Martin Short on Nixon, Canadian comedy and the beautiful weirdness of Steve Martin
Martin Short means different things to different people. Elitist comedy nerds can discuss the merits of Short's SCTV Ed Grimley versus the Saturday Night Live version, while suburban Rom Com fans recognize the name from blockbuster sweet-tarts like Father of the Bride. And you can always count on beer-pong bros to have Innerspace, Three Amigos! and Mars Attacks in their massive DVD collections. Known as one of the most likable comedians in show business, Short is a treasured American icon (he's actually Canadian, shhh) who will be performing at an Innovage Foundation fundraiser this Saturday, February 23.
We recently caught up with Short to pick his brain about comedy history and technique, Billy Crystal and why you're allowed to be more weird in Canada.
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Westword: It seems like you gravitate toward lovable characters that may mess things up often, but in the end you feel sorry for. You never really play any sinister characters.
Martin Short: I think that from Charlie Chaplain on, there aren't many examples of villainous, horrible characters that made us laugh.
But there is something more lovable about your characters than most. The reality is that when you impersonate someone, there has to be something you like about that person -- otherwise you wouldn't pay attention to them long enough to learn how to do them. Someone like Jiminy Glick, is he likable? He's kind of a moron with power because he has his own show. But I don't set out to create a sweet character, or a prick. It's more of an attitude.
Like when someone doesn't have a lot of talent but their father's famous, and so they pretend to know more about the business than anyone, but we all know they're only in the business because of their father -- that makes me laugh. So I created this character called Jackie Rogers Jr. who had no talent, who talked about his late father a lot on stage.
That made me laugh. Or years ago when I was a kid, I saw President Nixon look into the camera and say, "I don't lie, I'm not a crook," but he had sweat over his lip. "I don't know where those eighteen minutes went." You knew he was lying, and he knew you knew he was lying -- I find that hilarious.
For any fans of comedy history, Canada is a wealth of stories and talent. In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Lorne Michaels said of your early work "that sort of oddness is allowed in Canada. Marty was allowed to develop without anyone interfering." What was it about the area that provided you that freedom?
Again, I'm not a big analyzer of comedy. People always ask me, "Why are Canadians so funny, is there something in the water?" And I used to think that was a stupid question, but as I saw so many people like Jim Carrey, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers come out of Canada, considering the per capita, you notice that something's up. The similarity was a kind of absurdity, they were doing broad characters that were somehow real at the same time. It was more Canadian than American.
I think that Canada does nurture odder behavior. We Canadians got Monty Python before it was even shown in the United States. There's a strong tradition of absurdity.
Martin Short in Three Amigos!
With comedy being dominated by ethnic minorities, it's assumed that in overcoming prejudice, many of these comedians had to work twice as hard, just as Chris Rock said he had to be twice as funny as the next guy, because he was skinny. Do you think Canada had to overcome being known as a America Jr., making the comedy twice as good?
For me, Canada has always seemed like a middle sibling [to the U.S. and U.K.]. It's like the middle sister who is sexy, but she doesn't really believe it, and has intimidation on both sides from her other sisters. And maybe that developed some of that odd-man out sensibility.
The irony of Canada is that it's more progressive than either country. When the U.S. was suffering [its economic collapse] in 2007, Canada didn't so much, because it did have regulations. They've had socialized medicine since 1962. Just 173 homicides a year, nationally, even with 24 percent of Canadians owning guns. So it's a different country.
David Raekoff once said that he could always spot a Canadian just by looking at them. Is this true in your experience?
No...no. I once showed Lorne Michaels a special I did in Toronto, and when they cut to the audience he said, "They look like Russian spies dressed up as Americans." But, no, I don't really see that.
You were in a legendary cast of Godspell with Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, Paul Shaffer and Eugene Levy. Had the hippies-turned-Christian, Jesus movement of California reached Canada in the '70s?
I think it was more of a theatrical thing. Jesus Christ Superstar was actually written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was English, and Godspell was Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, doing their thesis, writing a show based on the book of Matthew -- and they were both Jewish, by the way, so it wasn't even from their own religion.
Those things were very successful. But I always think of that "born again" phrase being from the '80s and '90s. Theatrically, between Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, those were the shows that, if you were 21 and an actor, you wanted to be in more than anything. Audiences loved them. It was all this Jesus portrayed in a way he'd never been portrayed before.
At that time, was there a conscious decision in comedy and theater to depart from the traditions that had come before you? Even if you respected and emulated your predecessors, now that you had hold of the reins to do something new.
I think that the reins had been held for such a long time -- right up until Saturday Night Live -- by the group of comedians that became satirized, the slick, Vegasy kind of comedians. And then SNL created this vehicle for people like John Belushi and Chevy [Chase] that could, in fact, do something that didn't have any punchline at all. Or was character-driven. [Steve] Martin, when he was doing his standup, worked for a couple of years without getting a laugh, because he didn't have jokes. But he'd go up there and do a silly dance, blow up balloons and wear an arrow through his head. That kind of anti-comedy that is so silly that it is its own new comedy.
It seems like the appeal of it was that you were in on the joke, that three-fourths of the population -- especially your parents -- didn't get the joke. But you did, and that made it twice as funny.
Absolutely. When you're thirteen or fourteen, you're very, very open to comedy. It's a time of big influence. Conan O'Brien told me that when he was that age and he was watching SCTV, he thought, "No one else gets this show. It's designed just for my brother and myself." He said it meant so much to him, and that when you met someone else who liked SCTV, it was like, "Oh my god, we must be kindred spirits."
When you came to the states to do SNL, was there a transition between the kind of comedy environment you were used to in Canada?
No, because first of all I grew up only watching American television. Secondly, I had done two failed sitcoms by the time I even did SCTV, that was '79 and '80. And then in '82 and '83 I did SCTV, which was an NBC show that happened to be filmed in Toronto. And then by '84 I moved on to Saturday Night Live. But like I said, I never felt a border between us, like, "I'm a Canadian, and they're American." Funny is funny.
There are a number of films you're in -- I'm thinking of Pure Luck or Innerspace -- that are memorable for your performances, but as a film don't really standup over time. Do you feel that you put a lot of focus on a character, but there's so much surrounding that character in a film that are out of your control?
Well, first of all, comedy is subjective. A film like Innerspace received across-the-board rave reviews, and won an Oscar. Pure Luck, not so much. But the reality is in both cases, you're an actor for hire. You have nothing to do with your own performance, ultimately, because what you do is you give the editor and the director ten options, and that's your job. And then later they go off alone and paint their painting. If you were editing yourself you may do it differently. Martin Short will perform for the InnovAge Fundraiser at 4:30 p.m. on February 23 at the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Center of the Performing Arts, located at 1050 13th Street. Tickets are $100-500. Click here for more information.