'Trump is a walking joke – even the Republicans secretly want to impeach him!' – Steve Martin and Martin Short talk politics, comedy, and Ireland
Steve Martin’s 2007 memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life isn’t a funny read. I would recommend it as required reading for anyone choosing psychoanalysis as a career path.
“When I moved out of the house at eighteen,” Martin writes, “I rarely called home to check up on my parents or tell them how I was doing. Why? The answer shocks me as I write it: I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
“He writes his own material,” his mother Mary Lee said of Steve in an interview. “I’m always telling him he needs a new writer.”
His father Glenn was far more complex. “Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television,” Glenn wrote in his newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president, when his son made his star-turn on the iconic US show in the late 1970s. “His performance did nothing to further his career.”
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After the premier of The Jerk, Steve Martin’s first movie in 1987, Glenn Martin was noticeably silent. When one of Steve’s friends asked him what he thought of his son in the movie, his father’s cold reply said it all about his style of parenting: “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin.”
In a May, 2016 interview with Howard Stern on his radio show, Steve talked about his father as being emotionally unavailable and taciturn adding that: “First of all, my view of my childhood always was that I was very happy. And then I realised later that I was happy internally as a kid with friends and school, but maybe not so happy at home. I didn’t understand that there was an alternative lifestyle that other people were raised in very happy homes. By the way, it wasn’t awful at all, it was just that I had a complicated relationship with my father.”
Just before he died, Glenn said to Steve, who was sitting on the edge of the bed, that he was ready to die but that he “wished he could cry.” When Steve asked him what did he want to cry about, Steve says he was forever grateful that he asked his usually remote father the question because of the reply he received: “For all the love I received but couldn’t return.”
Steve realised that his father “had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from him and his mother his whole life.”
Steve Martin, who had a sister Melinda, was born on August 14, 1945 in Waco, Texas; the family moved to California when he was still young. The youngest of five kids, Martin Short, born March 26, 1950, grew up in Ontario, Canada. “Being the youngest, I had more confidence because I was constantly told I was perfect.” Short’s childhood was not perfect.
When he was 12, his eldest brother David was killed in a car accident; when he was 17 his mother Olive died of cancer; at 19, his father Charles — an Irish Catholic emigrant who hailed from Crossmaglen, South Armagh in Northern Ireland — died from a stroke. In 2010, Short’s wife of 30 years, Nancy Dolman died of cancer. Short describes the infectious laughter of his family home growing up in Canada as “trickle-down funny”.
So, talking to Steve Martin and Martin Short — two of the funniest men ever to walk onstage and who bringing their internationally feted comedy show, The Funniest Show In Town At The Moment, to the 3Arena in Dublin on March 11 next year — is an experience in itself as both of them, either by accident or design, bring so much stuff to the table.
Asked by GQ magazine last year about qualities they envy in each-other, Steve Martin had this to say: “Marty is extremely comfortable in almost any situation, and I’m extremely uncomfortable in almost any situation.” Getting to fling questions at two actual gods of comedy was the complete opposite of extremely uncomfortable, as it turned out.
When I am introduced, they are full of their own brand of quirky joie de vivre that, out of nervousness, I say: hopefully I won’t ruin their mood with my questions.
“Don’t worry,” laughs Steve Martin. “We are already so depressed that it won’t matter!” What is the biggest misconception about them? Steve: “That I’m nice! I really just care what Marty, my wife [Anne Stringfield] and my child [he prefers to keep her out of the spotlight] think of me.”
They became friends over three decades ago when they co-starred, opposite Chevy Chase, in the movie ¡Three Amigos! “We laugh a lot and we especially like to gossip,” says Marty who is the father of three grown up children: Katherine, Oliver, and Henry. “And the one problem with gossip is that eventually you run out of it. We like show-business gossip. When people misbehave we love that.”
“We have a lot in common,” says Steve. “But you can’t put your finger on it. I guess our demeanour is the same. We are both very easy going. Nobody likes to fight. I get along with Canadians.”
Magaret Atwood once told me, I say to Martin who was born in Ontario, that: “I will tell you what Canadians like to do, particularly if they’re from the Maritimes — they like to tell you completely outrageous lies with a totally straight face; and they will go on with that until you either catch them out or they are overcome with guilt or pity and tell you the truth.”
Is that true of Ontarians, Marty? Steve and Marty laugh. “No, that’s the Maritimes!” laughs Marty. “That’s a beautiful, poetic thing to say but I don’t know if I would agree with that. Ontario is very influenced by the United States. Our television tends to be American television. There tends to be a sweeter element to Canadians, no question.”
How do they want an audience to feel when they are at their shows? “I can answer that accurately,” says Steve. “I want them to feel that they are at the funniest show they ever saw. That’s what we go for. It’s a little bit arrogant because we know there are many, many shows out there. But that’s our goal. ‘That was real fun — and it was worth the money.’ That’s what we want people to say.” (Intriguingly, in an interview early in his career, Steve said: “Part of the thing, when you’re young and naive, is that you think you went over when you didn’t, and that’s what keeps you going. Your desire’s so great to do it, you don’t just quit.”)
When did they realise they were funny?
“When I was younger, I was the one doing most of the laughing. I was laughing my head off — at myself! I don’t know if other people were laughing. But there was a big transition from being a funny person into being a comedian. It is a huge leap.”
Without wishing to turn into Freud, I ask them how they look back on their childhoods?
Steve: “Go ahead, Marty!” Marty goes ahead: “I don’t look back on myself. I don’t feel I have changed. I feel it’s a continuation of just being me. I don’t look back on myself and say: ‘Who was that? Who was he?’ I can totally relate. I don’t know, I had a very happy childhood. And that happiness permeated my life, I guess. I had a very funny family. It was trickle-down funny. My father was funny. My siblings were funny. We did things together.”
I ask them about comedy. I say that there are two types of funny in definition: funny ha ha; and funny peculiar.
“When I was doing movies,” says the star of The Jerk [in 1979], Planes, Trains and Automobiles , Dirty Rotten Scoundrels  and L.A. Story  among many others, “I was trying to do something funny ha ha out out of something funny peculiar. I think something funny peculiar is what you laugh about three days later when you are thinking back on it. We try to do both, I’d say.”
I ask them to describe the comedy they do.
“That’s a good question,” says Steve. “This may sound like I’m criticising but I’m not; I like to say ‘It goes down easy.’ But that is a quality I admire in, say, Jerry Seinfeld or John Mulaney. The comedy goes down easy. Whether it’s shocking or not, it still goes down easy. Even when it is shocking.”
Steve is — needless to say — bone-rattlingly funny. This is a famous riff on smoking dope: “I used to smoke marijuana. But I’ll tell you something: I would only smoke it in the late evening. Oh, occasionally the early evening, but usually the late evening – or the mid-evening. Just the early evening, mid-evening and late evening. Occasionally, early afternoon, early mid-afternoon, or perhaps the late-mid-afternoon. Oh, sometimes the early-mid-late-early morning… But never at dusk.”
Marty is no slow-coach at making people rattle with laughter either. This is his trip on the key differences between Canadian and American Thanksgiving practices: “We have different traditions. We like to stuff the turkey through the beak. That’s unusual. We’ll sit around and tell each other what we’re thankful for, and then we’ll apologise if it feels like bragging. And then we’ll eat a whole potato, because mashing feels like too much aggression. And then at the end of the dinner, we stand together and all sing songs about public health care.”
Marty has been called the greatest talk-show guest in the world, according to New York magazine He has won more awards for his comedy than most comedians could only dream of.
Steve is no stranger to success in the comic field either.
In a 1982 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Steve said that it was while at college (in Long Beach State in 1964) that he hit on his particular brand of comedy. “College totally changed my life,” he explained. “It changed what I believe and what I think about everything. I majored in philosophy. Something about non sequiturs appealed to me. In philosophy I started studying logic, and they were talking about cause and effect, and you start to realize, ‘Hey, there is no cause and effect! There is no logic. There is no anything!’ Then it gets real easy to write this stuff, because all you have to do is twist everything hard – you twist the punch line, you twist the non sequitur so hard away from the thing that set it up, that it’s easy… and it’s thrilling,” Steve said, adding that for a time in the mid 1960s he considered becoming a teacher.
“But then I thought, ‘I can’t give up show business.’ I’d studied philosophy and realised the only true value was accomplishment. So I changed my major, transferred [to UCLA] and went into theatre.”
Steve’s performances onstage at clubs like the Prison of Socrates, on Balboa Island near Newport Beach involved him throwing “everything in to try and get to fifteen minutes. So I had my magic, and I read poetry and played the banjo, and I juggled. It’s exactly what I’m doing now,” said Steve in 1982 (in 2019 he still plays the banjo).
Circa 1971, Steve – who had previously cultivated a hippy look – started wearing white suits and cut his hair. He would also lead the crowd at his shows into the street after he finished his performance. He would lead them into McDonald’s “and order 300 hamburgers – and one French fry.”
“That’s what I had to learn in acting, that it was the degree of your commitment to an idea that made it successful or not. The idea could be wrong, but you must be committed, and that’s what I was to the act at that time. All the way.”
Steve can remember the first time he ever walked out of the hall at the end of the act, and the audience came with him. “I had them all get in a swimming pool – which was empty – and then I swam over the top of them, and they all put their arms out, and I thought, ‘Gee, there’s a breakthrough! I’m gonna do this every time now.’ It was that spirit, I think, that caught fire to the rest of my act. I stopped going outside because it got too dangerous. I realised if I go out and take 3000 people, someone’s gonna get run over.”
He described his concerts back then as being like “events.”
“But even after that, there were great shows, shows that thrilled me. It was like playing an instrument. The audience was an instrument. I can do this and they’ll do this. There was a period of, like, a year and a half where I felt so good; my body, my fingers, everything was working. When it got beyond that… I don’t want sour grapes, like I was selling out 20,000-seat concerts and was unhappy. I wasn’t, on one hand. It was the traveling, the circumstances – it just got me. I started doing things like collapsing onstage. It was a signal.”
“It was a concert in Knoxville, Tennessee, with about 7000 people in, like, a gymnasium. They were hanging from the rafters. It was about 100 degrees outside and humid, so it must’ve been 125 degrees onstage. The first five minutes I could feel sweat coming from my hair and running down my face. And the suit got soaked through. And I was about a half hour into the act when I realised I couldn’t go on. I had to leave. They called the medics and took me to the hospital. It was just exhaustion. I was a wreck.”
I tell the two gods of comedy that another of deity of laughter Jerry Seinfeld told me in an interview six years ago that darkness is another thing of essentially no value in comedy. “There’s funny. There’s not funny. That’s the only thing we’re all after. Who cares if it’s dark if it’s not funny? Who cares if it’s light if isn’t funny?”
Do they see where Seinfeld was coming from?
“I would say that is true for what we do,” says Steve. “I mean, we do some dark stuff. We read each other’s eulogies on stage. But we don’t think of it as dark. We just think of it as funny.” Their Netflix special Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life is very funny [Steve and Marty joke during the show that an alternative title should be, “If We’d Saved, We Wouldn’t Be Here.”] Last year Steve told the New York Times that their friendship is “easygoing and relaxed. Humor is a great artificial way to communicate”; Marty added that what he liked about “our relationship is there’s no complexity. Sometimes even with good friends, they’ll take something the wrong way. We’ve never had that moment.”
How would they describe each other? “I would say Steve is a very kind, sweet fella. He is also very funny, very brilliant. He is always creating and always… not driven, but really intrigued by the creation of something, and filled with enthusiasm about solving the creation of that, be it a joke or a card trick. He is endlessly fascinating.”
Pipes up Steve, laughing: “I would describe Marty as a 69-year-old man.” Marty, laughing: “Thank you for the detail, for the scrutiny!” Steve (74) clarifies his position: “No, actually – here’s how I would describe Marty. If you are going to throw a dinner party next week, you invite some people. And you invite Marty. Then you get the word back that Marty can’t come. So, you cancel the dinner party.” They both laugh.
Has that actually happened to Steve? “I don’t know whether I have actually done it but it is what I think,” says Steve. “Which means,” adds Marty, “it is not true!”
Would Marty ask for the guest list in advance for this dinner party so he would work out some jokes at their expense? Marty famously told Letterman on his show “You look sensational. Is it the kale enemas?”, to say nothing of what he said to Conan O’Brien (“You look like the film negative of ‘Django Unchained”) and Jimmy Fallon (“I bet you’re the only late-night host that goes to a paediatrician!”) on their respective talk-shows. “That’s talk-show stuff,” says Marty “But I do tend to surround myself with people who can take a joke, knowing that it is what comedians do with each-other.”
Is it difficult to make or take a joke in America at the moment given who is leading the country? Marty: “I know very few people who will say, ‘What a fantastic guy he is.’ So everyone is in the same boat on the fella [Trump].” Is it too obvious to make jokes about him? Marty: “No. He is a walking joke. There is always something. What does he mean in this policy? Oh, I forgot he is wearing orange make-up.”
Steve: “I’d say that all our friends are left [wing]. So we are never really sitting at an uncomfortable dinner table. So, we’re all comedians having fun. It doesn’t affect us.”
Marty: “I think this president has broken down the lines of right and left. Right now, the Democrats want to impeach him and the Republicans secretly want to impeach him. He is dying to get back to Mar-a-Lago [in Palm Beach, Florida].”
As for this country — apropos of their show at 3Arena in Dublin on March 11 — Steve says he has “a great affection for Ireland because early on, I fell in love with Irish music. Just the …? What do they call it? The Spanish gave a word for it? Duende? The Irish have that, and I am part Irish. I don’t know how much. But I have always gravitated towards Irish music. My own music is heavily influenced by Irish music. I love Ireland. Marty and I once did a tour of Ireland. It was so much fun. I had never been, so my eyes were wide open.”
“I grew up in a very Irish household,” says Marty. “My father was from Crossmaglen in Armagh. So that was a big influence in our family.” Did his dad tell him about the Troubles? “We would go back during the Troubles… Short’s bar is still there. It is still part of the family.”
Steve: “I just read that history of the IRA. No Talking? No Whisper? I can look it up!”
“We will visit Crossmaglenn when we come over,” says Marty. “It is only an hour and half from Dublin.”
I ask Steve about his musical side, which is part of the show.
“I play the five string banjo. So I am partial to blue-grass and the folk music that surrounds it.”
Was that from his childhood in Texas? “No, from my teenage years, but I also fell in love with Irish music, like the Bothy Band, Planxty, Sean Keane.. I toured Ireland in my twenties and I bought hundreds of Irish music compilations from outdoor marts. Father Sydney MacEwan. The Raggle Taggle Gypsio!” sings Steve. These are the last words he says before he and Marty are whisked away. Dirty rotten scoundrels.
The Funniest Show In Town At The Moment at the 3 Arena in Dublin on March 11 and the SSE Arena in Belfast on March 12. Tickets from Ticketmaster.
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