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The Art (and Science) of Comedy

Martin Short makes them laugh

May. 28, 2008
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To Martin Short, comedy is more of an art than a science. But comedy’s proper execution sometime carries with it all the rigors of scientific enterprise, at least for the performer engaged in the pratfall.

To do comedy well, you have to have a natural talent and ability,” says the Canadian-born Short, 58, in a recent interview. “But the execution has to be precise, which means it probably has elements of both art and science.”

Short will test his thesis for Milwaukee fans when he brings his act to the Pabst Theater. Unlike other comedy acts, however, Short will be sharing the stage with a band, the stand-up portion comprising just part of the evening.

“It’s like a party with Marty,” Short says. “I sing, I dance, I do characters. I’ll probably bring three guys up on stage and teach them the Three Amigos salute. It’s like a comedy workout, only I don’t have to pay a trainer for it.”

Fans who have followed the Emmy and Tony-winning Short’s career from Canada’s “SCTV” through “Saturday Night Live” and on to films like Three Amigos and variety specials already know that characters rank high in the comedic chameleon’s repertoire. Favorites like Ed Grimley, Jiminy Glick and Jackie Rogers Jr. are likely to show up when Short brings his act to Milwaukee.

Fantasy Variety Show

Of all the characters he’s created, Short admits that talk-show host Rogers is his favorite and probably the most like him.

“I had a fantasy variety show that I performed in my attic into my tape recorder when I was growing up, with Jackie Rogers Jr. as host,” Short says. “In my mind, I would see this show airing on NBC-TV at 8:30 on Thursday nights. But it was only every other week because I was far too hip for weekly TV.”

Comedy wasn’t the performer’s first career choice, however. Short graduated from McMasterUniversity in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1972 with a social-work degree. But his interests changed that year when he was cast in a Toronto production of Godspell, sharing the stage with fellow performers Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin, many of whom would later reappear on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” Comedic and dramatic parts followed until he joined Toronto’s SecondCity improvisational troupe in 1977, which eventually led to “SCTV,” where he began developing the characters for which he has become known.

Short draws inspiration from his comedic heroes, a list that includes Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Harpo Marx, Jerry Lewis, Dick Van Dyke, Jonathan Winters and Milwaukee native Gene Wilder. His characters, however, come from personal experience and contacts he’s made over the years.

“Characters come from either a single person or an amalgam of characteristics of several people that seem to work together,” Short says. “Maybe it’s a guy who’s a chronic liar. Or someone who’s a goof and he doesn’t know it.

“I knew a guy in high school who wanted to be a photographer, so he’d take a lot of slides,” Short continues. “But he never got them developed, he said, because he’d experienced the moment and knew he didn’t have to. He became the seedling that grew into Ed Grimley.”

Short, as the iconic Grimley, his hair lacquered to a spiky horn, his pants hiked up to chest-level, remains one of the comedian’s favorite characters. He is able to judge the impact of characters like Grimley or the bits those characters perform by a simple universal measure available to all.

“The laughter is a good indication,” Short says. “If you think something is funny, then the audience usually does as well. If no one responds, then you may be performing in the wrong venue, or it’s simply not funny.”

Short rarely runs into that problem, however, because his familiar characters and infectious style tend to draw audiences in. However, the context for comedy depends as much on the audience’s background as on the performer’s talent, which gives the art form both individual and universal context.

“It’s a natural human state to try and find the joy in things, and very few people don’t want to laugh,” Short says. “Comedy can reach into people’s souls if it’s funny, but it’s still very subjective.

“In comedy, there’s no wrong or right,” he adds. “The main agenda is simply to make people laugh.”

Martin Short performs at the Pabst Theater at 8 p.m. on May 30. For tickets, call (800) 511-1552.

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