It’s May 1977, and I am having an argument with the woman who will become my wife. We’re not arguing about anything serious—Nancy and I rarely do. But I’ve been behaving rudely, or so Nancy thinks (though I think it’s the other way around), and the tension is real.
“Why do you have to start suddenly screaming?” she asks.
“I’m not remotely screaming. You’ll know when I start screaming,” I respond.
“Oh, so you mean we need to bring out the Nixonesque recording devices to determine the truth around here?”
“Good, by all means, turn them on, ’cause I’ll be proven right. And by the way, if I did raise my volume a decibel or two, why would that be my fault?”
“So you didn’t raise your voice?”
“No, of course I did. But that’s like complaining about a guy who’s been pushed off a mountain and screams ‘Ahhhhh!’ on the way down. Sure, he’s screaming. But doesn’t the person who gave him a shove bear some of the responsibility?”
“Okay, you know what? I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” Nancy says. “I want to talk to Ed.”
Ed is a character I’ve been developing over the last few months onstage at the Second City in Toronto. He does not yet have his last name, Grimley.
“Ed?” she says, looking impatiently over my shoulder, past me, as if he might trip through the doorway of our apartment on Roxborough Street in Toronto. “Ed, are you there?”
I assume Ed’s posture: shoulders hunched, upper lip exposing the teeth. “I certainly am, Miss Nancy.”
“Ed, what’s Marty’s problem?”
“Oh, who can possibly know? It’s just so sad, Miss Nancy, ’cause like he’s, like, he’s just so mentally jealous of you, I must say.”
“Jealous how, Ed?”
“Jealous of your beauty and wisdom and saddened by his own tragic limitations, and that’s no lie.”
“Thank you, Ed.”
“Although his endowment has certainly been blessed by the lord.”
“Okay, Ed, that’s enough.”
In my brief time as the conduit through which Ed channels himself, I have discovered two remarkable things about him. One: that he seems to be amusing to audiences, which is a relief, because I’m still new at this improvisational comedy thing, having been more of a traditional theatrical performer up to this point in my career. Two: that Ed’s sweetness has a disarming effect on Nancy. When trouble arises, she calls out for Ed to moderate, and when he appears, all things calm down.
Hmmm, I think, what other magic powers might Ed hold?
“My, you seem very fetching in that halter top, I must say. How I wish my fingers were scissors so I could snip those straps and release the hostages.”
“Go away, Ed! We’re done here.”
Well, if nothing else, I have now discovered a third thing about Ed: Nancy has absolutely no interest in having sex with him.
I joined Second City in March 1977. The troupe was midway through its winter-spring show, The Wizard of Ossington, and I was replacing John Candy, who had just departed.
One of the sketches in The Wizard of Ossington was called “Sexist.” The premise was simple: A male executive is interviewing two candidates for a job, a woman and a man. The woman is smart, competent, and qualified. The man is an idiot. Nevertheless, after questioning both candidates, the interviewer declares, “Your credentials are so darn equal that I don’t know how to decide. I can’t make up my mind!” The male candidate proposes that the matter be settled by arm wrestling. The interviewer agrees. Then the man pins down the woman’s arm, thereby winning the job. SCENE.
Peter Aykroyd, Danny’s little brother and a gifted comic performer in his own right, played the interviewer. Catherine O’Hara was the female candidate. John Candy had played my part, the male candidate, in a brilliantly John way: as a bashful, nervous, sweet-faced soul who was heartbreakingly aware of how out of his depth he was—in other words, as a guy who could be in that situation in real life. I knew I couldn’t replicate that. Only a fool would try to replicate anything that John did. So I decided to go in a broader, more pop-art direction.
First, my character would talk funny. I took his unusual timbre from my sister Nora’s husband, Ralph, who spoke in a kind of resigned, sleepy voice. Then I added a Canadian tic that’s not unlike Valley Girl upspeak, wherein even declarative sentences end . . . like questions? In high school I’d had a geeky friend named Patrick who talked this way. He was an amateur photographer. I’d ask him, “Patrick, what’d you do this weekend?” He’d say, “I took a lot of slides?” I’d respond, “Really? Did you develop them?”
And he’d say, “No, I didn’t feel I have to develop them? ’Cause I, like took them? So I know what they are? In my mind ?” You could almost chart out the notes of his speech musically, on staff paper. I couldn’t help but make a mental note of Patrick’s speech patterns. Hmmm, I thought, I must remember this, for someday I just might make millions off of it.
For the character’s wardrobe, I unearthed an old shirt from my teen years with a dated rust-and-
Gray checked pattern. I buttoned it up to my neck and hitched my trousers high above my navel. Ed, as I’d decided to call my underqualified-idiot job candidate, was complete.
Well, maybe not quite. I decided to apply some grease to the
front of my hair so it stuck up a little, to make Ed’s physical appearance more awkward still.
The audience seemed to like Ed from the outset. Catherine, as prim job applicant Barbara O’Leary, confidently rattled off to the interviewer all the degrees that she held—a bachelor of mathematics from McGill, a masters in business administration from Columbia, and so on. As she did so, Ed, in full view of the audience, would register increasing panic, his smile turning into a grimace, his breaths deepening, his eyes cast downward, his whole body palpitating. This silent meltdown always got a big laugh, the biggest in the sketch, which was an utter revelation to me.
Part of my trepidation about improvisational comedy was that I thought I would have to come up with funny lines all the time, on the spot. What I discovered, through Ed, was that I simply needed to commit: to not worry about jokes. The reaction seemed to get the biggest laughs, not the action. I didn’t need to be a stand-up comedian delivering punch lines. If I just sincerely devoted myself to Ed’s panic with every fiber of my being, the audience would commit to him.
The deeper I got into my first season with Second City, the more confident I became about pushing Ed further. One day, backstage, Peter Aykroyd remarked, “Boy, Marty, that hair is standing
taller every time you do that scene!” He was right—I was putting more and more grease into it. So, to make Peter laugh, I pushed my forelock straight up into a point, like a unicorn’s horn, and left it that way. When we did “Sexist” that night, my entrance drew its biggest laugh yet. Well, I thought, isn’t that what we’re trying to achieve here? Thus, forevermore, did Ed have pointy hair.
Four years earlier, when Second City first set up shop in Toronto, I couldn’t bring myself to audition. I was afraid to. The improvisational troupe and theater had been a going concern in Chicago since 1959, and its decision to open a branch in Canada was like an answered prayer to most of my friends. Many of them were castmates from the musical Godspell, whose Toronto production, mounted in 1972, included such then-unknowns as Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, and me. For all of us, along with the show’s musical director, Paul Shaffer, Godspell was our big break, our first serious professional job in show business. We were a tight, rowdy little band of longhairs, and Gilda and I became romantically involved as well.
Gilda and Eugene, along with two other friends I’d made in Toronto, Danny Aykroyd and John Candy, enlisted in Second City as soon as they could. But me? I played it cool. “Marty, are you going to audition, too?” “Nah, I don’t think so. I don’t really care about Second City.”
But of course I cared. I was just scared—of the anxiety I saw my friends going through as they auditioned, and of the concept of being funny on demand. From Godspell, I had developed confidence in my ability to command a stage, sell a song, fake-dance with frenetic energy, and work off a script. But improv? Terrifying. So I did other stuff, and took other jobs: in musicals, in straight plays, on television. “Oh, I’ve heard of you,” said Bill Murray the first time I met him, when he came up to Toronto from Chicago in one of Second City’s occasional talent swaps between the two branches. “I hear you’re known,” he said in that deadpan of his, “as Mr. Entertainment.”
And I was. In 1974 I had a regular slot as the boy singer on Everything Goes, a variety program launched by Global Television, athen-smallprivate Canadian network. It was hosted by Canadianpersonalities Mike Darrow and Catherine McKinnon, plus, forthat crucial bit of American swagger, the comedian Norm Crosby. Everything Goes aired in primetime five nights a week, Mondaythrough Friday. I would come out with my shoulder-lengthAndyGibb hair and formfitting Ban-Lonturtleneck and do straightrenditions of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Here’s That Rainy Day” and“Corner of the Sky” from Pippin, things like that.
Eclectic as my young career was, though, it was hardly what you would call an unmitigated triumph. One night on EverythingGoes was an outright disaster. Tony Bennett was the big scheduled
guest. Right away, I was nervous, because Tony was one of my idols; it might have been 1974, the Year of Pink Floyd, but I was a fan of the pre-rock guys—Tony, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé. Intimidated as I was, the producers of Everything Goes assured me that Tony was opening the show, which was a comfort. I, needless to say, would not be going on until near the program’s very end, by which time the force of Tony’s brilliance would have dissipated.
But Tony’s plane into Toronto was delayed by a snowstorm. For a while it was touch and go whether he would even make it. He finally arrived with ten minutes remaining in the program, as charmingly at ease as one would hope. They hustled him out onstage. Tony never broke his cool, and he was in perfect voice. As he was killing it with one of his signature songs, “When Joanna Loved Me,” the stage manager tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re next.”
“Wait!” I said. “You can’t follow a singer with a singer!” The stage manager tersely replied, “Watch.”
I was beyond petrified. The number-one rule in show business is: Never follow a singer with a singer. The number-two rule in show business, incidentally, is: Never look Barbra Streisand in the eye when she is walking onstage, or during foreplay.
Anyway: as Tony continued performing, I made my way to my sad little stool downstage. Tony finished big, with Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime”—“ I’m gonna doooo . . . greeeat . . . thiiiiiiings!”—and the crowd went insane. The cameras cut over to Norm Crosby, who said, “Thanks, Tony. And now here’s a kid that sings really good . . . Marty Short.” And then the cameras cut to me, perched unsteadily on my stool in an outfit that tragically combined a winter wool sweater with flared clamdiggers.
“What a spot, following Tony Bennett!” I said. Crickets.
So I started singing: “Here we are, on earth together. . . . It’s you and me!” Already, I was wrong. The lyrics are “It’s you and I.” That’s because the song I was singing, by Stevie Wonder, is
called . . . “You and I.”
This little slip was enough to knock me completely out of orbit. I suddenly forgot the rest of the lyrics—and worse, for reasons I still cannot fathom, I started to impersonate Tony Bennett while improvisingnew lyrics. Perhaps my subconscious was telling me that the only way I could follow Tony was to be Tony, but what viewers of Everything Goes got was a spasmodic young man who was
twenty-four years old but looked eighteen, and was inexplicably bullshitting new words to a Stevie Wonder song while doing a flop-sweat impression of Tony Bennett having a heart attack: “Our
love was made, it was made in heaven, too. . . . Let’s have . . . a great big bowl of stew!”
I somehow stabilized just enough to save the tiniest bit of face: I reverted to my own voice and hit Stevie’s high notes at the end, a credible finish. But I was devastated. Mortified. I had totally screwed up.
Afterward I went into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and steady my nerves. I heard the door open, and someone came in. It was Tony. I straightened up, expecting that my hero would have some pearl of wisdom for me, words to make me feel better. With his genial Tony Bennett face, he looked me square in the eye.
“You froze good, kid,” he said.
That was all I got. “Well, good night,” he said, and off he went.
I went out on a lot of auditions in those days, too: an endless string of humiliating cattle calls where it was essential to stand out, but not so much so as to appear needy or desperate. I learned about this distinction the hard way at an audition for Tang, the fruit-flavored drink mix favored by the astronaut John Glenn on his first Mercury flight. I walked into the waiting room where the audition was being held and saw twelve guys, all my age. We kind of looked the same, and we were dressed the same. As we sat there with our eight-by-ten head shots, going over our Tang-commercial copy, I was struck by a brainwave.
I went into the bathroom with my head shot and, with a Sharpie, drew a mustache and a goatee on my photographed face. Then, after the casting director came through the waiting room and collected our head shots in advance of calling us in to meet the client, I returned to the bathroom and, using the same Sharpie, drew a mustache and goatee on my actual face, to match the photo. When I was finally called in, the client—an unsmiling executive—looked at my head shot, which he held in his hand, looked back up at me, and, without remotely acknowledging my clever comedic choice, said, “So, have you had a chance to read the copy?” My hand hovering over my face in a futile attempt to obscure my hand-drawn facial hair, I quickly realized that no Tang-related windfall was headed my way.
Eager to stretch, I took a part in a minimalist gay-themed prison drama called Fortune and Men’s Eyes. The show was originally mounted off-Broadway in New York in 1967, but it was its 1969 Los Angeles production, directed by the actor Sal Mineo, that put it on the map.
To say that I was miscast as Rocky, the toughest and most sexually predatory of the inmates, would be a massive understatement. I was required to do a lot of bullying and posturing in my best proto–Sylvester Stallone voice: “Hey, whaddya doin’, wimp-ass!” The director was very Method oriented, locking us actors down for twelve hours a day in the theater so we could improvise in close quarters and really get the feel, man, of what it’s like to share a cell with three other guys. On top of that the production was down in Hamilton, Ontario, which—though it was my beloved hometown, where I’d grown up—was an hour’s commute each way.
Worst of all, as part of the immersive Method experience of doing the show, the director required us to be onstage in character for half an hour before the show began—pacing around the “cell” in our prison garb, which consisted solely of tight white underpants. No shirts for Rocky and his pals. And we had to do our pacing and brooding silently as the audience filed in, because if we engaged with its members verbally, they might think that the show was starting. It was humiliating, and again, not to mince words, I was really bad. One reviewer said that I was unconvincing not only as Rocky but also as a male.
One night Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, and Paul Shaffer came to see the show. I would have preferred that my girlfriend and two closest friends stay away, sparing me the embarrassment. But on the bright side, we planned to go to dinner after the show at a really good high-end restaurant in Hamilton called Shakespeare’s. Paul was especially excited about this, because I had told him that Shakespeare’s had the best garlic bread in Canada. It was all Paul could talk about for days: “I’m so excited to try the garlic bread! Oh, and of course to see you in the role of Rocky in a fabulous production of Fortune and Men’s Eyes!”
That night I took my usual position onstage for the preshow period, mutely pacing and brooding in my underwear. As I did so, I saw Paul coming down the aisle, toward the stage. I hated that he, Gilda, and Eugene were there in the first place. And now I was wondering what the hell he was doing, walking right up to me. Paul has a distinctive look, as anyone who’s seen him as the bandleader on David Letterman’s show over the last thirty years would know. His head has always had that perfect lightbulb shape. When you stand a certain distance from him, it looks like his suit had a great idea.
So there I was on the stage as Rocky, almost naked, when Paul, looking like a cross between a maître d’ on a spaceship and the world’s hippest thumb, got right up in my face, a big grin on his.
“Marty! Pssst . . . Marty!”
I was in character, so I tried to ignore him. But he wouldn’t let up.
“Pssst . . . Marty! Horrible news! Shakespeare’s is closed tonight! Wink if Bavarian’s makes sense.” That was another Hamilton restaurant.
I did not wink or acknowledge Paul in any way. Inside, however, I was saying, Paul, when I am able, I will kill you.
As it turned out, we had a perfectly pleasant dinner at Bavarian’s that night, and Paul and Eugene very charitably acted like I was halfway decent in the play. But Gilda knew the score. As soon as I came out the stage door, she wrapped me up in her arms and said, in the sweetest way, “Aw, honey, don’t ever do a play like this again. Ever. Promise.”
By 1976 I was feeling, for the first time in my life, a measure of professional regret. I realized that there was a hip energy in my friends’ careers that was absent in mine. That year Catherine
O’Hara, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, and Harold Ramis started work on a primitive version of SCTV—SecondCity Television—for Global, the network that Everything Goes had been on. Gilda, with whom I remained on good terms after our breakup in ’74, had moved to New York and was now making it big on Saturday Night Live. Paul was in New York, too, as the piano player in SNL’s house band.
Me? Well, at the top of 1977, I was finishing up a run in Toronto in Harry’s Back in Town, a revue of the songs of Harry Warren, the old-timey tunesmith behind “Lullaby of Broadway” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” Not a bad show, truthfully, but . . . not exactly plugged into the happenin’ zeitgeist, either. Sure, I was fortunate to have a hot and sexy live-in girlfriend named Nancy Dolman, whose beauteous and supportive presence I did not for a moment take for granted. But by February I had nothing on the employment docket: no work, no auditions, no exciting prospects. It was a career low point.
That month, absent any professional obligations, I flew out to L.A. to join Nancy, who was knocking on the doors of the record companies, trying to get a deal. (She was an amazingly talented singer and songwriter, her music not miles away from what Linda Ronstadt and Melissa Manchester were doing at the time.)
It so happened that Paul Shaffer was in town at the same time, since SNL was on hiatus. He was staying at the Sunset Marquis hotel—walking distance from where we were staying. Bill Murray was also in town, so Paul invited Nancy and me to join the two of them for dinner. Remember that this was the winter of 1977. Chevy Chase had left Saturday Night Live after the show’s first season, 1975–’76. Bill was drafted in as Chevy’s replacement, and he was just now coming into his own. In a couple of months, he and Paul would unleash upon the world their iconic recurring “Lounge Singer” bit, in which Bill was the smarmy crooner Nick, and Paul was his accompanist.
I, meanwhile, was stuck in a rut. There was always work for me in Toronto, but increasingly it was in the dreary safe harbor of cabaret. Having once felt like the guy who didn’t need Second City, I now felt like the guy who, unlike all of his classmates, chose not to go to university because he wanted to open his own shawarma stand, but for some reason the shawarma stand hadn’t worked out. So now he was behind the grade.
Nancy and I were walking along Santa Monica Boulevard, en route to our dinner with Bill and Paul, when I froze. There was a bench nearby. I coolly turned to her and said, “I have to sit down now.”
“Why?” Nancy said. “What’s going on?”
“I cannot spend an evening with Bill and Paul,” I said. “I can’t spend another evening pretending to be happy for someone else’s success. I just need to sit.”
So we sat. I brooded silently. I wasn’t jealous of my friends, but I resented my own lack of fulfillment and momentum.
Nancy, bless her heart, sat by me and held my hand. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, she whispered, “How long are we going to sit here?”
“Boy, that’s a good question,” I responded. “If I only had an answer.”
“Interesting,” said Nan.
I gathered myself—eventually. But we didn’t have dinner with Bill and Paul that night. Instead we headed east, to the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, where an improvisational comedy troupe called War Babies was performing. They were good. They made me laugh. And I finally saw the light: That is what I am supposedto be doing.
The next morning, I phoned Andrew Alexander, who owned and operated Second City Toronto, and boldly declaimed, “I want to join Second City.” Andrew, the savior of so many of us, was, thankfully, happy to make a place for me.
And so northward I flew, ready to begin life as Martin Short, Funnyman. And forever thereafter, into our eventual lives as Los Angelenos, Nancy, whenever we drove past the corner of North Flores Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, would point to the bench and say, “Hey, look, honey, there’s Breakdown Corner.”