One thing I never really knew about Steve Martin

Steve Martin was once a beginner.

You might be thinking, “well, duh.” But wait a minute.

Imagine Martin–the same Steve Martin that won Grammys, hosted SNL, wrote books and screenplays and starred in movies–as a wobbly kid biking into Disneyland to get his first job. A messed-up teenager copying others’ jokes. A failing comedian thinking about throwing in the towel.

He didn’t always know what he was doing. He wasn’t even very good at what he did know how to do. But in the end, he got better.

Martin’s memoir about his stand-up career just came out in paperback—and there’s a great interview with him on Fresh Air where he talks about being his early career. About beginnings, and failures, and learning.

How did Steve Martin become a master at so many things?

He kept trying.

  • He says of his career as a comic, “I did standup comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.”
    Would you keep learning and refining (and eating and breathing) something you hadn’t really succeeded at for fourteen years?


  • I have been impressed at Martin’s new career as a banjo player, and because I wasn’t super-familiar with his comedy (which was before I was allowed to stay up to watch SNL) I wondered, “How did the man have time to develop a new talent?”
    And then I read about him, at eighteen, learning to play the banjo by practicing in his car with the windows rolled up, even “in the middle of August.”
    That talent he “just” developed he’s been honing for the better part of a half-century.
    How long will you work on a talent before anyone notices?


  • I marvel at his ability to write standup, movies, plays, novels, memoir, and humor. How can any one author be so versatile?
    And then I read about him realizing at twenty that none of the material in his three-year-old act was original. And that it needed to be.
    Martin wrote,  “This realization mortified me. I did not know how to write comedy—at all. I was now starting from almost zero.”
    Instead of throwing up his hands, he studied. He thought about why things were funny. He practiced. He experimented.
    For years.
    Would you start from scratch on a project you’d developed for three years—even if you’d experienced some success—even if it meant learning a new skill that intimidated you?


I’m no Steve Martin. But the man’s dogged pursuit of excellence took years before it bore real fruit. Fruit like being able to pay rent regularly or travel to his gigs. Not to mention the wild success he experienced later on.

I would love to be as talented as Steve Martin. But even Steve Martin didn’t just “get” talent. He built it, pebble by pebble, with his hands, patiently, over years.

Am I ready for that kind of effort? Are you?

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  • Kristen @ Motherese

    Steve Martin has fascinated me for awhile now. For years in my mind, he was just the dad in Father of the Bride, goofy, sweet, bumbling, funny. And then I read and saw Shopgirl and I started to realize the depths of his talent. Thanks for shedding some light on the lengths he has gone to plumb those depths.

    Random aside: do you follow him on Twitter? One of my favorites.

  • Wendy

    I’ve always been interested in his humble Disneyland beginnings. He semi-recently wrote a tribute to another amazing (Disneyland) stand-up comic, Wally Boag ( It struck me how much a mentor can inspire you to pursue that path toward your goals.

    • Heather

      Thanks for the link, Wendy. Martin mentioned Boag in his memoir as well, and talked a lot about the lessons he learned at Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm. I felt a little surprised to be let into a part of SoCal history I didn’t really know about.

  • Heather Caliri

    Oh, I loved Shopgirl, too. So slight. So lovely. So funny.
    I just got his collection of tweets. Which was also funny. Even there, I admire that he approached a new form with a beginner’s enthusiasm, immediately experimenting and collaborating to discover what its possibilities are.