The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
In the 1990s, television comedy was a much different landscape than it is today. Just as it is now, there were good shows and there were bad shows, but for the most part, these two categories, on the outside, kind of looked the same. Most shows were three-camera, studio audience style. A lot of these shows were about groups of friends, or single guys or couples hanging out together, getting into situations. And as Seinfeld and others have shown us, it is totally possible to do great work within that form. However, when a show like The Larry Sanders Show comes along and bursts out of the mold and does something amazing, people are going to take notice, and they’re probably going to try and rip it off.
Okay, that might be a little strong. The Martin Short Show, the subject of today’s article, may not be a rip-off of Larry Sanders. In this 1994 sitcom, Martin Short plays himself as a family man, married to SNL’s Jan Hooks, and their son, who also hosts a show-within-a-show called “The Martin Short Show.” This fake show is filmed in front of an actual studio audience, and instead of being like Larry Sander’s late night show, it seems to be instead a Saturday Night Live style sketch show that Martin Short hosts every night. (more on this later…) Quite honestly, the format seems like a great use of Martin Short’s “Old Hollywood” skill set, marrying the traditional sitcom with an opportunity to perform sketches and big characters. But I bet the comparison to a hot, new HBO show made it a lot easier to sell this show…
Before we talk about the show, we first need a little clarification. I imagine there are some of you reading this that are thinking, “That’s not how I remember The Martin Short Show.” And you’re right! That’s because there are three different TV shows that go by that name (or because you’re thinking of Primetime Glick). The longest running one was a 1999 syndicated talk show that was more like Ellen or The Rosie O’Donnell Show. In it, Short interviewed celebrities, and performed as characters. Before that in 1994 we had this sitcom that aired on NBC for three episodes. Then, in 1995, Short made a TV special that was a spin-off of the sitcom called The Show Formerly Known as The Martin Short Show. This was a 90-minute version that was basically the show-within-a-show from the sitcom, performed with the cast, plus Phil Hartman, Jay Leno, Paul Schaffer and SCTV alums. So, if Martin Short’s TV show naming abilities haven’t confused you too much at this point, we will now continue to take a look at an episode of that 1994 sitcom I was just talking about.
This episode, entitled “The Steve Martin Show,” opens with Short, Hooks and his son, sitting on the couch, watching The Three Amigos. His son tells Martin that it’s his second favorite movie after All About Eve, which provokes a sidelong glance out of his father, in a jarring, out-of-nowhere-barely-a-joke-homophobic-joke. Short talks about how excited he is that Steve is coming on his show the next day and we then flashback to his experiences filming that movie with Steve. On the set, Steve sits in a much higher chair than Short, underneath an umbrella, bragging grandly about what it was like to win a Grammy, then rejecting a drink from an assistant for being too cold. He then gives Short a little advice for the movie, telling him to do absolutely nothing when he’s in a scene with himself, but when he’s in a scene with Chevy to be as big as possible.
The next day, backstage at “The Martin Short Show,” Brian Doyle-Murray, as Gary the makeup guy, talks about his previous experiences with Steve Martin, saying that he has the type of skin you write poems about. In another weird homophobic joke, Jan Hooks deliver a punchline that is basically, “so why don’t you marry him?” Then enters Andrea Martin, of SCTV, who plays a cast member on the show by the name of Alice Manoogan, a fact that I include just because I think that last name is funny. She is wearing a Madonna-esque cone bra so that Steve Martin can hang his jacket on it when he enters. When Steve meets Martin Short’s wife he is immediately stricken and starts to hit on her, and the conflict is introduced!
Then the show-within-a-show begins, with Short entering a set that looks an awful lot like a redressed version of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show stage, and instead of telling monologue jokes, Short tells a story about Steve Martin saving Short from drowning by giving him mouth to mouth and also putting his hand on his bathing suit. (Out of nowhere homophobic joke tally: 3.)
After a commercial, we get to see a sketch from this fake show, which kind of makes the show worth watching. The sketch is a Jeopardy-parody called “Half-Wits,” hosted by Eugene Levy as Alex Trebell, and if that sounds familiar to any of you comedy nerds out there, that’s because this is a sketch that was done ten years earlier on SCTV. Here’s a link to that earlier version:
I was surprised to see that the version of “Half-Wits” that was being done on The Martin Short Show was just as long as the one above, clocking in at seven minutes, which is basically a third of a network sitcom. Just like the embedded version above, Andrea Martin, Jan Hooks, Steve Martin and Martin Short all play weirdos who can’t get any answers right and basically infuriate the host until he has to end the game due to frustration. Steve Martin plays a character in which he uses the same nerdy voice he would later use in the feature film Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and I am both proud and embarrassed to be able to identify that. Martin Short plays the exact same character from the SCTV version, Lawrence: the guy who is experiencing some difficulties in graduating high school, and actually recycles some of the dialogue from that sketch. It’s fun to see if you were curious what it would be like if Steve Martin was on SCTV, but otherwise, just check out the DVDs of the original.
The third act of the sitcom puts Steve Martin in the Short family home for the night, who tries to seduce Jan Hooks until Short catches him in the act, confronts him and kicks him to the curb. The episode ends flashing forward as we see Casey Kasem and his wife Jean hosting an infomercial for a self-help program called Overcoming Uncomfortable Urges, which worked for Steve Martin… until we see him putting his hand on Jean’s knee.
As I briefly stated earlier, The Martin Short Show only lasted three episodes. I went into this episode excited as a fan of Steve Martin, SCTV, and Martin Short and, as you can probably tell from my recap, was disappointed. On the surface, the premise of the show should be perfect for Short, but on the whole it fell not just flat, but one-dimensional. There are moments of fun, and it is clear that Short and Martin are having a great time acting with one another, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to save the show. Thankfully, Short went on to produce better things, and we still have the original SCTV and Larry Sanders Show to serve as inspiration.