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Looking Back at I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood

Martin Short in 1989’s I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood. Photo: HBO

In the ’80s, Martin Short was on a streak unlike any other. He had jumped onto the last few seasons of the influential and hilarious SCTV starting in 1981. From there he joined the all-star 1984–85 cast of Saturday Night Live alongside Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer. Then came a number of film roles, including Three Amigos with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, and a cartoon series inspired by his Ed Grimley character. Suddenly, Short had built a very successful career out of playing strange, sometimes grotesque characters that were equal parts exuberant, dim-witted, and likable.

All of this came together in 1989 when Short produced a one-hour special for HBO titled I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood. Written by Short and longtime SCTV collaborator Dick Blasucci, it promises a look at the world of Hollywood from its early days to the present (well, 1989, anyway) and provides the comedian with the perfect vehicle to do what he does best. From lavish Broadway-style production numbers, to one-on-one interviews with insane characters, to a behind-the-scenes look at the “real” Martin Short with all his false bravado and emotionally crippling insecurities, Short brings along a number of familiar faces to help him skewer the shallowness of the business he loves so very much.

The special begins very simply: Short looks straight into the camera and says, “On my way here tonight I was reminded of an old joke …” If this reminds you of Woody Allen in Annie Hall, you’re on the right track — Short immediately starts name-dropping Woody’s name, telling tales of hanging out with him and Dick Cavett at Elaine’s as he attempted to defend his new hometown of Hollywood and his belief that one can create art there. He becomes introspective for a moment before announcing: “And you know somethin’? I think I did it.” As he smugly chuckles to himself, Short’s image fades to black, and suddenly the promise of art is forgotten. The next thing we hear is a sharp blast of horns and Martin Short triumphantly singing “Holl-lee-wooooood!”

Suddenly Short stands on a set of stairs straight out of a lavish 1940s production number, wearing a sparkly silver tuxedo, clutching a microphone, and crooning a tribute to his favorite town. It is energetic and overproduced as he names star after star while leaping down the stairs and marching toward the camera. He’s clearly trying to chew the scenery as he performs this intentionally cheesy number, but the melodic screams of near-agony he hits as he belts out Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy’s names are simultaneously surprising and hilarious. (I, of course, mean this purely as a compliment. Anyone who has seen a Martin Short appearance on Letterman knows the man’s got a fantastic set of pipes.)

I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood is one of the closest things there is to an episode of SCTV after that series ended in 1984. There are guest appearances by cast members Catherine O’Hara, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, and Robin Duke, and the whole thing was directed by Eugene Levy. But even more than just who’s in it, there is a pace to this special that feels akin to the Canadian sketch series. It moves briskly, but each strange character gets a full interview as they showcase their life, usually displaying a dim-witted optimism in the face of miserable circumstances.

Short is our anchor who guides us from sketch to sketch, beginning with a look back at one of his inspirations, Dale O’Day, a fictional actor from a strange, low-rent version of The Wizard of Oz from the ’40s. Short as O’Day affects a perfect Buddy Ebsen, complete with the same hint-of-New-Yorker accent as he dances around the 1930s-era sound stage dressed as a sentient, unpainted length of fence. Short interviews O’Day’s sister, “Baby” Estelle O’Day (now grown up and also played by Short), and visits the man’s grave. It is here that Short begins to get emotional, and he instructs his cameraman to keep filming as he struggles to hold it together until he is interrupted by a voice offscreen, who informs him that it’s actually on tape, not film. Suddenly the emotion is gone as Short is upset by this lack of prestige (“What do you mean we couldn’t afford film?!”), and he manages to get through the rest of his tribute without choking up at all.

The longest segment of the show takes place at the trendy restaurant Ou (French for “where”). Short introduces us to Troy Soren (Short) and Antoninous DiMentabella (Christopher Guest), two gossip columnists who know everybody. This segment, which features Guest using basically the same voice and mannerisms he’ll use as Corky St. Clair in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, is here to transition from one sketch into the next, but ultimately turns into Short and Guest improvising down long diversions. At one point, the two columnists begin talking about their own families back home, and Guest tells us about his son Pendarvis who recently approached him to ask, “Papa, what’s a wood-burning tool?” The anecdote goes absolutely nowhere, but if one watches it as an exercise by Guest to see if he could make Short break in the moment, it’s incredibly entertaining.

Antoninous and Troy introduce us to one of Short’s long-running characters, Jackie Rodgers Jr., a person who Short describes in his memoir I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend as a “stylized freak singer” and “a cross-eyed albino” who used “a famous parent — a dead parent, no less — as a way to gain credibility in show business.” True to form, Jackie announces to his audience at the Wiltern Theater that he’s going to show them how a film is made, going from the idea phase all the way to filming. This, obviously, is done as a musical, performed in a Streisand-interpreting-Sondheim-on-coke-without-talent-and-a-lot-more-pretension kind of way.

Back at Ou, Short’s biggest character at the time, Ed Grimley, arrives to meet with his agent and a few other slimy Hollywood types who want to sell him on an Ed Grimley–branded gun silencer. Ed is hesitant and excuses himself to the bathroom, and after a run-in with a superpowerful hand dryer, he makes his way into a bathroom stall. It is there that he inadvertently hears film critics Gene Siskel (Joe Flaherty) and Roger Ebert (Dave Thomas) talk crassly about women, then about one another’s reviewing skills, culminating in Gene’s accidental murder of his partner and eventual discovery of Grimley as a witness. He moves to murder Ed (with one of the branded silencers) but, as it turns out, it was all a dream. Ed wakes up, surrounded by all the agents of Ou, including one played by Tracey Ullman, and dances a dance of joy.

The final piece of the special gets meta as we see Short at home with his wife Nancy Mae (played by Catherine O’Hara) showing his Hollywood special to his friends, including his psychiatrist Fred Willard, and a very drunk Robin Duke. They … don’t seem to enjoy it. But as everyone leaves and Nancy goes to bed, Short is left to reflect. And there on his empty mantle comes the vision of a Cable Ace Award, also played by Short, who sings in a Jerry Lewis-y kind of way about how he’ll be in Martin’s possession “Someday” (in a song that sounds a little reminiscent of the closing number of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, “Sunday”).

I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood is a time capsule of sorts, showing a very specific time in Hollywood as the stars of early days of Hollywood began to die out, plastic surgery was new, and, apparently, TV stars licensed their image to gun paraphernalia. It also showcases a very funny man using all the tools at his disposal to not only take down the strange town that he had made home but also take a few shots at Woody Allen and New York at the same time. Enjoy it today and see just how little progress the industry has made in 25 years.

Looking Back at I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood