Despite their on-stage insults, comedy legends Steve Martin and Martin Short are friendly off-stage. They’re more like best buddies Don Rickles and Bob Newhart than the feuding, albeit fictional, Sunshine Boys. The opening minutes of their Netflix special, An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, are like a roast battle, with the two performers hitting each other with hilarious jabs.
Now, doing interviews by conference call at their respective homes for their live tour of the show, they banter and poke like the seasoned professionals they are. The kidding around begins immediately.
“I’m in Los Angeles, California, but we’re not in the same house,” says Martin, the elder of the two, who, at 72, has five years on Short. “We decided to not live together anymore.”
“Yeah, Steve wouldn’t meet my demands,” says Short. “It just got down to that.”
“And I was tired of picking up after him,” Martin volleys back.
“Meanwhile, I’m spending three hours making linguine and he shows up two hours late,” finishes Short.
On a platform with way too many comedy specials that aren’t all that special, Martin and Short’s stands out. It’s not standup, it’s not sketch or improv. But there are elements of all of those, plus vaudeville. And, naturally, banjo music.
Usually, a Netflix special will follow a tour, but this one preceded it. Not to worry, says Short. You can—and probably should—enjoy both.
“First of all, there’s a lot of new material. I would say there’s 35 minutes different from the Netflix show. And secondly, the Netflix show is 70 minutes but our actual show is two hours. And thirdly, like I always said when I was a kid and I would listen to whether it was Steve or Lily Tomlin, you were hoping and praying that they did that bit that they’d done on the album.”
Martin adds quickly and humbly, “That probably doesn’t apply to us.”
After starting out in standup opening for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, the Carpenters, Sonny & Cher, Ann-Margret, and Utah Phillips, Martin famously walked away from the art form at the top of his game to focus on a film career. Short, who came to prominence on SCTV and later Saturday Night Live before embarking on movies, never did standup, although it’s clear he easily could have.
“What I wasn’t drawn toward was the early days of the standup’s life, which is going to Yuk Yuk’s and all the clubs and having 10 minutes to win over a drunken audience,” he says. “I never did that and I’m glad I didn’t. It doesn’t sound appealing.”
Martin agrees: “Yeah, it’s not one of my favourite recollections of my life. But you had to do it in order to do what you end up doing.”
The extracurriculars ruined it for Martin, but he always enjoyed the actual performance aspects of standup. “When you walk off, you’re feeling a little bit high,” he says, “which is exactly what Marty and I feel like when we end our show. We feel good. Doing the show with Marty is the first time I’ve ever felt good before I went out.”
The show also features the duo’s other talents: Short’s singing and Martin’s banjo abilities. But their respective approaches to these gifts are diametrically opposed. Martin jokes right up to the moment he starts plucking his instrument and then plays seriously, while Short jokes all the way through his songs, always ironically belting out a tune.
“I think that when you make an agreement with the audience, you are making an agreement to be funny,” Short says. “If you’re giving them something they’re not expecting to get, then they kind of sit there and say, ‘Well, I guess he’s got to go through these growth moments as a singer and then, hopefully, a sandbag will drop on his head soon.’ ”
Steve Martin & Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Wednesday and Thursday (August 1 and 2).