While other youngsters his age were playing sports or listening to the Beatles, Martin Short was busy hosting, starring and producing his own bedroom talk show for the “Marty Broadcasting Corporation.” It was “a biweekly program combining my talents as a movie star, TV host and mogul,” according to Short’s infectious 2014 memoir I Must Say.
His only audience was his desk lamp and tape recorder, but it wouldn’t remain that way for long. In 1971, fresh out of college, the Canadian entertainer jettisoned a career in social work to appear in an acclaimed Toronto production of “Godspell.” He continued to rise through the show business ranks, honing his comedic chops on the pioneering sketch series “SCTV,” where he developed original characters—like man-child Ed Grimley and the hammy crooner Jackie Rogers Jr.—that still turn up in his shows today.
In fact, after four decades of success on stages and screens large and small—from a memorable year of “Saturday Night Live” to the cult movies “Three Amigos” and “Clifford” to a Tony-nominated turn in “The Goodbye Girl”—Short has lived out his prophetic childhood dreams as a multitalented entertainment icon. His current live revue, some of which he promises to incorporate into his Oct. 21 appearance at Boca Raton Regional Hospital’s annual Go Pink Luncheon, is a “one-man variety show” and a testament to one of his most cherished showbiz philosophies.
More is more.
Q1. When you perform live, how is the evening structured?
My analogy would be that it’s me hosting “Saturday Night Live,” but I’m also the cast. There’s my musical director, Jeff Babko, who’s from [Jimmy] Kimmel’s show, and he’s at a grand piano, and I’m jumping around like a monkey and doing characters. And there are screens, so we’ll get a clip of “Synchronized Swimming” [his classic “SNL” mockumentary skit with Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest], and then I’ll come out as Jiminy Glick and interview a celebrity. But I also take everyone through a journey of my life, starting with my parents and going to my kids.
Q2. One of my favorite stories in your book is your first and only attempt at stand-up comedy, in front of an unappreciative crowd at a punk-rock show. Why didn’t you pursue that format again, in front of a better audience?
Because I didn’t have a passion for it, I felt it was an interesting new thing to do—and that’s not always enough. I think that stand-ups are our philosophers—Louis C.K. and people like that. But I wanted to be Sinatra. I wanted to be Jerry Lewis. I wasn’t looking at Lenny Bruce; I was looking at Mike Nichols and Elaine May when I was kid.
Q3. Is there crowd work involved in your show?
Absolutely. I’ll go into the audience and pick three volunteers and turn them into the Three Amigos, and we’ll do a song. There’s a lot of improvising within the structure.
Q4. There’s a certain off-kilter brand that Canadian sketch shows had, like “SCTV” and “Kids in the Hall.” Why does mainstream American sketch comedy seem more risk-averse than the Canadian model?
I don’t know … When I do “SNL,” I see pretty odd stuff, especially in the last half-hour. The reality is, with both of those Canadian shows, the big gimmick they had in their favor was that they were not live. You could go subtler. “SCTV” would do a weird piece like “Scenes From an Idiot’s Marriage” directed by Ingmar Bergman—we created a satiric piece on, “What if [Jerry] Lewis and Bergman had teamed?”’ If you did it live, you can’t go as subtle and therefore as rewarding as you can if you film it, like we did for “SCTV.”
Q5. I recently found a 1985 Martin Short Comedy Special that has been posted in its entirety online. There was a time when if you didn’t record something on VHS, you weren’t going to see it again. What do you think of the fact that now more than ever, everything you’ve ever said can be preserved forever?
I love it! I think it’s fantastic, because particularly in comedy, there are films or specials you can do that may be fabulous and five years ahead of their time. When “Clifford” came out, it was reviled by people like Roger Ebert. But because of DVD and the Internet, it stays on and on. So I think the cream rises to the top, so I’m all for it … if you’ve made cream, that is.
Q6. What is the role or show that people most often stop you on the street about—and is it the one you wish they’d stop you about?
I never care what they stop me about. I just don’t want to be stopped! No … comedy, again, is so subjective. You could do something that you yourself don’t like, and you’re stunned at how many people like it.
Q7. And you need to take those roles to pay for the house?
It’s not even paying for the house—you always start out thinking it’s going to be great, and things turn out differently. But it’s not even a matter of how things turn out; some people like slapstick, and some people hate slapstick. It doesn’t make anyone dumb or right. It just makes them different.
Q8. How long had a memoir been gestating before you decided to write it?
For a long time, I had been asked to write a book. … but I never thought I had a story. But after my wife died, I realized I had a bookend here in a strange way: that at 20 I was an orphan, and at 60 I was a widower, and the 40 years in between had been this fabulous personal and professional life. Yet whether you’re 20 or 60, you still have the same pressure on you. You have to get happy, especially if that’s your natural orientation. So when I thought about that, I thought, there’s a book here.
Q9. Were there times during your life and career when something would happen, and you’d think, I better file this away mentally? Because the descriptions are so vivid.
It’s a combination of two things. One is that I do have a “Rain Man”-type of memory. I can remember dates. Secondly, because I’m very organized, I kept, for talk shows, stories that I would plan out—15 stories that I could use to entertain someone at a dinner party, because that’s always what you’re going for. It can’t just be stories of meeting Frank Sinatra … but it’s also got to be stories about meeting Frank Sinatra.
Q10. Would you host another talk show, if offered?
No. There are enough, don’t you think?