How an Inside Joke Inspired Martin Short’s Most Famous Sketch Character

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Martin Short is a Tony and two-time Emmy winner, a comedy legend who created an enduring legacy on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” and an Officer of the Order of Canada. But why stop there? With Hulu’s hit mystery series “Only Murders in the Building”—co-created by Short’s longtime friend and collaborator Steve Martin—gearing up for its third season, the 73-year-old funnyman feels like he could go on performing forever. Here, Short discusses how he learned to love improv and the time an inside joke inspired one his most famous sketch characters. 

What performance should every actor see and why? 

I would say Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” It’s just personal. I just love Brando, and that performance just breaks my heart on eight levels. 

Which role shaped you most as a performer? 

I wouldn’t say one performance as much as one show—“SCTV” is the one. And probably [doing] Second City onstage liberated me to know that I could improvise. I didn’t necessarily know that—because I had been asked to do “Second City” a couple of years before that, and I would say, “Oh, no, I’m a song-and-dance guy.” But I was really just afraid.  

Were you ever surprised by how audiences responded to one of your characters? 

I was actually replacing John Candy onstage at Second City. He had just left the cast, and there was a piece that he had written called “Sexist.” It was the idea of a goofball male and a very educated, accomplished woman applying for the same job. Ultimately, the employer says, “I don’t know; you’re both so good,” and she storms out in anger. I think the last line—and of course, this was the ’70s—is “What’s her problem? I know—maybe she’s having her period.” It was that kind of sophisticated ending. But I decided to do a combination of a couple of people I knew, and that was the formation of [my character] Ed Grimley. Peter Aykroyd played the employer. I put a little gel in my hair, and Peter said to me, “Gee, that hair is standing taller every night.” So as a joke, to make him laugh, I put [my hair] in a point. And the audience was hysterical. I thought, Isn’t that what I’m trying to do? That was a surprise. 

What’s one mistake you made in your career that you’ll never make again? 

I’m like Sinatra. What’s he say in “My Way”? “I’ve made mistakes, but then again, too few to mention.” I was gonna tell you a couple of the things I turned down, but then it’s always creepy for the other person who did it, to know they were the second choice. So, I’ve made no mistakes. I’ll let the audience tell me what mistakes I’ve made. 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

The thing I would say to [my] younger self—and therefore any younger actor—is not to take it personally. It wasn’t until I sat on the other side of the auditioning table that I realized how much it was tied to: “He’s too tall” or “He’s too short” or “I don’t buy him as a cop.” Meanwhile, the actor goes, I went too big; it didn’t work. But you’ve probably done way better than you thought; there are just so many other elements of why you didn’t get that job.  

I also only did one year of “Saturday Night Live,” and I wish I’d done more. I had a one-year contract, so I treated every show like a special. I wish I had thought, No, you’re going to be here for five years.