Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Act Was Solidified in a Failed ‘90s Sitcom

Before ‘Only Murders in the Building’ there was ‘The Martin Short Show’
Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Act Was Solidified in a Failed ‘90s Sitcom

Steve Martin and Martin Short have been close friends for more than three decades, first working together in Three Amigos! and, more recently, starring in the popular streaming series Only Murders in the Building alongside Selena Gomez, aka the Chevy Chase of the 21st century. Short and Martin also regularly tour together as a double act, with a show that mainly consists of comically competitive one-upmanship and savage put-downs.

Oddly enough, this hilarious dynamic, which also extends to talk-show appearances and Saturday Night Live monologues, may have been first forged in a project that barely anybody remembers.

Back in 1994, Short starred in the aptly-named NBC prime-time sketch series The Martin Short Show — not to be confused with his 1999 talk show, which was also called The Martin Short Show. Unfortunately for all involved, it was a disaster. Despite the fact that The Martin Short Show’s ratings weren’t so bad, only three episodes ever made it to the air before the network pulled the plug, no doubt due to the “avalanche of negative reviews.” As reports noted at the time, NBC planned to replace The Martin Short Show with reruns of either Mad About You or Wings. Ouch. 

Its core premise contained a meta twist: It was both a sketch show starring Short and SNL alums Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman, as well as a sitcom, focusing on the behind-the-scenes life of Short (playing a fictional version of himself) and his wife/co-star Meg (Hooks). 

Short knew that the conceit didn’t come without some risk, as he told The New York Times shortly before the show’s cancellation, “You can’t do comedy like this and not face the possibility that you’re going to look like a complete jerk going out there that far. And so you can’t worry about risk. If you did, well, I mean, you’d never do anything.”

Critics suggested that The Martin Short Show’s postmodern framework was really just a friendly rip-off of The Larry Sanders Show, but to be fair, this idea had been done before. Back in the 1970s there was The Muppet Show and, most relevantly, The David Steinberg Show, a Canadian series about a TV variety show and its behind-the-scenes shenanigans, boasting a supporting cast that just so happened to include Martin Short.

In addition to The Martin Short Show’s stellar cast, several episodes were directed by Short’s SCTV compatriot Eugene Levy. But still, it’s seemingly less fondly-remembered today than, say, that sitcom starring Adolf Hitler. Which is too bad, because Episode Two, which guest-stars Steve Martin, seemingly formed the basis for what would become Short and Martin’s lucrative shtick, which audiences are obviously still enjoying today.  

Sure, they’d worked together before, but this marked the first time that the two comics played fictional versions of themselves as combative, egomaniacal rivals. There’s even a flashback to the set of Three Amigos! in which Martin encourages Short not to be too funny during their scenes together, and offers him a signed headshot as thanks. 

But their competitive nature gets way more intense in this show than in, say, their recent tour. The bulk of the storyline is about Martin’s efforts to seduce Short’s wife, and it literally ends with Short throwing a sex-crazed Martin out of his house. 

The sketch comedy portion of the series (which often featured familiar Short characters like Ed Grimley and Nathan Thurm) was brought back in 1995 for a 90-minute special The Show Formerly Known As the Martin Short Show, which dropped the sitcom elements (and with them any scenes focusing on Martin’s rampaging horniness). 

Short later claimed that this special might just be the apex of his career, telling one interviewer: “That’s probably as good as I’ll get” and heaping praise upon the “notoriously underappreciated” Jan Hooks who, as Short put “deserved a big movie career. Certainly as big as Rob Schneider’s fucking career.”

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this). 

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