Steve Martin Slightly Less Wild And Crazy

Steve Martin plays a banjo after receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, 10-23-05

Steve Martin quit standup forever in 1981, and a whole new generation knows him as a successful movie actor who has played everything from a ditzy detective in "The Pink Panther" to a beleaguered father in "Cheaper by the Dozen."

But stand-up used to be his bread and butter. He began his career at The Bird Cage Theater at Knott's Berry Farm in California where he worked four shows a day for $2 a show.

"We had to go out into the grounds before the show and pitch the show, 'Come to the Bird Cage Theater,' whatever," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver. "That was the demeaning part, I felt. I wasn't a quite an actor yet, but you know, I'm still hawking my stuff."

And now, Martin has written "Born Standing Up," the story of the years when he was fighting to make it in the world of comedy, never intending to be a huge star. He writes "I was seeking coming originality and fame fell on me like a by-product."

Photos: Book People
Martin grew up in California, and by age 10 got a job at Disneyland, in the Magic Shop, where he learned tricks and gags from a co-worker.

"After he would make a sale he would say 'this trick is guaranteed to break before you get home,' Martin said. "And if a customer came in he'd say, 'May I take your money, I mean, help you?'"

But by 17, he was ready to leave his job at the Magic Shop for his first real showbiz gig at the Bird Cage. By then Martin had taught himself to play the banjo.

He still plays the first banjo he ever owned.

Life on stage was an escape from life at home. Martin writes movingly about his difficult relationship with his father. He could be critical, Martin said, but he admits that he was "kind of an ornery kid" who got revenge by being quiet and distant.

"The strange thing is that I always viewed my childhood as happy until I started thinking about it," Martin said. "You know, I had such a happy life away from home that I view my childhood as happy. But at home it was a very quiet house. There was not a lot of conversation."

Before long Martin was off on his own, attending college and working on his act. At age 20, he started writing for shows like "The Smothers Brothers," "Glen Campbell," "Sonny and Cher," and making $500 a week, but he quit to go back to standup.

"Eventually, I could get maybe $250 for a show at a college, but it would cost me $200 to get there," he said.

His act was a break with the standup tradition of telling jokes. He created a character who seemed a bit out of control.

"I was studying philosophy in college, and philosophy taught me, 'Question everything,'" he said. "And so I just turned it on my act. And I thought that, 'Well, the audience, they're sitting there waiting for these punch lines. And then a punch line comes and they go, Ha, ha, ha, nut it's not really real.' They're kind of being told when to laugh. And I thought, 'What if I never indicated to them where to laugh?' Then they would sit there for a while. And pretty soon they would - I hoped - find their own place to laugh. And then they would be laughing for real."

Some of his most popular routines involved things he'd picked up at the Disneyland Magic Shop, like the arrow through the head, the bunny ears and even his balloon animals.

"I was looking for absurd things for my act and I went back to those early props," Martin said. "And I thought they're so stupid that I wanted to use them in some ironic way."

Martin's act was all about irony; for example, his "Wild and Crazy Guy." His popularity started to build. He started to notice that people were coming to his shows wearing arrows through their heads or with balloon animals.

"And I thought, 'That's odd,'" he said.

In 1976 he was invited to host a new show called "Saturday Night Live."

"It was just such an exciting period where you're just charged up to be funny and the audience was so ready for you to be funny," Martin said. "It was a fabulous time."

Martin was playing to huge crowds. He even had a hit song, "King Tut."

"Well, it felt very satisfying. I knew this was a rare thing to happen to anybody, to sort of burst on a comedy scene. I was also worried about the future," he said. "I knew I had become this thing and I knew that it's eventually something I have to break out of."

So Martin was looking for the next big thing. He wrote and starred in the movie "The Jerk" and decided his future was in film.

"I had done it, I couldn't top myself," he said.

He walked out one night and never looked back.

"I packed up my things and all my little magic props and put my banjo away and went home," Martin said.

Of course he never completely abandoned his comedy act, and wove it into films like "Parenthood," where he plays a dad who made balloon animals at his son's birthday party - shaping something that resembles a lower intestine.

And Martin has gone on to do much more than movie acting: he is also an author, screen writer, a playwright and also writes humorous essays.

"It all came - just evolution," he said.

He is newly married to magazine writer Anne Stringfield, and next week he receives the Kennedy Center Honor. These are very good times for Steve Martin.

"You know, I wish someone had told me in 1979 or '80 when I was quitting standup, they'd say, 'Don't worry, everything's gonna be all right,'" he said. "I would have been much happier."

Listen to part of the audio version of Martin's book here.