Steve Martin recently said that he has known only two perfect people: Carl Reiner and “that son of a bitch Martin Short.” Short and Martin were supposed to hit the road this summer for the type of comedy variety tours they’ve been staging since 2016 — in which they tell jokes and revisit some of their favorite characters, with a little bit of Martin’s banjo playing thrown in for good measure — but pandemic-related lockdowns sidelined the jaunt. The turn of events has not fazed the typically effervescent Short, who sounds upbeat when speaking to Rolling Stone in late March, a day before his 70th birthday.
“I’m always kind of positive, so that isn’t a struggle for me at all,” he says on a phone call from his daughter’s Los Angeles home, where he’s been self-isolating. “I think that’s DNA, upbringing humor, perspective. I had early losses in my life; I lost my brother when I was 12, my mother at 17, and my father at 20. You either go up or down from those. And if you go up, you’re empowered for the rest of your life.”
That outlook has guided him throughout his career, from dreaming up the annoyingly optimistic man-child Ed Grimley for SCTV in the early Eighties to his scene-stealing roles in Three Amigos, Father of the Bride, and recently, The Morning Show. Along the way, he’s starred on Saturday Night Live and his own Primetime Glick (featuring his Jiminy Glick character), stepped up to role of leading man (or is that “led man”?) in Innerspace, and kept a busy schedule of voice-acting work for cartoons, most recently in The Willoughbys. He’s won a Tony and two Emmys, and he reflected on his triumphs and failures in his 2014 memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend. So when Rolling Stone asked him about the advice he’s gotten throughout his career and his philosophies on life for our Last Word interview series, he had no trouble opening up. And he didn’t even say Grimley’s catchphrase, “I must say,” once.
After spending so much time on the road with Steve Martin, what advice do you have for people who are in closer quarters than usual?
I think it’s interesting that Steve and I don’t get sick of each other. We’re very similar in many ways. We treat each performance as if it’s our last. And remember, when we’re on tour, it’s not like the Stones. We do four shows a month, and then we won’t do it for another month, so it’s more like going fishing with a buddy.
Have you gotten sick of banjo playing yet?
No. I was not an aficionado of bluegrass, but we work with this genius band, Steep Canyon Rangers, so I’ve actually gone in the opposite direction.
What’s the best part of success and what is the worst?
Honestly, the trials and tribulations of the one percent … I don’t know what the worst part of success is. One could say, “Well, the terrible thing about success is what if you’re not as successful next year? Then you’re depressed.” Well, that’s assuming that you think that you’re magical and that your success is based on God’s desire. And the reality is that a career goes up and down, and some things can be artistically the greatest thing you’ve ever achieved, but no one cares less. But that doesn’t mean that’s not successful.
How do you define success?
If I’m making a movie or a television show that I have no creative control in afterwards, I can call a successful day charming the crew and director, making everyone love me, making everyone laugh, so that when I ask for a few extra takes and weasel out of takes, they say, “Oh, sure, let Marty do another take.” Then I can go home and say, “Well, that idiot’s going to pick the wrong take. But at least I did everything I, as a human being, actor-type, could have done. I’m going to raise a glass of Champagne to myself.” The film or the television show might stink, but it has nothing to do with me. So that’s a successful day.
What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
My manager, Bernie Brillstein, would say, “It’s only show business, kid.” In other words, we’re not curing the illnesses that plague our planet; you’re doing something that will please some and won’t please others. I tell younger actors, “Don’t take it as seriously as you want to take it.” And that’s fine to say when you’re turning 70 and you don’t worry about the rent, but it’s kind of true. If you’re 25 and you don’t get the part, you feel like you’re a failure. The reality is, 90 percent of the time, you were too short, too tall, too handsome, not handsome enough, too thin, too fat. Whatever they wanted, you weren’t it. Try not to take it too seriously.
What’s the secret to the perfect Ed Grimley dance?
Medication that’s well, well-stocked.… It’s a happy dance. You know?
You’ve said that you used to use the Ed Grimley character to mediate your marriage. Could that work for other marriages?
Well, it was a very bizarre thing. It’s completely true that [my late wife] Nancy would say, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I want to talk to Ed.” [In Ed Grimley voice] “Hi, Nancy.” Because he was usually on her side. Ed would go, “What’s with him?” Humor punctures tension.
So you’d let Ed throw you under the bus?
Sure. I’m no fool. I probably caused the fight.
You became internationally famous at age 32 when you were on SCTV, later than your peers. How did that change things for you?
I used to go out with Gilda [Radner], and we lived together for a couple years. Paul Shaffer was the first of our group to go to New York and get a job. And I remember being in Gilda’s kitchen, we’re both on our phones, and she says, “Paul, what are New York actors like?” And Paul said, “Maybe it’s just me, but I swear you guys are just as talented.” And we thought, “Oh, that’s so sweet.” The U.S. was the U.S., and Broadway was Broadway. I was in Canada. When I’d see an ad for Charmin, which we couldn’t get in Canada, I’d think, “Gee, someday I’m going to squeeze the Charmin.”
So that part was daunting, but what was fabulous about being a Canadian actor in Toronto is that the pond was smaller. There was no real star system in Canada at the time. So it was like a university, where you’re in so many productions, you get more experience.
My first experience in the United States was actually when I was 29, with a series called The Associates. And then the next year, I did a series for Witt-Thomas-Harris, I’m a Big Girl Now. But I had a lot of experience in front of cameras by that time. Had I logged in as many hours as an American actor as I had as a Canadian actor, I’d be famous, so that was the benefit. And of course now, your market is wide open, you get to work with brilliant people more than just brilliant Canadians, and you get more money.
What advice do you have about feeling happy for your friends who are succeeding?
You have to impersonate a person who is happy for their friends succeeding, and maybe through osmosis it rubs off on you. I was always happy for my friends, but I couldn’t help but feel left behind at times during that period. And that’s good, that motivates you to be a better version of yourself.
Who are your heroes?
People slightly older than myself, but wise, great people. Mike Nichols, Nora Ephron, Nick Pileggi, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, the SCTV people — people that were able to be wildly creative, wildly successful, and wildly kind.
You’ve called SCTV your most satisfying professional experience. What do you think the legacy of SCTV is now?
Martin Scorsese is doing a documentary for Netflix on SCTV. And we’re constantly analyzing and thinking about that. What I find fascinating about SCTV is its timelessness. We just did part of this documentary where we did a live performance and cast. Marty shot it in Toronto last spring. Jimmy Kimmel moderated it. And we showed clips, and the audience was roaring. It was interesting because we didn’t have an audience for that show. It wasn’t SNL. And you go, “I don’t think they’re faking it.”
I can look at W.C. Fields from a 1936 movie, and I laugh as hard as I did when I was 11, when I first saw it. But I can also see things that I adored and thought was the funniest thing I ever saw when I was 25, and I look at it now and go, “Huh. Not anymore.” And you wonder why does certain comedy have a timelessness and why does certain comedy have a shelf life? It’s an interesting question.
So you’re almost going to have Martin Scorsese directing Martin Scorsese’s Jerry Lewis: Live on the Champs-Élysées.
John Mulaney, who’s a friend of mine, met Marty Scorsese, and he said, “I now know little Marty and even littler Marty.”
You found being a cast member on SNL to be very stressful. How did you cope with that?
Well, I remember I wanted to quit. That’s one way I was going to handle it.
Remember, I’d just come from two-and-a-half years of the most idyllic way to work [on SCTV]. You’re in your hometown, Toronto. You are working with lifelong friends. One of them is your brother. You’re taping it, and then you sit in the edit room. There’s no pressure. On SNL, you’re writing more by yourself. I’d also write with Billy [Crystal], and Chris Guest, and Andy Breckman, and Jim Downey, but more so by yourself and under a deadline.
When we were doing the Cinemax season of SCTV, the last season, Eugene [Levy] just couldn’t think of anything for a couple weeks.… But we would write for five weeks. But for two weeks, “What do you have, Eugene?” “Nothing.” “Alrighty.” Then in the last three weeks of the writing session, he made up for those two weeks. On SNL, you couldn’t do that.
On Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you asked Jerry Seinfeld, “How do you know when you’re not funny anymore?” How would you answer that?
Well, Steve Martin has the best answer to that. He says, “You’re finished five years before you know it. Your agent doesn’t tell you. Your wife doesn’t tell you. Your friends don’t tell you. Finally, life tells you.” But comedy is so subjective. What I was telling Jerry is there was no greater genius than Lucille Ball: I Love Lucy, spectacular. The Lucy Show, in the Sixties, pretty good. By the time she’s doing Here’s Lucy, and her voice is down here [lowers voice], and it’s all loud, not so good. But who’s going to tell her? She’s number one in television.
Have you ever felt trapped by comedy?
Well, I’ve gotten to do lots of other kinds of acting. But I kind of feel honored to be able to make people laugh. I think to make people laugh, not just as a clown falling down, but to be funny, is special. I did a production of The Odd Couple, and I played that role of [straight man] Felix Unger. The reality is, you get bigger laughs if you’re sincere in the role, and you play this guy sincerely. So, I’ve never felt unrequited in comedy, because I think that in comedy acting, if your acting is off, you’re not going to be funny.
You believe in the comedy theory that more is more. Why is that?
That’s broadly applicable to characters. People are pretty nuts in life. I remember when I was doing Father of the Bride, understandably, everyone was a little nervous about my character [wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer], because it was a sincere movie, and suddenly you have this character.
I remember getting a call from the head of the studio, someone said, “Boy, looks like you’re having a lot of fun.” They were looking at the dailies, and I could sense something in their voice. And I said, “Are you concerned?” “Well, I mean, sometimes you say, ‘Yes.’ And sometimes you say, ‘Ja.'” And I said, “Yes, because that’s someone who’s so pretentious that he doesn’t even know what his accent is anymore.” “Oh, OK.”
Have you ever met a real-life Franck?
I remember everyone thinking, “What an out-there character.” And then about six months later, I went to a big, rich person’s wedding, when they had this fabulous wedding planner, and he had his initials embroidered on his velvet shoes. And I thought, “Wow, I didn’t go that broad.” So there you go, and that was life. But the secret even to a character like Franck is, if you play it to get laughs, then it won’t be funny. So it is back to what we were talking earlier, the sincerity of that creation, that ultimately is going to be funnier than trying to make them roll in the aisles.
You wrote in your book that your happiness has never been predicated on your career. Where do you draw happiness from?
Well, I mean, that’s not 100 percent accurate. Just because it’s in my book, doesn’t mean it’s real. Obviously, if you have a film that’s a big hit that weekend, you feel happy. But I think I’m talking about true happiness, because that’s a fleeting moment. You feel great for that weekend. Real happiness comes from your family and your friends, and your health and their health, and their happiness. That’s, I think, true happiness.
You also wrote that you grade yourself regularly in nine categories, including “family,” “creativity,” “career,” and “lifestyle.” Do you still do that?
Absolutely. The idea was if you just put all your eggs in one basket and that basket breaks, there goes the omelet. As a young actor, you would go through periods of not working. Then at the end of the year, you would say, “I should’ve utilized that time better. I would’ve gone to the gym more. I would’ve been a better friend, better brother, better a lot of things. I would’ve maybe learned Spanish. I could’ve used that time.” Then I realized, well, if you did that, if it was like nine subjects at university, you could bring your GPA up. You might have a D in career, but you could have a B-plus in friendship, an A in creativity. So it’s always kind of guided me, that perspective.
What do you do to relax these days?
I hike. I do Pilates. I swim. I have a tennis court, but I’ve been told by friends I’m the worst player to actually own a tennis court.
Some of your movies, like Three Amigos and Innerspace, weren’t box-office hits but became popular later. How do you handle it when something isn’t the hit you expect it to be immediately?
Well, again, prick me, and I bleed. But it is tied to perspective. I mean, if you expected Innerspace to make you a superstar, and it doesn’t do what they hoped at the box office, you have a right to be disappointed for a week. But as you sit in your jacuzzi and swimming pool and reflect on the disappointment, if you don’t ease out of it sooner than later, then you really have to question your value system and why you’re allowing yourself to indulge to that degree.
You’ve always told stories about fawning all over Katharine Hepburn, Al Pacino, and Frank Sinatra. What advice do you have for approaching celebrities without turning them off?
If you admire them, you can’t really control your exuberance. I would say the main thing is don’t ask for a selfie. It’s really boring, invasive. I say to people, “You know what? I actually don’t do that.” And I would say 98.9 percent of the people say, “Oh, OK.” And then I’ll say, “I’m happy to shake your hand.” … Well, in the old days, two weeks ago [before the pandemic], I used to shake hands.
Your Jiminy Glick character, a slovenly entertainment journalist, sure was rude to celebrities. How do you handle it when the press is annoying?
I’ve never really been a victim of the press. I have no Meghan Markle in me. When I did the character, I would always tell people, “Remember, Jiminy is a moron with power because he has a TV show.” One of my favorite Jiminy Glick questions was to Mel Brooks: “What’s your big beef with the Nazis?” And another was to Steven Spielberg: “When are you going to do the Big One, the one that connects to the people?” And I was interviewing Edie Falco, and I think I freaked her out, because in the middle of her answer, I went, “Shh.” I shushed her, which is the rudest thing anyone can do to someone. And I said indignantly, “Just because I asked you a question, doesn’t mean I need the answer.”
What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
I would say probably a piece of jewelry for my wife. I don’t have a Rolex. Those things aren’t terribly important to me. I drive a 2012 Lexus. Not much there, buddy.
You joked in your memoir, I Must Say, that you wanted your gravestone to say “Almost,” like you almost made it. Do you still feel that way?
Well, I’ve never suffered from low self-esteem. So if I made Clifford and no one liked it, to me, it wasn’t, “I failed.” To me, it was, “No one gets it.” So, “Almost” was a joke on the actual reality of superstardom versus stardom. At a certain point, if you hang around long enough, you’re revered. I used to say the other thing I’d put on the gravestone was, “Who’s the witch I pissed off?”