He may look and sound funny, but Martin Short is no joke. Even critics who seem permanently disenchanted with Saturday Night Live since the departure of Aykroyd, Radner, Murray, et al. had nothing but praise for the work of the Canadian writer-actor in this season’s SNL premiere. In three inspired sketches Short hustled wieners as a Katharine Hepburn-esque hot-dog vendor in Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous; barely kept his head above water as a disarmingly enthusiastic, synchronized swimmer in a life jacket; and, as a manic nerd named Ed Grimley, rhapsodized ad hilarium about the thrill of meeting Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak. Wrote News-day critic Marvin Kitman, “Short is the best thing we’ve gotten from Canada since the hockey puck.”
More precisely, Short, 34, is another one of the talented hockey pucks who has emerged from in-and-around Toronto’s Second City revue and helped change contemporary American comedy. The cross-pollinating clan, a sort of Maple Leaf mafia, includes Dan Aykroyd, Lome Michaels, John Candy, David Letterman’s bandleader Paul Shaffer and a whole loopy army of SCTV vets. “We’re all family,” says Short, and it’s almost the truth: SCTV’s Andrea Martin is his sister-in-law; his brother, Michael, won two Emmys writing for the show; and Shaffer and SCTV-ers Dave Thomas and Eugene Levy were ushers at Short’s wedding.
A dozen years ago, at the outset of what they were hoping would be their careers, Short, Shaffer, Thomas and Levy used to hold regular Friday night services. “We’d get some beer, order in a lot of pizza, and the object was just to try to make each other laugh,” Short recalls. “We’d stay up till our eyes drooped.” Says Shaffer: “He still brings out the old tapes at dinner. His favorite thing is to have a bunch of friends over for a meal and make them all perform. Then he steals the show as the emcee.” Short’s distinguishing characteristics, say his friends, are his spontaneity and his desire to perform onstage or off. Says Thomas: “I have a running joke with Marty that he treats any party as though it were his own birthday party.”
For a comedian Short seems uncommonly undepressed. “There isn’t a period of my life that I don’t like to think about or wouldn’t go back to,” he says. It’s not that he’s unacquainted with heartache. His oldest brother was killed in an auto accident when Martin was 12, and both his mother, a violinist, and his father, a steel executive, died before he was 21. “It sounds like a tragic family, but it really isn’t,” says Short, who is close to his three remaining siblings. “My mother had cancer, and she had been ill and then in remission since I was 13. She was a remarkable person; both my parents were. So I never looked at it as if it was a tragedy—that I didn’t have them my whole life. You learn some sense of priorities. Our whole family took the attitude that if you have wonderful moments, don’t second-guess them, just enjoy them.”
Short was a funny kid, but as an adolescent in Hamilton, Ont. he never thought that humor would earn him a living. When he wasn’t listening to Sinatra or Tony Bennett records, he tape-recorded a weekly fantasy-variety show in his bedroom. “I took it very seriously,” says Short, who would sing songs, tape interviews, often read from Playboy, splice in applause and even write TV Guide blurbs. “Meanwhile there was a revolution going on outside. It was the ’60s, but I wasn’t aware of it. I wanted to be Frank Sinatra; I thought being Frank was cool. My parents were very good about it. They didn’t bring in professional help for a long time.”
Short eventually entered McMaster University, where he majored in social work and acted in school productions. During his final year he decided to try acting and almost immediately landed a role in the Canadian production of Godspell. “I couldn’t believe it. I’d been in show business for about an hour and suddenly I had a job,” says Short. He went on to host a rock variety show, Right On (“a sort of low-budget Solid Gold; call it Solid Brass”) and to appear in musicals and plays. “One of the great things about being an actor in Toronto was that you could do so many different things—Shakespeare on radio during the day, then a commercial or cabaret or whatever—without being typecast. You got hired for a job, and you just did it.” He joined Toronto’s Second City stage troupe in 1977, despite his initial reluctance about doing comedy full time. “I didn’t want to make a profession out of something that had been a natural part of my life, until I realized that’s what people do,” he explains.
After Second City, Short appeared in the ABC-TV series The Associates and I’m a Big Girl Now. He attracted an American following while part of the SCTV troupe before signing with Saturday Night Live last June. Asa result Short, his wife, actress Nancy Dolman, 32, their daughter, Katherine Elizabeth, 10 months, and cat Monty, 14, are now tri-coastal, with a home in Toronto and rented abodes in L.A. and New York. Although he had qualms about joining SNL (“I’d been doing a variety show for three years”), he was impressed with the new cast and decided the exposure might help him toward his eventual goal, to star in a Broadway musical. “A lot of the dreams in my life have come to fruition,” says Short, “so there’s no reason not to be optimistic about that one.”