Q&A: Steve Martin and Martin Short
Steve Martin and Martin Short are both comedy giants in their own right, and have appeared together throughout the years in movies and at comedy festivals. This week they team up at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace for An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest Of Your Lives, the first in a series of engagements that will continue throughout the year. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen spoke with them about how thousands of dinners evolved into a comedy fan’s dream come true.
Thank you for doing this interview. I really appreciate being able to speak with you. The Colosseum shows are highly anticipated here.
Steve Martin: Well we love to play Vegas. I’ve been playing there since the early ’70s, and I just love it.
SM: Yeah, I have. I opened for Ann-Margret in 19 … I think 70. 1970.
Like regularly, or a one-off engagement?
SM: She played there for … you know, in those days it was different. I can’t remember if it was two weeks or five weeks, but I know we played Tahoe for five weeks, so Vegas was probably similar.
I was going to ask you about your early Vegas experiences further in the interview but while we’re there, Steve, what were your first performances like here? What do you recall about them? If it was the early ’70s you were still cutting your teeth, as far as your approach.
SM: Yeah, well the first time I ever went out there was because my girlfriend in college was a dancer in one of the shows. She wasn’t like a Vegas showgirl. She was in a show called The Mickey Finn Show, which was a show actually that originated in a pizza parlor (laughs). There were banjos. It was that kind of show: Four-string banjos and Dixieland jazz, and all that. So I went there and I’m just in awe of the place, and I think I went there with—I talk about this in my book—all I had was four dollars, but then you could get all you could eat for a quarter, or 75 cents or something. But I remember I put a nickel in the slot, and I hit 50 cents, and it changed my stay there.
You could do that back then. You probably played the Strip for a while before you reach the point when you started doing arenas.
SM: Absolutely. I played the Riviera. I played the Sands, but mostly the Riviera. I played the Hilton, which is no longer … none of them are there! Is the Sands there still?
No, It’s the Venetian. It’s all different now. We were host to your art collection a few years ago.
SM: That’s right!
My artist friends wanted to know if you’ll ever do it again, and if you’d show pieces you’ve added to your collection since the Bellagio exhibit.
SM: Oh, yes. It’s changed quite a bit, but it probably won’t happen. It’s such a big deal to ship all this stuff across the country, and it’s very expensive.
Martin, what’s your relationship to Las Vegas? How far do you go back?
Martin Short: I have. I’ve done Terry Fator’s theater twice, and then Caesars a long time ago, like in 2002. Three times I’ve played Vegas.
A lot of people think “An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Lives” is a fairly new thing, but the roots of this show go back about four years, right?
MS: The idea of Steve and I being on the same stage doing a show goes back about four years. The show we did four years ago was completely different. That was just us interviewing each other for whatever it was, 90 minutes or longer. That’s a small portion of what we do now.
That was at a comedy convention?
MS: Yeah, the first time we did it was at the closing of the Just for Laughs festival in Chicago.
Did doing that give you the idea that you had the chemistry to pull off “An Evening You Will Forget”?
MS: Absolutely, yeah. I think that what we found was, you know, Steve and I, we’re very close friends, and over 30-some years there’s been 18,000 dinners. And at those dinner we mainly talk and gossip, and make each other laugh. I think we thought there was an element of that when we were on stage, that the looseness and the ease we had with each other to make each other laugh, to make the audience laugh and to improvise with each other was as palpable as there was at a dinner, and that made it even more fun and exciting potentially to do and evolve.
SM: And also, when we first did that Just for Laughs thing it was for an audience that was interested in comedy, and we talked a lot about our comedy process and all that. It went really, really well because they were very interested in that. So we thought, “Let’s do this again,” so we did it for kind of a paying audience. It was a convention, wasn’t it, Marty?
MS: The next one was a convention, yes, in Boston.
SM: Yeah, it was a convention, and we sort of told the same stories and discussed the same area, and we realized that a regular audience was not interested in our comedy process, and that’s when we decided to just make it a show. A “show” show, where we’re not talking about ourselves so much.
What was the impetus for doing this show as a tour? You both have extremely busy schedules and diverse interests. Was there down time in your schedules or was this more like the highest priority out of all the things you could be doing?
MS: Well, it’s not like we’re going on a bus for eight weeks solidly. It’s three or four shows a month, so that’s pretty manageable. And I think to be quite honest the real impetus to do it is we’re having such a blast doing it. It’s so much fun.
What was that? Can you tell me?
SM: “See Them Before They’re Dead.”
I like that!
SM: (Laughs) I like that too.
You met on the set of Three Amigos, but can you recall how you first became aware of each other as comedians? Martin, you were working in Canada, on the verge of creating Ed Grimley and joining SCTV. What do you recall about becoming aware of Steve Martin?
MS: I became aware of Steve Martin … the first time I heard about Steve Martin was before I even knew Steve Martin because my girlfriend at the time did a Canadian special with Steve.
SM: That’s right!
MS: Nancy Dolman, who would become my wife. So that was the first time I heard of Steve Martin, and that was like spring of ’74. And then Saturday Night Live, and then the albums. But I never met Steve until, uh … I met him backstage at The New Show in ’83, backstage briefly at The New Show in ’83. I really met him when I went to pick up a script at his home in Beverly Hills for The Three Amigos.
And Steve never hosted Saturday Night Live during the seasons you were on the show, so you missed each other.
SM: No, I never did. I was kind of feeling a loyalty to Lorne (Michaels, SNL producer), who was gone during that time.
Did you watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin? You might have heard Steve’s jokes without knowing it.
MS: Oh, of course I did. I adored The Smothers Brothers. If you were remotely drawn toward comedy, that was appointment television. I had been a fan of the Smothers Brothers since their first album.
SM: And I had been a fan of SCTV. I don’t remember what years those were, Marty. Was that the mid-’70s?
MS: It started in the mid-’70s in like ’76, but I didn’t join until ’82.
Steve, you were in your Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains era when Martin joined the cast of SCTV. Did you see him on the first-run episodes of that show?
SM: Absolutely, I loved the show. You have to watch a show a couple of times before you go, “Wow, this is really funny,” and I had that experience with SCTV. Then I saw him do synchronized swimming (in a sketch with Harry Shearer) and that sealed the fate.
SCTV was kind of like a club for people my age, for kids. You would go to school after the weekend and you’d kind of nod like Fight Club and talk about the sketches, and could tell what the other person was like. You both appreciated that kind of comedy. Do comedians and comic actors know right away when they have creative chemistry? Did you find that in Three Amigos right away?
SM: I always find that I get an immediate response with people. I can’t remember with Marty, but whatever it was it was pretty fast.
MS: I’ve found that through the years Steve and I really do share a comedic sensibility. It’s very odd that if he said, “Oh, you gotta look at this guy or this women, they’re so hilarious.” That I would look at it and say, “Hmm, I don’t get it.” That does not happen very much, if at all.
What do you think you bring out of each other? Is there a combination of inspiration and motivation that causes you to be better at comedy when you’re working with each other?
SM: I think we both like to riff and gossip a little bit. You know it’s funny, when we’re working on our show, I’d say … “This feels like my line and that feels like your line,” and there’s never any controversy about who takes what. It’s just seems to be known.
MS: I do think that we’re both individually very confident in what we do and what we’ve done. I think that when you’re carrying that confidence you’re not auditioning anymore.
SM: Yeah, right.
MS: You’re just trying to celebrate the enjoyable aspect of creating comedy with someone, so there’s not like, “Wait a second, I want that for me!” You don’t do that. You don’t do it publicly anyway.
Yeah, you’ve created that relationship through all of your dinners. You’re literally bringing us into an intimate comedy relationship. I read that you both roast each other a bit, too. Is that what we’re going to see? You guys breaking each others’ …
SM: Well, we always do that. We like to do it.
MS: We’ve done that right from the beginning.
SM: In fact, we actually conscientiously work on material for our show that’s not putting each other down (laughs). That’s all we do.
MS: I saw an interview with Prince William and Prince Harry recently for the BBC, and they were putting each other down.
SM: In a joking way, right?
Martin, people will be expecting characters. Are you going to be bringing many special guests with you?
MS: A few characters are in the show. I don’t want to reveal all the surprises, but certainly a few people show up.
You have a more diverse wardrobe than Steve does for the show, right?
SM: Absolutely! I love that. I don’t have to make one change.
Steve, a lot of folks see this as your return to live comedy, but with all live performing you’ve done in recent years does it feel like a “return” to you?
SM: Well, I’ve been telling jokes in front of live audiences now for six years or more with the Steep Canyon Rangers and with Marty, but it’s always been … with the Rangers it was doing music, and here we do a little music. This is actually more like doing stand-up. It’s almost like being a comedy team, you know? That’s what it is, but we’re still individuals. Martin and Lewis, they’re a real comedy team. I don’t consider us quite a comedy team. I think of it as we do the show together, but a comedy team always appears together. That’s the difference, I guess.
It kind of seems like Prairie Home Companion with the Steep Mountain Rangers.
SM: Yeah, a little bit.
Do you think you might do “Little Buttercup” (from The Three Amigos)?
SM: No, we haven’t done that. We’ve never really thought about that.
If I made a request right now, do you think you might do it?
SM: (Laughs) I do think, Marty, that we should do “Blue Shadows.”
MS: I think that’s actually a good idea. You know, there’s great songs in that movie that Randy Newman wrote, as we know.
SM: The trouble with “Blue Shadows” is it’s not funny, but we can show the clip of the horses singing.
MS: No, but if we did it with the Steep Canyon Rangers and they were going "bum bum-BUM bum, bum bum-BUM bum."
Steve, is this a big deal for the Steep Canyon Rangers, or is it business as usual for them?
SM: Well, they’re already a big deal in their world. The one good thing about this is they’re playing for audiences that wouldn’t ordinarily see them. They don’t really need me anymore. They’re working all the time.
What does Jeff Babko bring to the table? He’s got equal billing with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Can you tell us a little about him?
MS: Jeff is my musical director, and there’s a section of the show where Steve and the Rangers aren’t onstage, and Jeff and I do 20 or so minutes, so that’s his contribution. He plays throughout the show. He’s an amazing keyboard player … keyboard player with Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Does he play with Steep Canyon Rangers?
MS: No, he just does this with me. And with Steve and myself, but … well I guess he does at the end. He plays with Rangers and you, Steve.
Steve, you were working a long time before the mid-’70s but you emerged when the country was recovering from its Watergate hangover, when people were really ready for escape through an irreverent style of comedy. What role do you both see comedy playing in today’s political climate?
SM: I think it’s very significant. Freedom of the press also implies to satire, and it’s a great tool on both the right and the left. I don’t think the right uses it as much as the left does, but it’s an absolutely essential part of American and English culture. Satire. Parody.
Do you think it’s going to lead to sharper satire and more escapist comedy?
SM: I don’t know. That I don’t know.
Martin, what do you have coming up for the rest of this year? I think we’ll hear your voice this Christmas in animated film Elliot the Littlest Reindeer.
MS: Yes, that’s already done. I just plan on doing these shows. They’re still planning on doing more (NBC variety series) Maya and Marty shows. They haven’t slotted that yet, but my focus is Mr. Steve Martin.
What about you, Steve?
SM: I really have this. I’m very happy doing this, and I also have a play that will very likely be on Broadway within the next year or two that I’ve written.
Do you see an EGOT (the accomplishment of winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) in your future?
MS: No, I don’t see an EGOT. Comedy … it’s not an award winner.
Caesars Palace, 7:30 p.m. April 9, starting at $49 plus tax and fee. 866.320.9763