Funny Man Martin Short on Making 'Em Laugh (INTERVIEWS)

We talked to Martin Short, star of the NBC comedy show "Maya & Marty," about the method behind his hilarious madness and how comedy can do the world some good.
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Todd Aaron Jensen
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We talked to Martin Short, star of the NBC comedy show "Maya & Marty," about the method behind his hilarious madness and how comedy can do the world some good.
Martin Short Photo Courtesy NBCUniversal

Martin Short stars in the NBC comedy show "Maya & Marty." (Photo: NBCUniversal)

In a career spanning some 40 years, Martin Short has specialized in creating and portraying characters in which the needy, grotesque, and aberrant collide to almost supernaturally generate in audiences an unexpected empathy and, usually, riotous laughter too. For someone so proficient at igniting the Cimmerian aspects of humanity, Short is, from all reports, one of the nicest people in show business. 

After spending his 50s mostly out of the limelight, the 66-year-old Short has blitzed the mainstream in recent years, playing a plum supporting role in the Thomas Pynchon adaptation, Inherent Vice, second lead on Fox’s short-lived sitcom, Mulaney, and publishing his memoir, I Must Say: My Life As A Humble Comedy Legend

This summer, Short teams with fellow Saturday Night Live veteran Maya Rudolph for Maya & Martyan old-fashioned, rib-tickling variety show on Tuesday nights on NBC.

If the sizzling summer heat inspires many to refer to June, July, and August as the “dog days,” the Three Amigos and Father of the Bride veteran has certainly endured his share of anguish. More than his share, many would say, including (possibly) the Old Testament’s Job himself. When he was a child, Short somehow persevered through the sudden passing of his parents and older brother. In 2010, Short lost his wife and frequent collaborator, Nancy Dolman, to cancer. 

It’s lucky for audiences that Short refuses to go down for the count. Instead, the singular comic talent lives by the age-old truism: laughter is the best medicine. If you’re Martin Short, there couldn’t be any other way. 

The last two years have been a period of renewed, revitalized activity for you. It’s good to see you again so often. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, you played a very smarmy dentist, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. He is renowned for his “Smile Maintenance.” You’re the right man for that job – the McDonald’s of smiles: over 275-billion served. 

I like that! I think I’ll put that on my business card.

For that film, you were costumed in an awful purple hemorrhage of a suit with horrific gold buttons. One imagines even Willy Wonka turning up his nose as such garishness!

Pynchon described it “lovingly” in the novel, and we matched it to the stitch. Dr. Blatnoyd is a creepy, horrible guy, and the clothes match the man. 

You are well-known as one of the nicest guys in show business. How much fun is it to set free all the darkness and kink in a film or TV show?

Complicated people, I’ve always been drawn to them. Remember my character Jackie Rogers, Jr.? I remember Joe Flaherty on SCTV said, “Well, there Marty goes again, creating another unlikeable character to thrust upon America.” But it’s so much fun! The most interesting characters in the world are lunatics.

Maya Rudolph & Martin Short Photo Courtesy NBCUniversal

Maya Rudolph, a llama friend and Martin Short in a publicity still for "Maya & Marty." (Photo: NBCUniversal)

So you do release all the nasty in your acting roles.

(Laughs) I remember as a kid, nothing struck me funnier than seeing Richard Nixon look into the camera and sincerely tell everyone he didn’t know where the 18 minutes had gone from his tapes. But there was all this sweat on his upper lip. We knew he was lying. He knew we knew he was lying. But he was determined to tell the lie. That’s fascinating to me, and potentially hysterical. I’m just drawn to the odd guy, the man who is full of it, the guy who has limited talent but is pretending he’s a genius. Dr. Blatnoyd is this creepy guy who, on the surface, is a cokehead, seducing underage girls, and yet, the trick of it is to make him somehow likeable – or watchable at least. 

You also played a key role on comedian Jon Mulaney’s short-lived Fox sitcom. He’s pretty amazing, yes?

“Amazing” doesn’t begin to express it. He’s a ridiculously funny writer and stand-up, and he’s also this lovely, Chicago, Midwest, Catholic, immediately loveable, well-mannered, elegant young man. He played a version of himself on the show, a writer for a game show hosted by a man – me! – who used to be an enormous movie star. Now, that movie star is just a narcissistic, delusional, rich-too-long monster. So it’s another one of those fun roles for me. I wish it had gone on longer. I’m not sure I was done expressing all of my monster!

You also recently published your memoir. Why write the life story now?

When my wife died, I was struck by the memory of my parents and my brother dying when I was between the ages of 12 and 20, which was a very rough way to start out this life. But I then had 40 years that were just about perfect – an unbelievable life, a great marriage, great friends, great times, millions of laughs, a great career. Then at 60, my wife died. It seemed this déjà vu moment. At 20 and then at 60, I was at this crossroads moment – I could go to a very dark, negative place where no one would’ve been much surprised had I turned into a horrible drunk, or I could keep going. I had a choice. I had to figure out whether I was going to celebrate the life I’d had or focus on all of the bad things that had happened to me, which have also happened to lots of people. The book made sense to me as an opportunity to discuss how important attitude is in life. That’s more important to me than just telling the story of meeting Frank Sinatra.

You once said, “When you’re funny, you’re blessed.” Most comics, stereotypically speaking, are despondent misanthropes in real life. What’s your problem? 

(Laughs) It’s probably healthy DNA and good parenting. It’s an internal thing, an instinct. My natural state is to be happy. I’m naturally buoyant. I wake up feeling, “What a great morning!” I’ve had some tragedy in my life, absolutely, but I don’t know one human being who hasn’t. You either learn from it and become empowered by it, or you become a victim to it. It’s life, after all. The mark of the man is how he responds to situations. You’re not going to avoid tough times. We’re all over the barrel some of the time. What are you going to do about it? 

Martin Short Photo Courtesy NBCUniversal

Short says he's drawn to playing "complicated people," adding that "the most interesting characters in the world are lunatics." (Photo: NBCUniversal)

With very few exceptions, you’ve never really gotten to play The Leading Man. You’ve been cast – as many great comics have – in “character actor” roles, to which you once said, “Character actors live forever.” What did you mean? 

Well, I’m definitely a character actor. If you’re the most beautiful woman in films, no matter how talented you are, the beauty will lead with many people. If you’re not the most beautiful woman in films, then it’s your talent that leads the way and that must win out. It’s good to be known for the talent, rather than the beauty – especially if you’re me. (Laughs) Beauty has never been Meryl Streep’s trump card, though she’s a very beautiful woman, so she’s been able to be this blank slate throughout her career, playing believably anyone or anything she wants to be. That’s a nice sandbox to have. You can play anyone, which Cary Grant couldn’t really do. 

You almost didn’t go into show business, which I was very surprised to learn. In some alternate universe, you and I are sitting on a park bench, feeding birds, talking about your day in the office as a social worker.

I would’ve enjoyed being a social worker. That was my plan. I had no intention of not being successful, so when the urge hit me to try my hand at acting and comedy, I could not resist following it. I gave myself a very strict one-year deadline. If I’m working in the entertainment business within a year, then I’ll do that. If not, I’ll do the other thing I love. I got jobs – a lot of jobs – right out of the gate. Had nothing happened in that year, I would’ve gladly given it all up. I just didn’t want to be 50 and regret not trying new things or taking some chances. 

It seems like your career has been an unconventional form of social work, doesn’t it?

That’s a theory I can work with. When I was at university, I did two years of pre-med. I was going to be a doctor. Then I got into social work. Then I got into comedy. I would say, I think, that those are all choices about helping people. Comedy definitely helps people. It brings them joy and comfort in even the most dire situations. I’ve had people come up to me on the street and tell me that they were sitting in their apartments with the remote control in one hand and a loaded gun in the other, ready to take their own lives, and then one of my bits came on the TV and made them laugh and they set down the gun. And then they walk away and you just stand there, stunned. 

"Maya & Marty" airs on Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC.