Steve Martin & Martin Short On Their Emmy-Nominated Netflix Special & Refining Material Over 100-Plus Shows

Steve Martin and Martin Short were on the road when they heard that their Netflix special, An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, had been nominated for a slew of Emmys, including Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded) and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. Filmed at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, earlier this year, the 74-minute show finds two of the ¡Three Amigos! trading insults and sharing memories of their lives and careers, accompanied on the piano by Jimmy Kimmel Live!‘s Jeff Babko. The duo are in Vancouver when we speak, getting ready for a show at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. “Shows,” notes Steve Martin wryly. “The only thing we do now…”

How did you feel when you got the Emmy nominations? You’re up against some very interesting company there—what were your thoughts?

Steve Martin: I was totally surprised, and I think Marty was too. I didn’t even know the nominations were coming out. I didn’t even know we qualified. We were talking about the release date—we were originally talking about June—and Lorne Michaels said, “Well, y’know, if you do it in May, you’d be eligible for Emmys.” And I thought, Well, that’s just ridiculous. Then we moved up the date, and there it was. So we were actually quite excited.

What lengths would you go to in order to win?

Martin: Well, we’re doing this interview.

Martin Short: I pray at night that the Lord will smite the competition. That may be wrong.

In the pre-recorded category, you’re up against Carol Burnett. Is she a friend of yours?

Martin: Yes, she is. And we admire her. She’s a beautiful comedian. I used to write for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the late ‘60s, and their show was right across the hall from us—their shooting space was right across from our shooting space. So that was a great thing to be around.

Was this stage show something you would be doing anyway, or did you tailor it especially for Netflix?

Martin: Netflix wasn’t even on our mind when we first started the show. And then last year we did the show in Santa Barbara, and the Netflix people came to see it, and they said they wanted to do it. So, no, we already had the show going. And we kind of liked it that way. It would have been very hard to create a show for Netflix.

The roasting that goes on between you is hilarious. How much was improvised on the night, and how much do you refine it over the period of touring?

Short: Well, I think it’s constantly refined. If someone comes up with a good line or we’ve written a good line for the show, that’s why it’s in. And we would repeat that, because the audience hasn’t seen the show. But often what will happen on stage is that something will happen that will lead to Steve doing a joke to me, or me doing a joke to him.

And the first thing we do when we leave the stage is, we look at the script and say, “Let’s put that in.” So, it’s a combination of writing and finding, through improv.

Do you like to surprise each other with some of the darker insults?

Martin: I would say the answer to that is no. We like the timing between us, and we’re not trying to throw the other guy off. So we always go over it. Unless something spontaneous happens. That’s different. There’s no off-stage plan. Like, “Oh, I’m going to say this and watch his face.” That’s not how we work.

Short: Mm-hmm.

Martin: For example, we’re going in an hour to rehearse an entirely new five-minute bit that we may or may not put in tonight’s show.

So you change it with that much precision?

Martin: I’m not sure what you mean by precision.

Well, you’ve already worked out that it’s going to be a five-minute segment…

Martin: Yeah, well, I’m guessing it’s going to be five minutes. Sometimes we’ll have an idea for a piece and at first we might think, Aw, this is so boring. But then we’ll go, “OK, this could work. Let’s rehearse it before the show.” I mean, not even with the intent of putting it in, just to say the lines. And then, while we’re rehearsing it, we come up with more stuff. Like, possibilities of pictures and images coming up, and music playing behind it. That’s really fun, feeling a piece getting funnier and funnier as you’re working on it.

How do you workshop a show like this? It’s very wide-ranging—it showcases your individual talents but it also goes into your backgrounds. How long did it take you to get it all into a very compact 70-minute show?

Martin: First of all, I’ll tell you how we workshop: earn while you learn. Y’know, we were just out there doing it. I know it’s not really true, but I tell the musicians, “Oh, you want to become a great musician? Turn professional. Just go out there and start playing, and you’ll improve really, really fast.”

Has the show changed a lot since you first started doing it?

Short: Well, it started when we were asked to close the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Chicago [in 2011], and that was just a pure interview—both of us interviewing each other. And that went well, and we had a great deal of fun doing it, and we were, of course, reminded that we had this ease and chemistry with each other, in life and on stage. And so we did it some more, and the more we did it, the more it evolved into what the show became. We just kept trying these things, and experimenting and structuring.

Martin: Like a lot of things, it just starts out with the kitchen sink: “Well, I could do that bit, and you could do that bit, and you have 10 minutes there and I’ve got five minutes here, and then I can bring out the band.” Then you start shaping it and it’s interesting how quickly you can turn a show that’s unplanned into looking planned. And rearranging things. Especially if you’ve done it a lot in life.

You must both have a lot of stories about meeting celebrities. What makes for a good celebrity anecdote? Do you make notes?

Martin: I don’t really note them when they happen. It’s only when I’m forced to remember them. Marty will remind me.

Short: For me, I’ve always remembered these stories. And I think that when you act like an idiot when you meet Al Pacino or something, it’s a good area, because the audience can relate to that. How tongue-tied would they be if they met Al Pacino? That’s why those stories are fun.

You make a lot of funny observations about “fake Hollywood”. Is it a place that’s changed a lot in the 30 years that you’ve known each other?

Martin: “Fake Hollywood” is how I actually started. It’s a soft target. But Hollywood is so changed, I don’t even know what would be a funny line anymore about it. We can talk about our own egos as a joke. People understand that.

Comedy is changing too these days, at a great rate. How do you prejudge how far you’re going to go? I’m thinking of the second half of the show, when Martin comes out as Jiminy Glick and makes some very barbed contemporary references…

Short: I think it’s a very personal barometer, and because Steve and I share a show, there are things that, for example I might say as Jiminy Glick, that Steve would say, “Gee, I don’t feel comfortable that we’re saying that.” Now, if it were my own show, I’d say it. But, because it’s our show, you go, “OK, we don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, even each other.” So, there is a kind of a barometer. And then, at a certain point, you say, “This is what we think is funny, this is our signature.” You don’t worry about the reaction. You’re always going to get people who are going to be offended, and people who think it’s brilliant. It’s kind of the territory you go into in comedy. It’s subjective.

What about the Bill Cosby joke. Was there ever any consideration that you might not go there?

Martin: I forgot that that was in! That’s actually in? I thought we had cut that. We cut it for a while, and then the trial came back, and then we put it in then. That was at the same time [the Netflix show] was happening.

Is there a particular reason why Donald Trump isn’t subject to scrutiny by Jiminy Glick?

Martin: I have my explanation, and Marty might have his. Before the election, we did a lot of political material on both sides, and there were obviously Trump jokes. And it played great. After the election, the jokes became divisive and you could sense that some people hated it, some people loved it, and we realized that’s not what we’re there for, to be didactic or teach a lesson or be political commentators. Especially when it’s done every night on late-night television.

Short: Yeah. The president gets a lot of reaction. So, for example, if Barack Obama were the president right now, he wouldn’t be in Glick either.

How many times have you done the show now, or versions of the show?

Short: Oh my God, I don’t know. I mean, we’ve done it for a few years, and…

Martin: I’d say at least 100 or 150 times.

Short: Yeah, I agree.

Martin: Hard to believe.

Do you have any rituals before going on stage?

Short: I always vocalize and stretch, and that’s about it. Pretty obvious.

Martin: I practice the banjo.

What have you learned about yourselves in doing this? I mean, is it easy to keep it fresh, or does it become like doing Waiting for Godot, like a stage play?

Short: I’d say it’s a little bit of both.

Martin: I’d say it’s easy to keep it fresh. I mean, I never feel like, “I’m so bored. Here comes this line again.” I’ve never thought that with this show. And when you’re slowly improving something, or slowly changing something, it keeps it alive. I remember this old Lenny Bruce quote. He had a line in his show. He said, “People ask me how much I ad-lib. I said tops 10 per cent. Tops.” And, y’know, people don’t understand how lethargic a show is when it comes to change. That it does take time.

Short: Yeah, I was going to say that I think both of us feel this. I’ve done long runs on Broadway, and I get as much exhilaration about coming out with a [familiar] line and trying to make it perfect in its delivery. That can be as exciting to me as creating a new line. So, the Waiting for Godot part of it is an actual part of it. I think both Steve and I enjoy doing a great joke—it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve done it—and seeing the audience burst into laughter. It’s fantastic.

Martin: And also you get the element of, “Wow, that line worked better than it ever worked before tonight!”

Short: Mm-hmm.

Martin: Or, “What happened to that line? It killed last night. What happened? What changed?”

Is it a format that you could extend? Could you bring in another guest, like Chevy Chase or Bill Murray?

Short: We’ve done that. We’ve had David Letterman join us, Billy Crystal, Paul Shaffer, Conan O’Brien…

Martin: I think, did Bill join us one time? No, I guess he didn’t. Bill Murray, no.

Short: No.

Martin: You can’t corral him. You can’t corral Bill Murray, ’cause you don’t know where he is or how to reach him.

Is it true that he can only be reached by a 1-800 number?

Martin: I actually don’t know. I’ve heard that, but I don’t know.

What are the qualifications to be the perfect guest on your show? What kind of personality do you have to be to fit right in?

Martin: Well, it has to be somebody that [the audience] would be excited to see. And so far that’s all we’ve had. Billy Crystal, they were excited to see. They were excited to see David Letterman, and Conan. Everybody, they were excited to see. But you don’t want to bring out somebody just to kill time. Also, in those days when we had other people coming on, we could afford the time. Now the show is tight, solid. We can’t afford to devote 15 minutes to a guest.

Short: Although Jerry Seinfeld wants to do it.

Martin: Absolutely, yeah.

Is there anybody that’s turned you down?

Short: Hmm, no.

Martin: No, we haven’t really been reaching out.

Short: Conan did it because I was on his show and I said, “Hey, are you going to do it?” He said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” Dave Letterman suggested it himself.

Martin: Yeah.

Short: So, that’s the way it’s worked.

You refer to it slightly in the show, but you’re not really appearing in as many Hollywood movies as you perhaps used to. Is that a conscious decision, or is it just the way the industry has changed?

Martin: For me, I really enjoyed doing movies, and now I wouldn’t really enjoy it. I have a family, and I was almost single my whole movie career, so I could afford to go away for three months. Now, I can’t mentally afford it. Y’know, I just want to be home, with the family. And also there’s a huge difference: I was a movie star who starred in leading roles. But, to go and do a cameo for two weeks…Y’know, it was never my goal to be an actor. It was to be a comic, creative actor. I do enjoy it, but it’s not like [doing this show]. I like this.

Short: For me, as a Canadian actor, we’re like the British, so we do all three mediums at once. Y’know, there’s not one better medium. I’ve always just gone, like a shark, to where the best, most interesting place to spend your creative energy is. And right now, it’s doing this on stage.

Martin: Yeah.

There’s a lot of talk about Netflix, and streaming platforms in general, taking over Hollywood—and the entire movie industry, basically. Have you felt that in your capacity as an actor, or as a screen performer?

Short: Well, the movie industry’s very different now than it was 20 years ago.

Martin: Yeah.

Short: I mean, you can’t make Midnight Cowboy now; it would be an art film, y’know? It’s animation, sequels…

Martin: …Or it would be a television show.

Short: Exactly. Now it’s all Marvel.

Martin: I must say, I resisted television as an art form and now it’s completely won me over. I would watch a five-hour series and yet I wouldn’t go see a two-hour movie.

Does that mean you’ve resisted offers from television?

Martin: I’ve gotten a few offers, and one I was very, very tempted by, but I thought, “Oh, the time…” But I really enjoy doing this more. I don’t want to do both.

What kind of show were you were offered?

Martin: It was a half-hour comedy thing that … I don’t want to go into it, ‘cause…

Short: …Is that the one where you played a witch?

Martin: What?

Short: A warlock. Steve the Warlock– new on ABC!

Martin: Oh.

Am I missing something there? I didn’t quite get that…

Martin: I didn’t get it either!

What’s next for you? How are you going to see out the rest of the year?

Martin: Touring the show.

Short: Touring the show.

What kind of people are coming to see you?

Martin: I would say it varies from state to state, but here in Canada it was a wide range of ages. Wouldn’t you say, Marty?

Short: Yeah, absolutely.

Martin: Marty is huge here in Canada. Everybody here grew up with him.

Short: Well, I was on a Canadian show called SCTV that was very popular, in the States as well, in the ‘80s and it never stopped being repeated. Y’know, like I Love Lucy.

Do Canadian audiences stay loyal to Canadian celebrities?

Short: There’s only 34 million Canadians so there is an element of being part of the same club. Like, if I’m in the airport, they’ll say, “Hi Martin. We’re from Toronto!” And that makes me stop and say, “Oh! Where are you from? Where do you live?”

Are you both based in New York these days?

Martin: I am. Marty isn’t.

Short: I live in LA.

How do you both deal with recognition in the streets?

Martin: I’m fine. I just put a hat on and walk down the street. As I said in my book, or somewhere, “Before I was famous, I was not famous enough. And when I became famous, I was too famous. And now I’m famous just right.”

How about you, Marty? How famous are you?

Short: Oh, I’ve always said that on my gravestone, there’ll be one word written: “Almost.” So that’s, again, I have the perfect kind of fame. You get the table at the restaurant, but you’re not hounded if you go to the grocery store.

This tour seems pretty much like a full-time job that you’re doing. Do you ever have time to work on new material?

Martin: Well, last year, I had a play on Broadway and I had a record coming out and I was doing this show [at the same time]. Now, the only thing I do is this show, and it’s enabled me to write and think about—even absentmindedly—ideas for this show. And I really like doing it.

Has Netflix suggested you do another special, in a similar vein, or another idea altogether? I mean, you can’t really do the same show twice…

Short: Well, already there’s 40 percent different material from the Netflix show than is now in our present show, and we’ll just keep evolving that.

But, have they mentioned anything about you coming back?

Martin: No. It’s not like we’re on their mind all the time. But, if even they did, we would be three to four years away from that, I would say, in order to do it right, y’know?

One last question. Is there anything either of you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Short: Not really. I mean, I always think that if you haven’t done something at this point, maybe there’s a reason.

Martin: I agree, I’m doing exactly what I want.

Short: I mean, I’ve never directed, even though I’ve been asked to direct things. At some point you have to say to yourself, “Jeez, why haven’t you done that? Why didn’t you jump at that offer to direct something?” And the answer is, maybe it’s because you shouldn’t. Or you really don’t want to. That’s the real reason.

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