Short takes the reader on a rich, hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking ride through his life and times, from his early years in Toronto as a member of the fabled improvisational troupe Second City to the all-American comic big time of Saturday Night Live, and from memorable roles in such movies as ¡Three Amigos! and Father of the Bride to Broadway stardom in Fame Becomes Me and the Tony-winning Little Me.
He reveals how he created his most indelible comedic characters, among them the manic man-child Ed Grimley, the slimy corporate lawyer Nathan Thurm, and the bizarrely insensitive interviewer Jiminy Glick. Throughout, Short freely shares the spotlight with friends, colleagues, and collaborators, among them Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Shaffer, and David Letterman.
But there is another side to Short's life that he has long kept private. He lost his eldest brother and both parents by the time he turned twenty, and, more recently, he lost his wife of thirty years to cancer. In I Must Say, Short talks for the first time about the pain that these losses inflicted and the upbeat life philosophy that has kept him resilient and carried him through.
In the grand tradition of comedy legends, Martin Short offers a show-business memoir densely populated with boldface names and rife with retellable tales: a hugely entertaining yet surprisingly moving self-portrait that will keep you laughing—and crying—from the first page to the last.
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About the Author
Table of Contents
An Education 1
Humble Celebrity Me 15
Marty With Parents 27
Interlude: A Moment with Irving Cohen 51
Marty Without Parents 57
In Which I Find Jesus 73
Nancy's Boy 89
Interlude: A Moment with Ed Grimley 113
The Nine Categories 119
Interlude : A Moment with Jackie Rogers 1R 135
Workplace Nirvana at SCTV 141
Interlude : A Moment with Lawrence Orbach 169
Fast Times at 30 Rock 173
Marty Throws a Party Just to Sing 221
Interlude: A Moment with Franck 233
When Life Hands You Lemons, Put on a Fat Suit and Squash Them Between Your Thighs 237
Interlude: A Moment with Jiminy Glick 259
Love, Loss, and Bumpkiss 265
Kathie Lee Wasn't Wrong 289
September of My Years - But an Unusually Temperate September 309
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 Up.
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 Curley
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 formative age.
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 about it."
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 for them?
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 sensibility?
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, come here."
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 lesser annoyances.
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 on. 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 home.
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 September."
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 Anderson calls.
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 thing.
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 friends.
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 cool.
#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 doing good.
BNR: We just have to close with that, don't we? That's gotta be the end.
--November 3, 2014