Q&A with Martin Short
Martin Short, who headlines at the Paramount Theatre tomorrow, September 20 (click here for more information), is on the cover of the current Rolling Stone -- an issue focusing on comedy. Granted, it's the back cover. Nevertheless, his presence among fellow comics David Letterman, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Robin Williams and Larry David indicates his status among funnymen and funnywomen these days. Not that he's addicted to cracking wise. Indeed, he displays a more thoughtful and cerebral side of his personality in the following Westword Q&A, reproduced below in its entirety.
Short's story begins with his admission that he prefers working on the stage to participating in either the film or television work for which he's best known. Next, he talks about the structure of his current show, which bears the stamp of a recent Broadway effort, Fame Becomes Me; his understanding that mistakes can sometimes be more satisfying than planned routines; a new series with a Broadway theme he's currently developing for HBO; his past experiences with sitcoms; the amount of money he receives every time a cable channel plays one of the two Father of the Bride movies; the future of variety shows; and the difficulty some members of the Saturday Night Live fraternity have when it comes to transitioning into prime time.
Of course, SNL alum Short has managed just fine.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Although most people know you from film and television, you’ve done a lot of stage work over the years. Is that environment more conducive to your brand of comedy than the other mediums?
Martin Short: At a certain point in your career when you’re not trying to pay rent anymore, you’re trying to keep yourself interested, you know? And I find it to be the most challenging, exciting form, because you go up there and it’s completely immediate and you’re in control, and it’s up to you as to whether at the end they cheer you or say, “Get lost.” I like doing all three mediums, but I think my favorite has always been stage.
WW: It’s interesting that you used the word “control.” In film or television, there’s always the risk that the director will yell “cut” at precisely the wrong moment. So you feel in charge on stage to a greater degree than with either film or television?
MS: It is called the actor’s medium, and there’s a reason for that. You can have a very successful day in a film shoot – do nine great takes of a great scene. But if the director chooses the wrong one, that’s what it is, and it has nothing to do with you. It’s a decision that’s made two months from that moment. And on stage, you can alter it and change it and adjust it to the energy of the room – and you can drop things and add things because you’re getting a sense, a different kind of communication with the audience.
WW: I’m guessing that at this point, there aren’t a lot of performances at which the audience does the “Get lost” chant you mentioned earlier. But do you get a sense, even by minor gradations in the level of applause, when you’ve really made a connection and when you’ve missed the bulls eye by just a little bit?
MS: What you really find is that it’s wrong to quickly judge. Let’s say you’re playing in an old-age home, the reaction would be different than if you’re playing at a university. But it wouldn’t mean they weren’t enjoying it. They might be enjoying it more than they did at the university.
WW: Presumably, their reaction time would be a little slower…
MS: Well, you can’t hear a smile, you know.
WW: Is your current show an outgrowth of Fame Becomes Me to a degree?
MS: I think it’s an extension of it – but it’s probably looser, obviously. It doesn’t have a cast. The thing about a Broadway show is that there are huge sets and people flying you and everything’s precise. And in that case, it was a satire of a one-man show. This is a one-man show. It’s just me. I do satirize parts of my life: I say, “Certain things I’ll be telling you are true. Certain things I’ll be making up. See if you can tell the difference. It’ll give you something to do.” It’s not in any way a sincere version of my life, but it is highlights. It’s probably more improvisational and conversational than the Broadway show was.
WW: Is it built in such a way that you can go off completely in new directions?
MS: Completely, yes. Absolutely. Jiminy Glick shows up. Ed Grimley shows up. And those characters are kind of in the moment, doing what they’re doing.
WW: Does the show evolve from performance to performance? Or is each so different from the last one that it’s difficult to identify a pattern?
MS: To me, it’s like a one-man variety show. It’s as if I jumped on your piano at a party and did ninety minutes. It should have that feel. Kind of like a party with Marty.
WW: A lot of performers only do one or two things very well, so choices aren’t a big part of their performances. In your case, you do a lot of things very well: sing, act, do characters, improvise. Is it difficult to choose what to include? Or do you prefer to avoid making choices as much as possible and throw everything in?
MS: There are lots of characters to choose from, but you choose certain characters. I think you have an instinct. Certain things you do don’t require an audience reaction, and some things do, because the audience reaction fuels the energy and the confidence to do the next thing. So maybe you don’t make the most conscious decisions, but certainly subconscious decisions of what goes in and why.
WW: When you go off on a tangent, a direction that you never could have anticipated, can that be more rewarding than the bits you know are going to kill?
MS: It’s funny: What audiences remember the most if you’re doing a run of a show is when the set fell down or when the actor breaks up. Because they feel they’re seeing something that night that no other person would have seen. If I do a show where it feels like we hit all the numbers, and they liked it, it doesn’t feel as rewarding as it does when that thing that had never happened before happened, and that triggered something else.
WW: You mentioned that paying the rent isn’t as big an issue as it used to be. Performers often talk about how grueling touring can be – but for you, is that superseded by the pleasure you get from being on stage.
MS: Well, I don’t really tour. That’s the point. When I was doing Fame Becomes Me on Broadway, the expectation was that we would then tour it for nine months – and that’s what I try to get out of. Anytime you’re doing eight shows a week, you have no life, and it’s very exhausting. So what I do is, I’ll book three or four things a month – and that’s kind of fun. And then I go back to my cottage in Canada and I write in my script that I’m writing, and then I go back out and do another show in Pittsburgh or something. Because it’s just me and we’re not moving all those sets and actors, it’s a looser situation.
WW: You’re mention of a script ties into a question I was going to ask about upcoming projects. Could you tell me about it?
MS: I’m writing a series for HBO based on someone taking a show to Broadway. We’re developing that as a series.
WW: Would it be a quasi-reality series in the sense that you’d actually stage the show?
MS: No, it would be fictitious. I wouldn’t even play it.
WW: So you wouldn’t be on camera?
MS: No, I’d play something else, but not that guy.
WW: What’s the time frame on it?
MS: It’s still in development. I haven’t committed to it yet. You always have to read it and like it and then say, “This is it.” You can’t go by someone else saying, “We want to do it.” The question is, do you want to do it.
WW: If sitcoms aren’t dying, they don’t seem to be in the best health right now. Having been part of sitcoms in the past, is working with a network like HBO more appealing?
MS: Well, I’ve never actually done sitcoms. I’ve done sit-vars – weird combinations of things. And that was once. It’s odd, because I grew up on sitcoms. I love shows like Raymond. I think they’re phenomenal. But I find that network television in general is pretty restrictive. It’s playing to such a common denominator that it doesn’t really hold that much interest for me.
WW: If I recall correctly, weren’t you part of the show The Associates?
MS: Yes. That was my first American job.
WW: That show was critically acclaimed and had an excellent pedigree, and yet it lasted only nine shows. Is that another reason why you’d want to be very careful before jumping into a series? Because you can never tell if it’s going to work or not?
MS: That I don’t find so restrictive. To me, if it’s a great script, you jump into it. Do yourself a favor: Assume it’ll be canceled in a year. And then it will be. Or if it isn’t, then that’s the surprise. But if it is, it’s still a year’s job that’s really interesting. I’ve never really worried so much about that. First of all, I have no sense of it. I have no idea what would be popular and what wouldn’t. To me, I’d read something and say, “That would be a riot,” and then do it. I don’t have that great business sense of saying, “I’ll bet that’s going to be the new thing.”
WW: Your two Father of the Bride movies seem to be on a tape loop on a couple of cable channels. Every time I channel surf, it seems I go by one of them. Does that add up to so many royalties that you don’t really have to work anymore? Or is it more like, “I just made $35. Let’s order Dominos.”
MS: (Laughs). I don’t even know, because it goes to a business manager. I know it’s not the first thing you said. It’s probably closer to $35. Maybe $3,500. I don’t know (laughs).
WW: It sounds as if you don’t pay much attention to the dollars and cents. You’re more interested in what’s going to be creatively interesting to you.
MS: Yeah. I’m given, “This is what you’ve got to make this year,” and I go out and do it. I don’t really think a lot about money. It’s not a big thing that motivates me. Again, I would if I couldn’t pay rent. But it doesn’t fuel me creatively. And I’m not saying it in a derogatory way about people who are fueled creatively by it. I’m fascinated by people that do this show and flip it to that character and syndicate this and go to the Internet with that. But it just isn’t me.
WW: You’ve produced such a large library of material over the years, what with your time on Saturday Night Live and Second City and so on. Given that you use a lot of these characters in your current show, do you ever spend time looking back at all these creations and think, “How did I ever come up with all this stuff?”
MS: Well, some of them I know where they came from, in the sense that one of them might have come from a guy I knew in high school combined with another person I knew in university. They’re usually combinations of people. Jiminy Glick was a guy who lived on our street when I was a kid; his voice went up and down. But you do have an ease with them and a familiarity with them. I don’t really have a perspective like, “I created them.” They’re just these characters. If you have characters, you’ve tried them out in a sketch, and they’ve worked – so you came up with another idea for that character. I do Franck [Eggelhoffer, his Father of the Bride character] in the stage show, which I didn’t for a long time, because I just couldn’t think of a funny idea for him. And when I was at dinner and talking about the election and how it’s all cosmetics, suddenly, it sounded like Franck in a way, because I was talking as shallowly as he might. And suddenly, I went, “Oh, that’s what it is. Franck should be discussing the candidates running this year.” His personal philosophy of things.
WW: Your mention of sketches reminds me of something I read recently, about how Fox has given the Osbourne family its own TV variety show. It strikes me that Ozzy Osbourne is probably as close to Jiminy Glick as any non-fictional person could be. Does doing variety on TV hold any interest for you?
MS: I think I’d have to see an example of it working on television. That’s something that seems very risky to me. Everything will come back – and sitcoms will come back, perhaps. Or maybe not. But variety hasn’t come back for a long time. Different people have tried it, and the attention spans of audiences these days, it seems perfect for them. But I don’t know if that’s something I’d want to jump into right now.
WW: Especially since the variety show you’re doing on stage seems to be working very well.
MS: Yeah, but that’s on the stage. Even the people who were successful on Saturday Night Live, they were on in late night. But the rest of show business and movies are prime time. That’s why a lot of those late-night guys struggle in a post-Saturday Night Live profession. Because they don’t know how to keep their edge while losing some of their edge.
WW: No wonder. That sounds complicated.
MS: Oh, it is (laughs). It is.