INTERVIEW- Martin's menagerie: Short's show has colorful cast in tow

Martin Short

In 1977, an impish, id-driven Canadian came bounding into America's living room on the sketch comedy show Second City TV, maniacally taking on dozens of personae, including those of an aging Broadway songwriter Irving Cohen, flamboyant albino entertainer Jackie Rodgers Jr., sleazeball tobacco defense attorney Nathan Thurm, and, most famously, Pat Sajak-worshipping, triangle-playing nerd Ed Grimley.

Over 30 years later, Martin Short stands atop the comedy pantheon as one of the world's best-known funnymen. Since his SCTV days, he's added to his repertoire obese Hollywood-obsessed interviewer Jiminy Glick, vaguely Eastern European wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer, and impersonations of Jerry Lewis and Katharine Hepburn, and he'll bring several of those characters along when he performs a one-man show at the Paramount Theater on Thursday, March 20. He recently spoke with the Hook from his home in Los Angeles.

The Hook: You're not a stand-up comic by trade. What can people expect at this show?

Martin Short: It's a kind of 'Party with Marty.' It's like if I came over to your house and jumped on top of your piano for 90 minutes. I'll sing and dance, we have a band, and then I'll do characters. I'll do Jiminy Glick, he'll come out and interview someone from the audience. I'll do Franck Eggelhoffer from Father of the Bride. I'll teach someone the Three Amigos salute. It's a one-man variety show.

The Hook: You've been doing Jiminy Glick for a while now. How did the idea of interviewing people in character come about? 

Martin Short: I've done a lot of characters, and some of them are very specific and others are more like channeling. When I did my talk show, I wanted to be able to roam the streets and not be recognized. It was around that time I made a movie called Pure Luck, and in that movie I get stung by a bee and swell up, and when I was in that suit, nobody knew who I was. So it was because of that. It ended up working pretty well because he was never going to be going after people, because he was so narcissistic and stupid. Like if he were interviewing Bill Clinton, rather than ask him about Hillary or Monica, he'd ask, "Why doesn't Shannen Doherty work more?"

The Hook: You created a little cottage industry, with Sacha Baron Cohen having so much success with Borat and Da Ali G Show and Stephen Colbert doing as well as he is, both on the idea of interviewing someone as a completely clueless character. What is it about that format that works?

Marin Short: I know Sacha and I've done Stephen's show. In Stephen's case, we talked about it beforehand and he didn't want to have me on his show and not be funny, but I didn't want to get in his way. The best Jiminy Glick interview I ever did was Steve Martin, because you had the sense he was talking to Jiminy as if he's been forced to do this pointless interview with this guy who's an idiot. I've tried to do it when the guest is trying to be the anarchist, and it doesn't work because Jiminy's already pretty anarchic, shoveling donuts into his mouth and falling out of his chair. When you have two clowns, they tend to get in each other's way. That's why Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis worked so well.

The Hook: Was Jerry Lewis a big influence on you?

Martin Short: Absolutely. Jerry Lewis was, Jonathan Winters was, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were. I think they all had a sense of madness, which I guess appealed to me as a kid. I wasn't sitting there asking myself why I loved Harpo Marx more than Groucho, I just loved that he'd jump on top of a desk randomly.

The Hook: How do you maintain that randomness and that spontaneity over the course of a tour?

Martin Short: Oh, I don't tour. I do four shows, every other month or so, so it doesn't get stale. 

The Hook: Well how did you do it when you did your one-man show on Broadway?

Martin Short: I did eight shows a week and you have no life. If you're the show, it's hard to do anything. You wake up and say, 'How's your voice? How are your legs?' Doing Broadway is a feather in your cap, but it's not necessarily a quality lifestyle. Now, I like to do a little bit live, a movie every now and then, and then just take some months off and write a little.

The Hook: Steve Martin's had success writing a book about comedy, which is now a best-seller. Do you ever intend to write about your career?

Martin Short: I have no idea, but I have no desire to do it now. His story is fascinating because it's the story of how an act is created. And then at the height of his act, he walked away and said, "That's it." Right now, I can't see myself writing something like that.

The Hook: How do you deal with people's expectation that comedians are always "on?"

Martin Short: The admiration of stars is not why I became an actor. I never just break into character or feel like I have to sign something. I just don't. And if they don't like you, who cares? I don't know them. I don't know anyone who tries to please everyone all the time, because it's impossible. Now, I am always very nice and polite, because if you're a comedian people associate you with feeling happy. But whether I'll sign really depends on the situation. If it's at a movie premiere, sure. If I'm at dinner and I'm having a fight with my wife, I'll say, "Sorry, not now."

The Hook: Christopher Guest got his mockumentary filmmaking career started with a sketch you did with him on Saturday Night Live about male synchronized swimming. How did you come up with that?

Martin Short: I seem to recall it was Harry Shearer's idea. I only did one season there in 1984-85, and the two of them had just gotten finished making This Is Spinal Tap. So we improvised with this idea Harry was fascinated with– about two guys going for the gold in the 1984 Olympics in synchronized swimming, even though there was no category for men.  

The Hook: Do people still come up to you and talk about that sketch, even though it's more than 20 years ago now?

Martin Short: They do. What happens with a sketch is that if it's successful, it gets replayed, and that gets replayed a lot during the Summer Olympics every four years. Ten or 12 years ago, I walked into the room, and my kids are laughing their heads off, and I look, and there it is on TV. 

The Hook: Of all your lines in all your career, what's the one that gets quoted back to you most often?

Martin Short: Whenever you do a Broadway show, there's always people waiting to see you when you leave the theater, and I found it wasn't so much lines as they were quoting characters. I guess the one they did the most was Ed Grimley, and they'd say things like, "Good to see you, I must say!" And I don't know that I ever actually said that.

The Hook: Like how Ingrid Bergman never actually says "Play it again, Sam," in Casablanca?

Martin Short: Exactly. But if that's how people remember it, then their rewrite is probably how you should have done it in the first place.

Martin Short and "friends" will appear at the Paramount Theater on Thursday, March 20 at 8pm.