The old showbiz turn of phrase that a performer “needs no introduction” certainly applies to Steve Martin and Martin Short, who play Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater on June 30. It’s daunting even to begin to encapsulate their careers. Separately, each has a hugely successful background on the stage and screen as an actor, each has authored a memoir (Martin’s “Born Standing Up” and Short’s “I Must Say”), and each has collected endless awards and accolades.
Aside from both being 20th-century movie stars, Steve Martin built a career as a legendary stand-up comedian, author of books and plays, and respected banjo player while Martin Short’s celebrated runs in the musical “Godspell,” in Toronto’s Second City improv troupe, and on the sketch shows “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” established him as a preeminent character actor and musical comedy performer.
Together, Martin and Short were two-thirds (with Chevy Chase) of the “Three Amigos” in the 1986 comedy film that brought them together. Subsequently, they starred together in two “Father of the Bride” films and now headline (with Selena Gomez) the Hulu mystery comedy “Only Murders in the Building,” which Martin co-created with John Hoffman and which has earned both lead actor nominations from the Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globe Awards.
Now a recognized comedy team, the duo chatted with this publication by phone to promote their current live tour together, titled “You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Today!” The pair have toured in tandem since 2015, their previous touring show “A Very Stupid Conversation” evolving into the Netflix Original special “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life.”
Presented with their history together, the two immediately go into their double act. Martin quips, “Well, first of all, we have no recollection of any of those facts.” “That was supposed to be a joke,” he adds, Short chiming in, “Boy! If that’s any indication of what we’re going to deliver, we’d better do more PR.”
The duo’s self-deprecating banter provides the spine of their live act as they mock-insult each other, with obvious affection, throughout the evening. The two also tell stories, Short performs a musical-comedy song and dance with Jeff Babko at the piano, and Martin plays banjo with his bluegrass buddies Steep Canyon Rangers.
Asked if he had any hope of one day upstaging the brassy Short, Martin says, “I would say there is absolutely no chance. And I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause he’s a fighter. And if he sensed I was even close to upstaging him, you wouldn’t believe the stuff he would pull.” I gave singer-dancer-actor Short the chance to say whether or not Martin posed any “threat” to a triple threat like Short. “Well, listen, Steve is a brilliant mind, you know. So he is a creative force that I’ve never experienced (elsewhere) in my life. I don’t find him threatening. He exhausts me with his mind sometimes because it’s so prolific, but, no, there’s nothing threatening about Steve.” Short takes a perfectly timed comic beat, then adds, “Particularly if you’re in a fistfight.”
Looking back to their youthful inspirations, both cite Jerry Lewis and the classic comedy teams of Laurel & Hardy and Nichols & May, with Short singling out Jonathan Winters and Lucille Ball, and Martin citing Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart. Many of today’s young comedy stars of course idolize Martin and Short, who have memorably appeared on the late-night talk show circuit over the years. Martin explains, “I do live performing with Marty. I don’t do live performing anywhere else, except for the Oscars or introducing somebody on the Emmys or Kennedy Center (Honors), something like that. But otherwise the only reason I’m doing these talk shows is to talk about a project.
“And then you have to have material. So you end up, y’know, performing on the shows. When really I’m not going out there to perform. Marty will go out with nothing to promote, and I don’t. I always like to have at least two minutes to kill with talking about something else (rather) than doing a million jokes or being funny…Is that cynical?” Short replies, “But when you do a talk show, Steve, you must admit, for two minutes, you do kill.” He pauses. “The problem is you’re out there for 18 minutes.”
Regarding how they put together their show, Short says, “We do have an odd ability to share what we think is funny and should go in. I can’t remember a time when Steve said, ‘I don’t find that funny,’ and I go, ‘Are you nuts? It’s hilarious.’ We do share a comedic sensibility that way, so it helps.” Martin agrees: “Sometimes we’ll rewrite something and go, ‘Oh, that makes it better, or I’ll say, or Marty will say, ‘Well, let me try that. I think I can do something with that.’ And we’re fine with that because we know the other person will fly with it.” Keeping it loose, the two allow for the moment when “something happens that you didn’t expect,” as Short puts it, prompting an ad lib that then goes into the show moving forward.
The same week Martin and Short hit town, “Only Murders in the Building” returns for its second season (the first two of 10 episodes drop on June 28). Of their creative input on scripts at this point, Martin said “I’d say we pitch. The scripts are good, and every once in a while, we’ll have a thought about it, like any actor would.” Short recalls that while filming “the first episode of the first season, I was discovering the character through the writer’s writing. And then after a while, you impart enough of your own understanding and character development onto the character (that) … maybe by the fifth script, you’d say, ‘You know what? I don’t think Oliver Putnam would say that.’ And they’ll listen to you. Because now you’re a partner in this creation.”
As we bid our farewells, I tell these international treasures to be careful on the road, that I’m not above wrapping them in bubble wrap to protect them from dangers like monkeypox. “Hey, listen, that’s the way I travel,” Short jokes. “So I just — I’m not gonna unwrap for the show.” Martin: “Yeah, yeah. But I’ve read that monkeypox is sexually transmitted, so neither Marty nor I could possibly catch it.” Short: “Unless you can catch it through batteries.” And with that, they’re off to make their next audience laugh.
Steve Martin and Martin Short perform June 30, 8 p.m. at Frost Amphitheater, Stanford. Tickets start at $49.50. More information is available at live.stanford.edu.