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By admin Published: January 22, 2008

My hiatus from the blog (and from work generally) extended into Monday. While there were some chores and a bit of TV screening, most of the day was devoted to recharging the batteries. ...

A little gym time (there hasn't been enough of that for a long time) and a lot of reading. I finally finished "Legacy of Ashes," Tim Weiner's history of the CIA, a book so depressing in its chronicling of failure that, less than midway through, I had taken a break to read George Crile's "Charlie Wilson's War." Crile's book -- more textured and complicated than the movie, though the movie does convey most of the book's message -- was not all that complimentary about the CIA either, but it at least suggested that some things could be accomplished. Unfortunately, Crile pointed out -- as did Weiner -- that those accomplishments had disastrous later consequences.

After finishing "Legacy," I moved on to "Born Standing Up," Steve Martin's account of his years as a stand-up comic, how he became one, how he polished his craft -- and when he knew that it was time to give it up.

It's a relatively brief book -- just over 200 pages, with lots of white space on the page -- especially after Weiner's tome. But it is also a very carefully thought out examination of Martin's approach to his craft. It reminded me of Sidney Lumet's "Making Movies" in that respect. It also contains what may be the best explanation of Johnny Carson's personality I have read: "Johnny was not aloof; he was polite. He did not presume intimate relationships where there were none; he took time, and with time grew trust." Nor does Martin pretend that he was close to Carson, saying his personal relationship with Carson was "at least as personal as he or I could make it." There was that politeness, after all, and a distance in Martin, as he acknowledges throughout his book.

People looking for show-biz gossip won't get much, although Martin does note glittering moments in his life, such as dinners at Dalton Trumbo's while Martin was dating Trumbo's daughter. And I suppose it would be possible to read this book and come away with the idea that Martin's approach -- an ever more absurd counterpoint to what was then traditional stand-up -- is some way to success.

But that was Martin's way, though not only his. (He writes of how seeing "Saturday Night Live" "was a heavy below to my inner belief that I alone was leading the cavalry.") What people would do better to take away from the book is the joys of a great curiosity, one that led Martin into philosophy and art collecting, as well as to his approach to comedy.

And there is his discipline. Not discipline all the time, in all things. He was an undistinguished student in his youth. But when it came to his act, he concentrated fiercely. He studied every word and gesture, polishing them during countless lousy jobs, in cities that held no wonders, as they played in front of crowds and as he later studied tapes of his performances.

Discipline, I think, is the thing that often distinguishes the dreamer from the artist. I say that with considerable self-awareness. (Now, I'm not comparing myself to Martin in terms of skill. Just in terms of approach to craft.) I can understand Martin's curiosity; for crying out loud, I'm a pop-culture guy who just spent hours reading a history of the CIA. When Martin mentioned a Diane Arbus photograph from Disneyland, I dug out my book of Arbus photos to see if it was there. (It was.) When he described art by Hiram Williams and William Gropper, I went looking online for them.

But his discipline is something that has eluded me. Martin realized early on that he wanted to perform, and devoted long years to figuring out what he wanted to perform, and how best to do it. I've had dreams -- of being a late-night DJ, for one, or writing novels. But the DJ'ing has been nothing more than assembling mix tapes (later mix discs, and iPod playlists), and no novel has gotten beyond a first draft needing considerable revision. Martin would have made those revisions.

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