Born Standing Up

Brooke picked this book up for me a few weeks ago, knowing I’d been a huge fan of Steve Martin during his standup years. You could even say that as a teenager, I idolized Martin. To this day, I’m in awe of people (including myself!) who can make others laugh. But I’ve always been slightly bemused by some of Martin’s latter-day forays into melancholy (Shopgirl, for example) and wondered what had happened to the sense of the absurd that fuelled his edgy comedy routines of the 1970s. I think I was 13 when I saw him perform at Toronto’s cavernous Maple Leaf Gardens, and it still boggles my mind today that a comedian could fill a 20,000 seat arena. It almost seems unreal now. But Saturday Night Live, his appearances on The Tonight Show, and for me, his comedy albums made Martin a bonafide superstar. But as Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life reveals, he was not quite an overnight success.

In fact, in this book he writes with a sometimes dewy-eyed sentimentality about all the hard work it took for him to look “wild and crazy.” A driven perfectionist with a Protestant work ethic, Martin grew up studying magic tricks and practiced for hours upon hours until his act looked effortless. Martin’s seemingly absurd routines were fuelled not by the ubiquitous drugs of that period, but by a ruthless intelligence and curiosity. He was a student of philosophy, and of comedy.

I smiled with recognition as he recalled some of his more inspired bits, but Martin himself seems still somewhat detached from this period of his life. He admits that after he left standup for the movies in the early 1980s, he rarely thought about that time. Only now with this book does he realize that it was the most fruitful, exciting, and just plain funny period of his long and (now) distinguished career. He’s honest enough to admit that he was never really after fame, and became very uncomfortable with it pretty quickly. But he loved performing. Although he seems at peace with his life, he still seems to look at his standup self as if he were looking at a completely different man. I find that a bit sad.

Steve Martin is less funny these days, and I think he knows that. But he’s had tremendous success as a writer of essays, fiction, plays and screenplays, and as an actor. For me, though, Steve Martin will always be the man who let me know it was OK to make a smart joke that nobody else got. Along with Monty Python and, later, the Coen Brothers, Steve Martin’s “bits” were the currency that was shared among me and my friends. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been thirty years. Now, before I start becoming the dewy-eyed sentimentalist, I’ll wrap up. If you’re of my generation, and actually saw Steve live on Saturday Night Live, you’ll want to read this slim but rewarding volume. Although the real Steve is considerably more complicated than the “funny” Steve, this was still a great read. In fact, I read the whole thing today.

Jesus Land

It seems that I’ve been immersing myself in stories about toxic Christianity lately. Julia Scheeres’ memoir of growing up with her adopted black brother David in a hellish “Christian” home hasn’t made me feel any better about the evangelical subculture. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if Christianity itself might be broken beyond repair. Though a harrowing read, the book is a beautiful testament to the power of hope and love (and the corrosive power of twisted faith). Scheeres and I are around the same age (and even attended the same college), and I found myself nodding in recognition of some of the trappings of Christian life in the 1980s: Keith Green, Sandi Patti, Petra, the mistrust of anything “secular”, the obsession of our youth leaders with sexual immorality and especially abortion. The difference is that I spent my teens in a safe, happy place, and Julia spent hers in a tyrannical Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Julia and David cling to each other during this time and her descriptions of both the horrors of the school’s “Program” and her rare moments of freedom with her beloved brother are written in the immediacy of the present-tense, like a teenager’s diary. This is powerful stuff, and by the end, I was amazed at her and her brother’s resilience. With the traditional safe places of family and church twisted into abusive prisons, her relationship with David is a lifeline for both of them.

At times I was shaking my head in disbelief, but on her website, she includes supporting documents from Escuela Caribe, the reform school she was sent to by her parents after a little too much teenaged rebellion. And she links to a site for “survivors” of the school’s regime, which may bring some much-needed catharis and hopefully shut Escuela Caribe down and other places like it. Yes, incredibly, the school is still operating. I’m happy and amazed that Julia has been able to make a life for herself as a writer, and a good one. She is happily married and has just had a baby girl, and though her faith has been completely shattered, I know that her daughter will receive a far more “Christian” upbringing than she ever did. In these days when the rise of the Christian Right seems to have caught us all by surprise, it’s good to see that these dark undercurrents have been there all along.

In more happy fun religion news, next month’s Doc Soup screening will be Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Another story of religious madness in the Caribbean jungle. Can’t wait.
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The Book Meme

Gord done gone and book-memed me! Here are the rules:

  1. Grab the book closest to you
  2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence
  3. Post the text of next 3 sentences on your blog
  4. Name of the book and the author
  5. Tag three people

Here’s mine:

“I had built a reputation for preaching and writing , both at the local level and beyond. I had done everything I knew how to do to draw as near to the heart of God as I could, only to find myself out of gas on a lonely road, filled with bitterness and self-pity. To suppose that I had ended up in such a place by the grace of God required a significant leap of faith.”

Barbara Brown Taylor รขโ‚ฌโ€ “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith”

Wow. Neat.

I am tagging Brad, Kevin, and Jay.