I’d guess he always had a good sense of humor, I think it’s shortchanging him to assume that it just comes naturally without any sort of thought or effort. What his book makes clear is that while he is a funny and personable guy, it’s the dedication, discipline, strategy, passion, practice, networking, and a bit of luck that got him to where he is today.

I just did a search to find an image of the book cover to attach to this post and came across a bunch of interviews he did on NPR. This quote from one of the interviews is a great example of how he has no airs about his rise to stand-up comedian fame: “I think it’s somehow an American story in a strange way, because I started untalented. I didn’t have any gifts except perseverance.”

The book is funny, insightful, inspiring; it’s a quick read. I highly recommend it.

Colorado Weather

Last week we had a little snowstorm; yesterday and today it’s been in the high 80s. My tulips haven’t even shown off their flowers yet and it feels like we’re deep into summer. It’s quite a bizarre thing to have bare trees and bushes, and little tufts of green beginning to poke out of the ground here and there, but have it feel like the middle of the July. And tomorrow we’re supposed to have snow again. Ahhh, Colorado in April. Is there a place with more bipolar weather tendencies than this? I’ve lived here for almost 4 years now, so this really shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. I love it though; it keeps life interesting.

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Meeting Shannon Hale!

I’m visiting my parents in the Bay Area and my trip fortunately coincided with an appearance by Shannon Hale and Libba Bray in San Francisco through the Not Your Mother’s Book Club. Yay! Their tour won’t be going to Colorado so I was super excited to get the chance to see them. Most especially Ms. Hale. I love, love, love The Princess Academy. Such a great book. I bought her latest one too, but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet although I’ve heard many good things.

My mom went with me to the reading and we had a fun day in the city. I was a little uncertain if this event would be adult-friendly. The book club is definitely targeted at teens (and these are popular young adult authors after all). I didn’t want to walk in and have all these teenagers sneer at me and say, “Ewww. . . who is that old person crashing our party?” But no need to worry. It was teen dominated and adult friendly, which is the best combo I think.

My mom and I were waiting outside the cafe where the event was being held when I saw my friend Rachel walking up the sidewalk. I had hoped I might run into some of my old Bay Area writing friends at the event, but I had been so busy before I flew out, I never got in touch with anyone about the reading. I was super happy to see Rachel, but not so surprised because she was one of the first people who came to mind that might attend. But she was pretty stunned to see me, since I was supposed to be over a mountain range and far, far, away.

The event would have been very nice if Rachel hadn’t been there, but with her there it was SO MUCH FUN. The organizers did a great job and if you live in the Bay Area and are a fan of YA, I highly recommend you attend future NYMBC events. I don’t know how much each event varies, but this one was very laid back. The cafe was closed for the event so it was just us fans there, which was nice. There were drinks and food and the event began with everyone snacking and making small talk while Shannon and Libba circulated through the crowd. They were great. Shannon even sat on the couch with Rachel and me, and we all talked writing for a few minutes. I don’t remember much of what was said because what was running through my brain was “So cool! I’m sitting on a couch chit-chatting with a Newbery Honoree!” But I can assure you that not only is she a talented writer, Shannon is as nice as I imagined her to be. (Which is really nice.) What I didn’t think about her being is funny, but she is. She just seems like the kind of gal I’d bake a batch of brownies with and sit around the kitchen table gossiping and giggling over ridiculous things. I don’t bake brownies often, but if Shannon and I hung out that’s what I imagine us doing. Hopefully we’d also exercise together because those brownies would go straight to my hips.

Anyway, after Shannon and Libba circulated, they stood up front and talked to the crowd. They were very funny and I would have sworn they’d been old college roommates and had known each other for a decade, but I guess they’d met for the first time only a day or two before. Talk about natural chemistry. They called themselves the Torso Twins because their book covers both feature the torso of a girl. They did a Q/A session with one another where they asked each other increasingly ridiculous questions along the lines of “If there was a sock puppet musical of your life, what would the theme song be?” They told silly stories and were all around entertaining. They ended their Q/A session by bringing up a couple people from the crowd to be backup dancers and sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (I don’t remember what led to that, but it seemed like a natural progression at the time and was quite funny.) Afterward they answered questions from people in the audience and then signed books. NYMBC gave out goody bags for every attendee that were a mix of promotional items for various books and two advanced reader copies of books soon to be released, which I thought was very cool. A very enjoyable evening all around.

Here is a photo of Rachel (left) and me (right) with Shannon Hale. In the very bottom left you can see Libba Bray’s neck and jawline: