Until recently, the closest I’d come to interviewing Martin Short was during a Damages panel at the TCA tour, when we were in Pasadena and he was speaking to us via satellite in New York – I think we can all agree that that wasn’t very close at all – so when I heard he was coming to the Sandler Center in Virginia Beach on January 19, I jumped at the chance to try and get him on the phone for The Virginian-Pilot. To my surprise, I Was successful. The first time he called, it was to apologize that he was going to have to call me back in 10 – 15 minutes, as he was running late and needed to get out of his house and into the car before we got started. Fortunately, I was in the middle of scrambling to finish an assignment, anyway, and I told him so. By happy coincidence, he phoned back within about 30 seconds of my having submitted that assignment. “Perfect timing!” he said, cheerily.
And so began our interview…
News Reviews Interviews: I’m very much looking forward to your upcoming appearance at the Sandler Center, especially since the venue’s website has a quote from you where you describe the evening as a “party with Marty.”
Martin Short: [Laughs.] That’s right.
NRI: So what can people expect from this party?
MS: Well, they can expect anything and everything, but what I think they should expect is an entertainer. I think when you reach a certain level of fame… [Hesitates.] What I think people really want is to have a sense at the end of the evening that they got to hang with you, that they actually got to know you. In my case, I think it would be like if there was a party at someone’s house and I jumped on the piano and performed for 90 minutes. I try to make it as intimate as possible, but all the characters I’ve ever done show up. Jiminy Glick will show up and interview a surprise guest. Ed Grimley will show up. Franck (from Father of the Bride) will discuss who in the political scene has style or hasn’t. I will take everyone through kind of a faux journey of my life, from being a kid and having an imaginary television show right on through. My analogy of it is that it’s like my hosting Saturday Night Live and playing the cast as well.
NRI: So would you consider it an extension of Fame Becomes Me, then?
MS: I would say… [Hesitates.] Fame Becomes Me was an actual musical, with a cast. It has elements of Fame Becomes Me, but it’s also more of a nightclub act. I think it’s more intimate.
NRI: What was the inspiration to do this? Did you see it as a chance to interact with audiences filled with longtime fans?
MS: You know, I always believed that the longer you stay off the stage, the harder it is to go back on the stage. And, again, a lot of the – if you want to use this word – gimmick of me beyond being a singer-dancer-comic boy is looseness. I’ve seen people write about my appearances on talk shows, for example, saying, “You get the feeling that, if you went out to dinner with him afterwards, he’d be the same kind of guy. He wouldn’t suddenly be a dark guy or a depressed guy or a mean guy.” And I think that to achieve that kind of looseness in a public forum, you have to…well, you can’t be nervous. Take someone like Regis Philbin. The reason he is the way he is on television is because he’s been on television every day for 40 years or something. So it becomes second nature to him, and that kind of ease is contagious.
NRI: People may tend to think of you as a movie or TV performer, but your work in the theater actually stretches back to the ‘70s, when you were part of what I think most comedy geeks would call the greatest production of Godspell ever.
MS: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly the most fraught with famous people…not that any of us knew it. Victor Garber, Gilda, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, and myself were all in this cast of ten. Stephen Schwartz said that we were selected out of a thousand people, and he just happened to pick this group, including Paul Shaffer as the musical director, who at that time was a student at the University of Toronto, studying law. Paul was the first person to get a job in New York. Stephen Schwartz asked him to play in…a movie of Godspell, I think. And I remember Gilda getting on the phone and asking, “Hey, Paul, what are New York actors like?” And I said, “Yeah, Paul, what are they like?” Because we’re in Toronto. And Paul said [Affects a Paul Shaffer impression] “Well, I don’t know if I’m being prejudicial or not, but it seems that you guys are just as talented!” We had no sense of anything other than that New York had always seemed more daunting and even more provincial.
NRI: When I talked to Victor Garber earlier this year, he said that coming to New York was a real turning point for him. He was, like, “This is where I want to be!”
MS: Well, I think everyone is drawn toward the excitement of New York and Los Angeles, but certainly Toronto was fantastic. The first seven years of my career were solely in Toronto, and it was a fantastic place to be able to develop, because the reality is that you can go to all the theater schools and acting classes you want, but the great element that makes you improve and calm down and treat it like a business and all those things is just working. There’s not the same level of star system in Canada, certainly not back then, but you were never pigeonholed. You didn’t sit at the Oakwood Apartments in L.A. and only work three weeks a year. You were working in radio and television and commercials and the stage. Industrial shows. [Laughs.] You didn’t say “yes” or “no.” You just asked, “Do I bring a suit?”
NRI: You just filmed a special, actually, called I, Martin Short, Goes Home.
MS: Right. We’re just doing the final mix next week, actually. That’ll be airing in February.
NRI: What was the experience like?
MS: Well, first of all, it was really fun, because I shot it in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. But it really is a heightened kind of thing. [Laughs.] It’s based on this idea that this childhood mentor, who is played by Fred Willard, is in financial trouble, and I’m going to go back and do kind of a Concert for George for him. His name is Mason Mcillivrey. And then, by doing that, I ponder the grand question, “Is an artist the result of DNA, hometown, or influence?” And we examine all of those in my life…though, of course, they’re all fictitious…and then you eventually realize that I’m only doing this to steal a painting from the Hamilton Art Gallery, at which point it becomes something between Mission: Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven. Then I end up in Canadian Celebrity Rehab. [Laughs.]
NRI: Do you enjoy the opportunity to switch between comedy and drama once in awhile?
MS: You know, I’ve not aggressively made that an agenda. I mean, I do kind of believe that…I think it’s always great to surprise the audience, but I do think that an audience makes a deal with you, and if you’re a comedian, you have this contract that says, “You’ve made me laugh, and now I expect you to make me laugh.” For example, I’m also a singer. When I started off in Toronto, I’d get booked as the boy singer. But if I were to go on David Letterman as a serious singer and do “Night and Day,” halfway through they’d say, “Boy, there’d better be a sandbag about to fall on his head, I don’t care what notes he’s hitting.” The difference when I was asked to do Damages was that I was a huge fan of the show. As you know, there’s just so much television out there, so, you know, unless you do it for a living, how can you possibly keep up with it all? I certainly don’t watch everything, but that happened to be one show I do watch, so when I was asked to do that, I said, “Oh, my God…” They also do it in a brilliant way, because…it’s not improvised in any way, of course. It’s written. But they change directions after seeing dailies for a character, and suddenly that morning, after you’ve learned your lines, they give you brand new lines. [Laughs.] And that’s why all of those pieces fit so well together in the end.
NRI: When you did Damages, your character had a darkly funny line once in awhile, but your appearance on Law & Order: SVU seems like it would be pretty shocking for someone who only knows you for your comedy. I mean, it gets pretty dark.
MS: Right. But that one was interesting, too. They wrote that specifically for me, and I remember meeting with the writers for lunch at Spago – that’s show-biz! – and discussed what it would be, and I kept saying what I didn’t want it to be…or what I didn’t think it should be, anyway. I didn’t want it to blatantly be “Martin Short is dramatic, therefore he’ll never smile.” So they deliberately wrote a character who was kind of charming and affable, and you didn’t really know if Chris Meloni was being neurotic or on the money. It was hard to know.
NRI: How have you enjoyed your recurring role as Marshall’s boss on How I Met Your Mother?
MS: Oh, very much. Very much. It’s an ideally arranged set. Do you know what I mean? They don’t have an audience. And they’ve had the same director – Pamela Fryman – for seven seasons, and they all seem to love each other. Like, when they’re not working, if you’re sitting over on one set, kind of comparing notes or jokes or whatever, they seem like kids who belong in school. [Snorts.] “Kids.” They’re in their thirties. But you know what I mean. And I think that’s great. I mean, you walk in, and there’s no tension. So that creates the mood of the set. The most important thing to me is having fun, and if it’s tense or unpleasant, then A) I won’t be as effective, and B) I won’t want to be there. So it’s a really fun gig. And on top of that, it’s really, really well-written and executed. It’s a funny show.
NRI: A lot of your most fondly-remembered roles, I think, are ones where you’ve been part of an ensemble. Is it fun to get a chance to spread your comedic wings, as it were, with different groups of people?
MS: It is. You know, I’m the product of the Second City stage, and what we learned early on is that, unlike with stand-up, the reaction can get as big or a bigger laugh than the action. With stand-up, it’s often tied to “what’s my punchline,” whereas in Second City it was always tied to “what’s my reaction to the statement someone said.”
NRI: Is there a character on SCTV that didn’t take off that you always hoped would have?
MS: Nah, I don’t think so. I mean, I think what happens is that characters that you do…when you’re doing a sketch show, the ones that people remember are the ones that you did initially thinking, “I don’t know what’ll happen with this character.” And then people respond to it, and you go, “Oh, I liked that character, too, and something else that might be funny is if he did a commercial. Let’s do a commercial with Irving Cohen hawking Ajax.” But sometimes you create a character, he has a funny look, you think it’ll be funny, you do it in a sketch, and it goes, “Eh.” So you never see the character again. It’s not like it’s a failure or a success .It’s just that for every hit there’s a miss.
When I do my concerts, for awhile I never had anything for the character Franck, and people would say to me, “Oh, I’m so disappointed, I love the character of Franck, and you didn’t do Franck.” And I would think, “Well, I just don’t know what he would do. Would he just talk about fashion or something?” And then one night I was at dinner – it must’ve been 2008, because it was when it was Obama versus Hilary – and I was going on about why I thought Obama would win, because Hilary was brilliant but didn’t have enough style, and in shallow old modern-day politics you need style and you need to be chic. And I thought, “My God, I sound like Franck.” And then I went, “A-ha, now I have an idea for Franck, what I can do with him.” So sometimes it works that way.
NRI: I talked to John Landis recently, and we talked about the Three Amigos reunion that you guys did for Empire Magazine. Is there any other film you’d be interested in doing something like that for? Because it certainly seemed like that one was a good time.
MS: Well, you know, we’ve all remained good friends throughout the years. Steve and I have made, like, five films together. So I think for that, it was just…as I recall, we just had a photo shoot followed by a really fun lunch afterward. [Laughs.] That film was interesting, though, because when it was released, a lot of critics just dismissed it as silly. And then…I always remember that the three of us – Chevy (Chase), Steve (Martin), and myself – were being interview on the Today show, and Bryant Gumbel asked, “What would you say if people just look at this film and say, ‘It’s silly’”? And I remember Steve Martin said, “Well, that would depend on how you use the word ‘silly.’ I could say that Chaplin’s Gold Rush is silly.” So I think the reality is that Three Amigos became a film that influenced many other films, and I think that, in a way, it was an early form of a kind of absurdist comedy, and many, many, many films took on that absurdity. So it was an early entry into that genre, and therefore through the years it’s become this cult film, where…I mean, I can’t meet any male, particular under 40, who can’t recite lines from that movie. [Laughs.] That’s why there’s still so much attention on that film even though it’s 25 years later.
NRI: One of the things I mentioned to Landis that I’d discovered that, if you go to Google and type the words “would you say,” it immediately tries to finish it with “I have a plethora of piñatas.”
MS: [Laughs.] Well, all these things have become part of the popular culture over the years. This is a different example, but when I first met Jimmy Fallon, he was, like, 20, and he said, “You know, with I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood” – which was a special I’d done on HBO in ’89 – “if you say any line, I can tell you the next line.” With VCRs, people started to become obsessed with films, because they could watch them a hundred times. I have three kids, and I remember my son Oliver coming home at around age 11 and saying, “Hey, Dad, did you know you made a Western?” [Laughs.] I’d never introduced it to him, because I didn’t want to walk in every day for the eight months or whatever and see my films on TV, like I was living Sunset Boulevard.
NRI: Which of your former TV series would you most like to see released on DVD: The Associates or The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley? Personally, I’d like to see them both…even if I’m maybe a little more partial towards Grimley.
MS: [Laughs.] I’d be happy to see them both, too. I think they were both good series. Grimley was really ahead of its time, I will say that, because there never had been that kind of absurdity in animation on television before. There hasn’t. Maybe Bullwinkle, which was a big influence on it. But we would do things like, you know, when Ed would turn on the TV, it would go to live-action, and Joe Flaherty would be doing Count Floyd, or Catherine O’Hara would guest on it. I mean, the people who actually were part of it…Hanna-Barbera at the time had never done a show like this. Normally a script was written and they’d do a recording session for an hour or whatever and that’d be it. What we did was, if I’d write the script, then I’d say to everyone, “Okay, now let’s everyone improvise around it.” And the “everyone” was myself, Joe, Catherine, Jonathan Winters, at times Christopher Guest, Dave Thomas, and Eugene Levy. So it was quite a group…and the sessions would take twice as long, of course. [Laughs.] And then when we’d get the animation back, sometimes it’s not as impressive as you’d like it to be, and we’d then have to re-improvise in the ADR sessions to rationalize why the lips didn’t work or why the movements were so strange. That was 1988, and, as opposed to shows like The Simpsons, which would be on the air at 8 PM and presented as something that could be watched by someone in their twenties, too, this was being put on at 8 AM on Saturday mornings as if it were the next Scooby-Doo. [Laughs.] It was on NBC, and I remember Brandon Tartikoff saying to me afterwards, “We had never seen a show like that. We didn’t know how to schedule it.” Now, though, you see lots of shows like that turning up.
NRI: Well, I can tell you that, as someone who was in college at the time, there was at least a bit of an adult fanbase.
MS: Oh, I know it did, because I remember David Letterman telling me, “I’ve never missed it!” [Laughs.]
NRI: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved? Besides Grimley, I guess.
MS: Yeah, well, I mean, there are lots of things where you kind of think that…but then they do. That’s the weirdest thing about things as they continue to exist. Especially with my stuff. I don’t try…my agenda has never been to say, “I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to play to the 8% that’s the hip comedy group.” It’s never been that at all. All I do is…I guess it’s like being an abstract artist: you’re in your garage, you paint your picture, and you put it up there. Like, I once had this dinner with Joni Mitchell, and I said, “There was a period in the ‘70s where everything you did was so successful, and then there was a perception that you became jazzy and were abandoning your fanbase.” She said, “I wasn’t abandoning anybody. I was just thinking that the next thing would be as heralded as the last thing. It was just my progression as an artist.” So, for example, a film like Clifford, it came out and people went, “What?” [Laughs.] But, again, twenty years later, every time you see an article in Entertainment Weekly or wherever about guilty pleasures, there it is. That film, probably more than anything I’ve done, is mentioned by people coming up to me. Things shift through the years. When Clifford was released, it was by Orion, which was a bankrupt company, so it didn’t do well at the box office, but then in its next life, it did phenomenally well. So you never really know. Often, cream rises to the top, and but if it doesn’t deserve it, then it stays where it is.
NRI: Lastly, given your background in sketch comedy, are there any current or relatively recent sketch comedy series that you’re a fan of?
MS: Oh, I’m a fan of a lot of things. I still watch Saturday Night Live. The things that people are usually quoting, I’m watching, too. [Laughs.] I’m a pretty easy audience. And I do try and sample as much as I can of what’s out there to see what going on, but, as you know, there’s a lot of television out there. A lot of it is great, though. I mean, there’s a lot of fluff, but especially in the hour-drama world…I mean, look at Homeland. They’re making art up there. Same with Damages. That’s great TV.