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Martin Short’s Life As a Sketch-Comedy God

Martin freaking Short! Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

How does he do it? For more than 40 years, Martin Short has been the type of funny where talk-show hosts introduce him as “the funniest man alive.” He’s a larger-than-life personality whose comedy is out of this world, so maybe Roger Ebert wasn’t that far off when he described his sense of humor as that of an alien in his legendary pan of Clifford. Short has had an incredibly varied career, mixing arguably the most prolific sketch output ever with iconic film and TV roles and award-winning Broadway runs, not to mention being the greatest talk-show guest to ever live. Even now, in his early 70s, Short is embarking on maybe his best role yet on Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building. While some of his fellow comedy legends might have one big film that defines them, Short has remained improbably relevant.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Short discusses sketch comedy, collaborating with Steve Martin, performing on late-night TV, and more. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Right out the gate, show business was a tremendous source of parody and satire for you. You were doing Hollywood-adjacent characters, people who are on the fringes of show business. That continued with Jiminy Glick and even, arguably, Only Murders in the Building. And your stage persona is usually making fun of a show-business-phony-type person. But also, you clearly love Hollywood and long revered it. What is the balance? How much are you making fun of these things? How much are you celebrating them?
I’m not really making fun of it at all. I mean, I know it looks like I’m making fun of it, and I’m satirizing it because you satirize what you know. And I know it’s show business, but when I go on [late-night TV] and make fun of Dave Letterman or pretend to fawn over Fallon, what’s really fun is to see their reaction, because we’re all friends and they know it’s me.

Sometimes I’ll send elaborate notes — like almost 20 pages. It just became a process that I’ve always done, and it allows me to go out there and say, “I’m gunning for bear.” If he’s off or I’m off, I’ll toast myself because I did everything I could do. That’s a big part of the way I operate. It’s not my fault if they are in a bad mood or if the director screws it up because he’s not good. I’ll still toast myself with a glass of Champagne; I did everything I could.

These guys will read all the jokes. [Jimmy] Kimmel won’t, because he wants to be surprised. But David Letterman used to love to read all my notes. And at one point I’d talked about an actress who had bad breath. I had a joke in a story I was going to tell I sent to the segment producer: “Her breath smelled like Kaye Ballard’s couch.” Now, Kaye Ballard was a comedian from the ’60s and very funny, and it was just a name I put in there. I didn’t mean to do it on the air. So, I was telling this true story on the show of an actress I worked with who had bad breath on the stage. I talked to the stage manager of the play about her breath. I said to the stage manager, “Don’t tell her because she’ll know it’s coming from me,” because we had to kiss in the play. And the next night he’d clearly gotten to her. She still had horrible breath, but now she had an Altoid. And I said to Dave, “It smelled like someone put a peppermint in the morgue,” and that was it. And Dave said, “And what else?” And I said, “Oh, come on.” “I’ve been waiting for it all day,” he said. I said, “Rush Limbaugh’s couch.” He goes, “Nooooooo.” I said, “Kaye Ballard’s couch.” Because they post-produced it, we go to commercial, they have a picture of Kaye Ballard. I felt horrible. And she wrote a letter to her lawyer, Mark Sendroff, who I knew, and she was kind of like, “What did I do to those guys?” She’s 80 or something. So I sent her a long letter to say, “I’ll tell you exactly what happened. It was just a fill-in joke. You could have been any name, and I didn’t mean to do it on the air.” And she sent me an email back saying, “I always liked you.” She was great. Just hilarious.

So, whatever irony you have, it is just a gateway so you could have the reference for these things that you naturally love.
Yes. Like, I read the comments because they are hilarious. On Conan, I’ll come out and insult him — say things like he looks like an orange crash-test dummy or freeze-dried Prince Harry, whatever I say to him, and then you read the comments: “If Conan wanted, he could take him apart.” So they’re not quite getting it.

Did this reverence of the things you make fun of include the impressions you did?
Impressions are a very interesting thing to do. I liken them to a Hirschfeld sketch. If you find someone unctuous, for example, and you want to play that unctuousness in a sketch, it’s unfair unless you also present them to be a little fascinating. You wouldn’t know how to impersonate them if you hadn’t paid attention to them. The first time I did Jerry Lewis on SCTV, I made sure that he was funny — I mean, as funny as I could make him. I mean that as a compliment to Jerry, not me. I’d be running around like a monkey and light my cigarette and the flame would go up. These are his jokes. But then we cut to him in a sailor boy’s outfit lecturing Hollywood about modern showrunning and you go, “That’s a slight.” But if I’d just done that, it wouldn’t be an accurate appraisal.

Do you see any difference between you, who grew up in Canada, and Steve Martin, who grew up in Southern California, and also has a history of deriving comedy from show business?
No, I don’t think there’s any difference to the border. When I look at Steve’s career, he was massively famous in the ’70s when I was on the Second City stage. I knew Steve Martin; I loved him on SNL, but I didn’t have his albums. So, it was later on, when I got to know him, that I realized he had a happy dance, I had a happy dance. He was making fun of show business, I was making fun of show business. But I think there’s no big difference. Because he was watching Johnny Carson and I was watching Johnny Carson, he was watching Ed Sullivan and I was watching Ed Sullivan. We were products of television. And it doesn’t matter what city — you’re watching the same program.

What is it like now collaborating with Steve?
As you would imagine, we accumulate material. We have writers that help us. We’ll look at their jokes, look at our jokes. We’ll sit on the phone. We’ll have sessions where we share a screen and we’re both typing, working on the script, adding new lines to our live show. When we do Colbert, like today, we have a Dropbox file called “Colbert,” and he and I will look at it and go over it: “If you say that, I’ll say that,” “But Selena is going to be there too, so we shouldn’t plan too much because we don’t know where it’s going to go, because we don’t want it to be bogged down.”

Only Murders in the Building feels somewhat unique in terms of the balance you have to strike between being natural while also being big in moments. What was it like finding that tone?
The writing dictates how I’m going to do it. My job is to do whatever they present to me. I have to make it somehow real, even though it’s heightened, and that’s the trick. There are times that I’ll say to [the show’s co-creator] John Hoffman, “You know, if I say this line, I am that person.” Like, there was one line [where] Steve is unconscious. He’s been drugged, and Selena and I are helping him. I said, “You know what? I could urinate on him.” And she says, “I think that’s for jellyfish.” I said, “All right. Well, you know, I could try it anyway.” So I said to John, “Okay, so if I say that, that means I like to urinate on people. Do we want that for the character?” So there goes that line.

One time you said if you could, you’d still be working on SCTV.
Absolutely correct. SCTV is a variety-sketch show on television, so you can’t do that forever because it doesn’t exist. But when you look at my career, I went from SCTV right to SNL. But I also did four major specials, which are in the SCTV mode, with similar writers — my brother Michael, Paul Flaherty, Dick Blasucci. I just love that kind of work. And also, you don’t know if you’re going to be good on SCTV or SNL. There are some people who have been on SNL that they didn’t really work out that are geniuses, like Ben Stiller. So, it’s not about judgment of yourself. However, the flip side is if you’re effective in something, you don’t run away from a hit if that’s your style of comedy. You know, I didn’t do Second City in Toronto for years. I’d been asked and said, “That’s not what I do.” I was clearly afraid of it. But I actually didn’t know if I’d be good at it. I didn’t realize that improvising was just: You keep talking.

What is it about sketch? Why has it worked for you for so long?
I just think it’s its own form. When Ed Grimley really became popular on SNL from SCTV, I was asked to do the Ed Grimley movie. A similar character that probably led to similar questioning would be Paul Reubens, who eventually did Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The difference is he had Tim Burton. With the exception of Pee-wee’s, which is a brilliant movie, Ed Grimley worked for seven minutes on SNL, but why does that mean he works for 90 minutes? It’s the form. A 60-second commercial can be a higher art form than a mediocre movie. Yeah — you know, it’s that.

And it is just so much fun. I hosted SNL in 2012, and Bill Hader and I did a sketch where I was the queen’s doctor. Bill is a genius and we’re buddies, so that was fun, but when I think of that scene, I remember trying to make Bill laugh through the whole thing, because Bill laughs and he doesn’t like that he laughs. He did not want to laugh through this scene. The cue cards at SNL are changing last minute, so you have to look at them. But it’s supposed to look like we’re looking at each other. But I kept on leaning into his shot with my face, or I’d exaggerate the British accent from dress rehearsal. And he does break up, and it’s the best moment.

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