Born Standing Up: What Magicians can Learn From Steve Martin

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By Chelsea Nichole

Growing up my mom would often play Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small on the family record player. We’d gather around it in the family room and laugh together. Standup comedy brought us together as a family and to this day Steve Martin is one of my all time favorite comedians. I always assumed being funny required little to know hard work on Martin’s part because his comedy seemed so effortless. I had no idea the amount of years of work he put into his craft to make the albums I grew up listening to until I read his book, Born Standing Up. I highly recommend his book for everyone but even more so for magicians. His book can be instrumental for performance theory and how to perfect your craft; not only that, but he got his start as a magician!

Steve Martin opens his book by writing, “I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.” This quote is literally the first quote of the book and a sobering one at that. We live in a generation obsessed with fame and the desire for instant gratification. The rise of social media, such as Facebook and YouTube, have lead magicians to seek fame by posting any idea they have online without taking the time to work and refine their performance. There seems to be this belief that every idea is gold and deserves fame and recognition, and rarely do people realize how much time great performers put into their craft before they even put it before an audience.

I watched a movie that really captured this current phenomenon called Adult World. In it a young girl is trying to get famous with her poetry and her mentor (played by John Cusack) says to her, “Fame is your generation’s black plague.” And it’s true. When we pursue fame we lose touch with our audience regardless of our chosen art form. As a magician the goal ought to be to amaze the audience, give it your all every time, and focus on them and their reactions rather than on yourself and your own personal glory. When fame and recognition is all you seek, you lose sight of the art within the craft. As Martin writes, “I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product. The course was more plodding than heroic.” So instead of making fame your focus, make your work be about being the best you can be; and honestly, when you do something well, people will notice.

I made the assumption that Steve Martin was naturally funny and that his albums were made with little to no real hard work. Turns out he wasn’t all that funny growing up; he worked very hard at finding out what made people laugh and spent enormous amounts of time practicing and performing for family. He writes, “I was not talented – I didn’t sing, dance, or act – though working around that minor detail made me inventive.” He writes in his book about the opportunities he was given, when first starting out, to perform in small venues and how many of his performances were terrible and not met with laughs. In those times he worked harder and studied how the audience reacted to others. He continued to refine his act and tailor it to his audience.

I find this detail to be so important to all performers: you have to know your audience! It can’t be about you when you perform, whether you’re performing on stage or for a small group of people. You have to find out what the people want to see and what engages your audience the most. When Martin first started out doing standup for a small coffee shop he would often walk around before his act and talk to patrons and the staff and see if there was anything unusual happening that day so he could address it on stage for laughs. He said years later that it was this style of interacting with the audience that made his act both noteworthy and unique to him; that feeling of unstructured hilarity found in his act. I think that as a magician, every moment of performance, even when done for family, should be studied. What amazed your friends and family and why?

Though your craft may be performing magic there is always so much to learn from other crafts. When you see someone who is passionate about their work, their discipline and determination can inspire anyone. I highly recommend Born Standing Up; there is much to gain from it both in learning how to perfect your craft as well as determining what motivates you. One thing I did not touch on in this review is that most of the book follows Martin’s hostile relationship with his father and how that often drove him to work harder and be better to please him. However that is a whole other story. For now I think an important take away from this book is to recognize that in order to be the best in what you do you must be ready to put in the hard work. Practice your craft for people and learn what your audience wants to see and develop your own unique approach to magic. Lastly, if you love what you do and you’re excited to about your magic, your audience will be too!

 

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