Steve Martin and Martin Short bring their duo show, An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, to the Paramount for two performances on Saturday. As I wrote in the calendar description: It’s riotously expensive and may sound about as appealing as Sunday school to some of you. But these guys are giants and no one lives forever. The great thing about seeing successful artists who clearly don’t need to do this kind of work is that it forces you to consider why, in fact, they do it. And the answer is always because it’s what they are supposed to do. And because they love it.
I hope that's true. (And if you don't have a spare few hundred dollars lying around to get your hands on any remaining tickets, a version of An Evening You Will Forget... is also currently on Netflix.) To supplement the preview of the show I wrote for this week's print edition of The Stranger, the longform transcript of our Q&A appears below.
How different is the live show from the Netflix special?
Steve Martin: I'll tell you, it goes in and out. We have a lot of new material, which we worked on very hard since we knew Netflix was going to come out. But it's a little bit of a mystery because you don't know how many people have seen Netflix, and we hate to drop a great joke because maybe 200 people in the audience saw it already or something, so, we're a little confused, but we do have a solid, I’d say 30 minutes of new material in the show.
Martin Short: And part of that is just to fuel our interest, creatively, in continuing to do the show.
It's all confusing to me. I remember kids loving Lily Tomlin's first album, her Broadway album, and then she came to Toronto, and I saw her, and I thought, Jesus, I hope she does this stuff. I wanted to see it. So, it's interesting.
It's something that I know Steve—and pardon me for using your first names—
SM: It's fine.
But it’s something you addressed in your standup book, that there's this phenomenon of people going to live performances specifically to hear the things that they've heard on records. I don't know how similar it is to music where they just wand to hear the lines delivered in a particular cadence, maybe. Have you come any closer to figuring that out?
SM: As long as I've been in comedy, I don't have the answer. All I know is: Music, you wanna hear over and over, and comedy, sometimes you wanna hear over and over.
MS: It also depends on how much the comedy is just a pure line and how much performance is in it. If Donald O'Connor had done “Make ‘em Laugh” live, you wouldn't say, "Eh, I saw it in the movies."
Given what you said about wanting to keep it interesting for yourselves: A lot of the show consists of you guys bantering in a friendly way, which obviously looks sincere and real, but it’s also a show. I’ve been wondering how much the performance of that sincerity affects the real life components. Not that I'm suggesting you would stop being friends on account of the show, but what is that like, to perform friendship?
SM: The friendship is real, so we don't ever feel like we're faking it. But when we're out there, we're actually working, and I guess the friendship imbues the performance, but we don't lean into it I don't think. We kind of kid it and make fun of it. We're like Dean and Jerry didn't hate each other.
Well, maybe if you keep touring you'll get there.
SM: And by the way, we do six shows a month, or three shows a month, so it's not like there's enough time for anybody to get angry at the other person.
Sorry if this is revisiting too much, but can you talk about the impetus for doing this show, Steve after years of not doing much live performance except with your band and Martin [note to the reader: I wanted from the marrow to call him “Marty,” but I resisted on the grounds of not wanting to be the worst person alive] after years of solo performance?
MS: I think everything starts off with, usually, an invitation, and we had been asked to interview each other, just pure conversation, closing the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in 2011, and we were struck by a few things. First of all, it went very well, but secondly, how easy it was. We went, of course, because we have a lifelong chemistry and we've done many things together, and there was an ease. So, we did it again, and then we did it again, and then we started saying, “What if we developed this into a real show?” So, it comes out of pure artistry, I think, of enjoying working with each other and it's fun to do. The band is fun, [pianist] Jeff Babko's fun. It's a loose hang, and it's a great way to make a living.
Just over a year ago, I saw you [Martin] perform—not right in Seattle, but near Seattle, at the Tulalip Resort Casino. I think at least a little bit of the material is in the Netflix show. Was that something you were doing as a test run? It seemed like an unusual venue for you.
MS: Well, it was probably just a little weekend tour, a cash run, I suppose, of shows.
SM: Wait, you were not in a casino or you were in a casino?
MS: I was in the casino. I appear at a lot of casinos. If you are an entertainer, and you have a 90 minute show, that's what you do. You go to theaters, you go to casinos, and it's fun. It keeps you always in front of an audience, which I think, if you're an entertainer, is a very good combination of things.
SM: When we started, Marty already had a solo show that he could do on his own, and I actually fitted into it. And I had a show, but it was more of a music show with comedy, so, as I fit into that show, I realized, oh, I need to bring more to this, cause Marty's just killing it out there. I thought, I gotta bring the band and then I can do some funny songs. And they provided a really big show feel, so the audience feels like they're getting their money's worth.
Steve, there were many years where you weren't really doing much in the way of live performance. And again, you addressed it at length in your book. But now it seems like this new show has got you back into a mode of really enjoying the stage. Did you really feel like you were done with it, or did you miss it that whole time?
SM: I never really wanted to do it… but, you know, I was doing it all along. I was hosting the Oscars, I was doing awards shows, I was appearing on talk shows, so, to me, that's live in a way. It's spontaneous performing. So, I hadn't really gone away. But, as I told Marty, this is actually the first time I ever really enjoyed performing, where I look forward to it and walk out with no nerves or anxiety. I guess it's just either I'm older and more experienced, or it's great to have a partner. The first time I hosted the Oscars I was very nervous, and the time I hosted with Alec Baldwin, it was a breeze, but I had a partner.
Is there an appreciable difference between the audiences now and the audiences when you were doing standup in the '60s and '70s?
SM: Well, for me, the audiences are much more attentive and polite, because, if you’re not famous, the crowd can be rude. If you are famous, they can be too exuberant. Now, it's just right. And also, we're older, and they're older, and everybody's there to see the show. They're not there to draw attention to themselves.
With regard to music, the styles you guys specialize in individually—they don't clash, necessarily, but they're not obvious bedfellows.
SM: Right. Crooning and bluegrass don't really meld.
MS: Well, not traditionally.
SM: That's why we keep them separate, but now we have new material where we actually do a thing together, and it's working great.
MS: I think it's just a variety of presentations, and that's in the tradition of show business, really. And whether it's Jimmy Fallon or American Idol, it's still all the same idea: that you can be thrilled to see the ventriloquist and thrilled to hear the opera singer.
Do you find about comedians who are also musicians—either for yourselves or in your experience being around them—that there’s often a self-consciousness about letting themselves just play or sing without needing to make it funny?
SM: You're talking to me?
MS: Are you talking to both of us?
I'm talking to both of you.
SM: Yeah, music on stage took me a while to get used to, because I always played alone in my standup show, so, I didn't have to keep the rhythm as solid. The rhythm could fluctuate. So, it did take a while to learn to play with a band, and now I'm extremely comfortable with it and I feel great kicking off a song. I only do like three songs in the entire show, whereas I used to do 22, with changing banjos, and tuning, and talking, and hosting, and it was a challenge. But I'm glad I did it, because now I'm extremely comfortable on stage. I can go to a bluegrass festival, where you have the best players in the world, and I can still be confident and not be shy.
MS: And I always felt, even when I was 13, I wanted to be a singer, but the reality was, once I entered comedy, and realized that's what I did for a living, I never felt comfortable singing sincerely, unless there was a sandbag off camera that was gonna drop on me at one point.
SM: Even now Marty says, “No, I don't wanna sing a serious song.”
MS: I think the audience make a commitment with you. Lots of people sing serious songs, but not everyone makes you laugh, so, if you're on Broadway and you're playing a role of a character, then you can sing sincerely. But it's different.
Familiar as I am with your body of work, and having seen you on Broadway and in that casino, I think the most vivid memory I have is of your Showtime special from 30-ish years ago [Martin Short: Concert for the North Americas, 1985] when you sang that Noel Coward song. I had it on VHS and watched it dozens, maybe into the hundreds of times.
SM: What Noel Coward song was it, do you remember?
MS: “If Love Were All,” a beautiful Noel Coward song.
SM: Oh, wow.
And that was a situation where, obviously, it was in the context of, essentially, a comedy/variety special, but your zeal for singing that kind of serious, and actually quite sad legitimate stage kind of song was impossible to miss. You obviously loved doing it.
SM: I think Marty is a great singer. I'm amazed. I used to tour with The Carpenters, and whatever you think of their music, she was astounding. I watched her night after night, perfect— perfect pitch, perfect tone—and Marty has that. He never is off, never makes a mistake, is just lovely, a beautiful tone.
MS: Thank you, Steven. Hey, but you know, I'll tell you something about that Showtime special. I remember people saying to me, “That seemed a little indulgent, and we didn't know how to take it. We were waiting for the gag,” and it stayed with me, 'cause I saw the point.
Well, let me just be the one counterexample, because I really appreciated it.
MS: Well, thank you very much.
As a 12-year-old, at the time.
MS: There you go.
(The song begins at 48:46)
I feel like it's my job to ask some question that connects doing any kind of public performance right now with the strange hellscape that is coming out of the government and the economy and so on. You guys have been both performing for many years, and you have seen a lot of different modes of social reality in contrast with the comedy you're doing at any given time. Is it different now? Does it have an effect on doing live performance now?
SM: You mean being more politically correct?
No, not necessarily that, although that is an interesting additional subject, but I don't really believe in that term per se. I just mean that it feels like the world is flying apart and everybody is meant to hate each other so how does it feel to stand on a stage in front of that?
SM: Well, what I actually feel, and this sounds contrary, but live performing is more private than being on television or being on the internet, for example. I like the privacy of live performing, because you do it, and it's there, and it's done. We don't even invite reviewers to our shows, mainly because we started noticing that every review we would get would just be a list of all our jokes. So, we would be writing the review for them. But I like that it's done for this audience. It is not on the internet—that was one nervous thing about doing the Netflix, but we thought it would help our show, actually. But anyway, it stops there, and people go home and they talk about it, but it's not there for people to make troll-like comments on. What I like about live performing, and I've thought about this for Broadway when I was doing that, and for theater, it's analog. You gotta buy a ticket and you gotta go. And on the internet, it can be so many things—you're performing for no one and everyone at the same time. This is a very specific, rewarding thing to do.
MS: And it's so immediate. That's why we love Johnny Carson, when a joke would bomb and his reaction, that can only happen based on his interaction with the audience. So, to me, it's the most spontaneous way to work too.