Martin Short

Who do you wanna be tonight, Marty?
August 1985
Underneath Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr. and Nathan Thurm is the real Martin Short, who is terribly decent we must say—if just a bit paranormal.

Just another carefree night for Martin Short. He’s out cruising the town in his new black twelve-cylinder Jaguar with a couple of bottles of Piper-Heidsieck and a few tablespoons of toot in the glove compartment, and now he has the ebony monster idling outside the West Side Grill, a trendy Toronto restaurant, where he first attacks—and then loses interest in—dinner. Upon discovering he’s forgotten his wallet, he pays the maître d’ (his friend) with contraband, and on his way out of the establishment spots two unfairly beautiful young blonds who’ve been ogling him all night from the bar. He picks them both up with a smile—just a smile!—and pats their buns into the backseat of the purring Jag, tossing the valet a bottle of bubbly as a tip.
In seconds, he’s racing down the lakefront highway to the blasting beat of Grandmaster Flash. Martin careens off the highway at 90 mph, jumps a curb on the park drive, and he’s right down on the beach, pulling figure eights in the sand. The moon roof whirs back, and Martin pokes his head out, long hair blowing in the wind. The girls are hugging each other, giggling and screaming with their eyes closed, leather minis soaked with spilled champagne. Then he stops the car in two feet of water and lobs a Glad bag of coke through the moon roof like a hand grenade. It bursts open on the hood, and Martin leaps through the moon roof, slides down the windshield and lies spread-eagled on the hood, snorting. He commands one blond to “start driving, bitch!” and as she does, Martin quickly turns himself into a hood ornament—imitating the little silver Jaguar over the grill. When she hits 50 mph on the beach, Martin stands on the hood and screams at the distant skyline, “Toronto! My fucking city! Mine, damn it!”

Truth be told, Martin Short doesn’t own a Jaguar and doesn’t exceed the speed limit. He doesn’t drive around with groupies. Doesn’t do cocaine. Drinks in moderation. Doesn’t even listen to rap music. And he remembers his wallet. “My concept of defying society’s laws,” jokes Short, “is no different from Mr. Rogers’s.”

Martin Short just happens to be a regular guy who is extremely strange when he works. He happens to have an odd job, a job that has tended historically to attract a certain type of applicant (wounded, crazy, excessive, desperate, complex, driven, angry—pick any three). And this job has led Short to create some fairly bizarre characters, genuinely disturbing people whom you would not like to have over for dinner. But I’ll tell you how weird Martin Short is. He’s so weird he’s normal. He’s, uh, paranormal.

I’m off to see the wizard of sketch comedy on a cool spring day in Toronto. The star of last season’s Saturday Night Live and the performer and Emmy-winning writer for SCTV for three seasons before it, Short has just escaped from New York City and is holed up at home, pondering his future and changing diapers. The subway deposits me a few blocks away, in a solid middle-class neighborhood that feels like semisuburban London. Cars sshhhh by slowly on the wet pavement, and small lawns glow green. The blue-capped mailman high-steps between houses, two policemen cruise by quietly in a bright yellow car, and the neighborhood dog barks a warning, presumably “journalist approaching.” There, at the top of the hill, is Martin Short’s house, circled by a brown picket fence and punctuated with a Christmas-pine exclamation mark in the front yard. It’s a modest but comfy red brick two-story box, with sloping green-shingled roof, attic with dormers, stone columns, front porch, white stucco nursery, all highlighted with pink trim and window boxes bursting with geraniums. There are raccoons living in the roof. That sort of house.

In the kitchen, Martin’s steady for the last ten years and wife for almost five of those, actress Nancy Dolman, is co-opting baby Katherine into finishing her tomatoes with the promise of cantaloupe for dessert. Monty the cat is on the prowl for lunch, so Nancy feeds her as well. Martin makes his entrance fresh from an upstairs shaving fiasco, with bleeding neck and a big “Welcome to my home!” “Hi, baby,” he calls to Katherine, going over to the high chair to suck on the back of her neck—a practice that seventeen months of experience has proven will stimulate a squeal of delight. “Katerina! Katerina!” he calls to her. “Did you show David your smelly feet?” Martin pulls his daughter out of dining mode and sets her down on the living-room carpet. Nancy calls out, “Oh, honey, don’t make her do that. She’s not a trained seal.” I brace myself in anticipation of the new-parent equivalent of a Stupid Pet Trick. Martin continues, “Show him your smelly feet. Your smelly feet. Where are your smelly feet?” Nancy, from the kitchen, with feeling: “You can’t make her perform.” Martin, answering: “Normally, she always shows people her smelly feet.” “But not when you do it on demand like that,” counters Nancy. Martin pleads, “Show him your smelly feet.” And with this command, Katherine’s blue eyes sparkle as she reaches out and holds her feet à la Jane Fonda’s workout cover shot. Martin beams, pretzels his daughter into a hug and rewards her with alien animal noises.

“What a terrible thing to teach her,” chastens Nancy from the kitchen. Then she adds her own request, “Do you want to show David your nursery before you go to bed?” Katherine agrees, but upon arrival at the nursery, she issues a cry of “nuuu!” meaning she would like to lead a tour of the house in the nude. Her parents confer and submit, and we’re off on a tour, with Katherine very much in the lead and very much in the nude. After a cursory stumble through the house, she ascends the stairs to Martin’s small attic workroom. The first word baby Katherine learned about Daddy was funny, and this is the room where Daddy works at it.

The director’s chair at the desk is labeled ED GRIMLEY, for Short’s most famous character: the excitable, childlike optimist with the chest-high pants and rather odd ambivalences, a soul who can draw a laugh with a line like, “So often high ceilings can be effective.” The walls are covered with showbiz photos, a visual résumé of Short’s career and his friends: an early-Seventies Toronto Godspell with Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy and Paul Shaffer; other musicals and revues; Martin singing Top 40 hits on a Canadian television show, Right On (“a cheese-ball phase,” he admits); moments from the formative years (’77, ’78) of Second City stage shows; with Danny Thomas during a mixed period of L.A. sitcom work; characters made famous on SCTV, such as scrap-metal executive Brad Allen, cross-eyed albino lounge crooner Jackie Rogers Jr. and pathologically nostalgic vaudevillian Irving Cohen; impersonations of Pierre Trudeau, Jerry Lewis, Gore Vidal, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman; Saturday Night Live stills as Nathan Thurm, the Nixonian stonewalling lawyer, and Katharine Hepburn; Emmy nominations; ridiculous fan mail (“I shall be following your career with devotion and, on occasion, heavy breathing”); and inspiring reviews (“Foxy-faced Martin Short, one of the most engaging young revue performers in Canada, and Nancy Dolman, who is as lush and curvaceous as a dish of prize melons . . .”). During the SCTV days Martin would open the window, walk out onto the roof with his notebook, sit, survey the scene and stretch the limits of satire.

“I see certain comedians who are very funny out of their own neuroses and unhappiness, and you just know what their childhoods were like,” explains Short. “But when I see playbacks of Ed Grimley jumping around, it’s not surprising to me that that person had a good childhood. Oh, it was the best!”

Martin Short opened Off-Broadway thirty-five years ago in Hamilton, Ontario, an hour’s drive west of Toronto. He was the youngest of five children born to Charles Patrick Short, Irish Immigrant and general sales manager of Canada’s largest steel company, and Olive Short, first violinist with the Hamilton Philharmonic. Martin was a pleasantly spoiled baby in a happy, rowdy, free-for-all family. His father—who was forever referring to the “Excited States of America,” railing against the absurdities of life (“Why do they ask you what flavor you want when you just want ice cream?”), and making fools out of his kids’ friends—stressed moxie and guts and wits around the house. Says Martin’s big brother Michael, owner of two Emmys for his writing on SCTV, “It got to be very worthwhile if you could make somebody laugh.” For instance, Martin would loan his brother money if Michael could make him laugh in ten minutes. Once, Michael came into his room with black tape under his nose saying, “Sieg Heil!” No laughter. Came back in with a hairbrush under his nose. “Sieg Heil!” No laugh. Finally, he came back in with a lamp under his nose. “Sieg Heil!” Laughter, money, get out of here Michael.

Much has been made in the press about the deaths in the family. His oldest brother, David, whom he adored, died in a car crash when Martin was 12. His mother died of cancer when he was 18, his father of a stroke two years later. In the mythology of comedy, where humor comes out of adversity and laughs are but the salve for wounds, this is supposed to explain why Martin is so funny. “It’s not true,” he states, somewhat defensively. “I’m not pretending that it didn’t take lots of walks and riding my bike and thinking about it. But I did not go through a spell of hard drugs and travelin’-the-road to figure this thing out. I’m religious, and I always felt I would feel their presence again. I’ve never lost spiritual touch with any of them. It wasn’t so much sad as a drag I wasn’t going to see them for a while.”

If anything, Martin’s humor stems from his having had a lot of time on his hands in a warmly supportive environment. He was always good in school and was never required to get a job. (To this day, his only job has been performing.) Reflects Martin, “My imagination had time to expand.” In his attic bedroom, Martin conjured up a world. He invented games. In one, he would cut the heads of American politicians out of newspapers—six Republicans and six Democrats—and roll dice repeatedly to determine who would get nominated and who would ultimately be elected president. Then he would draw circles under the eyes and crow’s feet about the face of the winner, since the stress of holding office was bound to show. Martin was 9. His presidential fetish would even filter into his diary, in which an entry might read: “Did nothing today. Watched TV. Went to school. Boring. Nothing. Hoover still very sick.” At 15, with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a microphone, a swiveling light and an applause record, he produced the biweekly Martin Short Show (variety); an album of decidedly nonpsychedelic hits, Martin Short Sings of Songs and Loves Ago; and countless comedy tapes for his own amusement. He decided he didn’t like “Martin Short” and took the stage name “Jackie Rogers.” He gleefully spray-painted everything in his room gold.

“He lived in that attic,” claims Michael, whom Martin calls “Pickles,” “and it got so bad that he couldn’t be bothered going down to the second floor to take a pee. So he’d take a laundry shirt bag—a plastic bag—and pee in the bag, tie it and throw it out the window over to the next backyard. But there was a huge tree there, where the bags would get entangled, and in winter they’d freeze. Now spring would come, and there would be about twenty of these fucking bags—clear plastic bags—up in the tree.” When he’s working, Martin still buries himself in his craft, though he’s learned to use the household facilities.

Like Ed Grimley, he has not given up on the joys of childhood. This is a guy who still gives his older brothers racing-car sets and hockey games for Christmas. “As we get older,” he complains, “we set up these rules: YOU CAN’T HAVE A BOAT IN YOUR TUB ANYMORE. Well, I was in the tub the other day and took one of Katherine’s boats and got little matches, and got into a little game. I was making waves and trying to knock these match-people off the boat. I’ve never understood why we have to relinquish the positive things as we get older. It can be just as much fun to be 35 and ride a bike fast and pretend you’re riding a tremendous horse as if you’re 7 years old. I still do it!”

Apparently, Martin was on Secretariat last summer when a front tire blew and he flew off his bike into a tree—brewing his collarbone and shoulder, puncturing a lung. All entertainers have something called “The Accident” in their histories, but somehow exploding ether, a drug overdose or a careening Harley Davidson doesn’t fit his image. No, but a bicycle mishap is perfect. It fits in well with the Martin Short mystique, which is fairly new as mystiques go but is developing quite nicely. There are six key elements:

1. He is friendly and optimistic. Extremely civil, he loathes unpleasantness and will raise his voice only in the face of rudeness. A remarkable diffuser of bad vibes or hostility, he’s essentially a cheerful person. Over a dinner of pasta shells with snails and garlic, he’s liable to say, “Gee, boy, it would be great to live to be old. I would love to live to be 150. I don’t believe there will be an atomic war—it goes against everything—therefore the prospect of living to be old is good.” Martin sometimes receives signs that his optimism and exuberance are untenable. For instance, ten years ago, on the evening he and Nancy moved into a new apartment on Roxborough Street in Toronto, he was standing in his new bedroom, rhapsodizing about how wonderful everything was going to be. He was thinking, “Yes! My life is mine!” And with his arms open and outstretched, as if to embrace the sheer wonderfulness of the moment, he said, “Oh, isn’t this GREAT!!!” At that precise instant, a brick came crashing through the window and hit Martin squarely in the chest, knocking all the air out of his lungs and Martin down to the floor. And he decided that in spite of everything—the floor littered with glass, the first night ruined, the brick imprint on his chest—he’ would, as his family credo states it, “Maintain the Merry Theme of Life.”

2. He has odd work habits. Martin regularly turns down work. He repeatedly said “No” to Second City before joining the stage show; likewise, he refused offers from both SCTV and Saturday Night Live for a number of years before finally accepting. “I’m not motivated by money,” he reasons, “because I’ve never been broke.” He also has a sense of his own limitations. When he does work, he is deliberate, rigorous, a perfectionist. Says SNL staff writer Andy Kurtzman, “There’s an enormous amount of control in his insanity, a tightly defined method in his madness. Those crazy characters have very definite emotional biographies.” Short is more concerned about quality than quantity; he is calculating and careful about what he does. In the Hobbesian world of SNL—where writers and actors scrap for airtime—Martin was content to be in one or two sketches a week. He balks at material that might be socially offensive, refusing in one SNL sketch to say the words “Twenty million people dead!” to set up a World War II punch line, and in another, vetoing the use of the word pinhead to describe Grimley, because “there is an actual condition with children that have pinheads.” He prefers not to swear (“I’ve never lost sight of the fact that to many people it’s not the highest form of communication”) and hopes that the subjects of his sharp-edged impersonations do not take offense. Although he has great interest in politics, his observational humor tends to be social and not political. He says you will never catch him singing, “And the deficit’s getting bigger, yeah!”

3. He is a nine-to-five, family-type guy. “Comedy,” he asserts, “is a job to me. It’s a job I love doing, but it really is a job. When a season ends, I instinctively shut off. Even if an interesting scenario walks right in front of me, I choose not to look at it.” He turned down another season of SNL in large part because its excruciatingly long workweeks were at odds with his priorities. He says, “I don’t think it’s fair to my family. It’s enormously gracious of them to have allowed me to do this for a year. And it was great for my career and our lives — 100 percent positive. But to do it again? Why not for five years? Why not work a hundred hours a week when you’re 47? What slows you down then—the bypass surgery?”

4. He is comedically off-center, even among peers. His fellow SCTV performers and writers begged him to kill off some of his more perverse and irritating characters, notably Jackie Rogers Jr. and Irving Cohen. Dave Thomas, former SCTV star, adds this tale: “I’m walking by the studio, and there is Marty—as Grimley—out in the hallway, standing by a wicker basket with a big fake snake coming out of it. And he stops me and says, ‘Dave, you got to watch this scene, I’m having some trouble with it.’ I say, ‘Marty, I don’t know if I can help you with this.’ And he does the whole scene, which is mainly Ed being mesmerized by a snake, and I look at it. Now who in the world can offer a critique or fine-tune Ed Grimley being mesmerized by a cobra? Gimme a break!! So I look at him and say, ‘Marty, I don’t know what to tell you. I think you should just keep doing it over and over until you make yourself happy.’ And I leave.”

5. He is the best damn physical comedian around. As brilliantly stupid as his premises may be. Short’s greatest gift is his physical instrument. He’s handsome in a boyish but totally anonymous way—his natural face is sort of a blank slate ready to assume an emotion, an attitude, a character. With a remarkably plastic body and voice, Short can flip through personas like the rest of us flip through Rolodexes. Influenced most strongly by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, Jonathan Winters, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis and Lucille Ball, he’s one of the few contemporary comic actors who could have made it in silent film. “Physical comedy done with the right surprise element is the most rewarding to me,” he admits. But his physical flexibility is seductive, and it can easily become a crutch—for writers, or for Martin himself. Kurtzman, of SNL: “As the scene begins to sink into one of those silences that can only be created in Bell Labs with 10,000 acoustic baffles, Marty becomes more broad and more physical, and as the silence deepens, you get the fourth stage of a grand mal seizure. By that point, the writers are exhorting Marty to turn back flips—anything to save the scene.”

6. He resists analysis. He doesn’t particularly like to talk about or even think about what he does. He says, “Whenever I hear people analyze comedy too much, I want them to shut up and make me laugh. I also wonder that if I analyze to the point where I really understand what I’m doing. I might lose the spontaneity of what I’m doing.”

As we were saying, what Martin Short is doing these days is pondering his future and changing the diapers. The diaper situation he handles spontaneously, the future he does not. Other than a one man Showtime special that will air this fall, his schedule is wide open. He’s gotten offers to do television commercials in the States but turned them down. He’s had offers to do a poster. Turned them down. A major New York publisher wants him to write a book. He’s not sure. A number of record companies have approached him about a comedy album. He’s yet to agree. Martin tends to agonize over such decisions; his life has a certain Kierkegaard-meets Grimley quality to it. As Martin puts it, “I don’t want to second-guess myself into oblivion by being apprehensive.” Or by taking a bad film role, for that matter, which can quickly lead to oblivion.

He’s read a stack of screenplays and hasn’t found a one to his satisfaction. Bob Dolman, his friend and brother-in-law, is writing him a script for Embassy Pictures, and Martin himself has a notion/idea/concept/treatment that he will turn into a script sometime soon. The probable jump to film will require Short to play someone he is not known for: himself. When Bill Murray played characters in sketch comedy, the audience got a sense that half of him was standing outside the character, laughing with them. He’s translated this comic alienation directly into his movies. No matter whom he’s playing, he’s playing Bill Murray, and the audience loves him for it. (John Candy seems headed in the same direction.) But things are not so simple for Short, who buries himself so deeply inside his characters (method comedy?) that many people who know of Nathan Thurm or Ed Grimley don’t know of Martin Short. Martin speaks to this: “I admire what Bill does, but I just have no idea how to do that. I don’t make a conscious decision to say, ‘Should I laugh with the audience or submerge into my character?’ The trick is to play all these people and still play myself. I think I would feel very unfulfilled if I was unable to play anybody unless I was disguised. I like playing myself.”

And what is the Martin Short persona? What is the Essence of Short? A college kid who, as a dedicated Big Brother to fatherless kids, planned a master’s in social work? A serious young man who reads Kissinger’s Years of Upheaval—but only as a sedative? A husband whose wife picks out his clothes, because he’d buy everything—out of nervousness? A father who buys a jeep—“Not a real jeep,” he says, “a yuppie jeep, a feminine jeep, a homosexual jeep”—because he wants the safest possible means of transport for his daughter?

Well, in the final analysts Martin Short is just a guy: a sort of Everyguy who mixes his sarcastic wit with his little-boy innocence. The kind of guy who packs four suitcases for every trip because he wants to keep his options open. The kind of guy who still gets excited about dessert and then offers to share his raspberry-blackberry ice cream with you. The kind of guy who grabs the check out of your hand, and when you tell him it’s your job to pick it up, he responds, “But this is my town, my town.” That kind of guy.