Steve Martin and Martin Short: ‘I have about 800 cousins coming to the Dublin show’

The veteran comedians on Irish roots, timeless humour and touring with a partner

Martin Short first met his partial namesake and friend Steve Martin when he went to the latter's house to collect the script for Three Amigos, the hit 1980s movie in which they starred alongside Chevy Chase.

“How did you get this rich?” Short asked, as he gazed at Martin’s house. “Because I’ve seen your work.”

"Could you give this to Marty Short," said Martin, handing him the script.

Well, this is the way they recount the meeting on their show. How close is this account to the reality? “I did go to his house,” says Short.

“And he picked up a script,” says Martin. “He did say the line, ‘How did you get this rich?’ The truth is I can’t remember what I said back to him… So I just make up things that I think I might have said or should have said.”

I'm interviewing Short and Martin over the phone in advance of their Dublin show on March 11th, which they've titled The Funniest Show in Town at the Moment. It's not the same show as can be found on Netflix – An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life – but it follows a similar template of banter, storytelling and music. The pair are friends in real life, not just fake showbiz friends. They holiday together and, if a recent interview with Jimmy Kimmel is to be believed, they get colonoscopies together alongside their mutual friend, Tom Hanks.

Martin and Short share a goofily intelligent sensibility that Short honed performing improv comedy with Toronto's The Second City and Martin polished throughout the 1970s as the biggest stand-up comedian in the world. They answer my questions like a tag team. "Go Marty Go!" says Steve Martin at the outset.

Marty will walk into a party and get everyone laughing because he'll say an unthinkable thing.

How did they become friends? “I think it’s how anyone becomes friends, really,” says Martin. “We immediately hit it off. We made each other laugh and we enjoyed each other’s company and made a decision at the completion of that film [Three Amigos], as you sometimes do at the completion of a film, ‘Let’s not lose each other.’ We continued dinners and evenings and vacations and it’s been going on like that since the late 1980s.”

What do they like about each other? Short answers first: “He’s funny. He’s witty. He’s smart. He’s intriguing, He’s fascinating. I can’t typically say what it is in a nutshell because it’s hard to put Steve in a nutshell. Although, he should live in a nutshell.”

Martin laughs. “I think of Marty as brash and I’m not brash,” he says. “Marty will walk into a party and get everyone laughing because he’ll say an unthinkable thing... He’s always the life of a party in a good sense, not a bad sense.”

What’s the bad sense? “He’s never obnoxious.”

Martin and Short have appeared together in several films but they hadn't done a live show together before these recent excursions. In fact, apart from tours with his bluegrass band, The Steep Canyon Rangers (Martin is a skilled banjo player) Martin has largely eschewed live gigs since his early stand-up fame. Why did they decide to work on this now? "A few years ago we were asked to interview each other at the closing of the comedy festival Just for Laughs in Chicago, Illinois," says Short. "We've known each other forever and it went really well but most importantly we really enjoyed doing it and we thought, 'We should do this again.' And we did it again and then a few more times and it evolved into more of a full throttle show and we brought the Steep Canyon Rangers with us and it evolved from being just an evening of conversation."

Is their onstage behaviour like their behaviour together off stage? “That’s the way it started,” says Martin. “Our off-stage banter translated naturally to on stage. If some scholar wanted to track it by observing our material from 1985 to today, it could probably be traced incrementally on television shows and things we’ve done together.”

“That is a scholar with time on his hands,” says Short.

Comedy is very vulnerable to time and very few people do actually survive

Do they treat comedy analytically themselves? “I don’t think you need to analyse because you know what the answer is,” says Short. “It works because it was clever or funny. You’re observing a part of life the audience relate to.”

“The best material is jokes that go over but you don’t know why,” says Martin. “That keeps the audience on their toes and the audience really like that. That was my premise, in fact, when I first started doing comedy. I wanted them to laugh and not know what made them laugh.”

Were Short and Martin influenced by the same people? They came out of very different comedy scenes, says Short. "But when Steve and I discuss who we liked as kids there were many, many similarities, from Nichols and May to Jerry Lewis."

Do they feel their stuff is in any way similar to that of younger comedians? "[Comedy is] all over the place now," says Martin. "You see one that is and one that isn't in the same kind of spirit… Comedy is very vulnerable to time and very few people do actually survive. Charlie Chaplin survives, Laurel and Hardy survive and a lot of it just comes and goes."

“I always find it fascinating why certain comedy is timeless,” says Short. “You can look at WC Fields and laugh as hard as they did in 1936.”

I suggest that silliness is always funny. "That's true you know," says Short. "I've had friends of my kids and I'll put on the Marx Brothers and they'll look at Groucho and go, 'Yeah…' but they always laugh at Harpo." He laughs. "A grown man acting like an eight-year-old, kids relate to that and so do I."

What do they find funny in each other? “Steve treats that audience as if they’re as smart as he is, which is pretty smart,” says Short. “And that’s a great instinct. And also he has a bit of the clown in him. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Great Flydini? That’s one of the best things Steve ever did and he’s totally deadpan.”

If it really doesn't go well with a friend you go and have a glass of wine and kind of laugh about your mutual failure

What does Martin find funny about Short? “No-thing!” says Martin drawing out each syllable.

“Let me go back,” says Short. “When I said ‘deadpan’ I meant that that was the audience’s reaction.”

Martin does actually go on to praise Short. His work, he says, "seems unbounded. It's not restricted by anything. It's like the way we would all like to be… Carl Reiner taught me something early on when I was working with him in the 1980s. He was going to host a Directors' Guild meeting and I said, 'What's your material?' and he said 'I don't know.' And I said, 'Really, you're walking out there with no material?' And he said 'Yep' and I said 'Really, what do you do?' and he said 'I just tell them the truth.' And I kind of adopted that. If you say what's on their mind that you're not supposed to talk about, it really works."

They're both looking forward to their Dublin gig. Both of them have Irish heritage, though Martin's is a little more distant than Short's. Short's father came from Crossmaglen. "I have about 800 cousins coming to the show," he says. "My father was one of 11. One went to Canada. One went to England. He's [Labour politician] Clare Short's father. And the rest hung around there."

Is there a strain of Irish humour in his work? “Yes. There are times when I do this character Jiminy Glick [subject of a TV series and a film] when I think, ‘I’m doing dad’.”

“Really?” says Martin.

“Yes, sarcastic and funny.”

Is it more enjoyable to be on the road with someone else? “I think it is way easier with a partner,” says Martin. “I’ve done both.”

“If things don’t go well and you’re by yourself you go to your hotel and stare in the mirror and go, ‘Oh dear,’” says Short. “If it really doesn’t go well with a friend you go and have a glass of wine and kind of laugh about your mutual failure.”

Does the show continue when you come off stage? “Oh,” says Short. “That’s when the fun begins.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times