Riding Chicago’s trains this weekend, I listened to Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up. Martin’s narration served as an engaging backdrop for my solo search party for a six-week apartment sublease. It was a weird juxtaposition—Martin was looking for comedy clubs, while I was looking at bedrooms. Both of us were concerned about similar things: lighting, entertainment and atmosphere.
The book is a wonderful ride through Steve Martin’s early career as a comedian, magician and actor. He begins work at age 10 when Disneyland opened, and the book ends with Steve becoming the greatest selling comedian the world has ever seen. It’s even more fun in the audio format with Martin’s voice providing the action.
I’ve seen Steve Martin tour with his banjo. My parents raised me on his movies and SNL appearances. What impressed me most about Martin from his book was his desire to create something entirely new. He wanted to embody the spirit of a “Wild and Crazy Guy” persona to entertain audiences. He set out to craft jokes without punch lines—where audiences were not cued to laugh, but had to find the humor on their own.
I think Steve Martin and I share a few traits. Mainly, we both like Steve Martin, but I think we share in that idea of creating something that has never been done before. He spent years working on his act—I’m beginning to explore that idea by writing every day. Some of my set list goes over as poorly as his did, I’m sure.
Steve Martin gave himself a deadline to become a comedian. Similarly, I’m going to try being Derek for five more years and if that doesn’t work, I’ll go be someone else. Maybe I’ll try being Steve Martin.
The Theater of the Mind
In the closing minutes of the book, Martin returned to a theater where he performed magic and bizarre comedy early in his career. For a moment, alone in this theater, Martin wished he could go back to those early days—when he was still figuring things out.
As I listened to the book, I realized that I’m still in those early days—that my moment to stand in the theater is still ahead of me. In fact, it’s the very halls I’m walking down now that will someday feel gentle on my mind.
Before I began this year with Experience Institute, I found myself walking on my alma mater’s campus as freshmen were moving in. The University of Colorado in Boulder was packed with parents and terrified looking young adults. Several times, I almost felt the urge to go up to one and yell, “you’re going to love this place, relax!”
I have no desire to go back to college, but I am glad I have those memories. Every now and then, I wish I could return, just for a moment, to similar touch points in my life. Each one hold vivid scenes and memories.
There’s a curse and a power in remembering too much of the past, which Steve Martin displays with his book. I know from experience. At some point, you remember people and events in ways others don’t. It’s like you’re living that part of your life alone. It’s a great space for storytellers, but one that sometimes drains me.
That’s Another Story
I am working on an application for a place I’d really like to work. One of the questions is as follows: “Tell us your favorite personal story. It should be something that happened in your life that you find particularly amusing, surprising or emotional.”
When I first read it, my mind drew a blank.
So I leave the application, get on a train and start listening to Steve. I’m thinking about the application question—frustrated and wracking my brain for material. Why don’t I have new stories?
At first, I blamed the change on me outgrowing moments of nostalgia. I reasoned that the cause was a combination of splintered romantic interests, the cruelty of the world and Netflix. I’m 25 and it’s been a weird year. Caffeine is finally affecting me and I am more conscious of the term “young professional.” Maybe it’s just not worth reflecting on what’s going on around me—until it becomes necessary.
A lot of a comedian’s work is trying bits and refining them for an act in an effort to please your audience. I think great storytelling must develop in a similar fashion.
Recently, I’ve been resistant to moments of reflection, by not creating meaning and stories for myself. If I don’t capture those small moments, they obviously fall out of my routines. I need to keep practicing.
A personal look at storytelling is all about a commitment to my craft, and sharing the small things I notice. In truth, I’ve never written about the girl named Calypso who stole my shirt. I very rarely tell the story about the ironic Pizza Hut visit. They’re small antidotes, but they build into segments with punch lines you don’t see coming.