Late in 1986, with his 18-episode tenure on "Saturday Night Live" still grabbing pop-culture headlines, Canadian comedic actor Martin Short appeared in his first major movie — the iconic, goofball comedy "Three Amigos," which turns 30 next year — alongside heavyweights Steve Martin and Chevy Chase.
One byproduct of that film: Short, 65, and Martin, 70, became amigos in real life. Their current show, "A Very Stupid Conversation," with musical support from the Steep Canyon Rangers, arrives at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Sunday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m.
Q: The first incarnation of your current show with Steve Martin took place several years ago, at the Just For Laughs Festival in Chicago. Thinking back on that night, how much did you and Steve plan what you were going to say onstage?
A: Really nothing. The request was literally that we interview each other on stage, and that's where the title "A Very Stupid Conversation" came from. And then, because we'd individually been asked to do that through the years — be interviewed by someone — we thought, "Why don't we interview each other?"
Steve and I are very close friends. We have a long professional history, so we were even ourselves kind of amazed at the ease of it all, and how loose we were on stage with each other. So we did a couple more of those, and then it evolved into the first 15 to 20 minutes of the show. Now we do monologue, we go to the audience and improvise, and then we chat for a bit. Then I do 25 minutes and Steve does 25 minutes, and then we do stuff together again. We just kept evolving. The analogy is that he and I are co-hosting "Saturday Night Live." There are sketches and characters and bits, and it just keeps moving very quickly.
Q: That night, do you remember thinking, "Oh, we have a potential show on our hands?"
A: I don't think we thought in terms of "we have a show here" as much as we thought, "Boy, was that fun." And I think we were reminded of — I have been to a million dinners through the years, and people would say. "Oh my God, you two together, oh my God, it's so much fun. ..."
"That could translate in front of people," I think, is what struck us. We knew it had gone well, and we knew that it was fun. At a certain point in your career, when you're no longer so concerned about covering the rent, you have another pressure: Why would you want to keep doing this? Why continue to do things? You realize it's all because it's fun and it's joyful, and you have a riot, and you bring out the best in each other. I think we were made aware of that. But at the same time, I do concerts all over the place by myself, and Steve does concerts with the Steep Canyon Rangers all by himself. We kind of combined the best of each other's shows to make one show.
Q: Would this work with anyone else but Steve Martin?
A: Well, I'm friends with a lot of great people who are entertainers. But everything is an unknown until you do it. Could Paul Shaffer and I do a show? I bet we could, but we never have. I bet Nathan Lane and I could do a show, but we never have. It all becomes theory until you do it. Steve's the only one I've shared a show like this with.
Q: Tell me about the very first "stupid conversation": What do you remember about the very first time you and Steve met?
A: I met him briefly, backstage of "The New Show" that Lorne Michaels did, early in 1984. My old friend Catherine O'Hara was on the show [Feb. 17, 1984, was the original air date], and Nancy [Dolman, Short's late wife] and I were going to go to dinner with her, so we saw the taping of the show, and then we briefly met [Steve] backstage. [Martin was a guest on the show.]
The time I really remember meeting Steve was May of 1985. I went to his house in Beverly Hills to pick up a script for the "Three Amigos." I remember being struck by the art on the walls. One of the things I said to him early on was, "How did you get this rich, given the talent?" and he really laughed.
That was a brief meeting, but that was the first one. Then we would get together a little bit about the script, once I was committed to the movie, and we started shooting that in late '85. It was interesting for me. I had to be one of the Three Amigos, but I had never made a movie. I'd just left "Saturday Night Live" as a cast member. So I found myself initially thinking, "OK, I'll do what I often do," which is an impersonation of myself very relaxed, with both of these guys. [Chevy Chase was the third Amigo.] But I will say that we all bonded immediately. We bonded through making each other laugh.
Q: Did you have a sense during shooting that "Three Amigos" would have a lasting cultural impact?
A: No, I don't think anyone knows anything when you're doing it. You just hope that it will work, but it makes me very happy because it was my first film, and it's usually guys who were 17 and 18 when that movie came out. I have three kids, and two of them are boys. I kept that movie out, and everything else I was in, of the house when the kids were little, because if you put on "Innerspace" to your 8-year-old son, he'll want to watch it 400 times. Everytime you walk into the house, you'd see a film you're in. But I remember [son] Ted, he came home from a friend's house, said, "Dad, did you know you made a Western?" But I'm always happy when somebody brings ["Three Amigos"] up. I remember Justin Timberlake, when I first met him, told me what that film meant to him. It's very gratifying.
Q: Was that about the time Steve went from being a Hollywood friend to an actual friend?
A: We had a lot of fun on that shoot. Not counting riding lessons and meeting about scripts, we shot for January, February, March. It seems like it was about a three-month shoot. So then you promote it together. You do "Saturday Night Live." The three of us did it together to help promote it, and I think that we just enjoyed each other. Then we started to have dinners with our wives — the Amigo-ettes, we'd call them — and we'd have Amigo dinners.
You make these films, and you're in an intense situation: staying in the same hotel, if you're on location, on the set all day long, creatively, hanging out. And then the film ends, and sometimes you never see those people again, or you make a conscientious effort, in your mind, to say, "You know what, I am going to see those people again."
Steve and I shared a desire to be friends, and we have continued a long friendship since then.
Q: You recently played Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd in the film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice." What was it like to work with director Paul Thomas Anderson, and would you do it again?
A: In a heartbeat. I adored him. I had met [Anderson's partner] Maya [Rudolph] through 'Saturday Night Live," but I had never met Paul. They have four kids together. I got a call, I read the script, and I said, "Of course." We had talked on the phone and stuff, but then he came in the room, and I was a little surprised by his demeanor. He was just a dude. He was like a UCLA film student. He was just kind of energized and young and enthusiastic and excited. I was expecting more of a dark genius type. He was just this big, wide-open, friendly guy that you were just delighted to meet. That was our relationship: very loose.
I loved the way he shot because he would shoot quickly, not in the sense that he wouldn't do a lot of takes. I love lots of takes. He would say, "OK guys, out of the car! OK guys, back in the car! OK, again, out of the car! Let's try it again, into the car!" Every time I improvised, Joaquin [Phoenix] would break up, and [Anderson] would say "Joaquin, come on, come on!" But really friendly and loose. It was a great vibe in the set.
Q: To be a part of this ongoing conversation with Steve, you've had to endure a lot of bluegrass music. How do you do it?
A: [Laughs.] I can't honestly say I have a history with it, but I adore the sound these guys [house band the Steep Canyon Rangers] make. First of all, everyone is a fabulous hang, which is a huge part of the show business element of performing with everyone. If there's a prick in the crowd, you go, "Geez." So these guys are great, and the music is phenomenal. Again, I wasn't familiar with [bluegrass] except through Steve, and it's kind of spectacular."
STEVE MARTIN & MARTIN SHORT perform at the Toyota Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford on Sunday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m., with the Steep Canyon Rangers. Tickets are $55 to $125. oakdale.com.