Steve Martin and Martin Short need no introductions.
So, before Martin and Short bring their latest two-man show, “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t,” to Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater on Friday, April 19, Milwaukee Record chatted with the legendary comedians over the phone about nude suits, W.C. Fields, Carol Burnett, not touring behind Three Amigos, political humor, and Bob Uecker.
Milwaukee Record: Let’s start with the title of your new show, “Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t.” It sounds like a threat, albeit a funny one. Where did it come from?
Martin Short: It’s just a line based on an idea that now that we’re older gentlemen, we may not be around forever.
Steve Martin: You know Marty, I gotta say, I think we made a mistake with the title.
SM: We have to explain it to everyone, and that’s usually not a good thing for comedy.
MR: Well, that’s what I had planned for this entire interview. Asking you to explain every joke possible.
MS: That’s good. That’s a good sign.
MR: You’ve been touring on and off since about 2011. Your last show, “An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life,” came out on Netflix in 2018. You’ve said that this one is about seventy-percent new material.
SM: That’s almost exactly right!
MR: Oh good. I read that somewhere.
SM: One night it might be sixty-nine percent, one night it might be seventy-one percent. The other thirty percent is bits we found the audience wanted to see again. Mostly my stuff.
MR: Were there any other ways you decided what to keep and what to change?
SM: At first, we started changing it all out. Then we got comments. “I wish you had done this bit or that bit.” So we started to put things back in. But we didn’t want to have the audience see the same thing as the Netflix show, or the same show they saw last time. There is a lot of solid new material.
MR: Is there any chance we’ll see the return of Mr. Short’s well-endowed nude suit?
SM: I would say there’s a one-hundred-percent chance!
SM: That’s something the audience really wanted to see again.
MS: But they wanted to see it this time without the nude suit.
SM: That’s the one big change. He’s actually nude.
MR: Your show is tightly scripted, but a lot of it is presented as very conversational and off-the-cuff. Are there little things you do to keep it fresh for you? Do you build in any moments where you try to crack each other up?
SM: Oh no. We never try to harm the other or surprise the other. If we’re going to ad-lib something, we actually ad-lib it off stage first, so the other person can be prepared. There’s nothing worse than tripping up your partner. That’s like a dirty trick. There’s a story about W.C. Fields…I know you’re probably young…do you know who W.C. Fields is?
MR: I do!
SM: Okay. He used to do a live act with a pool table. He had it down, and it was vaudeville, and everybody would do the same eight minutes for twenty-five years. So he had this act down, but one of the performers decided to play a joke on him. He was under the pool table and W.C. Fields didn’t know it. So W.C. Fields sensed that the laughs weren’t right, and he looked under the table, and the guy came out, and he [W.C. Fields] hit him over the head with a pool cue. He was so mad at the guy screwing up his act. So we don’t really try to screw the other guy up.
MR: I’m trying to picture an alternate reality where your show is one long Carol Burnett sketch, and the two of you are Harvey Korman and Tim Conway just trying to crack each other up for an hour.
MS: The secret to Carol’s show, when they would break up, was that the audience was in on it. They never questioned why they were breaking up. They knew they were breaking up and they felt part of it. When those things happen they’re great. But the danger of improvising and doing that stuff is that the audience is left out. They don’t quite know. They actors are just doing something to make it different. That’s not a good idea.
SM: The audience knew that Tim Conway was going to try to crack up Harvey Korman. They were in on it in that way. And also, Tim Conway was just hilariously funny. It was actually, I think, very sincere. Harvey was actually cracking up and could not continue. And Marty just doesn’t make me laugh that hard.
MR: Your show obviously touches on your pasts, both in show business and before it. Yet it’s not really a nostalgia tour. You probably could have done what a lot of actors are doing these days, where they show an old movie and do a Q&A after it.
SM: That’s what we call “income.” [laughs] Where you just show your movie and then you get interviewed and you talk about the movie. What could be simpler?
SM: Neither of us want to do a nostalgia show. One, I don’t trust it. I don’t trust that the old bits are as funny and hilarious…you want people to really laugh, not laugh from memory. That’s what we want, anyway.
MR: So there’s no hope for a Three Amigos screening and Q&A?
MS: Well, that’s a different show. That’s in ten years.
SM: [laughs] That’s the wheelchair tour.
MR: Speaking of that, a lot of performers are doing, or already have done, farewell tours. People like Paul Simon or Elton John. Do you see a kind of final “goodbye tour” like that in the future?
SM: I don’t think we would ever say it’s a farewell tour, but the audience will tell you if it’s a farewell tour.
MS: Yeah, by not coming.
SM: That’s when you know you’re on the farewell tour. But I think a farewell tour actually hypes up an audience and probably brings in a few more people. I don’t know. We’re not worried about it right now. We both still have our voices and we’re hopping around, so we’re fine.
MR: Here in Milwaukee we have Bob Uecker, who’s the voice of the Milwaukee Brewers. Uecker is in his mid-80s, so everyone always asks him when he’ll know when it’s time to retire. And he always says he’ll just know it when he knows it.
SM: I think that’s true. But you know, there are so many things that one can do as an older performer. I’m always amazed. I saw that…who was signing autographs for money? It was somebody already really wealth…
[the phone connection drops]
SM: …I think we both have pretty full lives. But this is part of it. Doing a show is part of what makes our lives full.
MR: Unless your new tour is drastically different, there’s not a lot of political humor in your show, aside from a few jabs. Some people find avoiding politics refreshing these days, though other people find it evasive. How do you navigate those expectations?
MS: I don’t think there’s a big expectation for us to be political. I think if you’re Bill Maher and you suddenly decide not to be political, people would be a little confused. But I think in our case, we both agreed that the audience needs a respite from it all. They see it every night on every talk show. No one wants to make anyone feel badly because they don’t agree with you politically.
SM: The audience is paying to get in, and why would we take money from them and show them the same bits they see on late-night television? That’s the nature of those shows. It doesn’t bother me. But for us, we’re all over the country…frankly, it’s a very practical decision. I don’t want to hear somebody go “Boo!” in the middle of our show. Or even “Yay!”
MS: I don’t mind “Yay!” It’s “Boo!” I have a problem with.
MR: You’ve said before that this show is the entirety of your professional lives now. What else is keeping you busy?
MS: I have three children. Steve has a child. Even though mine are in their late-20s, they’re still your kids and you’re still involved in their lives. So there’s that. I don’t know what we do in our personal lives. I guess it’s personal. But as far as doing this, yes, this is the main thing we’re doing.
MS: Oh, and I’m doing a cartoon book, too.
SM: Ahhh! I hate that you’re doing a cartoon book! You’re not doing a cartoon book!
MS: Yes I am. With Harry Bliss!