The Short Story (i.e., The Story of Martin Short)

My first exposure to Martin Short (b. 1950) came not on his breakthrough sketch shows of the mid ’80s but even earlier, when he was the star of the short-lived CBS sit-com The Associates (1979-1980). Short played an earnest young lawyer named Tucker Kerwin, at a firm run by hilarious British actor Wilfred Hyde-White, with the extremely distracting Shelley Smith as a fellow lawyer always nearby in order to make Tucker do clumsy things. Several other familiar faces adorned the cast. The show was directed by James Burrows, of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda,  The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, etc etc etc. Hence it was extremely good. That must be why it was cancelled after just nine of its planned 13 episodes aired. I reckon I saw every one. I loved it!

But Short was already on his way, long before this. It started with the legendary Toronto 1972 production of Godspell in which Short was cast along with his then-girlfriend Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, and future SCTV cohorts Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, and Andrea Martin, with Paul Shaffer as musical director. A McMaster grad, he went on to study at Second City Toronto, where his circle of colleagues also included future SCTV performers John Candy and Joe Flaherty. Candy, Flaherty, Thomas and Martin, as will as Bill Saluga (Raymond J. Johnson Jr) would also perform with Short on CBC’s The David Steinberg Show in 1976.

Short’s casting on The Associates probably seemed like his big shot, though it was surely a disappointment. From this he stepped immediately into a part in the cast of Diana Canova’s You’re a Big Girl Now (1980-81), which was equally short-lived. Meanwhile his old Second City friends had a sleeper hit with SCTV, which after a long Canada run had been picked up by NBC. Short joined the show in 1982, as a replacement for Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, and Dave Thomas, who had begun to get cast in movies. Short’s memorable characters from this time included the cross-eyed Albino Vegas singer Jackie Rogers, Jr. (a seeming cross between Jack Jones and Sammy Davis Jr.), and the epically original Ed Grimley, an extremely clownish creation whose visual appeal always reminded me of a cross between the Bob’s Big Boy mascot and Alfalfa from the Little Rascals. And of course I am partial, to Irving Cohen, his ancient vaudeville songwriter character (“Gimme a C! A bouncy C!”) Short’s antic, impish energy provided a shot in the arm when the flagging show required it, helping keep audiences engaged. He also did amazing impressions, surprising ones sometimes, like Katharine Hepburn (the best Katherine Hepburn impression I know of) and Montgomery Clift (the ONLY Montgomery Clift impression I know of).

I was disappointed the following year when Short joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Both because SCTV was the better, smarter show and I never wanted it to end (as it did that year of 1984). But also because I thought it exceedingly lame that SNL had now made it a strategy to hire already established performers into their casts, people like Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Rich Hall, and shortly Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall, Randy Quaid, and a bit later Michael McKean. (SNL’s identity had previously had to do with making stars; somehow hiring already-familiar faces seemed a weakness, both on the part of the show and the stars who resorted to joining.)

Still, Short’s addition did inject life to the then-at-sea show and did raise his profile such that now he began to get cast in Hollywood movies, among them Three Amigos (1986), Innerspace (1987), Father of the Bride (1991, with later sequels), Captain Ron (1992), Clifford (1994), Mars Attacks! (1996), The Prince of Egypt (1998), etc.

In 1994, he got a new NBC sitcom The Martin Short Show, whose cast also included Jan Hooks, Brian-Doyle Murray, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy. It only lasted 8 episodes. He had slightly better luck with another The Martin Short Show (1999-2000) a syndicated talk show, on which he first introduced the hilarious character of Jiminy Glick. Though this show, too, lasted only one season it proved to be a springboard for Comedy Central’s Primetime Glick (2001-2003), which he hosted in character as the clueless and inadvertantly insulting celebrity whore, loosely based on L.A. public access host Skip Lowe. This led naturally to the 2004 film Jiminy Glick in Lalawood.

Short has starred in four TV specials, and also made a mark for himself in theatre, starring in the Broadway revivals of The Goodbye Girl (1993), Promises Promises (1993), and Little Me (1998), as well as his one man show Martin Short: Fames Becomes Me (2006-2007), and the West Coast production of The Producers (2003).

Short is a frequent collaborator with Steve Martin. I am most excited to hear about their upcoming Hulu team-up Only Murders in the Building.

To learn more about the histiory of variety entertainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.