I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend
One of the worst reading experiences is the boring or self-congratulatory Hollywood memoir, right? On the flip side, there’s something so satisfying about reading a memoir by a well-known entertainer who lives up to his or her image and makes you love that person even more. It’s no surprise that Martin Short’s new memoir, I MUST SAY: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, assuredly falls into the latter category. As entertaining and charming as Short and his characters are on TV and in movies, he’s even more endearing on the page.
From his childhood days in Hamilton, Ontario, Short learned early on that the quickest way to garner attention in a big family was to be the funniest. And that quick humor would see him through many a tough time. Before the age of 20, he already had lost his older brother in an automobile accident and both his parents. (When chronologically dividing his life, he thinks of it in two brackets: Marty with Parents and Marty without Parents.) But whether it was his predominantly Canadian, Irish Catholic background, or hard-won through early experience with tragedy, he learned the valuable lesson that “something terrible can happen to you, and yet, the day after this something terrible, the sun still rises, and life goes on. And therefore, so must you.” This steeled him not only for the toughness of life, but also for the rejection-filled business he had long dreamed of pursuing.
From an early age, little Marty Short was performing his own variety show in the family home on Whitton Road. It wasn’t until he was in college that he truly considered going all-in for a career in show business (thanks also to the encouragement of supportive and like-minded friends like Eugene Levy). He made a deal with himself: he’d give it a year, and if he could make a living as an actor, he’d renew the deal for another year. If not, it was back to graduate school to pursue a career in social work. It wasn’t long before Short found himself cast in the very talented ensemble of “Godspell” in Toronto --- a company that included such actors as Victor Garber, his friends Levy and Dave Thomas, Gilda Radner (who would become his girlfriend), Andrea Martin, musical director Paul Shaffer, and Nancy Dolan (who would later become his wife). It was this lightning-in-a-bottle experience that would confirm to Short that not only had he chosen the right path, but working with other talented performers heightened your game.
"One could go on for hours about the amusing anecdotes contained in this charming and heartfelt memoir, but they’re so entertaining that it’s only fair to leave them to be discovered by the reader."
However, the road to success for Short was certainly not an overnight journey. After the enjoyable experience of “Godspell,” it was a while before he found rewarding and steady work again. During this time, he and Nancy were solidifying their relationship and, later, building their family. After some frustration with L.A.’s pilot season, he decided to return to Canada and join the cast of “SCTV,” the show that had spun off from the successful Second City improv theaters of Chicago and Toronto. It was here that Short really honed his comic voice, creating characters like the affable Ed Grimley (originally created as a character that would emerge when he was fighting with his wife), ancient songwriter Irving Cohen (“Gimme a C! A bouncy C!”) and albino lounge lizard Jackie Rogers, Jr.
“SCTV” proved to be a fertile and familial environment that allowed Short to create such gems. But when that show ended, he made the move to American TV, joining the odd-lot cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1984. Despite the disparately talented cast that season (Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Rich Hall), he never truly felt comfortable. Although most consider a spot in the “SNL” cast as a ticket to superstardom, the time spent at 30 Rock was fraught with tension and stress. At the time, Short considered himself “the biggest failure in the world,” despite bringing old friends like Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers, Jr. and Irving Cohen along for the ride. Luckily, these strong characters provided just enough ballast to keep Short floating during that tumultuous year.
With “SNL” in his rearview, Short could now focus on a career as a film actor. His first foray into the medium was Three Amigos!, coincidentally written by “SNL” creator/producer Lorne Michaels, and co-starring Chevy Chase and Steve Martin. Many other movies followed, such as Innerspace, Cross My Heart (worth seeing just for Short’s spot-on Monty Clift impression) and The Big Picture --- some hits, some misses. A brief stint as a talk-show host was also attempted, but somehow A-List fame seemed to elude him. At some point, though, he decided to balance the film roles (like Franck in Father of the Bride) with stage appearances, such as “The Goodbye Girl” and even a semi-autobiographical Broadway show entitled “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.” Around this time, another Short character was born ---the stocky and befuddled Hollywood interviewer Jiminy Glick, known for his barbed questions for celebrity guests like Mel Brooks (“What’s your big beef with the Nazis?”), which inspired a TV show and a feature film.
One could go on for hours about the amusing anecdotes contained in this charming and heartfelt memoir, but they’re so entertaining that it’s only fair to leave them to be discovered by the reader. (His George Harrison story will have you laughing out loud.) In addition to the funny Hollywood stories, this memoir also is a love story, a homage of sorts, to his beloved wife, including her struggle with ovarian cancer that ultimately took her life in 2010. Through his beguiling stories, the reader really gets a sense of Short not only as a performer, but also as a husband, father, son, brother, co-worker and friend.
In the film Steel Magnolias, Dolly Parton’s character remarks that “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion!” and you get a sense that that’s been a familiar trope in Short’s life. While reading this book on the subway, I was stopped by multiple people, offering their favorite Martin Short roles or characters: “My kids loved him in Father of the Bride. That’s my favorite!” a forty-something father on the F train shared with me. I have considered myself a huge Martin Short fan and have been for years (my two cents: the film Clifford is criminally underrated), but even I learned many new facts and facets to the multi-talented performer. Fans will devour this book, and if you’re not a fan, you will be before you finish the first chapter.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on November 14, 2014