Looking Back at Martin Short’s First Prime-Time Show

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Martin Short has had two different programs on TV known as The Martin Short Show: a sitcom in 1994, and a talk show in 1999 (I wrote about the sitcom a few years back). In between Martin Short Shows, Short didn’t completely disappear from television, however; in 1995, NBC aired a 90 minute sketch program starring Short, a number of his SCTV compatriots, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and dozens of other funny people. As we now seem to be on the cusp of a new version of this in May with Maya and Marty in Manhattan, it’s time to revisit The Show Formerly Known as The Martin Short Show.

If you’re unfamiliar with Martin Short, I feel terribly sorry for you, but allow me to give you a taste of his career highlights. After becoming one of Canada’s brightest comics, he made his first splash on the American scene with still wonderful and still under-appreciated SCTV, and then very shortly after, as a part of the all-star season of Saturday Night Live. He’s starred in movies, such as the delightfully weird Clifford; one of his most beloved characters, Ed Grimley, was turned into both a Saturday morning cartoon and a talking pull-string doll; his character Jiminy Glick had a TV show and a movie; and he tours frequently with his friend and fellow legend Steve Martin. Now you know a small snippet of his amazing career. For more, I cannot recommend his memoir, I Must Say, enough. (And in particular the audiobook. He reads as his characters and does an amazing Paul Schaffer impression.)

As I discuss a sketch show from more than twenty years ago, obviously there is going to be some ancient references I’ll need to explain, including the title of the special, which is a nod to both Prince’s strange name change from the time, as well as Martin Short’s former show, The Martin Short Show. The show begins with Martin Short walking down the streets of Los Angeles, talking to the camera, not at all bitter about his show’s recent cancellation, when he suddenly breaks into song. I’m not exactly sure how to classify it (it’s basically what it would sound like if James Brown started a rap career) but it revolves around the refrain of “I’m back!” and the song ends with Short attempting to trampoline into the arms of a pair of older women, overshooting it, and landing on a young Jay Leno who is in the midst of presenting Headlines.

The first three sketches are all made up of very topical references. There’s a commercial for a celebrity fragrance from tennis champion Martina Navratilova with Short as Martina in a parody of Liz Taylor’s White Diamonds commercials. There’s another commercial for a new variety show on NBC called The Kato Kaelin Goodtime Hour in which the witness in the OJ trial performs terrible improv, has an interview with Short’s lawyer character Nathan Thurm, and reads from his memoirs until his eyes are tired and he states, “I need to go home to someone else’s home.” Perhaps getting one last dig in at the network that cancelled his sitcom, Kaelin’s show airs every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday after Dateline NBC.

Next is a parody of the short-lived primetime soap opera Models Inc., “Models Amalgamated.” I don’t know how effective a parody it is because I, like the majority of Americans, have no memory of what Models Inc. was like. In this sketch, Jan Hooks and Short play multiple characters, each of whom have very dramatic and insane storylines. If you’ve ever wanted to see Martin Short dressed as a male model making out with Jan Hooks as Faye Dunaway, then I have the sketch for you. My favorite moment in the sketch involves Hooks discovering Phil Hartman attempting to murder Martin Short as an old woman by suffocating her with a pillow, only to get into an argument about Jan’s pronunciation of the word “pillow.” On the whole, however, the sketch feels like a parody of soap opera tropes that has been done more effectively elsewhere. And without an audience reacting to it, it just feels flat. However, when Phil Hartman reacts with an insane, over-the-top rage when hearing the word “libary” it’s hard to be mad about anything in this word.

One of the strangest sketches to appear on the show is a behind-the-scenes documentary looking at the making of a fictional film: Tim Burton’s remake of An Affair to Remember, entitled A Nightmare to Remember. In it comedian Brett Butler (played by Jan Hooks wearing some really good makeup) and director Burton (Short in a really good wig) do not get along at all. Butler’s co-stars Lyle Lovett (played by SCTV alum Joe Flaherty) and Irving Cohen (Short) do not make the production any easier and eventually Burton leaves the movie.

One way to showcase a bunch of Short’s characters is to have them talk about their favorite TV memories. Irving Cohen reflects on when TVs were really small. Kato Kaelin can’t remember his favorite TV moment and has to be prompted by Marcia Clark off-camera. Ed Grimley never really “got” MASH, but “AfterMASH is where it really started clicking for me.”

While Eugene Levy doesn’t appear on the show, he did contribute in the form of director. The first sketch is basically a mash-up, combining the film A Hard Day’s Night and the Eugene O’Neill play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Ringo Starr plays a character as we quickly jump from boring, talky parlor room discussions into raucous, quick-cutting Richard Lester-inspired music montage jumping around a field. The sketch doesn’t really lift off beyond it’s name, but it looks great.

The second bit Levy directed is a commercial for a film sequel entitled The Bodyguard: One Mo’ Time, starring Short’s character Jackie Rodgers Jr. He’s been receiving some death threats (his manager informs him that 9,000 out of 10,000 fan letters are death threats) so a bodyguard is hired for him. The Bodyguard in this film is played by Whoopi Goldberg who in this film is played by Jan Hooks, which is… problematic. Once again, it looks great; nice job Eugene.

Ultimately, The Show Formerly Known as The Martin Short Show has some really great stuff. It also has some forgettable stuff (and a couple of awful things). To be fair, though, I’m judging this twenty years later with a lot of time and a lot of forgotten references in between. I believe that Martin Short’s next foray into primetime television is going to be just as manic, just as packed with insane characters, but significantly less full of 90s references, and I for one can’t wait to see it.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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