Steve Martin: ‘You always have this fear that your success is not going to last’

Steve Martin and Martin Short on fame, fatherhood and their new comedy collaboration

As enduring and endearing double acts go, Short and Martin are up there with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Photograph: Mark Seliger

As enduring and endearing double acts go, Short and Martin are up there with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Photograph: Mark Seliger

 

It is when I hear myself quoting Steve Martin and Martin Short’s jokes back at the men themselves, from films they made decades ago, that I know for certain that I am not going to get through this interview with my dignity intact. “And then you said this, Steve, and then, Marty, you made that face – and I loved that!” I burble.

Martin and Short nod back kindly, with the ever-so-slightly strained smiles of men who have been hearing their own jokes quoted at them clumsily for the past half a century. But they knew what they were in for, given that I kicked off our interview by – oh God – singing one of their songs at them.

I told them that their duet from the 1986 comedy Three Amigos is what I sing to my two-year-old every night. “‘My little buttercup has the sweetest smile ...’” I begin.

“Oh, I love that!” says Martin, making what can only be described as a mercy interruption.

“That’s great,” says Short, even less convincingly.

I think my interest in small-time show business began ever since I was in it and had a little success. You always have this fear that it’s not going to last and you’re going to go back to that world

Short and Martin became friends while making Three Amigos. Was it doing that duet, in which he and Short wiggle their backsides and give it their vaudevillian best, that made each of them think, Yes, I have found my soulmate and comedy partner?

“Yes. There’s a moment in My Little Buttercup when you can see Marty and me really look into each other’s eyes,” says Martin solemnly. Then he and the man he calls “my closest fake showbiz friend” crack up.

Short says: “You know, you make movies and you’re in each other’s lives for a few months, in Yugoslavia or wherever, and then you never see each other again. But Steve and I made each other laugh, and we’re clowns, so that’s a big seductive element. That created a determination to see each other, and then have dinners, and that evolved into taking family vacations together.”

“The truth is, I wanted the Yugoslavia outcome, but Marty just kept following me,” Martin deadpans.

“Every time he changed his number, I found the new one!” chirps Short.

The three of us are talking by video chat, Short from his home in Los Angeles, Martin from his own US west-coast residence (his main home is in New York), in what he calls Beverly Hills Adjacent (“I didn’t quite make it”).

“Its real name is New Money,” pipes up Short.

Despite our distance from one another, their comic timing never misses a beat. This is what happens when you are dealing with two comedy pros who have been striving to make each other laugh for five decades.

Every generation gets their own incarnation of Martin and Short. Gen X kids of the 1980s know them from Three Amigos, in which they and Chevy Chase play out-of-work actors who are mistakenly recruited to fight Mexican gangsters. For millennials growing up in the 1990s, they are the uptight father (Martin) and flamboyantly accented wedding planner (Short) from the Father of the Bride franchise.

Now Gen Zers will meet them in the Disney+ comedy-mystery series Only Murders in the Building, in which they, along with their unlikely costar Selena Gomez, play true-crime obsessives who decide to investigate a murder that has occurred in their fancy Manhattan apartment building. And I haven’t even mentioned their live standup shows (which are resuming soon), their many talkshow appearances, or all the awards shows they have presented.

As enduring and endearing double acts go, Short and Martin are up there with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And, as with Brooks and the late Reiner, their friendship is palpable. Martin says that if he and his wife, the journalist Anne Stringfield, are planning a dinner party and Short can’t come, “we’ll cancel the dinner party”.

“Marty is just truly very, very funny – and he has so many friends! On his birthday, his phone is like: ‘Ding! Ding! Ding!’ Oh look, Steven Spielberg has sent over a birthday show for Marty!” he says.

Short – one of the most sociable guys in Hollywood – laughs, but does not deny it. So what does he get from hanging out with Martin?

“If Steve were just a humorous guy without being a highly decent, admirable man, then it would be a different kind of relationship. But Steve is a very loyal, wise, kind, smart person to hang out with,” says Short.

Today, Martin takes control of the conversation, answering the questions first while Short waits quietly. But, on stage and on screen, Martin usually plays the straight(er) man, while Short goes pell-mell, knocking out a gag every 10 seconds.

This dynamic holds true in Only Murders in the Building, in which Martin plays Charles, an unemployed actor who had a brief burst of fame on a cop show, and Short is Oliver, a larger-than-life theatre director whose career was tanked by Splash! The Musical (“A swimming pool – on stage!”) They are both on the edge of show business, desperate to get back into it, making them a little reminiscent of Martin and Short’s characters in Three Amigos – and even more so of Martin’s character in Bowfinger (which Martin also wrote), in which he played a director trying to break into the big time. What is it about people on the fringes of showbiz that interests him?

When I ask if he had any specific cultural references in mind when making it, Martin gives the immensely pleasing answer: Murder, She Wrote

“I think my interest in small-time show business began ever since I was in it and had a little success. You always have this fear that it’s not going to last and you’re going to go back to that world,” says Martin.

Only Murders in the Building is a delicious watch, absurd but glossed over with old-school charm. This could be a description of Martin himself, so it is no surprise that he co-created it. He has had a fascinating career, beginning as a standup comedian – with rock-star success – in the 70s, before switching to slapstick movies (The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), then family comedies in the 80s (Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood), more dramatic films in the 90s (LA Story, The Spanish Prisoner) and back to comedies in the 00s (Cheaper by the Dozen, It’s Complicated).

He was so huge as a standup that Elvis Presley came backstage after one of his gigs in the 70s, just to chat (“Son, you have an oblique sense of humour,” Elvis told him). Did that encounter inspire his performance as the Elvis-esque sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors?

“Definitely. Fortunately, my impression was so inaccurate that it comes off as an original,” he says.

On top of all that, Martin is well known as a cultured man: a novelist, a composer, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker, a banjo master and an art fan whose private collection rivals many museums. As such, I assumed the setting of Only Murders in the Building was a homage to old movies such as 1932’s Grand Hotel. But he says he was simply inspired by the New York apartment building in which he has lived for the past 35 years. When I ask if he had any specific cultural references in mind when making it, Martin – who is far more straight-talking and forthcoming than his introverted reputation had led me to expect – gives the immensely pleasing answer: “Murder, She Wrote.”

I ask how Gomez compares as a costar with the notoriously prickly Chevy Chase. Martin laughs at the thought of even comparing them.

“Well, Selena listened,” says Short drily.

“I guess there couldn’t be two people more different,” adds Martin.

As well as being the first TV series the friends have made together, Only Murders in the Building also has a lot more drama in it than, say, Father of the Bride. I love Martin and Short’s comedy, but many of my favourite roles of theirs have been more dramatic, such as Martin’s elegant, romantic turn in LA Story, which he wrote. Martin’s favourite Short performance is also mine: the skin-crawlingly creepy misogynist – “a low-level Weinstein”, Martin says – in The Morning Show on Apple TV+. I ask Short if he was inspired by anyone he knew.

“Don’t say me,” interrupts Martin, unable to let a gag pass him by.

“Ha! No, but I understand someone feeling they’re the victim. Some people learn from their mistakes and some people are destined to repeat them because they won’t accept any fault within themselves,” says Short.

Short was born in Ontario, Canada, and started out as a comedian alongside his still-close friend Eugene Levy. He hasn’t had a film career like Martin’s, but one of my favourite films as a kid was the slapstick-tastic Innerspace, in which Short, for reasons we don’t need to investigate too closely here, has a mini Dennis Quaid swimming in his body. Short’s bodily and facial contortions in the film are a thing of wonder. “I have no idea how I did that – I was young and stupid,” he says.

His parents and the eldest of his three brothers (he also has a sister) died before he was 20. “There’s an assumption that out of the sadness in my childhood came my need to perform. But it’s just a coincidence. But you do tap into things in your life to duplicate emotions in your work,” he says. Perhaps for that reason, he and Martin have always had a knack for vulnerability and comedy. In John Hughes’s 1987 comedy Trains, Planes and Automobiles, Martin cruelly tears down John Candy, playing a travelling salesman, only to then be pole-axed when Candy replies defiantly: “I like me.” Did Martin know when he was making that scene that Candy’s character was based on Hughes’s father?

“I didn’t know about that. At all. I was looking through the script the other day, because I was finding things that were cut from the movie that were so poignant. Right at the end, there’s a scene between me and John [Candy] and he explains his life ... that scene was a page and a half long in the script and in the movie I think it’s cut to three lines. But there was such beauty in it and I never understood why John [Hughes] trimmed that scene,” he says.

As enduring and endearing double acts go, Short and Martin are up there with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Photograph: Mark Seliger
As enduring and endearing double acts go, Short and Martin are up there with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Photograph: Mark Seliger

Speaking of fathers, in Only Murders in the Building, Martin’s character discusses his strained relationship with his father. His dialogue sounds an awful lot like the opening chapter of his memoir, Born Standing Up, in which Martin describes his difficulties with his father. Was that autobiographical?

“Honestly, no. As a performer, I might have tapped into ... but no, to answer the question in an uninteresting way, no,” he says.

Martin found a wonderful father figure in Hollywood when Reiner directed four of his early films – The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains and All of Me. When I interviewed his son Rob Reiner, the actor and director, in 2018, he said that Martin and his father developed such a close working relationship that he became jealous.

With their love of gags, songs and punchlines, Short and Martin feel like unicorns from another age

Martin laughs it off. “Well, I definitely saw Carl as a father figure, but he did not see me as a son figure, because he already had two sons. But I’d watch him in social environments, listen to his attitudes and his speech, and I still hear myself and think: ‘That’s something Carl would say,’” he says.

Reiner died last year at 98. I ask what Reiner’s memorial was like, given that he was so beloved. “It was on Zoom,” Martin and Short say glumly as one. For once, there is no punchline to follow, because not even they can find the funny in a Zoom funeral.

Short has three grownup children, while Martin became a father at 67 when he and Stringfield had a daughter in 2012. Which of his films prepared him best for fatherhood: Parenthood, Father of the Bride or Cheaper by the Dozen?

“You know what? In a way, all of them did. I was not a kid person and when I did Parenthood I would see these kids, who were like little freakish things, and I’d realise: ‘They’re not so bad; I actually like them’. So it did pave the way to an understanding that I would like children. Now, I see a kid and I’m staring at it like: ‘Oooh! Ahhh!’ Especially a little toddler. The innocence, just walking around ...” he trails off fondly.

So does he make balloon shapes of lower intestines at kids parties, as he does in Parenthood? “Ha! Well, we haven’t had birthday parties in a while,” he says, adept at keeping personal questions at arm’s length.

One of the joys of Martin and Short, now more than ever, is that they are purely funny. This might sound obvious, but comedy so often comes with an edge or a political message, designed to provoke what the comedy writer Jeff Maurer calls “clapter” rather than laughter. With their love of gags, songs and punchlines, Short and Martin feel like unicorns from another age, in the best way – very brilliant, very silly unicorns. Do they ever feel pressure to include politics in their comedy?

“I think people need a respite from it, especially in the United States. I’m sure it’s the same in the UK, where it’s so divisive,” says Short.

Martin nods: “I just don’t want to hear those boos when you say a political name, and then the audience is at war with each other – I don’t think that’s what we’re there for. We just have a love of getting laughs.” – Guardian

Only Murders in the Building premieres on Disney+ on Tuesday, August 31st

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.