Steve Martin and Martin Short need no introductions. So…
Before the comedy legends bring their latest live show, “You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Today!” to The Riverside Theater on May 12, Milwaukee Record chatted with them about the pandemic, their hit Hulu series Only Murders In The Building, avoiding nostalgia, and avoiding old material that may not fly today.
Milwaukee Record: Your last chunk of shows was in 2019, for the “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t” tour. Did you have any big touring plans that were put on hold because of the pandemic?
Martin Short: Absolutely. We were in the UK on a tour during March 2020 when we had to stop. We had performed in Glasgow and we had performed in Dublin. The next night we were going to be in Belfast, and then a few nights at the Royal Albert Hall. All that had to be canceled.
Steve Martin: And then we just canceled the rest of them. In fact, a lot of last year and this year is make-up dates. But I think we’re all made up now, and we’re all fresh.
MR: You’ve both been busy lately with your Hulu series, Only Murders In The Building. Has the success of that show figured into your live show at all?
SM: We mention it in the show and it gets nice applause, but it’s funny how much time it takes for a hit to soak in. It’s not like an overnight thing. It’s on Hulu and some people can see it and some people can’t. It’s out there now, but it takes like a year. We’re going to start a new season in a couple of months, and it usually takes two or three years for the grass to grow and to have full awareness of what’s going on.
MR: Your live show is built around your friendship over many decades. How does your working relationship differ when you’re acting on a scripted television show like Only Murders?
MS: I think we both work in a similar way: out of the joy of the set or the looseness of the rehearsal hall, whether you’re doing a soundcheck or filming a scene, comes a better product. There’s great ease and joy and looseness and laughter on both sets.
MR: The last time we chatted, back in 2019, we talked a little bit about improvisation, or the lack of improvisation in your live show. Does that lack of improv hold true for Only Murders?
MS: In Only Murders we have very strong scripts, but you do many, many takes, and you’ll say, “Hey, can I do a freedom take? Can I try this line or that line?” Sometimes those lines end up in the show and sometimes they don’t, but it’s never a staid thing. We’re not doing Shakespeare here.
SM: If we come up with a line or an idea, we always run it past the head writer John [Hoffman] and the other actors. Ad-libbing on film is almost not viable, because you have to know ahead of time where the camera is going to go and where the lighting is. So we always clue everybody in if we’ve got an idea.
MR: You did a couple of live shows in March, but the Milwaukee show seems to be the main kickoff for a big chunk of shows throughout the summer and into the fall. What can folks expect from this tour that they haven’t seen before? How does a show like this evolve? Do you do a lot of tweaking over the course of a tour?
SM: We constantly tweak it. Sometimes we’ll put it in a new routine and we’ll work on it and work on it, and then one day we’ll say, “You know, the old bit was better. Let’s go to that.” And then sometimes we’ll find what we egotistically call “gold” and we keep it in. From our Netflix show [2018’s An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life], I’d say we’re like 70 or 80 percent different. The things we keep are the things we feel the audience wants to see. Maybe—mostly—for the first time, because nobody remember every bit.
MR: The last time we talked, we joked about the possibility of the two of you doing something easy, like a screening of Three Amigos! and then a Q&A afterwards. Steve, I believe you called something like that an “income show.”
SM: [laughs] I did. I actually have never done that. I’ve never had a screening of a movie and then had a Q&A afterwards. I mean, maybe 30 years ago, but we don’t really do that now.
MS: I don’t think that our shows are really at all tied to nostalgia. The old hits aren’t brought out. That would be pure nostalgia. “Look what I did in ’82!”
SM: I don’t think we would have a lot of joy or fun doing that. We like our material. We like making the audience laugh and we like doing our things that we’ve worked on and developed.
MS: Part of the satisfaction of doing these shows is that you still feel proud and creative if it’s gone well. I don’t know if I’d feel that taking a Q&A about Innerspace.
MR: As you get back into the swing of things with the live show, is there anything you’ve found you’ve missed? Anything you’ve really enjoyed getting back into?
SM: When we hadn’t done the show for a couple of years, we were a little nervous about how it was going to go. But then you get your rhythm back, and now we’re extremely comfortable because we’ve done three, four shows. We’re just sort of there to have fun with it.
MR: So at this point in your careers, there’s still a bit of nervousness about embarking on something like this?
SM: Well, not really. I’m a little more nervous than Marty is, I’ve found. But you always want a little bit of edge.
MS: What you contribute that gives you greater nerves, which I am envious of, is that you care.
SM: [laughs] Yeah, I guess that’s it.
MS: I just wish I had that element.
SM: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into the dressing room and said, “Marty! Wake up!”
MS: And sometimes on stage. [laughs] Steve is beyond woke in that you don’t have to awaken him.
MR: Speaking of that, is there any material from your pasts where you’ve thought, “Oh, no, we can’t do that now”?
MS: There are certain things you’re not supposed to say, and there are certain times I tend to rebel against it and don’t care. But other times it makes sense that maybe it was inappropriate or it might make someone uncomfortable.
SM: Things change, and we have no problem with correcting what might be offensive or thoughtless. “Thoughtless” is more of the right word today. But we’re constantly working on the show. We’re finding new stuff. Mike Nichols told me once, “There should be something in everything you do, everything you make, where you say, ‘Can we say that?'” Marty is more that guy. He’s a little edgier than I am. I’m basically afraid. [laughs]
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