The Ageless Martin Short on SNL, the State of Comedy, and Why Trump Is No Laughing Matter

The legendary comedian discusses his decades-long friendship with Steve Martin, his disgust with Donald Trump, and a lot more.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Martin Short and Steve Martin spend most of their new Netflix special, An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, brutally roasting each other. While Martin primarily makes fun of Short’s diminutive stature, Short focuses his jokes on Martin’s advanced age—at 72, Martin is a full four years older than his comedy partner.

But as Short tells The Daily Beast by phone from his home in Los Angeles this week, despite how they characterize it on stage, this is no “fake showbiz relationship.”

The pair met while working on the 1986 comedy ¡Three Amigos! and as Short tells it, they could have parted ways when the film wrapped, never to see each other again. Instead, he decided, “I am not going to lose that person. I’m going to keep that up.” And that’s what they have done for more than three decades, forging a close relationship that includes not only collaboration on films like Father of the Bride but also family vacations and lots and lots of dinners.

The funny conversations they had at those dinners became fodder for their touring show, which has now become a Netflix special, available to stream starting Friday, May 25. Since they first started performing a version of the show live together nearly seven years ago, it has expanded to include elaborate musical numbers and, of course, a bit of banjo playing by Martin. They joke during the show that an alternative title could be, “If We’d Saved, We Wouldn’t Be Here.”

On the phone, Short is much less manic than he is on stage in the special or during his brilliant late-night talk show appearances. Instead, he expresses a more thoughtful and reflective side rarely seen by his biggest fans.

Like the type of Hollywood icon he once parodied and has now, somehow, become at age 68, Short does not hesitate to casually drop the names of other famous dinner companions like David Letterman, Diane Keaton, and Martin Scorsese, who is currently working on a documentary about his cult-classic Canadian sketch series SCTV.

Over the course of our conversation, Short reflected on his very real friendship with Martin, explained why Donald Trump is barely mentioned in their show and went full comedy nerd breaking down the differences between SCTV and Saturday Night Live, on which he made a major cultural impact despite serving as a cast member for just one season. Since then, he has has hosted the show three times and made numerous cameos, including as President Trump’s wacky Dr. Harold Bornstein this month.

Decades after he appeared on those iconic shows, Short counts himself lucky to still be capable of performing the type of physical humor that made him famous in the first place. “I can still do what I always did,” he tells me. “I’m not riddled with this or limping from that. That’s the stuff that makes you feel aware of your age.”

It’s been more than 30 years since you first worked with Steve Martin. What is it about your comedy styles that complement each other so well?

You know, I’m not a huge analyzer of things like that. I’m more interested when people tell me how they see it. But I do know this. I do know that it would be very rare, if not impossible, if Steve said, “You’ve got to see so-and-so, this comedian, this is so funny” and that I would look at it and go, “Huh, don’t get it.” We have a very similar work ethic and a very similar sense of humor of what we find funny. And a very natural give-and-take, respect-wise. His joke is, if he gives me a suggestion about how to say a line, and I just stare at him, he then bursts out laughing. And that’s about as tense as we get with each other. So it’s a very easy-going working relationship. There’s nothing not discussed, nothing not made fun of.

Yeah, because there is a lot of faux-tension between you on stage.

Well I remember years ago, we had a dinner at a restaurant. And it was Dave Letterman, Regine, his wife, Paul Shaffer and myself and Steve and his wife Anne. And I think Billy Crystal and his wife were there for a bit and then they left. Anyway, the next day, Dave said to Paul, “Boy, Marty likes to really make fun of Steve.” And Paul said, “No, those guys have been doing that for years, that’s their thing.” So it’s kind of a natural rhythm, which, by the way, I don’t know who your close friends are, but I’m sure you do that with your friends too. It’s kind of a natural thing when you feel close. So we started out, you know, we did ¡Three Amigos! and you do a movie like that and you’re kind of in the trenches with someone. And then often you never see that person again. Even though in those three months you’ve intimately known them. Or you make a decision, I am not going to lose that person. I’m going to keep that up. And that’s where Steve and I went.

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Is it safe to say you don’t have the same type of close relationship with your third amigo Chevy Chase?

Oh, no, no, no. For a long time, the three of us would go out for dinners. And our wives were the Amigo-ettes, we’d call them. But you know, Chevy moved to Bedford [New York], so you don’t see someone as much.

Going back to the work ethic that you share with Steve, what was the process like of putting this show together over the years?

Well, it started off—and I do have kind of a Rain Man memory—I want to say it was June 2011, something like that. It was the closing night of Just for Laughs [festival] in Chicago. And they had asked us to interview each other, that was the premise. And it went very well, but we were struck with, “Well, that isn’t a shock. We’ve made movies together, we’re close friends and we’ve had a million dinners and go on vacation together, of course we’re going to have an ease with each other. And kind of a finishing each other’s sentences approach.” But more importantly, we really had fun doing it.

For the material that you do together, do you sit down in a room together and write or how does it work?

We do. We’ll Skype together or sit down in the same room. We will come up ideas. We’ll tweak it. I mean, literally if you saw us walking off the stage, the audience might still be on their feet and we are right into the next show, saying, “You know, when you said that, that’s a great line, we should put that in.” And that’s what keeps it interesting, the work-in-progress of it all.

His joke is, if he gives me a suggestion about how to say a line, and I just stare at him, he then bursts out laughing. And that’s about as tense as we get with each other.
Martin Short on working with Steve Martin

This is the closest thing Steve has done to stand-up since he famously retired at his peak. Were you a fan of his stand-up before you met and what has it been like to see him return to performing in this way?

Oh, absolutely. I was a massive fan of Steve Martin’s, as everyone was back in the ’70s. I didn’t meet him until 1985, but I remember seeing him at the amphitheater in L.A. in 1978 at the height of the white suit Steve Martin thing. I wanted to see him but I’m long, long friends with Danny Aykroyd, so I was there to see the Blues Brothers, who were opening for him. But I was a massive fan. Anyone in comedy loved what Steve was doing, because it was absurdity. It was original. Anytime there’s originality and comedy combined, it’s very potent for people who love comedy. But then, you know, I’ve known him for so long before he started doing this again. What I’m seeing is the Steve that I’ve known through a million dinners now returning to the stage with great happiness to do it.

So you barely mention Donald Trump in the special, but you do include some material about his administration and have joked about him in various talk show appearances. Do you feel like the Trump presidency has pushed your comedy in a more political direction?

First of all, Steve and I have great respect for the fact that we don’t just want a liberal audience. So you want the audience to feel that this is, in a way, a safe zone. A zone where they’re not going to be made to feel like a jerk because they voted one way. So that’s why we deliberately do not mention Donald Trump. But as far as the Trump presidency, I wouldn’t even call it a presidency. It’s an asterisk. It’s a typo. I mean, every day it’s worse and 10 years from now the history books will be having a field day with it and the shame of the people who supported him, if they’re still around, in the sense of being in the public eye, will be like the people who supported McCarthy.

Like Michelle Wolf did in her speech that got so much attention, it seems like you zero in on the people who are his most loyal supporters. Is that why, because you feel like they deserve the most blame?

Donald Trump is not the issue, it’s really the people who support him. Fran Lebowitz had a great line on Bill Maher’s show, I thought it was just kind of perfect. She said that nine out of ten New Yorkers did not vote for Donald Trump because in New York “we know who he is.” Trump is Trump. Some people find him hilarious. I don’t find it hilarious, but you can’t say it’s dull. There’s nothing credible about Donald Trump. But the people around him, who one would have thought had credibility, whether it’s Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, have lost all credibility with their support.

Have you noticed differences in the way some of those jokes you do tell are received when you perform the show in more Trump-friendly parts of the country?

Again, how many jokes are there, three? Even in the Jiminy Glick thing we kind of go back and forth, we deliberately try to mix it up for both sides. Our agenda is not to do a political show. I do not want half the audience to feel unwelcome. I was talking to my son Oliver and he was saying he was amazed at how some of his friends were ragging on the Prince Harry wedding. “What a waste of money, it’s so stupid.” Can we not have one afternoon of frivolous joy? Does it all have to all be about impeachment and the Mueller probe? So I’d like to say the same thing about people coming to see our show. It’s a safe zone from 24 hours a day of politics.

And it’s an escape into pure absurdity and silliness as well.

Absolutely. And there is a difference, of course, between jokes that I would do as Marty Short or jokes that Jiminy Glick the puppet would do.

How do you make that distinction? Because you also seem to enjoy roasting the late-night hosts as yourself when you get the chance.

But that is again going back to when we were talking about Steve and myself. Those guys, to a fault, all of them are my friends. Jimmy Kimmel is a really close friend of mine. Conan is a really close friend of mine. Jimmy Fallon I’ve known since he was 22. So when I come on and do jokes about them, they’re hoping I do. One time many years ago I was having dinner with Diane Keaton and Don Rickles and Bob Newhart and their wives were at the next table. Rickles came over to our table and started attacking Diane. She was laughing and saying, “I feel so honored to be attacked by Don Rickles.” So I think obviously, if I didn’t know these guys, I wouldn’t come out and do jokes about them.

There are also a lot of jokes about aging in the special. Since you’ve been doing this for so long, do you enjoy being an elder statesman, so to speak, of the comedy world compared to when you were just starting out?

Well, I mean, what choice do you have? [Laughs] Would you rather be the 34-year-old guy who has the knowledge you have now and the looseness you have now but you’re 34? Absolutely. But, you know, actors never really live in the world of age so much.

What does that mean?

If you are the CEO of Price Waterhouse, you’re expected to retire at 60. Actors can not only act until they’re dead, but when I was 40 I played a 10-year-old boy. So I’ve never really followed the rules of age. You know, it’s odd with me. I can still do what I always did. I’m not riddled with this or limping from that. That’s the stuff that makes you feel aware of your age.

Do you feel lucky to be in that position because physical comedy has always been a huge part of what you do?

Absolutely. I’ve never written something and then been like, “Wait a second, I can’t do that anymore.” I haven’t reached that point yet, happily. I mean, I’m in a nude suit in the special.

Donald Trump is not the issue, it’s really the people who support him.

You didn’t want to go full nude though.

No, I wanted the audience to stay.

So you also recently reunited with your SCTV castmates for a special that will air on Netflix sometime in the future. What was that like for you?

That’s kind of fascinating. But it’s odd, because you don’t really know what it is. This is a documentary. This is not like the comedy special. This is Martin Scorsese, so first of all, that’s pretty cool.

Did you know that Martin Scorsese was a fan of SCTV?

I did. It started off, we were thinking, should we do something? And the cast started meeting. We were at Catherine O’Hara’s house and she said, “Gee, what if we got a great film director to do a documentary?” And we started throwing out names and she said, “Martin Scorsese.” She’d made a movie with him, Heartburn. And she remembered before that she was at the Toronto Film Festival and he came up to her and said, “You don’t know how big a fan I am of SCTV.” So I knew him a little bit through my friend Nick Pileggi, the writer. They had done Goodfellas and Casino together. So I phoned up Nick and said, “Do you think Marty would be interested?” And he said, “Oh, absolutely.” So he brokered the phone call and we had a long phone call and then he and I had dinner. And at the end of that dinner, he said I’d love to get together with the cast. And by the end of that meeting with the cast, he was committed.

So the reunion that you did on stage with Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t the first time since the show that all of those people had been in a room together?

No, no, no. A year ago when Scorsese met the cast, the whole cast was together. And then we shot about five hours in a circle of chairs about a month and a half ago in New York. But some of the cast members I’ve remained very, very close to. Andrea Martin is the aunt to my children because she was married to my brother-in-law. Eugene Levy is my closest friend. Catherine O’Hara lives two minutes away.

As one of the only cast members on both SCTV and Saturday Night Live, how would you compare those two different experiences?

They’re both fantastic in a different way. Because they are totally different shows. SNL, you can’t compare the excitement of “The Stones are going be on SNL” or “Bruno Mars is going to be on SNL.” There’s no way you can put that in a bottle on any other show. It’s live, it’s happening right there, there’s a raw energy to performing live where you instinctively know, that’s it, my only shot. But in the same respect, you can see an SNL scene that you’ll say, “Gee, they should have trimmed this one.” And on SCTV you can, because SCTV was all filmed pieces with no audience. So another advantage that SCTV had was sometimes you’ll come up with a great comedy idea — maybe a hip, odd, esoteric idea. But if the audience doesn’t laugh at it at all, then there’s a good chance that piece won’t survive. But on SCTV, we didn’t care. We were the bosses. We were treating the audience like they were as smart as we were. So if it made us laugh, it got to be in the show. Because we controlled the show. And also with SCTV, you’d write for five weeks and then shoot for six weeks. On SNL, you could be the star of the show Saturday night, but then comes Sunday and then comes Monday and you have to meet the host and if you’re a writer on the show and don’t have any ideas you feel like the biggest failure in the world and it’s only 48 hours later.

Everyone always talks about the immense pressure of SNL and its week-to-week schedule. Do you think that ultimately helps the comedy or hurts it?

It’s a kind of combo, because I think that the pressure of it makes you rise to the occasion. But I remember there was a movie parody we did on SCTV that we thought was going to be the greatest, funniest thing ever and we looked at it at five minutes long and it just didn’t work. But as a two-minute promo it was brilliant. You could do that on SCTV whereas you can’t at SNL. By the time it airs, it’s gone.

After more than four decades in show business, are there still things that you still think about that you’re really eager to accomplish, whether it’s a certain type of project or working with a specific collaborator? Are there things on your show business bucket list?

There are certain people, sure, that you’d love to work with. But I have found that at this stage, you kind of go, if you haven’t done it yet, maybe there’s a reason. Maybe you shouldn’t. If you’d talked to me 25 years ago, I’d have said, “Oh, I want to direct a movie or direct a play for Broadway.” But all these years later, I find that what I like doing is performing. That’s what I like. I’ve had opportunities to do both of those things I mentioned. Why didn’t I do them? I usually said, “Oh, I’m busy acting in something.” But it could have been my instincts that said, you know what? Do everyone a favor and don’t do that. Because 90 percent of the things you do, it’s one thing to have the talent for it, but do you have the burning desire to do it? When kids like Steven Spielberg were eight and nine and 10, they had little cameras and that’s all they wanted to do. When I was 10 I was in my attic pretending to host my own variety show. Spielberg wasn’t. That’s why he’s a film director and I’m doing what I’m doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.