An Interview with Martin Short
Of the two kinds of comic actors—the kind who plays an ordinary person making his way through a ridiculous world, and the kind who plays a ridiculous person who often cannot make his way at all—Martin Short falls into the latter, funnier category. When he appears on stage or on screen, one hears that little ripple through the audience, because everyone knows that it’s about to get funnier. The best thing he’s done is the line “Sew, very old one! Sew like the wind!” in the much-overlooked Three Amigos!, but he’s been funny lots and lots of other times.
Like many interesting people, Short is a Canadian. He grew up in Ontario, Canada, and first attracted notice in the early eighties as part of the cast of the comedy show SCTV Network 90. From there he went on to a two-year stint on Saturday Night Live, attaining stardom with such comic characterizations as Jackie Rogers, Jr., and Ed Grimley, and a bunch of movies. Among my favorites are Innerspace (1987), Mars Attacks! (1996) and the aforementioned Amigos (1986). Currently he is appearing onstage in The Producers. He is also, in the opinion of this reporter, a sissy.
This interview was conducted over the phone, with Mr. Short in his hotel room in San Francisco and me at home.
THE BELIEVER: I had the stomach flu for a couple of days, so I lay on the couch and watched some movies that you have been in, and something occurred to me. I pretty much identify myself as a sissy. I think I have always been a sissy, and it seems oftentimes, when watching your movies, there is a quality of sissyhood in there, too.
MARTIN SHORT: Well, I think it’s the sissy or the horse’s ass. I think those concepts are blended. Sissydom and some guy who perceives himself as pompous and wonderful but is really a moron is an area that makes me laugh.
BLVR: As a struggling actor were you yourself something of a sissy?
MS: No, I don’t think so, but I found sissies like yourself quite comedic.
BLVR: [Laughs] Why that is so sweet… I think. For instance, I watched The Big Picture yesterday, in which you play Kevin Bacon’s agent, who is more or less a Hollywood sissy.
MS: I shot two days on that film. Christopher Guest [who directed The Big Picture] is an old friend of mine. That morning I came out of the trailer with the decision to tape my eyes up as if I had a bad eye-job. We curled my hair and sprayed it kind of red.
BLVR: So that is in fact your real hair. That was one of my questions.
MS: That was my real hair. In fact, had I to do it over again I would’ve done a wig, because in pulling my eyes up to look like a bad eye-job I had huge welts on the sides the second day. Because normally if you wear a wig they pull it in a different way—right across your head. Chris and I later realized that where we blew it a little bit was when the first time you met the character he should have had huge eye-bags, and the next time you saw him he would have that pulled look, with no explanation.
BLVR: Of course, so your percentage of Kevin Bacon’s deal would have—
MS: —gone right to the surgeon.
BLVR: [Laughs] I assumed that it was a wig left over from Annie or something.
MS: [Laughs] It should’ve been.
BLVR: Were you offered Annie as a result?
MS: No, no, no, no. There are very few things that you’ve never seen me in that I wasn’t basically offered. It is not like, “He turned down Schindler’s List, I don’t know why.” Instead, I go from job to job and now I am talking to you.
BLVR: When you go from job to job, what do you like in a hotel?
MS: I like a hopping lobby. Well, a kind of scene lobby with energy because there’s something lonely about a hotel. So I pretend that I’m one of the royal family when I’m in a hotel and that the hotel belongs to me— it is a palace. So, if I’m in New York, I don’t want to stay someplace small and intimate and kind of Englishy. I would rather go to a big marble event. The first thing I like to do is order a club sandwich and a ginger ale and then I phone down and say “Make that two ginger ales. I’m a long way from home.”
BLVR: I always think having a beverage sent up, when you have a minibar, is the ultimate in luxury.
MS: Well,it represents a sense that there may be an enemy out there but it’s not going to affect this hotel suite.
BLVR: What do you hate about hotels?
MS: If I can’t open a window, I leave the room. The minibar person can get exhausting and the constant interruptions. If you leave the Do Not Disturb sign up, and forget, you come back at the end of the day and it looks like the inside of a goat’s stomach. You know you’ve forgotten to have it cleaned. You know the constant knocking on the door can be boring. You want someone to read your mind and be a servant.
BLVR: It is so hard to find good help.
MS: Especially one who can be clairvoyant.
BLVR: Do you think that you would make a good servant yourself?
MS: I’ve often thought that I could, but my master would have to be kind. If they were rude—I couldn’t stand that—I would quit. But I could “Yes, mum”—I could do that thing.
BLVR: I assume you had some servile occupations in your early lean days.
MS: I never did—ever.
MS: I always worked and I didn’t grow up poor. I never struggled. I used to tell people that I struggled, to make me sound more provocative, but it was just a lie. I never struggled. I went from university right into showbiz and kept on moving along. I worked one day at Olsen Temporary Services as a typist, just to see that I could do it. But I got a job [acting] the next day. I had already been working for a year. I was very, very logical about it. I had done four years of university and was supposed to do a master’s, and I thought,Well, I like this theater thing and I’ll try it for one year. It was very hard for me to break the security of education. I didn’t want to be one of these actors who was thirty-three and lost and poor. I wanted to say, I will do this for a year and if I don’t work it doesn’t mean that I’m not talented. It just means that I’m not working, and I’ll do something else. So I worked for a year and a half. Then I wasn’t working, for the first time, and I wanted to prove that I could make a living. I was a really fast typist from high school, because I could never read my writing, so I’d always typed my notes. So I got a job as a typist at Olsen Temporary Services.That was really frightening.You know, a bad-looking fat guy kept on saying to me, “How’s your day going?”
BLVR: Do you know other people who are still struggling? Do you know thirty-three-, forty-three-, and twenty-three-year-old actors who are struggling, and do you swing into town and buy them drinks?
MS: No, I don’t.They can’t help me.
BLVR: [Laughs] Are there people who mistreated you early on? Would you love to swing back and rub their noses in it?
MS:There were a few of those, yeah.The ultimate feeling of that is when you go back to your high school reunion and you are now kind of… famous. It feels good.
BLVR: I’d call you famous, absolutely.
MS: I said “kind of famous” to be humble. It’s one of my better things: fake humility. I went back and saw that I’ve aged not badly—some of these jocks, handsome guys, didn’t necessarily age too well.
BLVR: But the sissies—
MS:Why is it sissy to be happy that you aged better than the jock guy?
BLVR: No, I mean that if you weren’t a jock guy in high school, then you were a sissy.That seems to be the essential dichotomy of male identity.
MS: No, I wouldn’t say so.When I was in high school there was a third category, prompted by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. In between sissy/nerd and the John Wayne guy, there was a late-sixties counterculture.
BLVR: Did you have plenty of friends in high school?
MS: I did. People tend to like to be around people who make them laugh. I fooled around a lot in class. If the teacher was weak and fragile, I took advantage behind their back. If the teacher was tough, I was cooperative. I didn’t want to go to the principal’s office. So I took advantage of weakness.
BLVR: This is going to be a great story about a man who took advantage of weakness through a life devoid of suffering to reach the top.
MS:And yet, still a man to love and respect.
BLVR: Do you expect that someday all of your karmic luck will finally run out and you will have a disastrous fall?
MS: Well, death—I think—will be part of that. I have sometimes imagined my own death and brought myself to tears.You know, I’ll be driving in the car for a while and I’ll think about the tragedy of my own death, and I’ll imagine my siblings shouting, “NO!!!!”Then a tear will come to my eye. I once confessed this to my wife, and she said, “That is the sickest, most self-absorbed thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” And I said, “I’m stunned that’s your reaction. Have you never imagined your own death and started to cry?”And she said,“No, I’ve imagined your death and started to cry.”And I said, “Well, that’s my point.”
BLVR: Even though you’ve told me that all the roles I’ve seen you in are pretty much the roles you’ve been offered, are there any roles you wish you had been offered?
MS: Oh, sure.
BLVR: I mean, I could picture you in various films in which Errol Flynn got the part instead.
MS:I can’t—except when he was drunk in the last ones.
BLVR:Well, those were the ones I was thinking of.
MS: Thanks. There’s someone at the door. It could be the Gestapo, hold on. Hello? HOTEL EMPLOYEE:This is the mini-bar.
MS:Ah, the mini-bar. No, no… maybe come back a little later.Thanks. How about seven o’clock? HE: Oh…
MS:That’s bad for you? How about 2:30? HE:Yes.
MS: There you go, OK, good, thank you, alrighty. [To interviewer] Sorry.That’s what I’m talking about.
BLVR: When you travel around, what do you take with you?
MS:A picture of my kids.That kind of sweet thing.
BLVR:What do you do on the plane?
MS: I sit there. Oh, one time I crushed a guy’s hat. Granted, I crushed his hat. I put a bag up above in the plane.I said,“Oh I’m sorry,I guess your hat is here.”And he says [in a snarky-raspy voice],“Yeah, it is.”And I wanted to say, “Fuck off, you asshole!” I hate when people feel like, because they’re having a bad day, they can take it out on you. I’m very Canadian that way.
BLVR: Do you think that Canadians are polite people in general?
MS:Yeah, I think they are.Years ago, I worked with this great British actor Wilfrid Hyde-White.We were doing a series, The Associates. He didn’t really like the producers very much and he’d walk in each day and he’d say [in a distinct British old-man voice], “Hello, my darling angel. Have those pricks fed you? I despise them, my angel.” And I would say, “Why do you hate them so much?” He’d say, “Because they don’t have any house rules. They don’t say ‘Good morning.’ They don’t say ‘Good evening.’” It is sometimes the way with showbiz that if you’re successful, those things can be the first to go.You are allowed to behave a certain way depending on how successful you are.
BLVR: Right, but how does this explain rudeness on the part of people who aren’t famous?
MS: I wouldn’t know. I only hang with famous people. I don’t know how you other people live.
MS: We must meet up. Hey, have you ever heard of Clare Short? Clare Short is in Tony Blair’s Cabinet.
BLVR: Um… no.
MS:You should read up on her. She is very cool. She’s the Cabinet secretary for international development. She was the first Cabinet member who was going to resign and caused a big brouhaha right before the war started.Anyway, she’s my cousin.
BLVR: Do you guys get together a lot?
MS:Yeah, when I’m over there. I go to the House of Commons.We have dinner.
BLVR:What’s the House of Commons like?
MS: Oh, it’s fantastic. Especially if you have connections: You see the old chambers, and it’s quite amazing. We end up at this great bar where you can have dinner. If they’re in session, then they go,“Ding! Ding! Ding!” and they have to get up and vote.
BLVR: How’s the food?
MS:As I recall, Southern-fried… butter.
BLVR: I picture the bar being dark and leather chair– filled and full of ruddy, red-nosed men.
MS:Absolutely! And those are the women.
BLVR: Is cousin Clare one of those?
MS: She actually looks like my sister Nora. She was a member of Parliament for over twenty years and then became a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet eight years ago. She was always kind of a feminist. She would actually go to the grocery stores and tear out page three of The Sun that would show a topless girl. She was kind of a hero in that country.
BLVR: Did you grow up with Clare?
MS: No, I wouldn’t say that we grew up with them, because we lived in Canada.
BLVR: But you would see them at bar mitzvahs?
MS: Bat mitzvahs.
BLVR:Were you bar mitzvahed yourself?
MS: I’m Catholic.
BLVR: [Laughs] Well, that doesn’t answer the question.
MS:Yeah, I know.Yes, I was.
BLVR: So, as a Catholic who was bar mitzvahed, how do you stand on the pope’s alleged anti-Semitism?
BLVR:What about the incense? Do you like that part?
MS: I do! I like the formality of it, obviously.
BLVR:What about confession?
MS: I didn’t like confession. I never went.
BLVR: Really? Never went in your life?
MS:Well, I went when I first learned it. I liked the idea that if you are sincerely sorry for something, you were symbolically forgiven.As a kid, I would eat the host and say,“You know what—fresh start!” But with confession, if I felt I had something to say to God, I felt I could speak with him again. I didn’t need to go through a middleman. When I was twelve, my brother died, my eldest brother who I adored.When something like that happens—oh, sorry, someone’s at the door. [Indecipherable conversation in the background]
MS: I’m gonna bolt it one more time.
BLVR:What were they asking for?
MS:You know, my lunch table. So, after something like that, you either make a decision to go, “Life is unfair, there are no rules” or,“Hi Dave, how are you?” looking up. So I went in that direction.
BLVR: Do you still talk to your brother?
MS: I do. It was very strange.We were a typical happygo-lucky Irish Catholic family: five kids and two parents.Within seven years my brother died, my mother died, and my father died. Separate illnesses for my parents and a tragic car accident for my brother. And it was like the day before that happened, we would have heard about something like that happening to another family, and we would have thought,“That only happens to another family.” And then it does happen to your own family and it’s a weird seven-year period, and within the past thirty-three years nothing like that has happened to the rest of us. It just happens, and it tests you. My wife feels that she knows them all intimately, and she never met them. It’s just by me constantly keeping their spirits alive.
BLVR: I never really lost anyone until recently.A month ago, a friend of mine died unexpectedly. I was very sort of an atheist. Now I occasionally find myself talking to her because that’s the only thing to do. Do you imagine an afterlife?
MS: I have this great cottage in Canada. I go there every summer—a couple hours north of Toronto.
BLVR: Everyone has a cottage in Canada. Is it by a lake?
MS: It is on a lake. There are motorboats. It’s kind of timeless. It could be the forties, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies. Sometimes when I’m up there, I go down walking from this one road down to where we are, and I think maybe heaven is this on a loop, and one has no short-term memory and just a feeling. I would be happy to relive this feeling for eternity.
BLVR:We have a friend who lives in Toronto, and we’ve rented a cabin together on a Canadian lake a couple of times.We play a lot of board games.
MS:Yeah, that’s what it is.Time stops still.The biggest pressure of that day is what video you will rent.
BLVR: Or deciding whether to get a bunch of small Kinder Eggs or one of the large ones.
BLVR:You can’t get Kinder Eggs in America.
MS: Have you ever eaten Butter Tarts? Butter Tarts are very good.
BLVR:Yeah, and the ketchup-flavored chips.
BLVR: Canada is not often listed in travels magazines as one of the places to go if you’re looking for good food, but my finest memories of Canada are of pigging out on ketchup chips and Kinder Eggs in a cabin in the Muskogas.
MS:Yeah, I think heaven would be a moment like that on a loop, with you having no memory of it.
BLVR: Have you seen that film Afterlife? It’s a Japanese film where four people have to choose the happiest moment of their lives to relive in the afterlife.You would choose a cabin in the Muskogas?
MS: It’s more like an estate, but I know what you mean.
BLVR: I was trying to go with your being coyly modest again, about your home.We have a little place there—
MS: We have a little place there that covers many, many, miles.
BLVR: I liked picturing you bringing the firewood in, rather than the six children from Taiwan doing it.
MS: But they’re so inexpensive.
BLVR: And it gives you the warm feeling of helping others.
MS:You’ve got to do something.
BLVR:Well, on that note, I think that’s probably all of the questions I have, unless there’s another subject that you have been dying to talk about in a magazine but have never gotten to.
MS: No, I think we’ve covered a wide gambit.
BLVR: I think so. Have fun doing The Producers. I was trying to figure out what you and Gene Wilder and Matthew Broderick have in common, since you’re now the three people who are associated with that part, and it’s that you’re all sissies. [Laughter]
MS: Oh, you’re trying to find your ending in your beginning. I know what you’re up to.
BLVR: Well, don’t you want closure? I would hate to have our relationship cut off without this closure.
MS: Get your own closure. Goodbye