Martin Short’s First Starring Role: ‘The Associates’

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 150,000 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.)

As you may have read, recently the Writers’ Guild of America recently announced their list of the 100 Best Written TV Series of All Time. The standards that you’d expect all made it with few surprises to be found. Along with the reveal of the list, panel discussions were held throughout the evening, moderated by Merrill Markoe, with TV writing legends of every era and genre. There were many very prolific figures who stayed on the stage for multiple panels, just as their careers spanned many decades, such as Carl Reiner and Norman Lear. And then there was James L. Brooks who was recognized for his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons. As he walked the red carpet earlier in the evening, Mr. Brooks was asked by Jeff Goldsmith for his podcast The Q+A if there were any projects that was a little ahead of it’s time and didn’t take off. He was very quick with his answer, “I have a real soft spot a show that did make it to air called The Associates and ran for half a season. It was about a group of associate lawyers, and we were doing a comedy about kids who were making $70,000…a year which I thought was maybe just a little bit early with that. Making that pilot was one of the great experiences of my life.” When asked to expand on why he said, “It happens a few times where everything’s in trouble and then it just clicks at the end and you just watch that happen.”

Today we look back at the pilot for The Associates, a very short-lived show that aired it’s first episode on September 23, 1979 before exiting after a mere 9 out of 13 episodes were shown on ABC. The show received two Golden Globe nominations after it had left the airwaves, but is perhaps most notable for giving Martin Short his first starring role and was directed by sitcom legend James Burrows. However, as you read on you’ll need to forget the Martin Short you know with his “old Hollywood” flare and his manic energy and sporadic dancing. This is a much more sedate Short, playing a idealistic, young lawyer, fresh out of Harvard who does absolutely zero physical comedy.

I rarely talk about the theme songs of the shows discussed in From the Archives, but I’ll make a special exception when they’re written by comedy god Albert Brooks and performed by blues god B.B. King. The theme, entitled “Wall Street Blues”  sums up the show’s premise pretty handily: “You’re young. / You got money. /You should be feeling fine. / But something isn’t quite working, / And it’s messing up your mind. / Ain’t it butch/ With your fancy suits and shoes/ There’s a name for your condition / the Wall Street Blues. / Those young lawyer blues.”

Arriving on his first day of work, Martin Short’s character Tucker Kerwin meets his fellow new hires, the mousey Leslie Dunn, played by Alley Mills (who would go on to play the mom on The Wonder Years), and the blonde bombshell Sara James, played by Shelly Smith. The main premise of the pilot episode is oddly less focused on the titular associates and more on the older characters at the firm. There’s Eliot Streeter, played by Murphy Brown’s Joe Regalbuto, another lawyer named William who you expect to be a main character but surprise! He leaves the firm by the end of the episode, and Mr. Marshall, senior partner at the firm, played by Wilfrid Hyde-White, long-time British character actor. During the new hire orientation, Mr. Marshall interrupts and says that he needs to speak to William and Eliot about who will be made partner, because there’s only enough money to take one of them. Will it be Eliot, the suck-up unapologetic jerk lawyer or William, the idealist, nice guy? (Heads up: it’s going to be the one who I didn’t say would leave the show in this episode)

Meanwhile, we see the associates working on a case and we’re introduced to Tim Thomerson’s character Johnny Danko (you heard me), a 21-year-old mailroom guy whose full of youthful energy and couldn’t be more different from these stuffed shirt lawyers. He’s the Fonz in a world full of Richies. Or, for a more modern reference, he’s Schmidt and everyone else is a character that’s not cool enough to be on New Girl. Martin Short’s character is depressed because he’s confident they’ll win the case they’re working on which will result in a 200-year-old cathedral being torn down to make room for a condo complex. Short wants to serve mankind while Eliot tells him, “Unfortunately, they’re not our clients.”

Finally Mr. Marshall calls Eliot and William into his office and tells them that he’s made a decision and that he’ll get right to the point. He then offers them coffee, a cold drink, hot cocoa, V8. Then he begins to tell them who is going to be made partner. “I refuse to put you in suspense for a second longer than what’s positively necessary… Absolutely, positively necessary.” Thirty seconds later he’s talking to the pair about his red slippers and getting little red fibers between his toes. When Eliot changes his mind and requests a drink, he is reprimanded by Mr. Marshall (“No. You missed the cocoa.”) who then continues his rambling story. After a long time he finally announces Eliot as the new partner.

When William says goodbye with a poignant, “Don’t worry about me. I’m going to defend cathedrals,” the associate lawyers are incensed. Clearly William was the choice that would bring humanity back to the firm instead of the pedantic Eliot. Martin Short begins to walk up the stairs so that he can demand an answer from his boss as to why he picked Eliot instead of William, but Leslie tackles him by the legs before he gets too far, then ends up joining him in Mr. Marshall’s office. What follows is an entertaining conversation as the new generation clashes with the incredibly old generation.

Initially Marshall fires Short’s character for his impudence. But when Leslie sticks up for him he realizes his mistake. “Ah, you’re audacious little babies, aren’t you?” Softening, he gives an analogy from his youth. “In England I was courting two women. … One was called Margaret. She was spectacular, intelligent, breathtaking, breath-giving, wild, she rode a bicycle there was a rumor that she smoked. The other was Lydia. A candle, more than a rocket. After our fifth date, Lydia said I know I’m no great beauty, I know I’m not as clever as some, but I love you deeply and I’ll serve you well. I married Lydia and she kept her pledge and I never regret that decision.” A Margaret might make too many changes, he says, while a Lydia would keep things in line. Tucker and Leslie may not like the decision, but rather than get fired, they accept it. They turn to go when Leslie stops and asks Mr. Marshall whatever happened to Margaret. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr. Marshall thinks for a moment and then says, “Oh, she’s prime minister of England.” Freeze frame. Credits.

Based on its pilot, The Associates seemed like a fun little show with some potential to balance some entertaining office stories with the opportunity to blend in some biting social commentary. My initial reaction was that this felt like a waste of Martin Short’s talent before realizing that this was a pilot, so it wasn’t being written for him, and also, this was his first starring role. There wasn’t really a Martin Short character that they could write for him. I don’t know if James L. Brooks was right in saying that it was just a little ahead of it’s time, but it certainly deserved better than to be cancelled after nine episodes. Who knows? With a little more time, maybe The Associated could have found it’s way on the WGA’s list…

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Martin Short’s First Starring Role: ‘The Associates’