Steve Martin and Martin Short steer clear of politics: 'We're not social satirists; we're more clowns'

The Netflix special, “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life,” captures the stand-up humor, music and goofy childhood photos that Steve Martin and Martin Short used in their touring stage show. (Netflix)

Likening themselves to “Donny and Marie without the sexual tension,” comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short have been touring North America with a side-splitting variety show that includes stand-up humor, music, fake ventriloquism, goofy childhood photos and even a human bagpipe.

A Netflix special that captures the mélange — titled “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life” — recently grabbed four Emmy nominations.

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Before hitting the stage in Vancouver, Canada, earlier this month, the longtime friends spoke by telephone with The Envelope, cracking jokes as they discussed the show’s evolution, their aversion to political humor and the perils of performing in daylight.

Your show began in 2011 with an invitation to interview each other at a Montreal comedy festival. What inspired you to later expand to a vaudeville-type approach?

Martin Short: We were getting tired of the conversation [format].

Steve Martin: When we got out with audiences who were paying to get in, we thought: We need to deliver! … Marty already had a one-man show. I worked with a band [The Steep Canyon Rangers] and we said let’s combine ’em. You know, when I first started as a comedian, I didn’t have any material, but I did have stuff. I could juggle, I could play the banjo, I could do magic, and I had a few comedy bits. And I just put ’em in the kitchen sink. And that’s kinda what this is — a kitchen sink.

Looking down the road 20 years, which of today’s stars do you see doing a duo act like yours?

Martin: Well, first of all, I’m not really looking down the road 20 years. I’m looking at more like eight. … Second, people aren’t really looking to work together. A comedy duo is not a thing [anymore]. It was so big in the ’30s and ’40s and into the ’50s, and then it just stopped. The Smothers Brothers were the last twosome.

Why do you think duos went away?

Martin: Because who wants to split the money?

Short: That’s the absolute correct answer.

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Your show largely steers clear of politics. I assume that’s deliberate?

Short: Our audience is filled with people of all political beliefs, so you don’t want to make anyone feel badly because they are left or right. Also, people need a respite occasionally from the constant barrage.

Martin: Also, that’s what late-night television does every night. So, I always think let’s just try to be funny and let late night take care of [politics], because what are we going to do that’s better? And, also, I don’t feel didactic. I don’t want to preach or teach or anything like that. I want to kind of humorously stimulate by turning a phrase or getting a laugh.

Is anything else off limits?

Short: Yeah, lots of things. Our agenda is not to offend. To push an envelope at this stage of our lives would seem so desperate.

Do you have veto power over each other’s material?

Short: I wouldn’t say we have veto power, but I would say that we’re very open to each other’s opinion because both our names are on the show. So if I was going to do a joke that, in any way, Steve strongly felt was offensive, even if I didn’t agree with him, I would cut it.

What is the main thing you’ve each learned from your friendship?

Martin: I look at Marty and I think, “This guy gets me Emmy nominations.”

Short: I don’t know how to answer that. Steve and I have so many similarities in the way we work, what makes us laugh. And we’ve been friends for so long. And there’ve been so many dinners and laughs and vacations, I can’t really think in terms of what I’ve learned from him.

How often do you ad-lib in the show?

Short: There’s lots of ad-libbing. You don’t want to throw each other off … but if an ad-lib happens and is followed by another ad-lib and a third ad-lib, the second we walk off the stage, we go to our script and put it in. … We’re aware that our show has been on Netflix, so we have to keep evolving material and changing it.

You appeared at Orange County’s Pacific Amphitheatre on July 20, but you normally prefer indoor venues. How come?

Martin: We really had a good time in Costa Mesa, [but] it’s always a little more complex to perform outdoors and in daylight [because] the audience is not as united as they are in a darkened theater. One of the secrets of getting the audience to laugh is when they can’t see each other. As long as they can see each other, they’re acting as individuals. When they can’t see each other, they’re acting as an audience … not checking to see if other people are laughing.

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Short: It’s like seeing a movie at a drive-in vs. seeing a movie in a theater.

Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have said political correctness, especially on college campuses, is wrecking things for comedians. Your take?

Short: I totally understand what they’re saying and I think there is oversensitivity and an overreaction a lot of the time. But it doesn’t play into our shows too much, because our agenda is more of a joyful thing as opposed to going after somebody. We’re not social satirists. We’re more clowns.

Martin: You can’t tell an audience how to respond. If 20% of the audience is offended by something that you’re doing that you believe in, well, [you] really shouldn’t be performing for that audience. So, I understand why they don’t want to go to a college, because that’s a hotbed of opinion — and rightfully so. That’s where it should be.

Short: Let me ask you one question. Of the two performers in the show, you must have a personal favorite?

That’s tough. I grew up watching “SNL,” and listening to Steve, and watching “SCTV”...

Martin: Well, there’s your answer!

Short: Let him finish! Let him finish!

This is like “Sophie’s Choice.” Let’s just say that my favorite performer at the show was someone whose name includes the word “Martin.”

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