LOS ANGELES — Martin Short is relaxing in an Adirondack chair at his summer cottage in Rosseau, Ontario, a couple hours north of his Canadian birthplace and three time zones ahead of his longtime friend and “Only Murders in the Building” co-star, Steve Martin, who’s joining us from his Santa Barbara home.
As for Martin ... well, he isn’t so relaxed.
“I hear chewing!” he says, turning his attention away from the screen to find his family’s 12-week-old puppy, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Sonny. It’s not the first time Martin will pop up from his chair in this hour to see what Sonny is doing, nor will it be the last.
“Clearly, he’s been put in charge for the first time ever,” Short says during one of Martin’s fretful checks on Sonny’s whereabouts. We’re puzzled, though. Martin is in a small, spotless room sporting a treadmill and gym equipment — “Have you ever thought of using that?” Short asks him at the outset — and his worry over the puppy doing what puppies sometimes do seems a bit inflated.
“What is going on here? Your whole house is made out of cement! What does it matter if he pees?” Short asks.
Speaking with Martin and Short, who met 36 years ago on the set of “Three Amigos” and have remained close, goes exactly how you’d imagine. It’s delightful.
Their comic antennae are sharply attuned to the small gaps in the conversation that provide an opportunity to poke fun at the other’s foibles. Part of this is performance. But it’s also clear that they take great pleasure in landing a perfectly timed putdown that might generate a smile of appreciation or, who knows, maybe a laugh. It’s not one-upmanship exactly. More a playful game of tag.
For instance, we’re talking about the duo’s recent three-night run at the Hollywood Bowl. I ask if the success of “Only Murders in the Building” — the most-watched comedy in the history of Hulu and a 17-time Emmy nominee, including lead nods for its two stars — has brought a new audience to their stage show. Their co-star and fellow executive producer, Selena Gomez, has marveled that more older people now know her. Was the reverse true?
“I think that more young people know who we are, but that doesn’t make them fans,” Martin, 76, says. “It just makes them aware of us.”
“What if they like my character work in the show?” Short, 72, asks, setting up his partner. Martin pauses for timing. “Yeeaaah.” Pause. “They’re still not fans. They’re more like, ‘Uh-huh. Have you seen his character work? Uh-huh.’
“And Marty’s performance,” Martin continues, “generally they don’t boo at the Hollywood Bowl because it’s a fun night and it’s outdoors.”
“I heard triumph,” Short counters. Martin leaves again to go check on the dog. I tell Short that from where I was sitting at the Bowl, there was nothing but love.
“That’s because people text their boos now,” Martin says, returning to his seat. Short had been noting how gratifying it felt when the Bowl audience roared its approval when an image from “Only Murders in the Building” showed up during a preshow montage of their comic careers.
“You know what really helped us understand our [stage] show better is when we treated the theater like it was a wedding,” Martin says. “And Marty’s people would sit on one side and my people would sit on the other side. And Marty’s side had always just a little bit of empty seats. Let’s put it that way.”
Sure, Steve. But their balance on “Murders” is perfect with Martin and Short playing lonely showbiz castaways finding a renewed lease on life when they meet Gomez’s mysterious Mabel after a resident in their Upper West Side apartment building turns up dead. The trio don’t know each other at the outset, but a shared love for true-crime podcasts prompts them to join forces, investigate the murder and share their findings on their own true-crime audio show.
The series’ second season, currently airing, finds them digging into another murder. Presumably, the third season will produce another case.
It’s a big building with a lot of residents. “Murders” could go on indefinitely.
“I don’t think we can knock off more than 10 and still be considered legitimate,” Martin says, smiling.
If they run out of ideas, they could always take the show on the road. What would “Only Murders in the Building” look like in Los Angeles?
“Somehow I just don’t picture underground parking like at a Wilshire condo,” Martin says. “The big difference is these buildings are old. They’re built in the pre-’30s.” He considers the L.A. landscape. “There’s this fabulous old building — a couple of them, I lived in one of them — called La Fontaine at Crescent Heights and Fountain. And it looks like it’s from France in the 19th century. There you could do something.”
Maybe we’re forgetting “Melrose Place,” the Fox prime-time soap opera from the ‘90s. There must have been a murder or two there.
“Oh, absolutely,” Short says with authority. “It’s kind of old news.”
“And also you have murdered on ‘Melrose Place,’ as I recall,” Martin offers.
A little-known guest spot that Short did?
“It wasn’t a nomination,” Short says without missing a beat. “But it should have been.”
“He kept saying, ‘What if it was “Only Murders on Melrose Place”? What if? What if?’” Martin says. “I couldn’t figure out why you kept saying that.” Short laughs in appreciation. “Well, now you know.”
Gomez has praised her co-stars’ willingness to listen and offer advice when asked. What was the best piece of advice they received when they were her age?
Answers Short: “Bernie Brillstein was my manager for years and he would say, ‘It’s only show business, kid. Don’t take it serious.’”
“If someone told me that, I’d say, ‘You’re crazy,’” Martin counters. “I take it seriously.”
“Well, that is why Steve is worth a trillion dollars and I am hanging on by a thread,” Short says.
“Yeah, there at your cottage at Rosseau,” Martin answers affectionately. He goes on to remember early helpers who showed him magic tricks when he was working at Merlin’s Magic Shop in Disneyland and another mentor who taught him how to tuck in his shirt like a show business professional — reach through the fly of your trousers and pull the shirt down from the inside — during his performing days at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theatre.
“So let me understand this,” Short says, trying to process Martin’s anecdote. “If you had never met him, you’d have never figured that out?”
“It’s not a common model,” Martin answers. “He actually showed me how to do it with his own hand.”
Short bursts out laughing. Sonny the puppy takes notice and bounds back into the picture.
“Now Steve, would you say on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the highest, where do you put your love and affection for Sonny?” Short asks. Martin doesn’t hesitate. “Four.” Short can’t believe the low rating.
“Well, he’s only 12 weeks old,” Martin says, not defensive in the slightest.
“That’s like saying, ‘Do you love a baby?’” Short adopts a growl. “’It’s just a baby.’ But I like your honesty.”
“I like the dog,” Martin says. “But we did not need the dog. And the dog, by the way, turned out to be the best dog. He’s a fantastic dog.”
“I mean, after a couple of weeks, they could have said, ‘We don’t need Old Yeller,’” Short says, making Martin dissolve into laughter.
Martin and Short make plans to talk soon about upcoming dates at Wolf Trap in Virginia. We say our goodbyes. Martin (and Sonny) leave. Short, unbidden, begins singing showtunes. I don’t want to end the call. Who would?
“Well you know,” he says, adopting an exaggerated theatrical voice, “I love to vocalize in the dark. That’s what I do.”