Amidst the jokes, quips, groaners and yuks that comprise Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life, one of the best moments of the duo’s Netflix special involves a total screw-up. At the five-minute mark, as longtime pals Steve Martin and Martin Short are running through their polished back-and-forth barbs, Martin, who turns 73 this summer, muffs the name of the city where they’re performing. (For the record, it’s Greenville, South Carolina. But Martin’s mouth morphs it into “Grinville.”) As the comedian laughed embarrassedly at his mental flub, his partner (who just celebrated his 68th birthday) affectionately ad-libs, “Steve, you’d tell me if you’d had a stroke, wouldn’t you?”
Close friends since they worked on Three Amigos in the mid-Eighties, Martin and Short have been touring as a team for several years, honing a stage show that was initially a long, two-sided interview – entitled A Very Stupid Conversation – into the more varied, vaudevillian presentation they’re currently bringing to a theater possibly near you. An Evening You Will Forget includes stand-up, putdowns, stories and music, but what links these performers beyond their friendship is their shared passion for subverting show business pleasantries. For artists with such long, acclaimed careers, neither man has ever approached Hollywood with anything less than suspicion, if not outright contempt. As a result, Evening’s battalion of knowingly old-school shtick has a sting in its tale: This special is wryly hip, cozily nostalgic but, also, unexpectedly touching. These senior citizens’ ironic razzle-dazzle salutes a bygone, probably passé strain of live entertainment – it’s a breed of comedy that’s not getting any younger and, poignantly, neither are its practitioners.
The oh-brother gags start fast and furious, as Martin comes on stage, prepping the audience for Short’s arrival. Dressed in a sharp suit and sporting a regal demeanor, Martin dutifully informs the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, right now I am so excited to introduce a man I love to work with, a man I met over 30 years ago” – and just then Short comes running out, hungry for applause. He quickly realizing that Martin isn’t done and dashes offstage. Finally, Martin finishes his verbose intro: “I consider him to be the real star of the show tonight” – and just as Short bounds back on stage – “Mr. Jeff Babko on piano!”
In that goofy bit of misdirection, the two men offer a handy thumbnail of their individual genius. For Martin, a TV writer who became one of the late Seventies’ biggest stand-ups, ironic and dignified cool has always been his secret weapon. Crafting an endearingly aloof persona that signaled he thought he was smarter than his audience, Martin eschewed traditional punch lines for esoteric non-sequiturs, looking to high art and Cyrano de Bergerac for his comedic inspiration. As for Short, the former SCTV and Saturday Night Live star is a more manic, chameleonic presence, hurling madcap impressions and theatrical flair in every direction. But like his movie-star friend, his chaotic energy is, in its own way, a rejection of Hollywood smarminess, constructing a God-I-hope-I-get-it desperation that’s a self-parody of every performer’s flop-sweat need to be loved. Where Martin is reserved, Short is effusive. And in An Evening they join forces to dismantle showbiz phoniness by parading its hoariest tenets.
The 72-minute special boasts an off-the-cuff nonchalance that emphasizes coziness over bite. Martin and Short go through the motions of pretending that theirs is a passive-aggressive Hollywood friendship, forged out of careerist self-interest rather than genuine fondness. (Typical just-ribbing line: Short starts a backhanded compliment by saying, “When I think of Steve – and it’s not often…”) But the men’s warm laughter punctures the illusion – two old chums sharing a chuckle with a crowd happy to see them do their crusty, opposites-attract routine one more time.
There’s not a single moment of Evening that feels urgent or inspired, but its baggy, unhurried charm proves to be one of its chief attributes. Streaming on Netflix, which has become the hip destination for cutting-edge comics (John Mulaney, Tig Notaro) and beloved superstars (Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Norm Macdonald), this celebration of (grand)dad humor feels practically PBS-ian in its dowdy pleasures. With nothing to prove, Martin and Short just lean back and do their thing with the droll air of folks who aren’t competing with anyone. Proclaiming his faux-enthusiasm for performing for the South Carolina crowd, Short deadpans, “It’s actually more than a thrill – it’s an obligation. Steve and I call this show If We’d Saved, We Wouldn’t Be Here.”
The two men have made their name by trafficking in insincerity – Martin through archness and Short through exaggerated exuberance. And yet it’s impossible to miss the hints of genuine wistfulness, either when they’re mocking their awkward high-school photos or when they’re reminiscing about celebrity encounters that shaped them in their early days. For Short, it was running into Frank Sinatra at a Hollywood party; for Martin, it was the unexpected – and surprisingly extensive – visit that Elvis Presley paid him in his Las Vegas dressing room.
Evening often looks back, recalling the duo’s downtime while filming Three Amigos – they bonded over games of Scrabble – and shared holidays at St. Barts. But the inextricable passage of time, accompanied by the inevitable feelings of mortality and encroaching irrelevance that can creep up, isn’t too far from their minds. Martin recalls a recent encounter with a teenager who asked if he did The Jerk: Momentarily flattered, he acknowledges that he did, which only prompts her to excitedly respond, “You gonna do another movie?!” In the next breath, he’s thinking about his late mother who, while overcome by senility, asked him where his father was. Explaining that he’d been dead for years, Martin is told by his mom, “Well, that explains a lot.”
Like the Stones doing “Satisfaction” for the umpteenth time, the show gives you everything you expect in exactly the way you want it. Both performers do a solo piece: Short is assisted by Babko for musical-theater pieces co-written by EGOT contender Marc Shaiman, while Martin pulls out his trademark banjo for some bluegrass numbers alongside his backing band the Steep Canyon Rangers. (Martin informs the crowd, “There’s a big difference between the banjo and the guitar: The banjo has a round pot … with a skinhead stretched over the top, and it projects the sound outward … and the guitar can get you laid.”) Short brings out his Jiminy Glick character. During an impromptu dance, Martin briefly flashes some of his old King Tut moves. They play all the hits.
To be sure, this is the sort of slightly musty familiarity of their chummy, creaky rapport that generates more smiles than laughs. And after years of sharpening this material, the smoothness of the delivery can undercut the spontaneity. But Evening’s brand of let’s-put-on-a-show, variety-style comedy has such a relaxed confidence that it nonetheless stands out in a packed field of edgy, younger comics. If this concert film has any peer, it’s John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s brilliant Broadway show Oh, Hello, in which they played geriatric weirdoes for a rollicking night of Borscht Belt stories and improv. (Both Martin and Short appeared as surprise guests during that show’s popular “Too Much Tuna” segment.) Oh, Hello mocked Broadway traditions the same way that Evening gently sends up the antiquated notion of the musical-comedy revue, minus the smug chumminess of, say, A Prairie Home Companion.
And watching the special is to be reminded why Martin and Short were such terrific guests on David Letterman’s NBC and CBS talk shows. Like Dave, they’ve aged gracefully into the role of beloved veteran entertainers, combining class with irreverence, satirizing showbiz conventions while brandishing a fondness for old-fashioned pizzazz that feels elegant and refined. Evening might not be innovative, but it’s got a quiet dignity that couldn’t be lovelier – a rare sign of sentiment from two performers who usually have no patience for such emotionality.
Near the end, they sing one last song, worryingly imagining what the audience is thinking: “Everything they said made me wish I’d stayed in bed/But I’m glad I saw their show before they’re dead!” The Grim Reaper comes for us all, even [shudder] Steve Martin and Martin Short. But Evening’s expert shtick is eternal.