Arts and Culture

Martin Short on Nixon, Canadian comedy and the beautiful weirdness of Steve Martin

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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.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse