Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Martin
Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, at age sixteen Martin Short
developed an interesting habit. He would simultaneously cue
up a tape recorder alongside Frank Sinatra's legendary live
recording Sinatra at the Sands, letting the laughter
and applause of Ol' Blue Eyes' audience wash over his
bedroom. Then, just before Frank would start to sing each
track, young Marty would lift the needle from the vinyl LP. He
had what he wanted: applause on a loop. Soon after, imitating
Sinatra's baritone to a tee, he would record his own homemade
song-for-song cover of the record, renaming it Martin
Short Sings of Songs and Loves Ago. His was a devoted
audience of one: his mother, Olive, whom Short asked to listen
to the recording in full and give each track a merciless critique.
Short's new memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble
Comedy Legend, channels the spirit of the author's
generation-spanning obsessions and singular talent. To say
that I laughed out loud at something on nearly every page of
this book sounds like impossible gushing. Yet it is not only true,
it's all the more impressive given that Short is such a physical
comedian: noodle-legged, clap-happy, toe-tapping, and
downright sacrificial in his pratfalls, ever in pursuit of a roar
from the crowd. His wit -- that verve so many comedians have
on stage but lack on page -- is vividly, perhaps even
surprisingly tuned for writing, and places his book on par with
such classic showbiz memoirs as Robert Evans's The Kid
Stays in the Picture, Miles Davis's Miles: The
Autobiography, and Steve Martin's Born Standing
In October I spoke to Short by phone about his early years, the
legacy of SCTV, love and grief, and how he's doing in
the nine categories he's selected as keys to fulfillment. What
follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. --Nick
The Barnes & Noble Review: Thank you for taking the
time. I really appreciate it.
Martin Short: My pleasure. So far, so good!
BNR: I wanted to begin by saying that the book does a
terrific job of articulating "fame," which for most people is a
desirable if foreign concept. Sitting in a tuxedo eating grilled
cheese with Steve Martin, walking through the supermarket
with Tom Hanks. Is fame what you expected it to be growing
up in Hamilton, Ontario?
MS: It's very hard to have an objective perspective on
it, because these guys that you mentioned are famous, but
they're just friends. You know what I mean? It would be like
me asking, "What's Jessie Haddington like?" and you'd say,
"He's just my friend."
BNR: Jessie is a monster, actually.
MS: He's a monster. OK, bad choice. But you know
what I mean. The bizarreness of the fact that I was a kid in my
attic pretending to have my own television show, and then
actually achieved that. That's surreal.
BNR: You touch on the belief that our first fifteen
years are the formative ones: we end up echoing adolescence
throughout our lives.
MS: I think so.
BNR: One thing that surprised me is that music is all
over this book. Singing is a constant joy for you: in your
childhood bedroom crooning to Sinatra at the Sands,
with friends at Christmas, and onstage from the earliest days of
your career. You grew up in a musical home -- your mother a
violinist, your brother Michael a jazz pianist.
MS: Yes, she would practice like five hours a day
during the season, if she could. Any kind of normalcy that you
experience as a kid is your normalcy. The idea of rehearsal or
focus, or that "it takes a long time to get this little passage
right," was not a foreign concept to me.
My father used to sing. I have old tapes of him. He had an Irish
brogue. And you would always hear me doing harmony on it.
My father was constantly saying, "Marty is in bad voice tonight,
but you know . . . " And I'm like nine! I was the youngest of five,
so there's a trickle-down influence, obviously.
BNR: You say in the book that you have a very sharp
memory for the past, which is obviously a great asset for a
memoirist. Are you someone who keeps journal entries? Do
you hold on to artifacts from your past?
MS: I don't. I always had that weird ability to know
exactly what I was doing at, say, twenty-six years, four months.
It's not as good as Marilu Henner's, but it's in the ballpark. I
once thought that everyone had that, but I realized very few do.
So that was not a difficult thing, to bring back these stories and
memories and know exactly where they were placed.
BNR: As a kid, your imaginary film career was getting
in the way of your imaginary television career. But despite
your love of show business, you went to McMaster as a pre-
med student, with later intentions of social work.
MS: You know, I wasn't in Manhattan growing up. I
was in a different country. And the idea that I would be in the
world that I would see on television from Buffalo just seemed
completely like I was going to the moon or something. It didn't
have any connection to reality.
BNR: Eugene Levy encourages you to give acting a try
so that even if it doesn't work out, you can look in the mirror at
fifty with no regrets. That's a pivotal thing to be told at a
MS: I didn't want to be not-successful. I didn't want to
be broke. So if being an actor meant that I would be broke, I
wasn't so drawn toward it either. But his point was very valid:
you don't want to have any regrets and say, "Oh, I shoulda."
You say, "Oh, no, you did. Remember? You did it for a couple of
years and you starved." "Oh, yeah." Now it comes back.
BNR: Looking back, was there a moment when you
dared to admit to yourself: "I want this; I want performing to
be my life's work?"
MS: Well, at a certain point, you kind of feel like you're
stuck. But I gave myself a year-long contract when I left
university, and I would renew that each year for many years, in
my twenties certainly. Then by about thirty, you feel like, "I
guess I'm doing this." And you're a little more successful than
before. So you start to feel a slight inevitability.
BNR: I was watching an interview you did with Conan
O'Brien last year where you talk about your instinct to over-
prepare. You talk about how when doing a talk show, you send
in thirty pages of material so that it can be cut down to eight.
"If I bomb, I can still go have a glass of wine and feel good
MS: That's right.
BNR: Did the same hold true for this book? Was it
thoroughly sketched out, revised, whittled down? Was there a
lot left on the cutting room floor?
MS: I did it kind of like I was doing an HBO special. I
knew I wanted to cover areas, but I certainly didn't want it to
be, "And then I was born!" on page one. Because reading those
kinds of books, I just speed right to the drug addiction. So I
mapped it out. I wanted to have a theme. I wanted to start with
my wife and I, and end with my wife and I. I wanted to cover
these years with some chronological order, but not be
obsessed by time. You know how, when you're telling someone
about your life, you jump around all over the place with
stories? That's the feel I wanted to get.
BNR: I wanted to ask about that chronology. It seems
like many of the best things in your life happened in
unexpected moments and surprising places. You fall in love
with your wife, Nancy, during an uncertain phase in your
career. SCTV is filmed in a Canadian comedy vacuum of
Toronto and Edmonton, where it had many benefits of being
removed from New York and L.A. Were you surprised in
putting this book together that many of the highlights came
where you weren't expecting them, or even necessarily looking
MS: I think that's just show business, you know?
You're convinced something is going to be a huge hit, and it's a
surprise bomb, and then something you think is going to be OK
suddenly might lead to other opportunities. I've been doing
this for so long now that the mystique of it -- the superstition of
it -- is not intriguing to me. When anyone asks me for advice at
this point, I realize I don't have anything to offer, except to say
that somehow, you can Zen yourself into a place of treating it
like a business, and not so emotionally. Because you're
constantly selling yourself, so you're going to have to protect
your psyche somehow. Even Obama. Any president has to go
eat dinner at 8. It doesn't matter what's happening in the
world. You have to just give yourself a break.
There were disappointments. When you're twenty-three, you
may not be doing a great show. Maybe you're doing a
cheeseball TV series. But just the fact that you're even working
at twenty-three is unbelievable.
BNR: That idea of "treating it like a business" is
interesting. For Andrea Martin's new book, Lady Parts,
I asked her what the best career advice she'd ever gotten was,
and she said it was to "take nothing personally."
MS: She probably got it from me.
BNR: I'll just credit everything uplifting and insightful
that she said in that interview to you.
MS: Thank you very much.
BNR: Speaking of Ms. Martin and the groundbreaking
SCTV, on which you worked together: That show
focused on finding peculiar moments and characters -- all
working in a fictional TV station -- and was driven by its
unpredictable ensemble dynamic. You talk in the book about
much of the cast meeting while performing the musical
Godspell together in Toronto. Can you talk a bit about
how that team collectively found its particular voice and
MS: Andrea, for example, is a better person to ask,
because I wasn't there on the ground floor. But I was friends
with everyone who was on the ground floor. So what I could
observe, having not been there until it was already a hit -- I was
the interloper -- was that Harold Ramis was a huge creative
force in starting it. I believe it was his idea to do the fictional
network. And everyone had so much regard for him. He was so
respected and admired.
He was close friends with everybody, but he was very close
with Joe Flaherty. Joe was sort of the next in the pecking order,
and if Joe threw his 100 percent support behind Harold,
everyone did. People learned a lot from him, and he was a big
creative and inspirational force for what would ultimately
develop into the ideal SCTV, whatever that year is.
Some people like the early years. Some people like once it
became ninety minutes.
We called Joe "the anchor." It was like . . . "Joe, what do you
think? C'mere, Joe, look at this. Joe, help me here. Joe, Joe, Joe,
BNR: Like Phil Hartman, referred to as "the glue" on
Saturday Night Live by his peers.
BNR: If we could switch gears to something far more
serious: the third act of this book delves frankly into your
wife's battle with ovarian cancer. There's a very poignant
moment toward the end of the book, the night before Nancy
passed away, where you impart to your son the idea that life's
hardest moments allow us to be less fearful and angry about
BNR: And the book ends with the reaction that you
had when your parents died, the notion that you could
persevere through anything if you could survive this.
MS: Almost like doing an impersonation of yourself.
[Laughs] Except you know, happy.
BNR: Forgive me for what may be a difficult question,
but were there things that you learned about yourself from
those days after Nancy's death? I'm wondering how the
experience changed you. The book illustrates that both your
love for her -- and even your conversations with her -- carry
MS: As it should, to "keep the conversation going," as
Mike Nichols says. I don't know what I learned. I was reminded
about things. Which was one of the reasons that I wanted to
write the book. It suddenly dawned on me, "Oh, yeah, now I
know what a book would be." Because you do find yourself,
whether you're twenty or sixty, sometimes in that same
situation. You can't imagine the future, yet you have no choice
but to experience it. And as you experience it, you're reminded
that there is a natural buoyancy of happiness that some people
have -- I have it -- and exist in that, function in that. And that
death is part of life, as we hear in all the things that we have
studied and read about. But they no longer become theory; it's
become part of your life, and you start to understand it more.
You become less frightened by turbulence. You become less
frightened by a lot of things. In the book, I asked Stephen
Colbert if he was scared about going to the White House
Correspondents Dinner, to say those things he said to Bush's
face. And he said, "No, I was scared when I was ten" [the year
Colbert's father and brother died in a plane crash].
BNR: I would be remiss if I didn't add that there is a
moment at the end of this book that makes Kurt Russell seem
like the coolest mensch on the planet. I don't know why
exactly, but his was the part of the entire book that got me kind
of a little choked up. After your wife dies, he buys every flower
in the local store and puts them in antique vases around your
MS: It was all true. [Russell's longtime partner] Goldie
[Hawn] said, "Well, honey, I'll help you, I'll get the flowers."
And Kurt said, "No,I've just got to do this myself." And he did it
all afternoon. Because he knew we were flying in around five.
BNR: Your new character on Mulaney, game
show host Lou Cannon, is a little insecure about his age and
achievements. Whereas in this book, you call this time in your
life, "September of my years, but an unusually temperate
MS: [Laughs] Yeah.
BNR: You're getting some of the best roles of your
career now. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like
there are certain differences between, say, Inherent
Vice and Jungle 2 Jungle.
MS: [Laughs] I'll say. There's nothing quite like
Jungle 2 Jungle.
BNR: To what do you owe your unusually temperate
September? Is it a matter of staying in the game, or has your
approach to working in Hollywood changed over time?
MS: It's no new approach to Hollywood. My
enjoyment comes from being an actor, and my enjoyment is the
variety of tastes that I am able to pull off in the course of a year,
doing a film or then television. Steve Martin and I do stage
shows together now, and I do concerts. All these things keep it
awfully interesting to me. Some of that timing is just
coincidental. You happen to be releasing a book when Paul
I was being interviewed a couple of years ago by someone, and
he said, "How does it feel to have become that thing that you
used to satirize on SCTV?" I said, "What do you mean?"
He said, "Well, you're Martin Short." I said, "Yeah?" "But you
became ?the Martin Short,' so does it make it feel different
when you do things?" I said, "What are you talking about?" It's
exactly the same. It's just you start something new, and you
think it will fail, and you try to make it better . . . It might as
well be The Associates in 1979, or staging You're a
Good Man, Charlie Brown in ?74. It's all the same kind of
He said, "Larry David must be amazed that he now gets to be
Larry David." So I told Larry the next day, and he said,
[Slipping into a dead-on Larry David impression] "Is
that guy fucking crazy? We're exactly the same. Hanging on by
a thread. That's all we've ever done."
BNR: Interviews like that are why I wake up certain
nights in a cold sweat. On that note, I had a tentative idea on
how I might close here. In the book you talk about developing a
system called "the Nine Categories."
BNR: In which, every week for the last thirty-five-plus
years, you've graded yourself in a notebook by a set of nine
color-coded criteria, and, with the understanding that this is a
personal endeavor, and you can be as impersonal or as candid
as you wish, I wonder if you might indulge me in a spontaneous
look at the nine categories for a moment here.
BNR: Maybe just a word or idea or one sentence that
comes to mind to describe your current status in these fields. Is
that something you'd be amenable to?
BNR: The first check-in would be "Self."
MS: I would say, "Good." My weight is currently
around the orange color. Could it be blue? Sure, I wish it was in
the blue. Gotta work on that. But hey, at least it's not red. My
health is very good. I've been going to Pilates -- that's good.
Category #2 is the "Immediate Family": my kids. Yes, they're all
doing fabulously. Very strong marks. They're an A.
Category #3 is the siblings, the "Original Family." All swinging.
All hilarious. All funny. All healthy. That's the important thing.
Category #4. Money. Lots of money. No, no, wait a second. #4 is
BNR: I think you cut to the chase right there. When
money is good, friends will follow.
MS: [Laughs] Exactly. #5 is "Money." That's
#6 is "Career." Well, as you say, I'm booming.
#7: "Creativity." You're always creative when you're working.
#8: "Discipline." That's always my weakest. Peanut butter at
night, that kind of problem.
#9: Lifestyle. I get out. I'm talking to you, aren't I? Nothing
wrong with that. If I have a Nick Curley interview, then I'm
BNR: We just have to close with that, don't we? That's
gotta be the end.
--November 3, 2014