No one can land a joke that cuts you down at the knees like a close friend. Anyone can craft a roast-style joke based on broad traits, but it takes someone who really cares enough to know your pathology to drop the comedic guillotine with precision. So it should come as no surprise that after over three decades of friendship, Martin Short and Steve Martin absolutely revel in destroying one another with prickly punchlines.
May saw the release of the Netflix comedy special An Evening You’ll Forget for the Rest of Your Life, which captures the two-man stage show Short and Martin have been running in recent years (including multiple Seattle visits). Short’s ever-manic energy and Martin’s stoic aloofness pair perfectly in a performance that mixes rapid banter, storytelling, character work, pop culture riffs, and music (with accompaniment by Martin’s bluegrass cronies Steep Canyon Rangers and pianist Jeff Babko). But it’s hard to top the moments when they trade verbal blows in rounds of insulting joke sparring (or as they refer to the backhanded turns of phrase, “Hollywood compliments”). It’s almost like pro wrestling—we know the punches are planned, but when executed by experts they’re still a spectacle to behold.
We had a chance to chat with the comic legends before the duo returns to Seattle for another utterly “forgettable” night of hilarity this Saturday, July 7, at the Paramount Theatre.
Now that a version of your show exists on Netflix, what do you do to keep it fresh as you continue to perform as a duo?
Steve Martin: Well, the Netflix special is pretty much up to date. But since the Netflix special, we’ve incorporated probably 30 minutes or more of new material. And sometimes people want to see things again, so we’re trying to make those judgement calls.
What’s your process when coming up with new material? Do you meet up? Improvise onstage?
SM: All of that. We meet up in person. We communicate by … we’ll call it “Skype,” even though we don’t use Skype—we use that little Echo Show, and it’s very good for that. We can see each other and just talk like normal people. And then we come up with things during the show or just prior to the show that we put in or keep.
As individuals who’ve been hugely successful as solo performers, what’s the most exhilarating part about performing as a duo?
Martin Short: I think it’s the ease and relaxation. I often think that audiences—particularly if they’ve known entertainers for a while—it’s not about if every joke was a killer as much as do they look like they’re truly having fun; that they’re at ease and I’m seeing them in a particularly comfortable night. I think when two people who have ease working with each other bring that to the stage, that can be very rewarding for the audience.
That genuine feeling that if I was hanging out with these two guys, they’d still be riffing with each other like this.
SM: Well, I think that’s one way to say it, but if we did that the whole show they’d go, “OK, enough now.” [Laughs]
Who are your favorite comedy duos?
SM: Certainly for me, Laurel and Hardy are the unbeatable team.
MS: I loved Abbott and Costello. And of course, I love Nichols and May.
What aspect of your comedy partner makes you the most jealous?
SM: I don’t really think that, I just appreciate Marty when he’s onstage. I’m not jealous of his singing, but I admire his singing voice, which I don’t have. Because if I had it…
MS: Oh no, don’t go there with yourself…
SM: No, I’ll tell you. Here’s why I don’t want it. If I had Marty’s singing voice, I would be perfect.
MS: [Laughs] I’m in constant amazement at Steve’s immense range of talent. It’s shocking, it’s shocking. Not just as a writer, but then you move into music, then you move into juggling, then you move into comedy. And that’s his gift. Everyone who knows him is in amazement.
Do you have favorite cutting insult jokes or “Hollywood compliments” for each other?
SM: My favorite one to do is when I say, “What’s great about touring around with Marty Short? No paparazzi.” [Laughs]
MS: And I like attacking Steve’s paleness.
Do you ever come up with any that seem too mean to do onstage?
SM: We rarely bump up against too mean.
MS: There are certain things you stay naturally clear from. I would never go near Steve’s obsession with communism, for example. [Laughs]
SM: We think more about that when we’re doing jokes about other people or outsiders. We’ll often say, “That’s too mean, that’s too mean.” But it rarely comes up with each other. We go, “That’s really mean. That’s good!”
Is there any end point in sight for your two-man show, or does the flexibility allow it to be perpetually ongoing?
SM: We don’t have a plan to quit, but these things do have a natural life, it seems. It’s not in our head to stop at all.
MS: But I think we’ll know.
SM: Like right now it feel like a great time to stop. Right now. Getting that feeling right now. I wasn’t expecting to have it.