Book Review: “I Must Say, My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend”, by Martin Short
If you are a huge Martin Short fan, you will probably love this memoir. If, like myself, you are the casual Martin Short fan, someone who is familiar with his film work and early comedy and generally finds him funny, you will like- though probably not love- this book.
Whichever type of fan you are, however, do yourself a big favor and LISTEN to this book. Martin Short the performer is also gifted at doing impersonations, and you will lose a large part of the humor by reading it in print. In fact, I’m not even sure why it exists in print- Martin also does some brief comedy sketches featuring his most beloved characters: Ed Cohen, Jiminy Glick, and Franck from Father of the Bride, just to name a few. How you could you READ Jiminy Glick and fully enjoy any of the humor? His impersonation of Paul Schaffer and Katherine Hepburn alone are worth the price of an audio version.
What is most profound and touching about his memoir, is Martin Short’s absolute love and passion for performing. His characters are carefully crafted, and Short goes into good detail about how/why he created them. If you enjoy reading about actors and how they develop their craft, this is one to add to the canon.
Martin Short has never been a go-to comedic actor for me. I remember watching re-runs of SCTV and SNL from the 70s and 80s, so I am familiar with a lot of his earlier roles. The Three Amigos is still a movie I don’t find very funny or understand why so many people think it is. (Sorry). I casually watched Primetime Glick on TV in its early days. But much of what is fantastic and admirable about Martin Short lies in his earlier works and that is why I was keen to read his memoir.
Most of the book is fairly “by the numbers”, meaning we get the childhood, early days, highlights of a career, marriage, and a “later years” section. Short might have been better served by focusing solely on the early years that led up to him becoming an actor and developing his work during the 70s because this is the best- and most interesting- part of the entire memoir.
If his book reads like a “who’s of who” of the comedy elite, in which Marty knows everybody, it’s on purpose. And delightful, I might add. I find it comforting that Martin Short and Steve Martin are such good friends. I also think it’s amazing that Martin Short grew up with such a cavalcade of famous comedians: John Candy, Eugene Levy, Paul Schaffer, Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Andrea Martin, Dan Akroyd (called Danny by Short), Ivan Reitman, Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, and many others. Marty performed with several of them during his Toronto run of the show “Godspell”, and then later on SCTV and SNL. As he points out in his memoir, which is along the lines of what Rob Lowe also wrote about in “Stories I Only Tell my Friends”, the reason so many of his contemporaries, along with himself, rose to fame at the same time is due to true friendship, compassion, and collaboration.
On that note, however, if you are in need of a salacious and juicy memoir you are out of luck here. Marty doesn’t dish on anyone he knows. And while I admire his spirit and good natured-ness, much of this book is a safe choice. He doesn’t go deep, and even though his chapters on his brother’s, his parent’s and wife Nancy’s deaths are graceful and lovingly told, I would have liked more heft in this book. The closest Marty ever gets to “heft” or depth is where he shares a moment in which he had a career “Come to Jesus” moment on a park bench in Los Angeles. He assumes his career is in the toilet after a 3 month hiatus of no work and wonders what he’s going to do next. And then he gets a call, lands SCTV and all is well. Further into the novel, he jokes that his wife used to point at that bench years later and kid, “Hey, there’s Breakdown Corner!” The moment of his career crisis is light and doesn’t carry any of the weight it is meant to. Short often describes himself as nothing less than the bounce-back kid over several different periods in his life, so really, were we ever to take Breakdown Corner as seriously?
What dark depths would I have preferred to read about in this book? Martin Short could have delved into the deaths of so many comedians he was working with- John Belushi, Robin Williams, and John Candy in particular. He mentions he never did drugs (besides a funny scene with him and Victor Garber in which Martin smokes too much weed), but what was it like to watch your friends and heroes do them, or suffer from depression and mental illness? Some died from doing drugs- did Martin ever worry about himself? What kept him from it? And what about fatherhood. His kids make a short appearance in the memoir, but he never discuss becoming a father at length. Was it hard to juggle family and work? Did it ever come up between he and Nancy that he should stop working or take on less work? Did he ever feel like he missed out on his kids childhoods? Maybe he didn’t, but I felt like some of these personal points in his life could have been explored more fully.
On the whole, the book is a more interesting look at facts and highlights of Martin’s life than it is a raucous and hilarious read. In fact, I would say the book is only mildly amusing at best. He reenacts small scenes from his childhood and early adulthood with his comedy buddies that fall flat. The true humorous gems come from the comedy skits he performs as his most famous characters throughout the book. I suspect that the reason why some of the comedy fails to translate is that Martin Short is best seen live, as a performer. Even though I enjoyed the audio version, a part of me wonders- and hopes- if watching him on a stage somewhere with a large audience is where he really shines, rather than on the page.
I still recommend this book, especially to those who love memoirs and are interested in the early days of sketch comedy. While not the funniest read I was expecting, Martin Short deserves his place among some of comedy’s best. And if the 40th Anniversary Special of SNL proved anything it’s that Marty’s still got it.