How Steve Martin and Martin Short created the perfect comic marriage
It’s oddly fitting that Steve Martin and Martin Short find themselves in competition for Emmys this year for lead actor in a comedy for “Only Murders in the Building,” the ceremonial culmination of an occasional partnership whose public expression is built around backhanded compliments and passive-aggressive one-upmanship.
“It dawned on me that of all the people I have a fake show business friendship with,” said Short, on the occasion of Martin’s honorary Oscar in 2013, “Steve is the star I’m fake closest to. Wait a second, did I just call Steve a friend? Oh no, you are so much more than just a friend. You, sir, are a business associate.”
And Martin, acknowledging Short in turn, spoke of “a comedian so renowned and funny whose work has only grown over the years and who never fails to make us laugh in new and unique ways — if only we had had someone like that tonight.”
If either wins, one anticipates an acceptance speech that will be the highlight of the evening.
The 2022 Emmy winners were led by “Ted Lasso,” “The White Lotus,” “Succession” and “Abbott Elementary.”
That we know they are actually close somehow enriches the ersatz rivalry; there is a story there. (It mattered that the Marx Brothers were brothers, whatever characters they played.) Their professional and personal relationship dates back to the 1986 film “Three Amigos,” in which they co-starred alongside Chevy Chase. Recounting their first meeting in a 2020 PBS interview, Short recalled looking at the major-league art on the walls of Martin’s home and asking, “How did you get this rich? Because I’ve seen your work.” Martin’s reply: “Could you get this script to Marty Short?” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Comedy can be cruelly fleeting; one generation’s belly laugh is often the next one’s blank stare. But Martin and Short, now in their 70s, have become hot again, with a hit television show (a third season is on the way) and sold-out live shows at a time in life when most comedians are kibitzing with their remaining peers at the Friars Club. “Only Murders” is true to the essence of their earlier (and, to me, still very funny) comedy while framing it in a way that makes it work across demographics.
They are not explicitly a team, like Laurel and Hardy or Cheech and Chong or Tim and Eric, but over the years have grown associated in the public mind, like Jack Benny and Fred Allen or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, whose paired appearances promise something extra special. Along with “Three Amigos,” you can find them sharing the screen in the “Father of the Bride” movies, with Martin as the titular father and Short as an incomprehensible wedding planner, and as animated high priests in “The Prince of Egypt.” Martin guested on three of the six episodes of Short’s NBC variety series “Maya and Marty,” and sat down with Short’s absurd and insulting celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick. Together they honored David Letterman on the occasion of his 2017 Mark Twain award.
“Marty, I’ve got to say there are very few people I really admire.”
Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez are having exactly as much fun as it looks like they’re having on Hulu’s true crime comedy.
Their partnering became more frequent and formalized with a series of touring stage shows, beginning with “A Very Stupid Conversation” in 2015, followed in 2017 by “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life,” filmed for a Netflix special, and “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t” in 2019. Last year they mounted “The Funniest Show in Town at the Moment.” (Self-deprecation is the right of the venerable established star.) Along with the TV series, these collaborations have led to a sideline in highly amusing, intermittently thoughtful news pieces and talk show appearances, sometimes with Selena Gomez, their “Only Murders” co-star, who functions as their straight woman. (Though she is deadpan funny in her own right.) It’s now become reflexive to regard them as a unit. Even their names combine: Steve Martin Short.
Each is funny on his own, to be sure, but there is magic in collaboration; each partner magnifies the other. The double act, as they called it in the old vaudeville days, creates a kind of public privileged space: Where the stand-alone stand-up comic addresses everything to the audience, the comedy team plays to the crowd by playing to one another. You become a guest at their party, a spy in the house of laughs. It’s altogether appropriate that teamwork — mixed with a little antagonism — is the central concern of “Only Murders,” in which three isolated characters come together to solve a mystery and mount a podcast.
As with many of the best, best-loved comedy duos, their characters, like themselves, are distinct and complementary: Where Martin presents as an adult afflicted with sudden attacks of childishness, a man in a white suit with a novelty store arrow through his head, Short comes across as a child who imagines himself a gentleman.
Martin is a self-described introvert. He started as a stand-up, methodically constructing his act. He writes novels, plays and screenplays, largely solitary pursuits. He’s a magician and a banjo player, endeavors that require hours of repetitive practice. Martin would prepare for months for a talk show appearance: “You’re always going on these shows to promote something,” he told The Times in 2012, “and you go, ‘I’m going to hold up a record for 30 seconds, and for that I have to have 10 minutes of comedy material.’” He worked most of a year on a banjo version of “Auld Lang Syne” to play at Short’s Christmas party. (“I’ve been playing for 55 years,” he told one interviewer, self-critically adding, “I know, I should be better.”) He’s tall and good-looking in a way that has let him be cast as a leading man opposite Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Mary Steenburgen and Daryl Hannah. Even the prosthetic nose he wears in his “Cyrano” update “Roxanne” doesn’t diminish his handsomeness.
Short, by contrast, is an extrovert, elfin and impish. (His appearance as a leprechaun in “Schmigadoon!” is practically type-casting.) He trained in improvisational and sketch comedy at Toronto’s Second City, where the prancing oddball sprite Ed Grimley was born onstage, and as a cast member of “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” “You plan things,” he told Brian Sullivan in 2013, “but then when you get out there they kind of evaporate.” Jiminy Glick’s interviews are completely improvised. His defining, if possibly least known, movie role is as the title character in “Clifford,” in which he plays, without comment or context, a 10-year-old boy. His characters tend to be excitable and colorful; one briefly was an actual cartoon, in Hanna-Barbera’s “The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley.” And where Martin’s solo spot in “An Evening You Will Forget” finds him seated with a banjo on his lap, Short, in the arms of an extra, turns himself into a bagpipe.
In “Murders,” which repeats the competitive interplay they established in their stage shows, their parts echo those personas. Martin’s Charles is cautious, quiet, a little irascible (as his characters have often been), his ego easily bruised. His first-season arc with neighbor Amy Ryan plays as a sweet, genuine romance until she is revealed as a psychopath (and even afterward, for a bit). Short’s Oliver, on the other hand, is reckless, flamboyant, overflowing with energy, mad for attention and, like Short himself, inured to criticism. (“Early on I willed anxiety away,” Short told PBS. “If someone didn’t laugh at me putting my hair up in a point, I didn’t really care.”)
What “Only Murders” does so well is to mock its characters’ pretensions even as it allows them fully developed emotions. It’s a mature work with a wide streak of silliness, a romp with heart. Indeed, compared to nearly everything else in contemporary show business, there’s something radical about the whole project, which, like their stage shows, both admits to and jokes about age even as their shared youthfulness and comic athleticism makes it beside the point. (Onstage and in the series, Short, now 72, has a habit of treating Martin, 77, as old; “Steve, you’d tell me if you were having a stroke, wouldn’t you?” Short will say whenever Martin flubs a line.)
Still, Martin has said that “Only Murders” may be his last project before retirement. We can only hope that it is renewed indefinitely.
‘Only Murders in the Building ’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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