Authors: Martin Short
TO KATHERINE, OLIVER, AND HENRY
t's May 1977, and I am having an argument with the woman who will become my wife. We're not arguing about anything seriousâNancy and I rarely do. But I've been behaving rudely, or so Nancy thinks (though I think it's the other way around), and the tension is real.
“Why do you have to start suddenly screaming?” she asks.
“I'm not remotely screaming. You'll know when I start screaming,” I respond.
“Oh, so you mean we need to bring out the Nixonesque recording devices to determine the truth around here?”
“Good, by all means, turn them on, 'cause I'll be proven right. And by the way, if I
raise my volume a decibel or two, why would that be my fault?”
“So you didn't raise your voice?”
“No, of course I did. But that's like complaining about a guy who's been pushed off a mountain and screams âAhhhhh!' on the way down. Sure, he's screaming. But doesn't the person who gave him a shove bear some of the responsibility?”
“Okay, you know what? I don't want to talk to you anymore,” Nancy says. “I want to talk to Ed.”
Ed is a character I've been developing over the last few months onstage at the Second City in Toronto. He does not yet have his last name, Grimley.
“Ed?” she says, looking impatiently over my shoulder, past me, as if he might trip through the doorway of our apartment on Roxborough Street in Toronto. “Ed, are you there?”
I assume Ed's posture: shoulders hunched, upper lip exposing the teeth. “I certainly am, Miss Nancy.”
“Ed, what's Marty's problem?”
“Oh, who can possibly know? It's just so sad, Miss Nancy, 'cause like he's, like, he's just so mentally jealous of you, I must say.”
“Jealous how, Ed?”
“Jealous of your beauty and wisdom and saddened by his own tragic limitations, and that's no lie.”
“Although his endowment has certainly been blessed by the lord.”
“Okay, Ed, that's enough.”
In my brief time as the conduit through which Ed channels himself, I have discovered two remarkable things about him. One: that he seems to be amusing to audiences, which is a relief, because I'm still new at this improvisational comedy thing, having been more of a traditional theatrical performer up to this point in my career. Two: that Ed's sweetness has a disarming effect on Nancy. When trouble arises, she calls out for Ed to moderate, and when he appears, all things calm down.
Hmmm, I think, what other magic powers might Ed hold?
“My, you seem very fetching in that halter top, I must say. How I wish my fingers were scissors so I could snip those straps and release the hostages.”
“Go away, Ed! We're done here.”
Well, if nothing else, I have now discovered a third thing about Ed: Nancy has absolutely no interest in having sex with him.
joined Second City in March 1977. The troupe was midway through its winter-spring show,
The Wizard of Ossington
, and I was replacing John Candy, who had just departed.
One of the sketches in
The Wizard of Ossington
was called “Sexist.” The premise was simple: A male executive is interviewing two candidates for a job, a woman and a man. The woman is smart, competent, and qualified. The man is an idiot. Nevertheless, after questioning both candidates, the interviewer declares, “Your credentials are so darn equal that I don't know how to decide. I can't make up my mind!” The male candidate proposes that the matter be settled by arm wrestling. The interviewer agrees. Then the man pins down the woman's arm, thereby winning the job. SCENE.
Peter Aykroyd, Danny's little brother and a gifted comic performer in his own right, played the interviewer. Catherine O'Hara was the female candidate. John Candy had played my part, the male candidate, in a brilliantly John way: as a bashful, nervous, sweet-faced soul who was heartbreakingly aware of how out of his depth he wasâin other words, as a guy who could be in that situation in real life. I knew I couldn't replicate that. Only a fool would try to replicate anything that John did. So I decided to go in a broader, more pop-art direction.
First, my character would talk funny. I took his unusual timbre from my sister Nora's husband, Ralph, who spoke in a kind of resigned, sleepy voice. Then I added a Canadian tic that's not unlike Valley Girl upspeak, wherein even declarative sentences end .Â .Â . like
? In high school I'd had a geeky friend named Patrick who talked this way. He was an amateur photographer. I'd ask him, “Patrick, what'd you do this weekend?” He'd say, “I took a lot of
?” I'd respond, “Really? Did you develop them?” And he'd say, “No, I didn't feel I have to
? 'Cause I, like
? So I
know what they are
?” You could almost chart out the notes of his speech musically, on staff paper. I couldn't help but make a mental note of Patrick's speech patterns. Hmmm, I thought, I must remember this, for someday I just might make millions off of it.
For the character's wardrobe, I unearthed an old shirt from my teen years with a dated rust-and-gray checked pattern. I buttoned it up to my neck and hitched my trousers high above my navel. Ed, as I'd decided to call my underqualified-idiot job candidate, was complete.
Well, maybe not quite. I decided to apply some grease to the front of my hair so it stuck up a little, to make Ed's physical appearance more awkward still.
The audience seemed to like Ed from the outset. Catherine, as prim job applicant Barbara O'Leary, confidently rattled off to the interviewer all the degrees that she heldâa bachelor of mathematics from McGill, a masters in business administration from Columbia, and so on. As she did so, Ed, in full view of the audience, would register increasing panic, his smile turning into a grimace, his breaths deepening, his eyes cast downward, his whole body palpitating. This silent meltdown always got a big laugh, the biggest in the sketch, which was an utter revelation to me.
Part of my trepidation about improvisational comedy was that I thought I would have to come up with funny lines all the time, on the spot. What I discovered, through Ed, was that I simply needed to
: to not worry about jokes. The reaction seemed to get the biggest laughs, not the action. I didn't need to be a stand-up comedian delivering punch lines. If I just sincerely devoted myself to Ed's panic with every fiber of my being, the audience would commit to him.
The deeper I got into my first season with Second City, the more confident I became about pushing Ed further. One day, backstage, Peter Aykroyd remarked, “Boy, Marty, that hair is standing taller every time you do that scene!” He was rightâI was putting more and more grease into it. So, to make Peter laugh, I pushed my forelock straight up into a point, like a unicorn's horn, and left it that way. When we did “Sexist” that night, my entrance drew its biggest laugh yet. Well, I thought, isn't that what we're trying to achieve here? Thus, forevermore, did Ed have pointy hair.
our years earlier, when Second City first set up shop in Toronto, I couldn't bring myself to audition. I was afraid to. The improvisational troupe and theater had been a going concern in Chicago since 1959, and its decision to open a branch in Canada was like an answered prayer to most of my friends. Many of them were castmates from the musical
, whose Toronto production, mounted in 1972, included such then-unknowns as Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, and me. For all of us, along with the show's musical director, Paul Shaffer,
was our big break, our first serious professional job in show business. We were a tight, rowdy little band of longhairs, and Gilda and I became romantically involved as well.
Gilda and Eugene, along with two other friends I'd made in Toronto, Danny Aykroyd and John Candy, enlisted in Second City as soon as they could. But me? I played it cool. “Marty, are you going to audition, too?” “Nah, I don't think so. I don't really care about Second City.”
But of course I cared. I was just scaredâof the anxiety I saw my friends going through as
auditioned, and of the concept of being funny on demand. From
, I had developed confidence in my ability to command a stage, sell a song, fake-dance with frenetic energy, and work off a script. But improv? Terrifying. So I did other stuff, and took other jobs: in musicals, in straight plays, on television. “Oh, I've heard of you,” said Bill Murray the first time I met him, when he came up to Toronto from Chicago in one of Second City's occasional talent swaps between the two branches. “I hear you're known,” he said in that deadpan of his, “as Mr. Entertainment.”
And I was. In 1974 I had a regular slot as the boy singer on
, a variety program launched by Global Television, a then-small private Canadian network. It was hosted by Canadian personalities Mike Darrow and Catherine McKinnon, plus, for that crucial bit of American swagger, the comedian Norm Crosby.
aired in primetime five nights a week, Monday through Friday. I would come out with my shoulder-length Andy Gibb hair and formfitting Ban-Lon turtleneck and do straight renditions of Jimmy Van Heusen's “Here's That Rainy Day” and “Corner of the Sky” from
, things like that.
Eclectic as my young career was, though, it was hardly what you would call an unmitigated triumph. One night on
was an outright disaster. Tony Bennett was the big scheduled guest. Right away, I was nervous, because Tony was one of my idols; it might have been 1974, the Year of Pink Floyd, but I
was a fan of the pre-rock guysâTony, Frank Sinatra, Mel TormÃ©. Intimidated as I was, the producers of
assured me that Tony was opening the show, which was a comfort. I, needless to say, would not be going on until near the program's very end, by which time the force of Tony's brilliance would have dissipated.