"Listen, when I did SCTV, you know there were comics from another era sitting there saying, 'I don't get it. There are no jokes!' I think particularly in comedy it's very unwise to judge it or declare something about it because it's so subjective."
– Martin Short
Guy MacPherson: You did a show here a few years ago. How much of it went into Fame Becomes Me?
Martin Short: Not much. Fame Becomes Me was a theatrical musical with a concept to it. The show at the Orpheum and the one at the Red Robinson are more like parties. It's a lot of improvising, a lot of looseness and interaction with the audience. Fame Becomes Me was more the premise of to do a one-man show you have to bear so much pain and angst and despair, and if you don't have any in your life the only thing you can do is what they do on Oprah and just make it up.
GM: Do you miss doing Fame Becomes Me? I looked at some video clips and it looked like it was a lot of fun.
MS: Oh, it was hilarious. It was so much fun. It was a great cast. Great music and a great concept. Oh, I loved it but I did it for nine months. So it's like anything (laughs). It's fun in the beginning and then you count the days.
GM: That's you, isn't it? You do something, then it's like, "Okay, I've had enough," and you move on. A lot of people will stick with something that works forever.
MS: It's interesting. I realized about myself a while ago that where you reach that point where you'd not doing it to pay rent anymore... I've never been defined by the admiration of strangers. I mean, I want the audience to have a good time. But my tendency is to feel that if they didn't have a good time, well, they didn't get it, as opposed to I'm not worthy. So the admiration of strangers never appealed to me, so the only thing that really appeals to me is to keep saying, "And now what? What would be fun? Where would you probably fail?" and things like that. So you're trying to keep yourself interested as opposed to just hitting the mark.
GM: And it must be nice to have that freedom to be able to do that, where you have that success early on?
MS: I think so, yeah. Absolutely. But you know, I'm 57 now. I think it's kind of unbecoming to see someone who's 57 still [sounding like Liza] striving to make you love me! Just take a pill and do something else. It should be more just loose and in the flow of your career as opposed to scratching and clawing and all that stuff. I think it's a shame when people in any profession reach a certain age and they don't have their confidence or their money covered.
GM: You couldn't have had an understudy in Fame Becomes Me, could you? Because the show was you.
MS: No, no I couldn't. Actually that was a real drag, too. Because I don't tend to miss shows. Like, I did The Producers in LA for 9 months, did Little Me for a year in New York, and I did The Goodbye Girl for a year in New York and I never miss shows. Because you know it's a big thing; it's not like you're an anonymous person. But when you have an understudy, at least you know that if something happens, the show will continue. I used to find that every morning you wake up when you're doing a show where there is no understudy, you just kinda go, "Hmm, ah...". Your voice, how do you feel, how's your leg?
GM: There would be no show.
MS: They would just put a foreclosure sign.
GM: Looking at the clips, it brought back memories of all the old variety shows I watched as a kid, which are dead now, I guess. Do you think they could ever come back? It seems like you could bring it back.
MS: It's a very fractured world. Even just the fact that every house has more than one TV or that kids are watching TV and they're watching YouTube and they're watching a stream from a computer. That's why I think in prime time television, for example, it keeps getting a little dumber every year. You look at the prime time of ABC at 8 pm and it's just reality – who wants to be the best pirate? (laughs) It's not the birth of satire, for example.
GM: So because it's so fractured, the networks don't want to spend as much money on something with a cast and writers and all that?
MS: No. For example, I think sitcom writers are just moving out in droves now from Hollywood because there's no opportunity.
GM: You might be the last link to old-time show biz. This love that you have for it, and the references that I love and respect, who else is doing that? Not that you were around in the old days, but it's a certain reverence you have for it.
MS: When I look at Saturday Night Live now, it has a very funny cast now. And they have a link. All those guys came and saw my show. At one point I would invite people up on stage. They still knew about double-takes and timing and holding for a laugh. I don't know. I think it's a little less fractured than we think in that respect. I remember in like '96 or something seeing a preview for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Nathan Lane. And the producer said to me as we were going in, "I'm a little nervous. It's previews, you always get nervous." And that first second when Nathan Lane bounds through the curtain and talks to the audience, and it was kind of in an old-fashioned way, and the audience loved it. And I thought, You know what? It's not necessarily that that style is gone away; it's just the number of people that can do it.
GM: I guess that's what I meant. And not even so much the style, although that's certainly part of it, but the references: Ethel Merman ...
MS: Yeah. I remember watching Johnny Carson and he'd talk about Ted Mack. So even that you have to drop. If I'm on Letterman I'll let those names slip in because it makes David laugh. If I'm on Conan I won't because his audiences don't quite get it.
GM: Do you lament today's show business or do you just accept it?
MS: I accept it. Listen, when I did SCTV, you know there were comics from another era sitting there saying, "I don't get it. There are no jokes!" I think particularly in comedy it's very unwise to judge it or declare something about it because it's so subjective. Some people love the Three Stooges and some people hate them. It doesn't make anyone wrong. It's a personal taste. So something that's going to make my 21-year-old son laugh is not necessarily going to make me laugh, and that's fine. It's not geared for me.
GM: Speaking of your kids, you're such an irrepressible ham on stage, I was wondering if your kids were constantly embarrassed by you as teenagers.
MS: (laughs) You know what? They weren't, and I don't know why.
GM: Are they like you?
MS: They're similar to me. I'm a little more desperate. When you grow up with something, and that's the only thing you know, that's your normalcy. No, I can't honestly say that any of my kids have ever said, "Dad, cool it."
GM: Because most kids do, whether their parents are in show business or not.
MS: There was one time when I took my son Oliver to school, when he was just starting high school, so he was probably 13. But that was a little different. That was only because when he had gone to public school where we lived they were more used to me. So now this is like a bigger school for kids all over Los Angeles kind of thing. And when I went there, a lot of people said, "Oh, there's Martin Short." And that embarrassed him. But that was different because he was trying to sneak in to his first day of high school. But that's not exactly what you're talking about. You're talking about me doing what I do, suddenly it goes from they think it's great to they're embarrassed by it. No, I can't say there is. They know where their toast is buttered.
"Jiminy is himself a moron so you don't even have to feel that guilty about saying anything. But absolutely there are things you could say as that character that you could never say as yourself. Jiminy might say to Bill Clinton, 'Why doesn't Shannon Doherty work more?' Well, I don't really care but to Jiminy it's something that would keep him up at night."
– Martin Short
GM: Your Jiminy Glick character is a perfect creation. That came from your talk show, right?
GM: I read where you said he was based on somebody from your home town of Hamilton.
MS: Yeah, he was based on this guy who lived on my street. But when I say 'based on', any character I ever do, it's not just like a Xerox of one person. There's an element of this and an element of that. But the voice was this guy who lived on the street where I grew up who owned a movie theatre. He had this voice that went high and low. You kind of remember it and let it ferment for a few decades.
GM: You must love being able to say things as this character that you'd normally be too polite to mention.
MS: Yes, that's the great part. But you see, also Jiminy is himself a moron so you don't even have to feel that guilty about saying anything. But absolutely there are things you could say as that character that you could never say as yourself. Jiminy might say to Bill Clinton, "Why doesn't Shannon Doherty work more?" Well, I don't really care but to Jiminy it's something that would keep him up at night.
GM: Were any of your guests offended by anything he said?
MS: No, they all know the rules. I must admit I really tend to... I probably go farther with the funny guys. But you tend not to go near the real sore spots. Like the Friar's Roasts. I've never done those things. I always find that's a weird concept. You go up and insult people's vulnerability, you make fun of their failed movies, you make fun of their failed shows. And I kinda go like, "I don't quite get why that's cool."
GM: Then you wouldn't want to be the roastee, either, I guess.
MS: No! But in Jiminy's world, once I asked a guest a question and in the middle of it I went, "Shh! Just because I ask you a question doesn't mean I need the answer." And I was now angry. And it was so absurd that it's harmless.
GM: Are all your famous characters like children that you love in different ways? Or are there some that you can't stand but you have to do anyway because they've hit a chord with the public?
MS: No, not really. I mean, sometimes you shortchange them because you're bored with them but generally you don't have to do them. When you do any kind of live show, for example, I think it's a mistake to think, "Oh, I must do this or they'll turn on me." Because they wouldn't be there if they didn't kinda like you. And now your job is to make them feel like you don't want them to walk away and say, "Oh, that wasn't worth the money." You want them to say, "Boy, that was fun. That was like a party. That was great." And what you include in the evening to get that final response doesn't necessarily have to be every old hit.
GM: We have to trust you. We like you and you're going to make the right entertainment decisions.
MS: Right, yeah.
GM: On SCTV you used to do people like Pierre Trudeau and Brian Linehan. At that time, were you guys envisioning success south of the border or were you just doing your own thing?
MS: Well, the show was paid for by NBC.
MS: No, not always, but by the time I got there. It started off with Global and then... I can't remember the full history. The very first pilot for that show was done I think in like 1977. And I didn't join the show until 1982. So it had already been to Edmonton. It started off in Toronto then went to Edmonton, then went back. And by the time I joined SCTV it was already in its 90-minute form on NBC.
GM: So you were doing those characters even though the show was on NBC.
MS: Right, but it was funny. In Canada, we knew it was Brian Linehan; in the United States it was a generic character. It's like anything. Even if you're impersonating a really famous person, like Jerry Lewis, you can't just go up there and do an impersonation and say that's it. You have to go out and have a concept. You have to let that impersonation be the fuel but not necessarily the whole event.
GM: It's becoming more, it seems, okay to be Canadian in show business. In Knocked Up, the character, not just the actor, is from Vancouver. You don't need to hide it as much it seems.
MS: Obviously in Vancouver, a lot of the time they're saying it's New York or it's Pittsburgh. But as far as hiding it, I really think that's a really old generation ago. Maybe in the '60s. I was on a very famous Canadian show, but I wasn't aware of any of us trying to circumvent... To me, the States have always viewed Canada as the hip place. It's the place that had its medicine figured out, its approach to people. It just seemed more sophisticated and hipper. Maybe not to the right wing, but certainly to the world I live in. The fact that it's underpopulated, its beauty, these are all things that people kind of swoon over Canada. So in my experience, as someone who's spent a lot of time down in the States, it's always been hip to be Canadian.
GM: So that's why you remain a loyal Canadian.
GM: Your Saturday Night Live cast was, I think, among the best. But it seems people are always saying, every year, it's not as good as it used to be. Did you guys get that, too?
MS: Oh, yeah. No one remembers that there were scenes that didn't get much reaction when John Belushi and Danny Aykroyd were out there, too. But like anything, we tend to remember things in a more ideal way. I remember when we did our show, I remember at times Billy Crystal or Chris Guest or I would say, "I hate this show." We didn't sit back and say, "We're making history!"
GM: You did a lot of filmed segments, too, so it was similar in that way to SCTV.
MS: It was very influenced at that time by SCTV because Saturday Night Live had gone into a creative slump and that's why they gave us one-year contracts and did anything to get us on. And SCTV was at the height of its hipness. Actually, it had just finished its run. And they had just done Spinal Tap, which again was an improvised filmed movie. So at that time, I think if you said to Billy Crystal, who do you want to emulate more in doing Saturday Night Live this year, the last couple years with Joe Piscopo or SCTV? No offence to Joe Piscopo, but filmed pieces were the thing that were fuelling those people more.
GM: Was it your choice to leave after one season?
MS: We all had one-year contracts. Right back to the me moving on thing. I just wanted to do it one year. We had a little baby. It's no life, you know, if you have a family. I never figured out how to be there less than all the time.
"Listen, I was treated like a prince there. I have great memories from Saturday Night Live but my heart always belongs in SCTV."
– Martin Short
GM: How do your experiences at SNL and SCTV compare? Fond memories from both?
MS: I mean, look, SCTV was literally... Andrea Martin was my sister-in-law, Eugene [Levy] and Dave [Thomas] I'd gone to McMaster University with, Catherine O'Hara I had known since she was 17, John Candy I had known since 1972, Joe Flaherty since 1972. There was a long history, just as friends, with this group. Then we were also shooting it in Toronto, which is where I lived. And because it wasn't live, you would write for six weeks and shoot for six weeks. So the hours when you were writing, you got in at 10 and left by 6. So you could have a life. With Saturday Night Live, we were in a sublet and I was working all the time. We had a little baby. My wife and daughter would go back and forth from Toronto to New York. It was more precarious. And the show is a higher pressure show. Listen, I was treated like a prince there. I have great memories from Saturday Night Live but my heart always belongs in SCTV.
GM: What do you think would have happened to you or your career if you had never seen War Babies?
MS: (laughs) Um, I don't know. I don't know whether that's a natural evolution of figuring something out. Probably if I hadn't seen War Babies, I would have seen something else that smacked of improvising that I would have said, "Gee, that excites me." You know, there's so much luck and endurance and timing all weaved in together. I know that if I had been like 35 and still struggling, I would have eased out of the business. That's the truth.
GM: Would you have gone into social work?
MS: Yeah. Or something. I mean, I don't know. Or a video store, if they had them then. I don't know. I think it's more important to be able to look in the mirror when you're 60 and say, "You know what? Maybe you should have tried being an actor." Then you can say, "Oh, no, I did try being an actor. That's right. I didn't get any work. Oh, okay. Well, then that's cool." When you enter a profession that has a 95 percent failure rate, you have to accept that it has a 95 percent failure rate. It's not like you're going to teacher's college and everyone graduates as a teacher. So you can't take it personally if the gods didn't line up the right elements and you became where you couldn't pay the rent.
GM: That's a very mature attitude.
MS: Thank you very much.
GM: I was concerned that our interview was at 11 o'clock since you don't care about people before noon.
MS: (laughs) Is that what I said once?
GM: You said that on the Colbert interview.
MS: "I don't care about people before noon." That's nice. (laughs)
GM: Any truth to that?
MS: I don't remember that but I'm proud to say it.
GM: Did you have fun on the Colbert Report?
MS: I did. It was funny, you know, because we were trying to work it out just before we went on. And I kept saying to him "No, no, I'll just be straight man." And he said, "But I don't want you to be blanded out." But I said no. It's tricky. It's like with Jiminy Glick. If someone tried to be really funny, it didn't always help it because you need an anarchist and you need not a straight man but someone like that. And in the Colbert show, the reason the politicians work so well is because they're not trying to be funny and he's the absurdity. But we got playful and at the end and the first thing he said to me was, "So you were the straight man, huh? Okay." But I like him very much.
GM: You're one of the all-time great talk show guests. What was your first Johnny Carson appearance like? Did you set out there thinking you were going to go out there and make it an event so you'd be invited back?
MS: No. I tried to figure out or work toward a place where you could be yourself at a party really loose on a roll. But then you have to create it because it's not a natural setting. You're out there for 9 minutes. And these shows aren't Charlie Rose; these are variety shows. But my ultimate favourite doing a talk show is when you don't have to prepare anything.
GM: I don't like it when it's too prepared and they have obvious bits they're going to.
MS: Especially when you see an actress come out and you see Jay [Leno] say, "So you've been to Paris." "Oh, my gawd, I just got back...." And it's that story. You'd rather just see it meander along but everyone's nervous that someone's going to click.
GM: Do they prepare less with you because they know you're capable of going with it?
MS: No, I prepare. I literally will send an email filled with notes to the segment producer. If I'm doing Letterman, Matt Roberts is the producer and we'll be on the phone for an hour and a half, two hours, talking about what we could do or can't do. And you don't necessarily hit it all. In fact, if you hit it all, it hasn't been as successful an appearance as if you maybe hit 30 percent. But everyone feels very confident and secure and they know where it's going. And your job is to make it look like it's just all in the moment.
GM: Why isn't it as successful if you hit it all?
MS: It was too slick. Or Dave or Jay or whoever it was would be too passive. As I say, you'd rather do it where people say let's just go out and talk, but rarely are people comfortable because there's just too much going on. They want the security blanket of kind of knowing the areas, anyway, that you're going to talk about.
GM: You had such a great rapport with Carson.
MS: Carson was just so magnificent. He was so in-the-moment and laughed so sincerely. And that was always a surreal experience for me because I think that the people that were famous when you were a kid had much more power when you meet them than, you know, meeting somebody like Tom Cruise or someone. It's a big star, but when you meet Kirk Douglas or Johnny Carson it's a little stranger because when you were 12, they were famous.
GM: You've won lots of awards, many of them in Canada: the Order of Canada and you're on the Star Walk in Toronto. Do any one of these mean the most to you? Are you happy to be recognized in your home country?
MS: Any time someone's saying something pleasant, you're all ears. I think that people love to be recognized in their own country. Often, as you know, there's a syndrome that it's the opposite where the toughest critics... I remember when SCTV went off the air, it was literally love letter obituaries in the New York Times and the LA Times and the Washington Post and every paper in the States. And in the Hamilton Spectator, where there were three members from Hamilton, the headline was "Good riddance to SCTV". (laughs) Well, that's just the way it works. Sam Mendes, the director, said he's never received a good review in London, where he's from, even though he's won Oscars in the United States. So there is that syndrome, too. And I think for that reason anyone is always thrilled to receive an award in Canada. For me, the highest reward I've received in Canada is the Order of Canada. But the Tony wasn't bad. And Emmys are always nice.