Zany, the word is zany. Martin Short is zany—or at least his characters are. And, to a certain extent, so is his public persona.
That sounds disparaging. Maybe a better word is committed. Or energetic. Or, actually, what’s wrong with being zany? It doesn’t have to mean cheap, or childish, or hacky. Because Martin Short is none of those things. He’s a legend, not just in this country—where he is now a judge on Canada’s Got Talent—but everywhere.
He’s a character actor who has earned praise for his comedy. He’s earned high praise for his drama, too, but he’s not begging people to take him seriously. “Quite honestly I’ve got a lot of respect from doing what I’ve done,” he says. And, it’s true. We’ve respected him since his Ed Grimley days.
Congratulations on being a man worth listening to.
Thank you so much. It’s high time.
What was it about Canada’s Got Talent that made you want to be a part of it?
I knew it wasn’t going to be a kind of mean-spirited, humiliation: a let’s-humiliate-the-poor-kids-who-are-auditioning-type-show. When I was a kid I grew up with Ed Sullivan, and variety shows where you would see a series of different acts. It always interested me. I get tired with a show that has twelve singers, but I never get tired if there is a singer followed by a guy twirling buzzsaws.
I never think of it as a descendant of the variety show; I always think of it first as a competition.
I don’t really. It’s a showcase for talent that doesn’t get a showcase. There was an era, for example, in the early seventies, just pre-Saturday Night Live, when if Johnny Carson didn’t book you, you weren’t on television. Joni Mitchell didn’t go to Woodstock because she got a chance to be on the Dick Cavett show. When you think of some of the acts on Canada’s Got Talent, where would you see them on television? To me, the contest is just the fun part.
Has the way to “make it” fundamentally changed?
It’s hard to know, because you only know your career. I started in Toronto. It wasn’t like I was going to New York City and saying, ‘Here I am!’ It seemed like the pond was smaller. You knew everyone, and you’d go to auditions and see people you recognized, the same actors. It seemed gentler, but maybe that’s me remembering something the way it wasn’t.
I think there is this sense that there used to be a more authentic route to getting known.
Certainly one thing that has changed from when I was 24 years old, as a Toronto actor, is everyone who was working and got work was hugely talented. Big talents. Some people who were certainly more talented than I didn’t have the luck of a show that showed them off. We’re now in an era where you can be hugely successful simply based on being a housewife or a party girl or party boy. That didn’t exist.
You’re a character actor. Are you playing a character while you are a judge?
I think it’s pretty close to me. It’s an entertainment show, though. If you go on Letterman, you don’t do the same interview you’d do with Charlie Rose. You try to be an upbeat version of yourself. I try to be as understanding as I can be. I don’t think we’re solving the problem of Afghanistan or climate change; I think it’s an entertainment show, it’s light and it shouldn’t make anyone feel like, ‘I want to jump off a bridge because I didn’t succeed in it.’
That would be a good talent, though, fixing Afghanistan.
I would vote for that.
You’re a parent; do you see a lot of stage parenting in Canada’s Got Talent?
You see the occasional one, especially when a 10-year-old comes out and sings Like a Virgin or something. But you’d have to be backstage to really see which ones are the classic pushy ones, and which ones are the supportive ones.
Did you push your children in any specific direction?
I think if you spent your life acting, you aren’t hoping to hear your kid say, ‘I want to be an actor!’ Forgetting talent, you know the thick skin you have to have, and the endurance. It’s a miracle you can pay the rent for a year, let alone many years. Frank Sinatra said that his dad was always there to piss on his dreams, so you can’t be that guy, either. You just have to be encouraging and happy when they say they want to go into social work.
Do you feel the same way about the thick skin of the contestants?
No. I don’t know the contestants. I have enough to worry about. It’s up to them to figure this out. If they can’t handle the rejection, they should not be pursuing it. I’ve been in this a long time, and the only thing you learn is that you have to treat it like a business.