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Steve Martin and Martin Short Talk State of Comedy, Refining Their Live Show for Netflix and Thirty Years of Friendship

Steve Martin and Martin Short may have promised “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life” in a tongue-in-cheek expectation management effort, but the longtime friends’ Netflix special proved particularly memorable to Emmy voters, who — much to the surprise of the comedy icons — bestowed it with four nominations.

The quartet of nods — for variety special (pre-recorded), variety special writing, music & lyrics, all for Martin and Short, and variety special directing for helmer Marcus Raboy — is a pleasing validation for the duo, both of whom claimed Emmys early in the TV-centric portions of their careers: Martin as part of the taboo-smashing writing staff of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1969; Short as one of the all-star writers on “SCTV” in 1983.

For Martin and Short — who famously became close while shooting the 1986 film “Three Amigos” and subsequently shared the screen in two “Father of the Bride” films — the Emmy nods for the special (taped during one of the many live performances they staged across the country over the past several years) weren’t a pointed bid to re-prove their relevance amid of-the-moment comedy stars, but rather a happy side effect of a public showcase celebrating their three-decade-plus friendship and exploring their unique comedic chemistry.

Here, they talk with Variety about teaming with Netflix for the special, the state of comedy today, and what they are still learning about each other, all of these years later.

By the time you shot this special, you’d taken the show around to different cities for some time. Was this a really refined version of the show, or did you still leave yourself a little room to goof around in the moment?

Steve Martin: Well, the answer is both. We did goof around in the moment, but we wanted to get this show down, because we had been working on it for four years or more. And so, that’s the show we wanted to shoot. But there was, always in the show, room for fooling around.

What did you learn from your time on tour that made the show better?

Martin Short: I think we continually learned that if we just trust each other’s timing onstage or as we’re doing jokes and keep the kind of happy loose quality to the show that that’s very important. The more we did that, the more the audience loved it.

Martin: I’d done a little bit like this because I’ve been touring with the band, so I did a lot of comedy in that show, but the more I did it, the more I learned I could actually fill out the lines in subtle ways, whether it’s physically or with vocal…gymnastics, I guess, and making the lines just a little more interesting without changing the lines. So, I actually did kind of, grow, honestly, as a comedy performer. And I think in general even if you do a Broadway show and you’re going to run it for eight months, your best performance will probably be in the eighth month.

Was there an added thrill or trepidation to the fact that this material isn’t structured like a play but it’s still in front of a live audience?

Martin: At first for me there was trepidation, just because you’re doing a whole new show and you want it to work. But eventually…I don’t know, in a matter of months, it starts, actually to become fun because you trust the material and you trust yourself and you start thinking, “OK, how good can I make this?” It’s a very rare thing for me, in my life to not go on stage with nerves. And with this show, except when we’re working out new material, I go out there and say, “How fun can this show be?” And it’s so fun to start the show and realize, “Oh, we’re off on a little bit of a different track here, and it’s got another kind of spirit going on,” and we just sort of let it happen. I noticed it last night.

Short: We started this off just as a one-off idea hosting the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Chicago with no intention of doing it again — and the reason that motivated us to do it again was how much fun we were having. And also the realization that there was a natural chemistry, which of course we had experienced in movies and then through 30 years of friendship. But I think that what motivates it and improves it and makes it exciting is the actual fun we’re having. If it wasn’t fun we wouldn’t be doing it.

Martin: It started as a hobby and it became our life’s work. [Laughs]

One of the essential ingredients in show business is, of course intense, jealousy. What does the other one do that makes you jealous?

Martin: It’s very clear for me, because Marty, first of all, is a great singer. I used to tour with The Carpenters, and whatever you think about their music — which I enjoy — she was flawless, and I have that same feeling about Marty when he sings. I go, “I can’t believe this is…not a throwaway talent, but it’s a talent he throws away.” But also, the other thing he does is characters and voices, which I have no knack for. I’ve never even tried it — well, I’ve tried it enough to know that I’m terrible at it.

Short: And for me, I think that one of the interesting elements of why we’re a good team at this point is because we don’t overlap each other talent and yet there’s an element that we do because we have a shared comedic sensibility, but Steve has such a vast array of talent. He juggles. He’s a banjo player, he’s a musician–

Martin: I have to stop you there: I tried juggling the other day. It was like amateur night at Dixie.

Short: There’s so many talents going on there that I don’t even feel intimidated by because I don’t even know how one person can inhabit them all. But I do think that what’s interesting about us is that we are, again, different comedically and yet we have this shared central highway of our approach to comedy.

Martin: This is unbelievable. Marty just held up a sign and it says, “Now you talk about me.”

Short: Well, it seemed fair.

What was intriguing to you about bringing the show to Netflix?

Martin: It’s an actual honor to be a part of their comedy lineup. They have great, great comedians doing great shows. They do shows that are epic, like Hannah Gadsby, so it’s nice to be qualified 40 years later, or more than that, to be in a group of great younger comedians.

Throughout your careers the Emmys have paid attention to your work, but was there something special about getting a little attention from the Television Academy for this particular project?

Martin: It was for me, because on Netflix you have no idea if anyone’s watching it. So to get not only one nomination, but four, it was like, “Wow, somebody is watching!” It’s a very different thing than when I grew up to have no ratings to depress you or to shore you up. And hardly any reviews. All we have are nominations.

Short: It was not something that I was waiting for that morning, to know if we got nominated. It was a total surprise and a total delight.

What do you find intriguing about the current moment in comedy? Do you see a shift in what’s driving comedy today, or are you still seeing traditional things just spun in slightly different ways?

Short: I think in comedy sensibilities always change, but things that are funny are funny, and I always find that fascinating: why I can look at a W.C. Fields film from 1938 and laugh as hard as probably the audiences did when they saw it in the movie theater. But other comedians of that time who were massively famous, the shelf-life is very small, and I think it’s always shifting. But certainly, I think you see the styles. I personally see very hip comedians, but I can see kind of the center structure there’s a theme they’re talking about whether it’s dating or marriage or something. There’s still a theme going there — it’s just a different approach to it. But again, that’s what’s fabulous about Netflix, is that there’s such diversity of what people think is funny because comedy is a subjective thing in the world.

Martin: It’s hard to analyze comedy because when I say diverse, it’s diverse in subject matter and it’s diverse in the kind of comedy. I’ll talk about Hannah Gadsby for a second, or Norm Macdonald, for example: I saw his special, I really enjoyed it. The only thing he did was stand there, and essentially Hannah Gatsby stands there. And there’s another style of movement, like, [John] Mulaney is constantly moving. I wrote him a note after I saw his special — I thought it was really good, just gorgeous, I wrote him a note that said, “You’re doing something that I advise comedians to do, but I don’t know that I do it, which is you don’t wait for the laugh; you keep going and the audience is, like, catching up, and they start to find it funnier because you’re not waiting and you’re not letting them evaluate every line.” I’m just talking about different styles, and that’s what I really enjoy: when the material meets the style perfectly. I really enjoy that.

Both of you have been very experimental from the very beginnings of your careers on through. All these new formats, new venues for getting comedy out there — does that excite you to keep breaking rules and pushing boundaries, trying things that you haven’t tried before?

Martin: Well I haven’t broken a rule for 20 years! [Laughs] The truth is, I have experienced with different medians I did little YouTube things, or I did an animated thing a long time ago, some animated stuff, when they were doing comedy websites. And I find my heart going back to straightforward, live analog performing. “Analog” meaning, they pay to get in and they sit there, instead of moving on every five seconds. And that’s what I’ve defaulted to is live performance, and the only other thing I do, really, is talk shows. But now I only do them with Marty.

Short: I’ve just gone from thing to thing, if it sounded fascinating or interesting or adventurous. I never really thought in terms of, “Oh, I’m on this medium or that medium.” I’m a Canadian actor. There was no star system in Canada in the 70’s when I started, so you just played all mediums. You didn’t ask much about it — you were just thrilled for the opportunity to perform, so I like the idea of doing everything from children’s shows to late night cabaret.

Was there a favorite memory of a night where something was going wrong, but for you guys that made it totally hilarious?

Martin: We used to do the bit — we don’t do it anymore because we’re changing material — called “Hollywood Compliment,” about how we compliment people in Hollywood by being passive-aggressive. And it worked great, it was going great. And I said to Marty one night, I said, “You know what? What if we pretended like we bumped into each other at a cocktail party and then we’d start saying, ‘Oh, so great to see you..’ then we’d start doing the left handed compliments?” He said, “Oh, that seems OK,” so we pretended like we had drinks and this bit that had worked every night for two years, flops. … Even our funny lines in it had just stopped working for some mysterious reason. You can never figure out why.

Short: When you’re working with someone…I mean, I’m from Second City and improv, so when you bomb that can be fun: then you’re all laughing about it at the bar afterwards. If you’re alone in a solo act, you go home depressed. So even a failure like that is funny afterwards.

Thirty years of friendship. What did you unexpectedly discover about each other throughout this whole experience?

Short: Nothing! Well, I didn’t know that he had white hair. No, I knew that.

Martin: Well, also it only confirmed for me that we’re both dedicated and when we analyze the show it’s not like, when we’re talking about the show and analyzing the show we’re not going, “How could you think that?” We’re going, yeah, that’s right. So we just really confirmed what we suspected about each other, I would say.

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