Martin Short spent one season on "Saturday Night Live," the oddball tenth season, which was Dick Ebersol's last as executive producer before the return of creator Lorne Michaels. There was a sense that this might be the show's last season -- I'd wager no one believed then it would reach 40 -- and so Ebersol collected some big names on one-year contracts, all of them more established than the usual "SNL" cast both before and after that year.
The group included Billy Crystal, as well as Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, who were fresh off "This Is Spinal Tap," along with "SCTV" veteran Martin Short.
The story of that strange and anxiety-producing year is one of the best in Short's new memoir, "I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend" -- and Salon excerpted from it earlier this month. Short never felt comfortable, now-icons like Guest, Shearer and writer Larry David spent much of their time bitter and frustrated, and everyone departed at the end of the year.
But despite the unhappiness, Short and his friends created some of the most enduring sketches of that era. There's the classic with Short and Shearer as two brothers with a demented dream, training for the Olympics in men's synchronized swimming. And "Jackie Rogers Jr.'s $100,000 Jackpot Wad" is one of the all-time great game show parodies, part "Password" and part "$25,000 Pyramid," with Short hosting and Guest as a wacky contestant who's not all there -- until he lands one of the best guesses ever.
We talked to Short earlier this month, focusing just on that year, the stories behind some of these great sketches, and the amazing moment when Larry David cursed out Ebersol and walked out, only to return to work the next week as if he hadn't actually quit. He got away with it -- and later made it into a "Seinfeld" episode.
I think one could make the case that Jackie Rogers Jr.’s Jackpot Wad is the greatest game show sketch in the history of the show, and that’s out of a lot of amazing game show sketches. It's also one of the craziest concepts.
I’ll tell you exactly what happened. That year, Dick Ebersol, not Lorne, of course, was executive producer, and he had implemented a policy of guest writers. I remember Alan Zweibel came back for a couple of shows and Marilyn Miller came back for a couple of shows. So I got, on that week, Dick Blasucci and Paul Flaherty, who were my SCTV guys that I wrote with, and so that was kind of an exciting week. Chris and Billy were really excited that they were going to be on because they were big fans of SCTV. We wrote this scene, Jackie Rogers Jr.’s Jackpot Wad, and we came up with the song and everything, and then we were trying to do all the guests. We brought Billy and Chris in and they basically improvised their section. It was one of the few times with all five of us in the room, just laughing and having fun and improvising.
So "chocolate babies" -- the guess from nowhere -- that was just Christopher Guest improvising?
There is no mind as fast and funny as Christopher Guest. Chocolate babies would have been something that Chris would have just come up with.
Jim Belushi as a very frustrated and impatient Captain Kangaroo is an underrated part of that sketch as well.
Oh, he was hilarious. Originally, we wanted him to play Peggy Lee; we thought it would be a funny look to see a bald pate back and the blond hair start in the middle or something. But he said, "I don’t think so, keep thinking." And then Kangaroo, and he was hilarious.
Another classic, the brothers who are training for the Olympics in male synchronized swimming. You and Harry Shearer actually got together before the season started and made that over the summer.
Yeah, Harry and I shot that in August. We started writing lots of stuff and within a month we had shot-- I think the first one we shot was “Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous,” in which I played Nelson Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn’s nephew or something, maybe her grandnephew, and then the next one we did was synchronized swimming.
I remember after we shot synchronized swimming, I said to Harry, What do you think we have here? Do you think these pieces are any good? And he said, "I don’t know, but all I know is that in L.A. I would have had two potential meetings about an idea and here at least we’re shooting stuff." So he was thrilled about that, I remember.
He ended up being really unhappy that year, but that sketch might make it all worthwhile. Where does the idea for male synchronized swimmers even begin?
It was Harry’s idea. He was obsessed with the idea that two brothers would be going for the gold in synchronized swimming, but he also loved the idea that it didn’t exist. I liked the idea that he idolized his brother and was slightly demented -- that was my contribution -- and then we just wrote that scene.
"Synchronized swimming's going to be our lives for the rest of the century." Christopher Guest is genius in this as well. "You're not angry at him, you're pointing at him. I know you, I know you."
Chris, again, improvised all his stuff that day.
You all teamed up on a "60 Minutes" parody in which you play one of the world's most defensive lawyers, an aggressive, sweating liar named Nathan Thurm. What did you draw on for him?
Chris and Harry and Billy and myself wrote that piece. I played Nathan Thurm, I was representing a guy named Ping E. Lee, this evil businessman from Hong Kong who was ripping off the whoopee cushion and all that novelty paraphernalia. There was a makeup artist on the show who was very defensive. I had to figure out something for the piece, so I just started to impersonate the makeup artist -- I would do her behind her back all the time anyway -- and Billy said, “you should do her!” And I said “No, I’ll get caught,” and he said “Nah, nobody will ever find out.”
You're busted now. Is that often a window into a character? Taking a completely different piece from someone you know?
Yes, the easiest way to create a character is to impersonate someone real, and then add to their thing. I was always fascinated by Richard Nixon. The idea that Richard Nixon would look into the camera in this famous address he did and say he had no idea -- in the tapes he had to give up in the Watergate trial, there was an 18-minute gap and he just didn’t know what had happened. Maybe his secretary hit the ‘delete’ button by mistake. And he’s looking at us as we watch TV, and we’re looking at him, and he knows he’s lying and he knows we know he’s lying, but he’s doing it anyway, and nothing’s betraying it -- other than bad acting -- but this sweat on the upper lip. I just found that hilarious.
So I combined that with the makeup artist, and you create someone new, whose idea is that they dig in -- and when really cornered they lash out. Very much like when you see the political stations on television, everyone’s lashing out at each other.
You brought Ed Grimley to "SNL" from "SCTV," but it was only in reading the book that I learned that his Pat Sajak obsession was something you just created randomly and very last minute.
I just liked the idea of the general idea, like Nathan Thurm’s about being defensive and just always denying and moving it around and shifting the focus away from the truth. Ed Grimley, the idea that a guy would be in his apartment, obsessed with a TV show, and fantasize how, if he could get on it and do practice run tests and be obsessed with it. My favorite line from that sketch was when he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if I knew Pat Sajak so well that I could just phone him up and say to the person who answered, just tell him it’s me.”
But I didn’t know who that person would be, and I was looking through TV Guide and I saw "Wheel of Fortune," and that made me laugh, and then I saw Pat Sajak and thought, “that’s a great name.” I didn’t meet him for years and then last year at a concert-- Jiminy Glick is part of my one-man show, and I get him to meet Pat Sajak, and he was hilarious. He was really funny.
Last year was the first time you met him? Was he upset by the sketch all those years ago?
No, I met him once, I want to say ‘99 or something, briefly, but the first time we did anything like that was last year. It wasn’t mean. It was a guy obsessed with "Wheel of Fortune," who just thought Pat Sajak seemed like a very decent guy. That’s all he ever said.
All these really memorable and funny sketches, and still this was a very hard year for you. You're very open about being unhappy, and anxious, and counting down the episodes until you were done. How do you stay funny under such hard circumstances?
You know, there was no precedent. That was only the tenth season of "Saturday Night Live," so there’s no precedent of staying. I think Darrell Hammond was there 11 years or something. But six years, seven years, people didn’t do that. Danny and John stayed for four years, Gilda stayed five years, Lorne stayed five years. I had just done three years of "SCTV" and I wanted to make life a little easier, so I didn’t want to commit to that. So Billy and Chris and I and Harry all had a one-year contract.
But you were ready to walk after three episodes.
Well, they had been very successful. And as I talk about in the book, the first episode, when my wife comes in at 11:10, I told her they should show a repeat that night, because this is a disaster -- and it was far from a disaster. I hadn’t realized the magic of what happens between dress and air. First of all, they drop pieces, and of course, like any stand-up act, if you drop a bad joke the next two jokes look better without the taint of the one joke. Then they moved synchronized swimming, which was not supposed to be in the first show, to the first show. And they opened with “Lifestyles,” which they had never done before and I don’t think have done since, which is opened in a non-live way.
So all these things are being broken and shifted around, and certainly we were pressuring Dick to do this, people from "Spinal Tap" and "SCTV." It was a way to control comedy and to know that it would be funny, and all that stuff, but I think I thought I was doing 22 specials, not settling in to a new troupe. I wish that it had been less stressful for me, but that’s how I viewed it, especially the writing.
The stress of it all -- you write about the metabolism being impossible. At 1 a.m. Saturday night you're excited about maybe having finished a good show, and then Monday morning you're back to being terrified to face the blank slate of a new show.
You’d go and do a hip brunch-- back then it was The Odeon or something-- you’d go and do a hip brunch with everyone and you’d kind of still be basking in it, if it had been a good show. And then around dinner you’re starting to think “uh-oh, don’t have an idea, I just don’t have a clue. God forbid I should just relax...” And then by Monday, you’re into it. It got better as the year went on, by the way, because you start to figure it out and you can see the light at the end.
Because you were counting them down.
Right. But I think that’s one of the reasons, traditionally, that show is everyone’s first big break. It has to be all you want to do. You know, I had a new baby and I didn’t live in New York… there were a lot of feelings of temporary-ness about it all.
You also write about witnessing Larry David's famous, profane exit -- and then his return the following week as if nothing ever happened. So he just walks up to the boss, Dick Ebersol, and lets him have it?
It was unbelievable. And then it became an episode of "Seinfeld." It did! I was telling someone this story and they said “Oh, that’s an episode of 'Seinfeld,'” and he later said “Yeah, I turned that into it.” I think Jason Alexander quits and then realizes he needs the money and comes back to work.
Larry had only gotten one sketch on all year and was just completely frustrated...
Oh, he’s a genius, and he wasn’t getting anything on…
Here's how you describe it: “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, you’re totally incapable, you have no comedy background, you have no artistry,” and now he walked into the freezing Manhattan night realizing suddenly he’d made a horrible mistake and needed every penny he could earn." What was the reaction of everybody around as this is happening? Is this normal behavior with creative people in a pressure cooker?
Well, you knew it was kind of brewing. Ebersol was-- I’d grown up in that atmosphere of explosions and that kind of thing, and Ebersol was a passionate guy and so was Larry. So they just had it out. But to Dick’s credit, that was kind of the potential volatility of the show, so it wasn’t considered, like, “How dare I have been spoken to in that way...” It was like running a newspaper or something. There are flare-ups!