The phone rings. On the other end are two comedy greats: Steve Martin and Martin Short, friends for three decades and, of late, partners on a seemingly never-ending road show during which they perform separately but most often together. The act, both men will say later, is little more than an extension of their frequent dinners together, except this traveling act helps "cover the rent," as if.
Martin says he is in New York City; Martin Short, Los Angeles. But even this simple task -- explaining where they are by way of introduction -- is mere prelude to a joke, however subtle.
"Marty's in Los Angeles in the living room," says Martin, the only known person to transition from wearing an arrow through his head to penning sweet, oftentimes surreal, occasionally silly New Yorker short stories. "I'm in the same house in the kitchen." Martin takes a beat, then explains, for some reason, "I'm joking."
You don't say.
They met during the filming of the John Landis-directed ¡Three Amigos!, which boasts a screenplay penned by Martin, singer-songwriter Randy Newman and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. Upon its release in the winter of 1986, Roger Ebert lamented that it had been made with "too much confidence and not enough desperation." Short says now that the biggest laughs were off camera, during Scrabble games with co-star Chevy Chase.
Short and Martin, who did not know each other before filming the early Hollywood send-up-cum-western, became and remained close friends, and a one-off appearance together a few years back became this traveling roadshow that will go at least another year. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation about their relationship -- and why it's best not to delve too deeply into what makes it work.
Wilonsky: Steve, Marty feted you -- which is to say, roasted you -- at the Governor's Award ceremony in 2013, which laid the groundwork for this current act in that it was filled with the kind of ribbing only the closest friends are allowed to make.
Steve Martin: Marty was fantastic. It's so great having comedian friends. Because when these situations come up, you get the best show ever. Just ask your comedian friends to show up. Although I wouldn't do it for him.
Martin Short: God forbid he return the favor. Of course, I'd have to be awarded something first.
Steve Martin: That's how I know I'm safe.
Much of this show involves the affectionate roasting of the other ...
Steve Martin: There's nothing affectionate about it.
You've been doing these shows for a while and have been friends obviously for decades. What have you learned about each other and your different styles of comedy that was a surprise or revelation?
Martin Short: You talk about gentle ribbing. That's what we've been doing for 30 years over 18,000 dinners. The kind of looseness that permeates throughout the show is what I hoped for.
Steve Martin: We don't worry too much about it. I would say it would be virtually impossible to insult or hurt the other person. Marty's a great observer of humanity. The story he tells about others are right in my agreement of how to observe the world and what to find funny in it.
Martin Short: One of the reasons we want to do this and we're doing so many cities isn't just to cover rent as much as it's a really enjoyable thing to be doing. We'll have a great dinner the night before the show and have a glass of wine after the show. We don't have to do the show to do that. So it is a celebration of a long friendship and a great working relationship.
You guys met making ¡Three Amigos!, which was Marty's first movie following years on SCTV and Saturday Night Live. What did you guys know about each other at that point, being relative strangers?
Steve Martin: I knew Marty as a guy who did characters and made himself up and looked different every time, but I didn't know what he would be like at all in person. But we just kind of hit it off right away.
Martin Short: Steve was a massive star when I met him. We didn't have a conversation until he handed me the script for ¡Three Amigos! in 1985. I collected Steve's albums; I played them. So I knew what his sensibility was. But I'd always been a character.
Steve Martin: Marty's very intelligent, and he has this high emotional IQ -- he's very perceptive about people, and he's just decent. Those are qualities you don't know about people by looking at their work.
Martin Short: Steve, I would say, it's how dear and sweet he is. Lorne Michaels always says of Steve, there is no better friend. And that part is huge. And it's a real intelligent mind ...
Steve Martin: Waitaminute, waitaminute. Lorne Michaels said that?
Martin Short: Yeah.
Steve Martin: That [jerk].
(They both laugh.)
Does being friends with someone whose records you listened to, or whose work you admired, change your own approach to comedy? Does someone else's comedic sensibility rub off on you?
Steve Martin: I am always reluctant to talk about what makes a friendship work. Because as soon as you say about your wife, "We're so happily married, we're so, so happy," two years later you're divorced. So I am reluctant to explain it.
Martin Short: Because we're in comedy and well-known, there's an assumption it's different than having a relationship with your neighbor. You know what I mean? Where Steve and I laughed the most wasn't on the set but playing Scrabble with Chevy or going out to dinner with our wives. That became where the real laughs were happening. And then you keep growing in your knowledge of that person and what makes them laugh and who they are.
Is one of the great things about this show performing with someone else -- not having to be out there carrying the weight by yourself?
Steve Martin: There is a certain comfort to that. Last time I'd done the Oscars -- I'd done it twice before -- I did it with Alec Baldwin, and I thought, "What a relief to have a partner." I don't think I could do it alone. There is this subtle, overt comfort from having a partner to work with.
Martin Short: I never came from stand-up. I came from Second City. There's nothing more fun than bombing and looking into the eyes of the person who's bombing with you.
Steve Martin and Martin Short perform at 8 p.m. April 8 at Verizon Theatre, 1001 Performance Place in Grand Prairie. Details here.