Martin Short on His New Memoir, and How He Turned Tragedy Into Comedy

Martin Short on His New Memoir, and How He Turned Tragedy Into Comedy
Photo by Sam Jones

In his new memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, Martin Short writes about the string of tragedies he’s endured over the years: His brother died in a car accident, he was orphaned by the time he was 20 and he lost his wife, ex-girlfriend Gilda Radner and close friend and director Nora Ephron all to cancer. But the famous funnyman insists he’s never been an angry guy. He maintains he’s an inherently happy person – it’s in his DNA. That and Canadians aren’t boring, they’re kind.

Short has been a TV fixture for more than 30 years, from nerdy manchild Ed Grimley to curmudgeonly celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick, and all the oddball alter egos he’s created in between. (The book’s title is a reference to Grimley’s famous catchphrase). In fact, three of them appear on a Canadian stamp.

Short likens himself to other comedians — Bill Murray, Conan O’Brien — who have honed their comedic skills around “argumentative Irish Catholic families.” Humor was part of the dynamic of the Short household of five kids and one very funny, ornery Dad, who Short credits for inspiring some of his characters.

“My father was very quick and very sarcastic,” Short tells the Weekly. “As long as you weren’t the brunt of it, you were OK. There were five kids to be picked on. But it was all done in jest. There were fights, but everyone was laughing a minute later. So it was all Teflon. It was literally the opposite of the film Ordinary People.

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Though he planned on becoming a social worker, Short was bitten by the acting bug; Toronto in the ‘70s was fertile ground for soon-to-be comedic legends. He appeared in a 1972 production of Godspell with Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas and Victor Garber. Later, he would join many of them at Second City Toronto (along with John Candy, Dan Aykroyd and Catherine O’Hara), where he birthed his first famous stage persona.

“There was a bunch of people, a lot from Second City, who had this comedic take on things that had nothing to do with what made their parents laugh,” Short says. “It was more Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman and less Bob Hope. Everybody was circling around it and trying to find a forum for it. I do think it’s a very nurturing country and very well structured and functioning. There’s a sweetness to it. In Canada, I don’t think the population could go to bed at night if one-fifth of the population didn’t have health insurance. I don’t know what that has to do with comedy, I’m just saying it’s a different. Lorne Michaels always says odd behavior is cherished in Canada. Character work was more extensive in Second City Toronto than Chicago. I think this was an era when people wanted that kind of comedy. They didn't want jokes as much as odd human behavior.” 

With his plaid shirt, high-waisted pants and cowlick, Grimley was an amalgam of a school friend, his brother-in-law, Harpo Marx and Jerry Lewis. The character became so popular he had his own NBC cartoon and toy doll.

Short took his improv skills to SCTV, the cult sketch show long considered a major influence among comedy cognoscenti like the Kids in the Hall and the State. He calls it his “most satisfying professional experience” and “workplace nirvana.”

“What’s amazing about that material is that it’s not joke oriented, but life oriented,” says Short. “It satirizes types of people. The humor doesn’t seem dated. I’m always amazed when pieces stand up.”

Martin Short on His New Memoir, and How He Turned Tragedy Into ComedyEXPAND
Photo by Sam Jones

On the flip side, Short is more conflicted about his stint on Saturday Night Live from 1984-85, a volatile time when Dick Ebersol took over Lorne Michaels as  executive producer. Though the series made him a “bona fide TV star,” Short recalls wanting to quit after only a few episodes. (Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest all lasted a year.) He also recounts the day then-writer Larry David famously quit the show on a Friday and returned on a Monday as if nothing happened.

“The first show was so successful for me, I just thought the pressure of me topping myself was intense and intensified because I had a one year contract,” says Short. “My analogy was kind of that I had final exams every week.”

The actor is candid about his less-than-stellar movies. Most achieved only moderate box office success, including Father of the Bride, Mars Attacks!, Clifford and Three Amigos! That latter, a comedy Western, was Short’s first film (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Robin Williams, John Candy and John Belushi were in consideration for the roles) and it’s gone on to become a cult classic thanks to home video and DVD.

“It appeals to a wide age range,” Short says. “I’ve had so many people talk to me about what that film meant to them like Justin Timberlake or a guy I’ll meet at an airport. It was a little ahead of itself. I remember when we were promoting it on the Today Show and Bryant Gumbel, who I don’t think particularly liked the film, asked Steve [Martin] if he thought it was a silly movie. Yeah it’s a little silly. There’s a singing bush in it. But you know, not everything can be Annie Hall nor should everything be Annie Hall. I think that the reason why that film has stayed connected to so many people for so many years is that it deserves to.”

Back on TV, Short would create another memorable character. From 2001-03, he wore a fat suit on Primetime Glick to play Glick, the vapid entertainment lawyer who loved to insult celebs. (“What’s your beef with the Nazis?” he once asked Mel Brooks). Glick, too, was modeled after various influences, including his Dad, Merv Griffin and Swifty Lazar.

“He’s a moron in a position of power,” says Short. “Jiminy could’ve been anybody. If I were to do another Jiminy, I would have made him elected to the House of Representatives and would now be in Congress. If you look at morons with power, what better analogy than to look at Washington and people who are railing against science and are convinced that evolution is a questionable act? That’s the sensibility that makes me laugh about Jiminy.”

Thirty-five years after appearing in his first American sitcom, the short-lived James L. Brooks-produced The Associates, Short’s TV career has come full circle. Now, he’s starring as a game show host on Mulaney with hipster darling and the SNL writer behind the Stefon character, John Mulaney.

“He’s fantastic,” Short says of his co-star. “In general I like to work in a great atmosphere. You can never control the outcome. You can never control whether people will like it. Maybe they’ll like it five years from now. The only thing that you can control is if it’s a fun, creative environment to work in, and that show is.”

Martin Short discusses his book with Steve Martin at The Alex Theater on Nov. 9.


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