Martin Short was everywhere in the '80s. He was a standout cast-member on the acclaimed Canadian sketch-comedy series SCTV and its American cousin, Saturday Night Live. He also starred in big celluloid comedies like ¡Three Amigos! and Innerspace, and even scored his own Saturday-morning cartoon, The Completely Mental Misadventures Of Ed Grimley. Alas, a series of flops (Pure Luck, Captain Ron, Clifford) greatly diminished Short's stature as a leading man, and he spent much of the '90s doing voiceover work, popping up in supporting roles, and appearing on Broadway, where he won a Tony in 1999 for his role in Little Me.
In the '90s, Short also returned to television as the star of the short-lived sitcom The Martin Short Show, and later as the host of the similarly short-lived talk-show series also known as The Martin Short Show. Though the latter didn't last long, it did spawn portly, oblivious, obnoxious celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick, a character Short spun off into the Comedy Central show Primetime Glick and the new Jiminy Glick In Lalawood. The largely improvised feature film provides a creation story for the chubby chatter, in addition to featuring his trademark uncomfortable interviews with game celebrities, many of them Short's friends or professional colleagues. The Onion A.V. Club recently sat down to talk to Short about SCTV, his lack of regrets, and all things Glick.
The Onion: Jiminy Glick seems like a pretty devastating parody of the prototypical junket whore. Was that the inspiration for the character?
Martin Short: No, not really. If it were a scripted character, then probably the initial motivations would be what it's about. [But] when you improvise, people throw things at you, and then they become new facts. Tom Hanks came on in one of the interviews and said, "You know, Jiminy, I miss your daytime show." And because you don't deny in improv, I said, "I miss it too." And now you have a daytime show. So I kept inventing [the character]. But the reality was, I think of Jiminy as a guy that's in a position of power, but shouldn't be there. I could have made him press secretary for Bush. He could have been a junior senator from Indiana who inherited the position because his father died. You can create a scenario where suddenly it's this moron who people are saying "yes sir" to. Believe me, I've been put, in my life, with a lot stranger people than people I meet in junkets. Actually, the junkets have been made tougher for interviewers by the studios, because when I first started doing film junkets–which would be, like, in '86–they were always 10 minutes long, each interview. Now they're five minutes long.
O: But you can get gold from those five minutes!
MS: Yeah, yeah. But all you can ask is the same old questions. So the actors go insane, and the interviewers have nothing to cover. Because they have to ask something. You have to do that. And every time I did an interview–one time it was Edie Falco I was talking to [as Jiminy Glick], and for some reason–I don't plan anything, so in the middle of her answer, I just went, "Shh! Just because I ask you a question does not mean that I need to hear it." So it is kind of absurdist comedy.
O: Do you think on some level Jiminy Glick represents your id?
MS: Dave Foley, the comedian, once said to me, "Hey Marty, you've created a character that's as mean as you are." I don't know. Definitely you feel it's easier to say certain things as Jiminy as opposed to yourself. But mainly it's because he's a moron. You don't present yourself as a moron in real life. But it's fine to play a moron asking questions. It's also seeing the celebrity respond to this question, which, to me, makes it funnier than the question.
O: You've described him as being undeservedly important. Do you think entertainment journalists really have any kind of importance in the world, or power for that matter?
MS: Unfortunately, because people don't read very much, they probably have less power than they did a long time ago. But [New York Times theater critic] Ben Brantley can close a show.
O: The theater world is different.
MS: I think that if Ryan Phillippe is interviewed by US Weekly and doesn't do a good interview, he will continue to work. Life will go on. The globe will revolve. But if Mike Ovitz gives a devastating interview in Vanity Fair, it really affects his world. I guess it depends on–I don't think there is any one blanket statement.
O: You just did Jiminy Glick on Saturday Night Live. What was that experience like?
MS: It's always fun to go back there. You sit there and you close your eyes and it could be... You know, I was in it from 1984 to '85. It's the same show. It's the same bosses. It's the same announcer. It's the same Wednesday read-throughs, and the scripts have to be in Tuesday and the rehearsal done on Friday. It's all that stuff. It's kind of nostalgic. It really is going back to high school.
O: You're the only person that went from SCTV to Saturday Night Live. Could you talk a bit about your experiences at both places and how they compare?
MS: SCTV was, for me, the safest place to do comedy. First of all, there's no audience. We were in Toronto, so there were no "suits." And the cast ran the show. So the sensibility was, you had this smart, smart room with funny people in it, and everyone voted on whether your piece would get in or not. Usually pieces, if they got in at all, would go through a rewrite with suggestive notes. You didn't have to obey the notes. You can try and be an auteur as much as you want, but if you get 30 notes on something and four are good and useful, it was worth getting the 30. We'd write for six weeks. We'd shoot for six weeks. We'd edit while we shot. Saturday Night Live was completely opposite. It had the energy of live TV, but you couldn't do the subtle, nuanced stuff. Because if the audience didn't laugh at it, it was presumed cut-able. You could be a success on Saturday night, but if by Tuesday you didn't have an idea, you were a failure.
O: It also seems like Saturday Night Live is more of a hierarchal sort of situation, where there's a definite boss.
MS: Yeah. Definitely the executive producer and the head writer, and actually, the guest host is involved as well, in that they help select what goes in. That was not the case on SCTV.
O: That seems like an odd process, letting the guest host choose.
MS: I think a lot of times, that's just out of respect. I don't think that it's like Paris Hilton's saying, "I don't like that. That's so not hot." For example, Lorne Michaels is an old friend of mine, and still I was expected to show up for when the cast and the writers are all doing that show-note thing, even though I was kind of doing my independent bit. It's just what you do there.
O: Do you think it hurts Saturday Night Live to go on live? It seems like you have to have a populist kind of skit if the audience is–
MS: Well, that's what the show is. Lorne has said in the past, he's always amazed when people refer to it as inconsistent, because it was designed to be inconsistent. There's no show on Monday. There are no scripts on Monday. You meet on Monday. And by Saturday night, there is a show. So some weeks are going to be great, some not. Some casts are going to be great, some not. It's kind of like the Second City stage. The Second City stage has those ups and downs. John Belushi would say when he left Second City, it went downhill.
O: On SCTV, you came into an established situation. You were the first cast-member that was not there originally. Was it difficult?
MS:No. This group of people that would form SCTV all met in 1972-ish, all became friends, some dated. Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas and I went to college together. Andrea Martin, by that time, was my sister-in-law. Catherine O'Hara, I knew since she was 17. Joe [Flaherty] had been my first director on stage four years before that. So I was a familiar person in their world. It was a lot easier for me to go in, more seamlessly than if I'd been a stranger.
O: A lot of SCTV worked together in a touring production of Godspell, right?
MS: No. The big, big, big, big in-town [Toronto] production.
O: That must have been the greatest production of Godspell of all time.
MS: It was one of the first ones out of New York. It was the big job. I was still in college. It was the big job to get. Like a thousand people auditioned, and they had to pick 10. Of that 10 they picked, as music director, Paul Shaffer, who was at the University Of Toronto, Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short. I remember about a year after that, Paul Shaffer was the first to go to New York and work on something. Gilda and I were on the phone with him, and we both said, "So Paul, what are New York actors like?" Because as Canadians, you naturally feel like you're not as worthy as New Yorkers. Paul said, "Forget New York. You guys seem just as talented. You could probably actually work outside of Toronto."
O: What did you play in Godspell?
MS: It was a stretch. I played Jeffrey The Imp.
O: Do you think that the SCTV legend was partly fueled by the fact that it was so unavailable for so long?
MS: SCTV was fueled by realism. My daughter was, for a while, obsessively into I Love Lucy. This show is now 50 years old, and I would watch it, I would sit with her, and it would really make me laugh. Because it was, in a strange way, playing it real. So I think that SCTV, though heightened in that strange world, a lot of it still holds up more than some stuff where the idea is "Let's get Gerald Ford."
O: Some of SCTV's concept shows seemed insanely ambitious.
MS: It was also not fueled by any attempt to be commercial. And it wasn't. It wasn't a ratings success. It just won a lot of Emmys. I look at shows like Arrested Development and realize that they are going for a comedy purity without worrying, "How will this register in Seattle?"
O: Even before Arrested Development began, it was like, "There's this great show that's way too good to ever be on television. So enjoy it while you can, because it's going to get canceled imminently."
MS: Jason Alexander always says that after they finished the pilot for Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld came up to him and said, "So what do you think?" He said, "I don't think it will go." Seinfeld said, "Why?" He said, "Because I liked it, and I don't like anything on television." Seinfeld got a little lucky because it was so supported by the network, and it didn't do well initially. If they let Arrested Development stay on for one more year, it would be a hit. You just know it.
O: Even Cheers. The first couple years that Cheers was on, people didn't really embrace it.
MS: Mary Tyler Moore. The list goes on and on and on.
O: What was doing The Martin Short Show like?
MS: It was like everything I ever do. Where you just kind of do it. We had SCTV elements, Herbert Hoover High. We played as if everyone in the audience was really, really smart and laid-back and hip. I didn't try to dumb myself down. We didn't dumb the satire down. You go in thinking that because we're sipping coffee and talking about fashion, it won't succeed, but maybe there's a disenfranchised daytime audience. It becomes something that represents what you think is entertaining. So the reality is, that show started off with reviews that looked like we had written them ourselves. We ended up with eight Emmy nominations, but in between, we weren't picked up.
O: It seems if you try to do anything at all out of the norm for television, you get punished for it.
MS: I think that's the reality. Listen, it's not the easiest time for prime-time and Arrested Development. The level of prime-time viewership now is probably as low as it's ever been in the history of television.
O: So many things are competing for market share.
MS: For comedy, Everybody Loves Raymond is an art form. There are some shows that are good. Most of it–reality TV is based on one word, which is "humiliation."
O: Was there a sense of competition between Saturday Night Live and SCTV?
MS: There probably was. But they were totally different shows, both with their advantages and disadvantages. Saturday Night Live had that amazing energy. "Live from New York!" Da-da-da-daa! Which SCTV could never do. But then in the same respect, if you did something–some of the funniest promos that we did on SCTV started out to be longer pieces, but didn't work at that length. So you couldn't do them on Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live, it would just be a long piece that went on too long, yet again.
O: It presumably took an amazing amount of effort to put out a 90-minute show every week.
MS: Comedy is a weird thing. You have to understand, it's the weirdest thing you can do. There's no consensus. It's not like... People say, "I saw Saving Private Ryan, and that scene on the beach is just so moving." I can't imagine anyone who would say "I don't find that moving!" But you can show, whether it's Laurel & Hardy or the Three Stooges or Jiminy Glick In Lalawood, some people are going to look at it and say "That's the funniest thing I've ever seen." Some people will say "I don't get it." Who's right, who's wrong?
O: It's totally subjective. With the drama, you're not necessarily going for a physiological reaction, whereas with comedy, it's laughter.
MS: And people have very specific opinions of comedy. Slapstick was an art form in the '20s and the lowest form of show business in the '50s. Who's right, who's wrong? Who's an idiot, who's not?
O: When you look over your filmography, are there any films you regret doing? Where you think, "What was I thinking when I did that one?"
MS: No. None. It would be like saying, "Which play do you wish you'd never typed?" The thing in comedy is that once you start worrying about something not succeeding, you're frozen. There's no verdict on anything. You can make ¡Three Amigos!, and some people will at the time say, "Oh, that's too silly." Then five years later, silly is hip. Now it's considered art. I never comment on anything I do, because if I say anything negative about X film, or X TV show, or X project, people who saw it and loved it go, "Well, am I an idiot?"
O: Also, you almost never do a project by yourself. You're always collaborating with a lot of people, and if you were to disparage that project, you would implicitly disparage them as well.
MS: Particularly as an actor. All the actor does is, he tries to get as many takes as he can out of the director that day. So he can walk away and say to himself, "Hey, it's in there. I'm not going to edit it. I'm not going to make those choices. If they want to blow it, it's fine. But I've done all I can." You're right. I'm always amazed when actors bash films as if those grips and that cinematographer didn't work hard enough.
O: Are there specific films that you're especially proud of?
MS: I like, for different reasons, whether it's originality or end product or I just am fascinated by it... I don't watch these things, you know. Only because by the time they come out, you've seen it enough. You've seen it. You did it. Certainly I like ¡Three Amigos! I like Innerspace. I like Clifford and I like Big Picture and the Father Of The Bride movies, and I like this movie. In the same respect, I haven't seen them.
O: With television, is it the same? Do you not watch what you're doing on TV?
MS: No, no. I don't watch a lot of television. I watch... I'll put in a DVD. For a long time, I've controlled what I watch through appointment television or DVD. Even with my kids–I have three kids–there are so many films I've made that they haven't seen. Because kids, especially when they are young, start watching a film like ¡Three Amigos!, they won't watch it all at once. For three months in a row, every time you walk into your home you'll hear... [Sings the theme to ¡Three Amigos!]