Saturday Night’s Children: Martin Short (1984-1985)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Known best for his whimsy-infused, hyperactive, and over-the-top characters, Martin Short had already established himself as a TV comedy regular when he joined SNL’s cast for a single-season stint in 1984-1985. SNL wasn’t the dream gig to Short that it is for most new cast members — he joined almost reluctantly after the SCTV finale — but he still helped usher the show through one of its most tumultuous periods and used it as a springboard to much bigger Broadway and Hollywood success.

While growing up in Hamilton, Ontario in Canada, Short experienced one too many personal tragedies — when he was 12 his older brother David was killed in a car accident, his mother died of cancer when he was 17, and at 19, his father died of complications from a stroke. Despite the insurmountable challenges for the young Short, he still had three older siblings to call his family, and he went on to earn a degree in social work at McMaster University.

While Short initially didn’t want to pursue a comedy career, his McMaster classmates Dave Thomas and Eugene Levy encouraged him to audition for the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell, and he was cast as Geoffrey the Imp alongside other Canadian up-and-comers like Levy, Thomas, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, and Paul Shaffer as musical director. (He briefly dated Radner during this period then fell for her understudy Nancy Dolman, who he later married in 1980.) During Godspell’s run, The Second City traveled from Chicago to start up a new theater in Toronto and took most of its cast members along, but Short instead sought small roles in a range of Canadian shows with funny names like Cucumber, Right On, Peep Show, and The David Steinberg Show, where he appeared as his character “Johnny Del Bravo,” an early version of his Jackie Rogers, Jr. (His first TV appearance was in a commercial as a giant Visa card, and you can watch one of his Black’s Camera Stores spots here.) While Short bounced around from one show and stage production to the next, his old Godspell colleagues all made their TV comedy debut on SCTV’s premiere in 1976.

After gaining some momentum getting TV work, Short returned to the idea of performing at Second City Toronto and decided to audition for the troupe in 1977. While onstage at Second City, he developed plenty of his trademark fidgety, flamboyant, and showbiz swagger-style characters like the pointy-haired Wheel of Fortune superfan Ed Grimley, the fidgety big-time lawyer Nathan Thurm, songsmith Irving Cohen, and more – all the while continuing to find steady onscreen work in both Canada and the US including a starring role on The Associates and appearances on shows like The Love Boat and Taxi. He joined the cast of SCTV Network in 1982 and stayed until its final season in 1984.

The same year, Dick Ebersol decided to hire big comedy stars to create some SNL buzz, which translated to heavier paychecks for Short (who had been asked to join SNL for his last two years at SCTV) and his fellow newcomers Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Rich Hall. Summing up his experience, Short says in Live from New York:

After the third show, I still hadn’t cashed any checks, because I was not happy there at all. And I went in to talk to Dick and said, “I want to leave the show. And he thought I was kind of insane, of course. But he figured out how to keep me there, which was to say, “Look, if by Christmas you’re still unhappy, kid, you can go free of that contract.” I think he figured out that, by that time, I’d figure out how to do the show.

Despite Short’s hesitations about SNL, he and Crystal dominated their single-season stint together, and his trademark feisty, hyperactive manchild energy proved to be the perfect foil to shmoozy old-school Hollywood Crystal or the more deadpan styles of Guest and Shearer. Short appeared most as Ed Grimley (which spawned its own animated television series from 1988-1989) as well as Nathan Thurm (particularly in the Minkman sketches), Irving Cohen, Lawrence Orback, and Jackie Rogers Jr. He also impersonated Jerry Lewis, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Katharine Hepburn, Doug Henning, Lawrence Grossman, and Robin Williams.

Short cashed his SNL checks until the end of the season then left for a film career, joining Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in 1986’s ¡Three Amigos! and following it up with Innerspace, the rom-com Cross My Heart in 1987, Three Fugitives in 1989, and Pure Luck in 1991 before finding another Steve Martin hit with 1991’s Father of the Bride, this time playing the snooty wedding designer Franck Eggelhoffer to great acclaim. Keeping ever busy, he’s been in stage productions (The Goodbye Girl, Little Me, The Producers), kid films (Clifford, Jungle 2 Jungle, A Simple Wish), comedy TV shows (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother), dramas (Damages, Weeds), and cartoon voiceovers (The Prince of Egypt, Jimmy Neutron, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Frankenweenie).

Short’s also starred in two of his own shows – the briefly lived The Martin Short Show (1994) and its much-later spinoff Primetime Glick on Comedy Central from 2001-2003 – as well as specials I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood in 1989, I, Martin Short, Goes Home in 2012, The Show Formerly Known as the Martin Short Show (after The Martin Short Show’s cancelation), Martin Short Shorts in 2004, and his Broadway production Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, which ran from 2006-2007. (Some more of his live show names include If I’d Saved, I Wouldn’t Be Here and Sunday in the Park with George Michaels.) He currently lives in California and has three children from his wife Nancy, who died in 2010 after battling ovarian cancer. With his return to hosting SNL this week (he last hosted in 1996), we’ll all get another peek into how, despite enduring more than any man’s share of family tragedies, Martin Short remains the always energetic, fun, and welcome SNL reviver.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Martin Short (1984-1985)