Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Report: Born Standing Up

In the late 1970s, Steve Martin was the biggest thing stand up comedy ever saw. Routinely playing before audiences of over 20,000 people, a regular on The Tonight Show, and the originator of catch phrases that were cemented in American popular culture at the time, he was a huge success.

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life is mostly a story about how huge a failure he was that enabled that success and a worthy study for career advancement. By far my favorite quote in the book explains one of the two overriding themes of his story:

"Thankfully, perseverance is a great substitute for talent."

He tried hard, very hard. From his beginnings as a sales clerk at the now defunct magic shops at Disneyland where he would demonstrate tricks to his time as a stock performer at Knott's Berry Farm, he ultimately perfected the art of stage performing because he did it thousands upon thousands of times.

The second theme has to do with connections. As I'm finding in my own career, it is amazing how one thing can lead to another if you keep up your personal network. For Steve Martin, an ex-girlfriend who was a professional dancer helped get him off the stages of amusement parks and into the writing rooms of the Smothers Brothers Show.

The writers he met there included Rob Reiner and a host of others that went on to work the wildly popular mid 70s daytime talk show circuit where Martin made use of his newfound contacts to get exposure for what was becoming his solo magic, banjo, comedy act. That eventually got him on the highly coveted Tonight Show, which spilled into several hosting stints on the early Saturday Night Live episodes.

When he realized that there was nowhere to go but down and he became weary of the travel required of a solo live performer, he was able to branch into films with The Jerk, which was directed by the legendary Carl Reiner, Rob's father who he met during their time together doing variety show writing. With his stand up career having nowhere to go but down, he walked away despite still being hugely popular. His focus since has been his movie career and he's written a few novels along the way as well.

Practice and connections. Both took many years and a lot of hard work to build up, but both were crucial in cementing his early career and gave him a chance to get noticed.

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