The list of Canadian comedians who found fame in American films and television is a long one. It includes Dan Ackroyd, John Candy, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. When fellow countryman Martin Short called last week, I asked if there was something in the Canadian psyche that created so many popular funnymen.
“A lot of character work comes from Canada,” he said, “and that’s been popular for the last twenty years or so. And I think that Canada does have a little leg up there because they’re like the cocky middle kid with three children. I would say that with the three sisters, you have the Anna Thompson UK woman elder sister; you have the sexy Anglina Jolie sister that’s the States; and the middle one is slightly homelier, but cockier, that can rag on each one of them.
“We get American television, Canadian television and British television. We’re good at satirizing-slash-making fun.”
Surprisingly, Short, who performs Wednesday night at the Ferguson Center, wasn’t really the class clown when he was growing up.
“I was a clown in direct proportion to how weak the teacher was,” he said. “If the teacher was strong, I was as good as gold because I didn’t want to go to the office. But if the teacher was weak, then I was a riot…but only behind their backs. The second they’d turn, I’d do.”
Though he didn’t participate in school plays and never dreamed of a real career in show biz, he did have an active make-believe performing career as a teenager.
“It was very odd,” he said. “I kinda felt like this was something that was maybe cool to do in your fantasy life. I used to pretend to have my own television show in my attic when I was fourteen, fifteen. I had an applause record, and I used to pretend that I was on Tuesdays at 8:30, every other Tuesday on NBC. Because I was so famous that I could name my own schedule and it gave me time for my imaginary film career. It was that elaborate.
“So you’d think the obvious thing was ‘that kid must be doing a lot of plays.’ But I wasn’t, because that was filling the gap. And the reality was that I was living in Hamilton, Ontario, and not in New York City. And I only watched American television from Buffalo. My only perception of being in show business was in the States, and I’d never even been to the States until I was fifteen. It seemed so unrealistic that I might as well have been on Venus.
“I wanted to be a doctor—not because I cared about science; I was just a fan of Richard Chamberlain’s work! So show business was fantasy and it wasn’t until I went to college and was in medicine, that I had done a part in a play and thought this was as much fun as you could have. I switched to social work and I just did theatre. I did endless theatre but there were no credits, so everything I did was extracurricular, which can create more passion.”
He was cast in a Toronto production of Godspell in 1972 when he was a senior at McMaster University. Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas were also in the play, and Paul Schaffer was musical director. From that point forward, Short never had a “real job.” Most Americans first discovered him on the SCTV series in the early ‘80s and on Saturday Night Live, where he was a cast member for the 1984-85 season.
“Billy Crystal and Christopher Guest and myself all had one year contracts,” he said. “Because we knew we were only there one year, we knew that everything we did should try to be special. So I think we worked hard at a lot of stuff and it seemed to have a more lasting impact.”
Since then he’s made his mark with memorably hilarious turns in films like Three Amigos, Father of the Bride and Santa Clause 3. He won a Tony Award in 1999 for his lead role in the Broadway musical Little Me. Last year he brought characters like Ed Grimley, Jimmy Glick and Irving Cohen together in the one-man Broadway show, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. Wednesday’s concert at the Ferguson is built along similar lines.
“To me,” he explained, “it’s trying to turn that hall into your living room. It’s a one-man variety show—Jimmy Glick shows up, Ed Grimley shows up, Franck shows up. We have a band; I sing, dance, jump around. I get people to come up from the audience. It’s a party with Martin, that’s what I call it.”
The thing that most struck me in conversation was what a genuinely nice guy Martin Short seems to be. At 57 years old, he says he hasn’t lost that creative spark, but he’s obviously quite content in his life. He has three children in college (“they are funny but they don’t want to be actors”), is happily married, and I get the sense that what you see is what you get:
“A friend of mine says that I’m one of the few comedians that actually laughs on the outside and laughs on the inside as well. I think that’s why I’m successful on talk shows, because the audience senses that that guy is the guy that, if you met him at the car pool or as a neighbor, he’s that same guy.”
Wednesday, March 12 – 7:30 pm
Ferguson Center for the Arts
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.