Steve Martin crosses the lobby of New York's Algonquin Hotel in what I at first take to be a disguise of some sort. It's not entirely his fault: the toothbrush moustache he wears is a condition of his lead in the second Pink Panther movie, currently filming in Chicago. But the wide-brimmed hat, our-man-in-Havana-style suit and sunglasses the size of wing mirrors are all wardrobe decisions that, along with his mildly self-conscious air, announce his arrival as subtly as a town crier.
I'd seen Martin's public persona in action at the New Yorker literary festival the day before, where he'd appeared before a full house to discuss his new memoir, Born Standing Up. The book covers the period from his childhood to his early 30s, when, with audacious ambition, he left stand-up comedy to take a shot at movie stardom. Martin reprised some of his early routines, sang a satirical song and, to the delight of the bookish audience, successfully executed a rope trick. His demeanor throughout was extravagantly pained, "I can't believe you people are making me do a rope trick," he said. "You're killing me up here." Then he sat back down to answer questions. After an hour, someone at the back got up to leave, whereupon Martin bent double and cried, "We have to finish now. People are leaving. Oh my God, I'm boring them, this is the worst possible ... ." He wasn't joking.
Martin admits in the book to being unhappy talking about himself, and the memoir skillfully circumvents much of his personal life to focus on his early career and his relationship with his parents. It's hard to reconcile its self-possessed tone with the guy we think of as Steve Martin, rubber-faced and on the receiving end of chaos. From his first film role in 1979, as The Jerk, onwards, his characters have tended to be uptight and good-hearted, lovable idiots pushed to breaking point by children, rogue weather systems or his country's hard-line insistence that everyone be happy and fulfilled at all times. In 1991's LA Story, which he wrote and produced, he obliquely comments on his own comic style by playing a surrealist weatherman whom nobody understands.
What Martin does best is a combination of schmaltz and satire, and it has its roots in a childhood spent wandering around Disneyland. The most vivid scenes in the book are the early ones, in which the 10-year-old Martin scores an after-school job selling guide books at a theme park that opened a few kilometers from his home in California in 1955. It entitled him to free rides and provided him, if one is minded to look at things this way, with an almost mythological basis for a career in showbiz. For the next eight years he worked in the park in one capacity or another, finding an eventual home demonstrating tricks in Merlin's Magic Trick Shop. This suited his disposition exactly. He spent hours in his room, practicing his act, keeping a notebook in which he reviewed his performances with agonized sincerity.
He is still obsessed with the theme park of that era, going online to find old snapshots of the place, and its appeal was probably amplified at the time by its contrast with his home life. A nuclear silence pervaded the Martin household; his father was a bully, his mother supine in the face of it, and Martin was desperate to get out. He diagnoses his father's problem as being one of disappointment: he'd wanted to be an actor but ended up in real estate and took it out on his son. There's a scene in the book in which his father takes umbrage at something Martin says at the table, leans across to clout him and gets carried away and beats him up. It happened only once, but the incident looms large in Martin's imagination, surfacing in his second novel, The Pleasure of My Company.