Martin Short: The happiest man in Hollywood

In his new book, Martin Short details his journey from Hamilton to comedy icon. He’s so normal.

Sam Jones/Trunk Archive

Sam Jones/Trunk Archive

Marty Short is at peace. He’s been to hell and back with the death of his beloved wife of 30 years, Nancy Dolman, four years ago. He’s riding yet another upswing in a showbiz career that’s taken him from Saturday Night Live to Broadway and the big screen. He plays an unhinged, coke-snorting dentist in the P.T. Anderson film Inherent Vice, due out next month. He’s terrific in the otherwise unwatchable Fox series, Mulaney, playing a narcissistic TV game-show host—“a moron with power,” Short explains. “Those people are my specialty.”

Somewhere in between, he’s detailed his journey from an upper-middle-class Hamilton childhood to comedy icon in his new memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend.

Short opened Conan O’Brien earlier this month—he’s a late night regular, there not to shill, but for the sheer joy of entertaining—showering the ginger-haired host with obsequious fawning. (“You look STUNNING. With your yellow skin and your red hair, you look like a No. 2 pencil.”) He gushed about George Clooney’s recent wedding (“Little bride and groom atop of the pre-nup—I mean, every detail was just perrrrfect.”)

It was classic Short: a little over the top, edgy, but not offensive, more buttoned-up than in his sketch comedy roots on SCTV and SNL, where he veered off into comic surrealism with a demented line of characters, like the ubernerd Ed Grimley; the albino lounge singer Jackie Rogers Jr.; the jittery, chain-smoking, corporate lawyer Nathan Thurm (“You don’t think I know that?! Of course I know that!”) and Jiminy Glick, the maddeningly misinformed celebrity interviewer inexplicably bundled into a fat suit (“What’s your big beef with the Nazis?”).

Short says he’s at a point in his life where he doesn’t “have to worry about rent,” but something more monumental: “How to keep yourself interesting?” As if he has ever been anything but.

In conversation, Short’s decency shines through; he’s so clearly grounded, normal, joyful. His longtime pal, Scott Wittman, who directed Short’s Broadway show Fame Becomes Me, says he’s “one of the few people in comedy who is actually laughing on the inside.”

This is all the more remarkable when you consider Short’s biography: “I lost my brother at 12, my mother at 17, and my father at 20,” he says. As soon as anyone hears that, Short says they conclude he’s using comedy to alleviate the pain of a tragedy-scarred childhood. Nothing could be further from the truth, he says: his childhood was “unequivocally happy.” Short was the fifth child of a Stelco executive father and concert violinist mother. As the youngest, he was “adored” by his siblings, with whom he remains ridiculously close. Those early brushes with tragedy are “all on the table,” he says. “I think the things that can really eat away at one’s psyche are the things that aren’t discussed.” They imbued him with a sense of fearlessness, Short says: “When you’re met with fire early, you develop a certain Teflon quality.”

They seem also to have instilled in him the sense there is more to life than just a career, even one in Hollywood. Short says he’s constantly taking stock of himself, literally assigning a letter grade to everything from his relationships with his three kids to his fitness level. “I might be getting a ‘D’ in career, but if I got good marks in some of the other subjects, I could bring my average up. I can be in better shape. I can work out. I can be a better husband or father or brother or friend.”

His manager, Bernie Brillstein, was convinced that Short’s ticket to untold riches was as a self-help guru. “Kid, I’m tellin’ ya,” he’d say, “You’re sittin’ on a [expletive] self-help bible!” (Brillstein, Short says, looked like a Jewish Santa Claus and talked like a Hoboken stevedore.)

Throughout his 40-year career, Short has refused to tailor his approach to earning “the admiration of strangers.” “I literally don’t care,” he tells Maclean’s. “If a painter sits and thinks: ‘Oh, what if no one likes blue.’ They couldn’t do anything.” Comedy is subjective, he says. “If you trip and fall, some people will laugh and some people will say, ‘Oh, physical comedy is so pedestrian.’ ”

This isn’t to say Short’s life has been free of anxiety. In his memoir, he recalls an incident in his 20s when, on his way to dinner in L.A. with friends whose careers were taking meteoric strides, he suddenly “froze,” and sat on a park bench. He wasn’t jealous, he says, but resented his own “lack of fulfillment and momentum.”

His wife, “bless her heart,” held his hand, and sat beside him, he recalls. Finally, after about 15 minutes, she whispered, “How long are we going to sit here?”

Nan, as Short refers to her, was his rock. “We became one human being,” he says; so life since her death from ovarian cancer is “like a plane that continues to fly with one engine.” But “no one doesn’t have loss,” he says. “No one doesn’t have pain. You have to figure out a way through it. You know the sun will rise the next day, that the people closest to you will be preoccupied with the scratch on their car. That’s just the way life works.”

Photo Courtesy of Martin Short

Photo Courtesy of Martin Short

Exclusive Excerpt:

Nora Ephron took over. Just hours after we lost Nan, she and Nick [Pileggi] were at our door, bearing platters of food. So were Eugene and Deb Levy: four kind, familiar faces, a tremendous comfort to me and my kids. The first thing Nora said when she presented herself was, “We loved Nancy, and we love you.” She really turned it on that night, regaling us all with tales of interning in the JFK White House, and how knock-kneed she’d been by the sexy president: “I’m telling you, even the amount of shirt cuff he showed wearing a suit jacket was sexy!” Nora and company took our minds out of the moment in the most considerate, compassionate way.

The next day, the condolence calls started coming in, and the Palisades moms were telling me that I needed to open the house and let people express their grief. I’d been put off by the whole concept of the wake-style open house ever since my brother David’s death, when, to my dismay, I saw people laughing and drinking in our living room in my family’s deepest moment of sorrow. But Nora advised me to let it happen. She planned all the food for that day and made sure our house was ready for the onslaught.

The day after our Short family shiva, Nora came by with a huge platter of chicken at dinnertime, even though there was a ton of leftover food in the house. “Nora,” I said, “it’s just us tonight. We already have so much food.”

Nora replied, “And now you have more food. This is the way Jews do it. I don’t like everything about being Jewish, but I like how we do this.”

For a day after the visitor stampede, there was a pleasant lull—a merciful period of quiet. Then, on day three after Nancy’s death, I took a call from Paul Shaffer. He said, “Dave wants to reach out to you. That okay?”

I said, “Of course. Why, did you just tell him?”

“Marty,” Paul said, “it’s on the Internet.”

And almost on cue, as he said the words “on the Internet,” my buzzer started going, my phone started ringing nonstop, and there were flower deliveries and paparazzi massed at my gate. And all I could think was, Jesus, I’ve gotta get out of here.

Fortunately, the kids and I had scheduled a trip the next morning to our Canadian refuge in Snug Harbour. We’d already had Nancy’s body cremated so that we could spread the ashes up there. We flew from L.A. to Toronto, and then, from Toronto, took a seaplane that touched down right by our dock.

What the kids and I witnessed as the plane floated into the harbor brought tears: all of my siblings, their spouses, and my beloved nephews and nieces lined up on the dock. And flowers everywhere. Kurt Russell, I later found out, had gone to the florist in the next town and bought out the whole store. Then he went to an antiques store and bought flowerpots. Goldie [Hawn] offered to help, but he told her, “It’s okay, honey, I gotta do this myself.” He planted all the flowers in the pots and lined the dock and the pathways leading up to the main house with them.

Paul Shaffer came up, as did Eugene and Deb, and Walter [Parkes] and Laurie [MacDonald], and we turned it into a celebration. Nancy was adamant that there not be any kind of formal memorial or big fuss, so we honoured that. We sprinkled some of her ashes by the tree near her beloved tennis court, and the rest in the lake. The plan was for the kids and me to jump into the ashes as they dissipated into the water. Oliver was the last to jump, and as he did so, he shouted out, “MOTHER!”

There was a missing voice in the blitz of phone calls [I received in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 Kathie Lee Gifford episode, when the Today host hadn’t realized Nan had died almost two years before and asked me how she was]: Nora Ephron’s. No one got on the phone faster after such episodes than Nora, and her take was always the cleverest and most perfectly distilled of all. Nora had been such a boon to me and the kids since Nancy’s death. That first Thanksgiving, I assigned each kid to handle a different part of the meal preparation so that the dinner would remain a family affair. Henry was in charge of dessert, and it was Nora, on the phone from New York, who offered him step-by-step guidance on baking the perfect apple pie. I could hear her through the receiver telling him, “First of all, don’t do anything your father tells you, and go to Gelson’s and buy the Pillsbury pie crust, because no human being can do one better!” She phoned Henry 90 minutes later to remind him to take the pie out.

What I didn’t know, and virtually none of her friends did, was that Nora had been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder back in 2006, and had been prescribed the prednisone to stabilize her condition. It had worked remarkably well, as I would later learn when her son Jacob Bernstein wrote about the full extent of her medical ordeals in the New York Times Magazine. But right around Memorial Day weekend 2012—again, I only learned this after the fact—the blood disorder developed into aggressive leukemia.

When Nora didn’t show up at the annual Shakespeare in the Park fundraiser at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, held that year on June 18, the alarm bells started ringing in everyone’s heads. Nora relished that night, the de facto beginning of summer for cultured NYC types, and always bought a table or two. She still had the tables, but she and Nick weren’t at them. A week later Jacob called to deliver the devastating news that his mom was gravely ill and wasn’t going to last much longer. And oh, by the way, he said, Nora had left specific instructions for her memorial service in a file carefully marked exit on her Mac desktop. I, per Nora’s instructions, was to be the first speaker. “Don’t hesitate to be funny,” Jacob said.

I was stunned. Be funny? When one of my rocks of sanity is crumbling?

But first I had to break Jacob’s news to my kids, who adored Nora and would never forget how she had been there for them, so it felt like a replay of their mother’s death. Telling them was hard, and as I expected, they all cried. Three days after Jacob’s call, Nora was gone.

Nancy and Nora: two brilliant, tough, funny women, so simpatico in life and so fascinatingly private in their approaches to death. As Deb Divine said after Nora died, “I think it’s getting more interesting on the other side.”

I remember Nora sitting with us in our house in August 2010, hearing me go on about how, per Nancy’s wishes, we weren’t going to have a proper funeral.

“No funeral,” Nora said, her hand to her chin. “Interesting idea!” And of course I now realize she’d been taking notes, figuring out her own plans.

Photo Courtesy of Martin Short

Photo Courtesy of Martin Short

On July 9, 2012, I fulfilled my late friend’s request to be the opening act at her memorial service, which was held in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. The other speakers included Tom [Hanks] and Rita [Wilson], Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, Rosie O’Donnell, and Nora’s two boys, Max and Jacob. I won’t give you the whole speech (especially since Nora’s sister Delia good-naturedly claimed authorship of a brilliant line I attributed to Nora, “Hazelnuts are what’s wrong with Europe”), but here’s how I kicked it off:

Oh, Nora. Darling, lovely Nora. How is it possible for me to put into words what we have been feeling these last long weeks?

When Nora’s son Jacob asked me to speak today, he said, “Don’t be hesitant to impersonate my mother.”

And I thought to myself: I can’t impersonate your mother, because right now I’m having the best pink cake from Amy’s I’ve ever had in MY LIFE. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?

For whenever I heard Nora’s voice, I always just delighted in that subtle, original, hilarious delivery of hers.

And I always thought, You know, I have that!

But then I thought, Oh, yeah . . . she had content.

I loved to talk to Nora, and I always found myself calling my friends afterward to tell them something Nora had said. I remember last March, Nick and Nora came to an evening for the Roundabout Theatre, honoring Rob Marshall. And Rob’s sister Kathleen heard that they were attending, and quickly sent Nora an email asking her if she would go onstage and read a letter from Mayor Bloomberg. Nora’s e-mailed response was, “Oh, Kathleen . . . How could I ever say no to you—and yet I have.”

From the book I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short. Copyright © 2014 by Martin Short. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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