Steve Martin keeps telling himself to stop fiddling with the same material, but he can’t help it.
This lifelong impulse made a recent appearance a few stops into his latest tour with Martin Short, You Won’t Believe What They Look Like Today! One joke was earning two perfectly adequate laughs from the crowd, but he craved a bigger reaction.
As the show’s title suggests, the longtime friends and entertainment warhorses devote a portion of each night to ribbing each other over images from their past. Short, a little soft around the edges in his youth, is subjected to one shirtless photo during the slideshow. For a while, Martin hammered the chubby jokes. “I’d say, ‘Now, are you sure that’s you? At first I thought it was Winnie the Pooh,’ ” Martin explains. “The audience laughed. Then I would say, ‘What are you there?’ And he’d go, ‘I’d say a B-cup.’ They’d laugh again.”
Something about the response didn’t satisfy Martin. So he thought on it a while before it struck him: ceding the whole joke to Short would make it funnier. “Getting rid of my line doubled the laugh that he got for ‘B-cup,’ ” he says, pride mingling with “well, duh” embarrassment on his face. “How long have I been doing comedy? 60 years? I’m still having fun finding those things.”
Martin’s pursuit of big laughs is the stuff of comedy legend. It also has surpassed 60 years. Born in August 1945, he was hamming it up at various jobs at Southern California amusement parks as soon as he could legally work. He began stand-up in earnest by age 18 and ultimately hit the highest highs of one of the most difficult professions. Since the 1980s, he’s been the unlikely leading man of films like Roxanne, L.A. Story and the Father of the Bride movies. For Martin, every bit of the work — yes, even sophomoric remarks about baby fat — still demands constant refining.
“Talent is amazing and stunning when you first encounter it, but it has to get better and have a standard that it lives by,” says Saturday Night Live creator and producer Lorne Michaels, Martin’s close friend for five decades. “You don’t worry when Steve’s on something. He’s not going to be happy until he cracks it. And even then, he’s not going to trust it.”
During one of three July performances at the Hollywood Bowl, an abbreviated version of Martin and Short’s typical two-hour show that shared the bill with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and fireworks, Short’s “B-cup” line killed. Moments later, Short remarked that he and his pal planned to keep working as long as they’re still having fun. With a confident gait and no words, Martin exited stage right and ceded the next few bits to Short. The crowd lost it. And while it may be an obvious gag, either man would be more than justified in a desire to take it easy.
Martin, in particular, is the busiest he’s been in years. His TV series, Only Murders in the Building, premiered in 2021 as an instant hit and quickly became Hulu’s most-watched original comedy. A dry whodunit set in a Manhattan co-op and based on an idea Martin originally had years ago, the series stars Martin, Short and Selena Gomez as a trio of lonely true-crime obsessives. Already renewed for a third season, Only Murders earned 17 Emmy nominations for its freshman run. Of those, Martin is up for three: best comedy (as producer), writing for a comedy series (shared with co-creator John Hoffman) and lead actor in a comedy — pitting him against Short, his perennial co-star. There’s also their exhaustive tour, a follow-up to 2021’s The Funniest Show in Town at the Moment, 2017’s An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life and 2015’s A Very Stupid Conversation. Martin even has an upcoming book (his 12th) and a long-gestating documentary about his life and career.
What these projects have in common — and what distinguishes them from Martin’s early days as the only guy onstage — is that he now eagerly shares the workload on almost every endeavor he tackles. “I think Steve learned the joy of collaboration,” says Short, who first worked with him on the 1986 film Three Amigos! “All through his stand-up life, he was by himself. Now, when he has success, he can celebrate with someone. And when something bombs, he can really laugh about it — as opposed to just being alone with it.”
Whether alone or joined by one of his assorted serial collaborators, Martin acknowledges that this boom time may be an unexpected crescendo to a career that, a few years back, was starting to slow down. “We were very happy just doing the live show,” Martin says. “There may be a natural end to that — somebody gets sick, somebody just wears out — but I wouldn’t do it without Marty. When this television show is done, I’m not going to seek others. I’m not going to seek other movies. I don’t want to do cameos….