Now in its fifth decade of late-night laughs, “Saturday Night Live” became must-see TV in its early years thanks in part to regular appearances by comedian Steve Martin, whose oddball, banjo-aided improvisation was a ratings magnet. When the popularity of the show was threatened by the departure of standup star Eddie Murphy in the mid-1980s, “SNL” didn’t miss a beat thanks to the rubber-faced impressions of a new arrival, “SCTV” writer and actor Martin Short.
More than 30 years after they appeared in the 1986 big-screen comedy “Three Amigos,” the two performers are on the road in a freewheeling performance of music and comedy titled “Steve Martin and Martin Short in an Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Lives,” stopping Saturday, March 10, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
On the phone from New York, the two shared some thoughts on the show, which Short says should come with a warning: “It’s like the movie ‘Deliverance,’ all fun and games until the banjos come out.”
I gather a lot of this show has the feel of a roast, with gentle insults and personal barbs. You two have known each other forever. What’s the nicest thing you can say about each other?
Martin: I can say that Marty is absolutely the best comedy partner I’ve ever worked with. When I started in show business, as a kid, when I was 15, comedy teams were a very important part of comedy history. I knew comedy teams more than I knew standup. There was Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, you name it. And I always had this thought, should I be in a comedy team? Early on, I actually did do comedy-team acts, with friends. And then, I just became a solo standup.
Now, I actually think, “Hey, I’m finally part of a comedy team.” I asked Marty, “Would you like to just make us a comedy team?” And he said, “No way.” [Short breaks into laughter.] So, anyway, I’m still in it alone, doing my own stuff. But I’m not changing the billing.
Short: [Long silence, then laughter]
Do you remember the first time you met?
Short: I remember meeting Steve very briefly, backstage, when he was guest hosting on “The New Show” back in 1984. [Martin: “Wow.”] It was literally in the middle of the show, and my friend Catherine O’Hara [“SCTV,” “Home Alone”] was also guesting on the show, and she quickly introduced us, and you went [Short’s voice rises in an air of patronizing superficiality], “Oh, hi!” [Laughs] But I really first remember meeting Steve in 1985, going to his house to pick up a script for “Three Amigos.”
Steve do you remember any of that?
Martin: Marty remembers it all. I’m trying to forget it. But we actually talk about this in our show.
People seem to have trouble describing this show. How would you describe it?
Short: Catherine O’Hara described it as a children’s show for adults. I kind of like that.
Marty, I’ve seen pictures of you in the show in drag? How does that feel?
Short: Never been prouder. [Both laugh]
Is this a good time to be trying to make people laugh?
Short: Any time is a good time to make people laugh. Particularly now, yes. [Laughs] People need to laugh now more than ever.
Martin: It’s actually an interesting question, because there are so many laughs on late-night talk shows that we have to be aware of, if we’re infringing on material [the audience] has seen a dozen times on late-night talk shows. That’s why we steer away from political material, because that’s already well covered. So we do have a niche that people aren’t getting, which is nonpolitical comedy.
Is it hard to do nonpolitical comedy these days?
Short: Sometimes, [political comedy] can be tempting. It can get an easier, quicker reaction, but you’re getting a reaction, generally, from half the audience. Half the audience is saying, “Huh, I guess that’s not for me.” And that’s not our agenda.
Is there any truth to the rumor that [“Saturday Night Live” characters] Georg Festrunk and Ed Grimley make momentary appearances?
Martin: Ha! Unfortunately, no, but we did talk about that. [Short: “Yes, we did.”] The Festrunk Brothers [the sketch with Dan Aykroyd about “two wild and crazy guys” that gave Martin his signature line] were gold. I see Danny every once in a while. I really like him. You know, when we first did that sketch, when we were rehearsing, we could not make it through rehearsal, we thought it was so funny. We were laughing and laughing. Then, we did it the first time [on “SNL”], and it went over fine, but it wasn’t any, like, blockbuster thing. It was the second time we did it when the audience kind of went crazy. It got into their subconscious somehow.
The reviews of your show have been very positive. Why does it work? Why do you two click?
Martin: I believe because we are both very dedicated to having the show be really fun for the audience. I think of it as a triangle. There’s me and Marty, two points of the triangle, and the third part of the triangle is the audience. We can’t break any of those lines. And we just really like to make the audience laugh. … I told Marty, I said, “I write plays, I do this and that, but this is really what I do best,” standing up there and having fun and getting laughs. We really like it.
So there is some audience interaction in this show?
Martin: Yes, there is. We do a bit about “The Three Amigos” and we bring people up onstage. We talk to the audience a lot. We actually talk directly to the audience. I know a lot of comedians do that [laughs], but it’s really fun to do not a presentational show, but an inclusive show. You might want to write that down, Marty.
So if I’m sitting in the front row I should be prepared.
Martin: Yes, you should bring a tarp.
Performances of “Steve Martin and Martin Short in an Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Lives” will begin 2 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 10, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $69-$250. Call 800-745-3000 or go to BrowardCenter.org.