Steve Martin and Martin Short Share More Than Just a Name
Friends for almost four decades, the comedy icons are joining forces once again for Only Murders in the Building alongside Selena Gomez.
Over the course of a friendship that's spanned more than 35 years, there is very little Steve Martin and Martin Short haven't done together. They've starred alongside each other in films (Three Amigos!, Father of the Bride, Father of the Bride Part II) and sunned beside each other on annual vacations in St. Barts; they've celebrated professional successes and suffered personal losses (Short's wife of 30 years, Nancy Dolman, passed away in 2010); they've taken their two-man comedy show on tour (their Netflix special, An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, was nominated for four Emmys) and tucked into countless dinners at each other's homes; and most of all, they've mocked each other mercilessly yet lovingly every step of the way.
One thing Martin, 76, and Short, 71, haven't done, however, is co-star in a TV series. That's about to change with Only Murders in the Building, which airs on Hulu starting August 31. Created and co-written by Martin, the comedy follows a trio of true-crime-podcast-obsessed neighbors as they investigate a death in their Manhattan apartment complex and produce a podcast — also entitled Only Murders in the Building, naturally — about it. In addition to Martin, who plays a washed-up actor who peaked as a TV detective in the '90s, and Short, a down-on-his-luck theatrical director, the third amiga in the group is Selena Gomez, the niece of a building resident who has a mysterious history with the deceased. The series also features appearances by Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, and Sting — or "the guy from U2," as Gomez's character, Mabel, calls him. The show skewers crime podcasts and their fans, but it sends up its two septuagenarian stars most of all.
"I have always believed you make yourself the butt of the jokes," Martin says. "Marty and me, we make ourselves the butt of the jokes, or each other, or the other one." The secret to the humor, Short says, "is you don't go for the obvious things. You go for silly things. With the exception of Steve being pale — that's true, and it's fodder for many, many jokes."
InStyle: Thank you for doing this, gentlemen. I call you that in the hope that you'll be gentle with me, not like you were with Jimmy Fallon when you recently appeared on The Tonight Show.
Steve Martin: Marty's the one who introduced me to putting people down. I didn't do it before I met him, but I noticed that he was putting me down, and I thought, "Oh, that's kind of funny. OK." Now it's just what we do, put everybody down.
Martin Short: It's done with love — that's the mocha swirl of the insult.
SM: Well, it's done for business in our case.
Did you discover any pop culture phenomenons during the pandemic, something to binge on?
MS: Yes. Selena Gomez!
SM: I knew her as a singer, but it's not like I have the radio on constantly. When I looked up her performing work, I realized she's been around almost as long as I have and she's done as many movies as I have. She denies it, but I see her credits. They're, like, 40 things. That's what I have. Also, we got to know a person who's not only a different generation but different multi-generations away from us. It was a great experience to have her input, to have her awareness. Some of my favorite things in the show are when Marty and I are two, I'll say, older guys, still kind of living in the vocabulary of the past, and she will correct us on camera.
In the second episode, Selena's character, Mabel, says, "I guess old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer and societal change. Sad." Do you have a favorite zinger?
SM: Yeah. One of the jokes I love that got cut is, we're at the dinner table with Mabel's mom, and she says, "You leave my daughter alone, you two liver-spotted old men." And I go like this [lifts his hand to wag his index finger]: "We are not liver-spot — oh!"
So when did you first meet Selena and know that she was the person to play Mabel?
MS: We talked on Zoom, but I met her in the makeup chair the first day of shooting.
Who got the makeup?
MS: I did. I wear enough makeup that when I smile, a hunk can fall off. Put it right under the couch ...
SM: Selena was extremely professional. What you hope for in your acting partner is at least that they're on time. And she definitely was. Beside her talent, she had that going for her.
How did this very funny, very knowing mystery show come about?
MS: Well, it was based on an idea I had initially ... no, I had nothing to do with this. Steve, go.
SM: I actually listen to and watch a lot of true crime. It's too long a story to tell, but somebody suggested I write something for three older actors, and I had this idea, but I never followed up on it. And then I realized, 10 years later, that I'm older. I could play it. And so that's kind of how it came about. And then I pitched it to [This Is Us producer] Dan Fogelman and his company. And they were in immediately. I didn't even realize it was a good idea until I said it out loud to somebody.
The show was filmed this past winter and spring during the pandemic, and each character is living a solitary life for a variety of reasons until they form a "found family." Was there a desire to speak to the isolation of quarantine?
SM: Well, the whole thing was written during the pandemic. We had to make a decision. Do we address the pandemic in the show or not? We decided not to. So I would have to say that there's a subconscious influence. You have to have three different unusual characters and slice up the pie of traits. Marty gets to be flamboyant. I get to be lonely. And Selena gets to be Selena.
Marty, what was your reaction when you read it?
MS: I immediately thought it was funny and provocative. I love that they introduced the guy's son in the first script. And that it went in that direction. I loved the scene when Steve's picking the lock — all that made it very unique. Even the guy falling down to "Clair de Lune" and bouncing back up. It felt original and well-crafted.
SM: Well, actually, I don't know if I ever told you, but I just made it and said, "I'll only be in it if Marty will be in it." I said, "I don't know if I want to do those long hours without a friend there."
Do you remember your very first meeting?
MS: I met Steve, the first time, backstage at The New Show, an hour-long version of Saturday Night Live in prime time that Lorne Michaels was producing for NBC. Steve was the guest host that week — this is in '84 — and Catherine O'Hara, my old friend, was doing the show with Steve. We met quickly. But you were in the middle of a change, going into your dressing room. "Oh, hi."
SM: Also, I didn't do SNL when Marty was on, because I was remaining loyal to Lorne [who had left the show for several years].
MS: Oh, that's right. And then we met again at his house when I was picking up the script for Three Amigos!
That movie was the first time you worked together. How quickly did the two of you develop a rapport?
SM: Pretty fast, I'd say.
MS: I mean, it was interesting. In the movie we were supposed to be very close friends who live in the same house. So we consciously did that — we'd play Scrabble between takes in someone's trailer. And laughter is a great bonding mechanism. If you make someone laugh or they make you laugh, you want more of that. When the film wrapped, we started having dinners, the three of us and our wives. And it just continued on. There was never a phase where I didn't see Steve for a couple of years.
SM: And we worked together in the Father of the Bride movies. So we were together more and had time to really develop a friendship.
You said that the three of you would go out with your spouses. Do you ever hear from Chevy Chase, your co-star in Three Amigos!, asking why it's the Two Amigos now?
SM: Well … he lives in Connecticut. Doesn't he, Marty?
MS: Bedford? Bedford, N.Y. I saw Chevy a couple of months ago, but he's in Bedford and I'm in California.
SM: Yeah. We're in L.A., so it's hard to get together. We've had dinners with him.
I understand you're going on another tour this year, The Funniest Show in Town at the Moment. What's it like performing together in front of a live audience?
SM: It's really fun. And we don't have quarrels. We're both in the same boat when we're onstage. These tickets are expensive, and I always feel a little bit guilty, so we just want to give the best show possible.
MS: What Steve and I still share at this stage of our lives is this unbelievable satisfaction when you do a good show. We have fun. We have dinner and drink wine after, and laugh. It's a great hang.
I imagine you read each other pretty well at this point. How much of your show is improvisation?
SM: You mean the improvisation myth? I remember [comedian] Lenny Bruce said, "People think I ad-lib all the time. I ad-lib three minutes, tops." And I'd say we ad-lib one minute, tops. But if we're ad-libbing, it's for a reason. And we think, "Oh, that worked" and try to make use of it the next time. It's how material comes about.
You have worked independently more than you've collaborated. What's your favorite project of each other's?
SM: There are these weird characters that Marty does mainly on his television specials that are so bizarre. And I like Jackie, what's his name? Jackie Rogers Jr.? I mean, it's weird that he's an albino, right?
MS: Yeah. With a lazy eye. For me, I love All of Me Steve, The Jerk Steve, broad as can be and funny — but I always go to Roxanne. Because that's a combination of hysterically funny and very elegant and theatrical. A brilliant movie.
Do you have any traditions that help bond you as friends?
SM: Well, we have non-traditions. We don't see each other at Christmas. Marty will call me on my birthday and I won't call him. That's our tradition. If we go on holidays, it's always spur-of-the-moment, or we go to a friend's house. I mean, Marty's coming up to my house tomorrow.
MS: Yeah. With my dog. We're just going to spend the night. Hey, you know what, Steve? We should all play cards.
Your friendship rivals the one between comedians Mel Brooks, who just turned 95, and Carl Reiner, who passed last year. As widowers, they would dine together every night, and after Carl died, Mel kept going to his house for dinner. Do you expect your friendship will carry into your dotage that way?
MS: Well, I struggle with seeing decay blatantly up close. So I think Steve and I have a couple more years, then it will just get too depressing for me. I don't think we're going to get a room together at the Sunrise of Beverly Hills retirement home.
Your characters in the show, Charles with TV and Oliver with theater, are these faded showbiz figures. Did you draw on any personal experiences for that?
SM: A lot of it is projecting your own worst nightmare. When I came up with Marty's role as an off-Broadway director who never quite had a major success, I just knew Marty would be funny playing that — because you kind of played that near-miss show business personality in your specials. Big ego and small accomplishments.
MS: Yeah. That's true.
SM: And I'm always fascinated by actors who have a fantastic nine-year run on television and then nothing. I always want to know, where is that person now? What are they doing?
Cancel culture seems to be everywhere. Do you have any views on how some of the stuff you two have worked on in the past might be interpreted now through this lens?
SM: Well, there's nothing you can do about the past. So that's sort of up to the culture. But Caravaggio, the great painter, was a murderer. I'd say we've kind of forgiven him. I don't think anyone's going to have a perfect life, that something can't be dredged up. You learn about contemporary society as you go along. Say, "Oh, we don't say that anymore." "OK. I'm fine with that." "Here's what we say now." "That's fine." And I like that because a lot of language was sexist. I was thinking about the line the other day, "All men are created equal." Well, they really meant everybody. It didn't mean just men.
MS: I think comedy is subjective. Some people will never listen to a Michael Jackson record again. And some people can separate that and say, " 'Billie Jean' is a great song, even though I don't admire his personal life." So is someone wrong for feeling that? No, it's just what they feel. They know their own barometer.
Speaking of subjectivity, what do you consider the most memorable advice you've ever gotten, good or bad?
MS: I can't think of any bad advice I've gotten from Steve. I would say that my late manager, Bernie Brillstein, was a classic Hollywood character and very smart. And I loved his perspective. If some movie didn't happen, "It's only show business, kid. Who gives a shit."
SM: I never understood that. It's like, "I give a shit!" But anyway. I was doing a movie, A Simple Twist of Fate — no one has seen this movie, but I was working with 3-year-old twins. You always work with twins in a movie in case one is crying; you can bring in the other one and still finish the scene on time. These two little girls were just so delightful and so happy and willing to do anything, and they never complained. So I talked to the father and the mother. I said, "Your children are so happy, what's your secret?" The father looked puzzled, like he'd never thought about it before. He said, "Well, we use humor." And I thought, that's a great thing — to raise a child with humor. And I sort of apply it. That's the way I raised Marty.
Photographs by Todd Cole/Giant. Styling by Hayley Atkin. Sittings editing by Courtney Draycott. Grooming by Bruce Grayson/MCH Global.
For more stories like this, pick up the September 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 13th.