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Friday, April 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  A Few Clouds
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THEATER

Martin Short: One-man variety show
Martin Short brings a whole satirical world to the Overture Center


Credit:Paul Hoppe
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"John Waters, how are you?!?" squeals Jiminy Glick, corralling the outré directorat Hollywood's Independent Spirit Awards a few months ago. "There are so many questions I want to ask you, but now that I'm with you, I'm suddenly not interested."

Sitting down in his kaffeeklatsch sofa and chairs, Glick takes a breath, then immediately drops into a deep James Lipton basso. "Your film, Pink Flaminnnn-gos, with your dear friend, Diviiiinnne…." He leans in close and takes another breath, his voice anxiously rising like the sound of an inflating balloon, eventually settling on a pitch that perhaps only dogs can hear: "How did... how di... how... haw... how... ha...." And before Glick hyperventilates, Waters jumps in with perfect straight-man timing. "Yes, she ate it for real."

"She ate it for real!" Glick repeats, with gravelly-voiced awe, as if he's landed the Hollywood scoop of the century. "She ate.... Oh my gawd."

Though not part of his Comedy Central series, this is definitely primo Glick (you can still see it on YouTube).Part Joan Rivers, part Merv Griffin, Glick - with his red-carpet trailer home - is the ultimate showbiz insider.

Of course, buried somewhere beneath the latex jowls and foam fat suit is the impish mind and agile body of Martin Short. Watching him usher stars in and out of Glick's little nook, it's hard to imagine him being more at home - a place where improvisation and satire meet in a glorious send-up of America's celebrity culture.

But the versatile Short, who will bring Jiminy Glick and other characters to the Overture Center on Saturday, May 31, isn't the type to settle down, even with the most comfortable Barcalounger at hand. Although he is best known for his on-screen character creations, he's done many other things in his restless, varied career. Moving from television to film to theater with the ease of slipping in and out of a costume, Short likes to keep things interesting.

"It's probably the Canadian in me," Short says by telephone from his home in Los Angeles, sounding like he's setting up a joke.

"I've always done it this way," he continues. "The Canadians are like the British - when they do their careers they don't do just one thing. In the States, there's a tendency to say, 'I do movies' or 'I do television.' I'm trying to stay interested. After you do one thing for a while, you get a hankering for something else. The more variety I do, the more I get into it."

His current concert tour, for example, comes on the heels of Fame Becomes Me, a full-blown Broadway musical that Short developed and starred in for nearly 200 performances at the end of 2006. He was asked to take the show on the road, but declined. "Eight shows a week wears you down," he explains. "But doing occasional concerts and popping into Madison, for example, is fun."

He calls his Overture Center concert "a one-man variety show," "a party with Marty," "The Carol Burnett Show if Carol didn't bring anybody." And if there's anyone capable of covering that kind of territory, it's Short.

His peripatetic career started with a social work degree from Macalester College. But classmates Eugene Levy and Dave Thomas drew him into performing. At one point, he played in a 1972 Toronto production of Godspell that seemed, in its endless choruses of "Day By Day," to contain the future of North American comedy: Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin and Paul Shaffer were all part of the show. Eventually, he joined Levy and Thomas in the Second City comedy troupe, and landed on the legendary SCTV show in 1982.

Over the years, Short has kept his career alive in all facets of showbiz. On television, he's done two seasons of Saturday Night Live, as well as his own short-lived daytime The Martin Short Show (which earned six Emmy nominations), several award-winning comedy specials, and even a seriously creepy bit on an episode of Law & Order: SVU. In film, he's become the go-to guy for larger-than-life comedy roles like the ambiguously European Franck in Father of the Bride I and II. And in theater, he has a Tony under his belt (for the 1999 musical Little Me) and played in the Los Angeles production of The Producers. He's currently working on an HBO special that will include some of the material he'll bring to Madison.

For all the variety, however, Short's work is not without focus. Lately, as you might guess from his Jiminy Glick routines and Fame Becomes Me, his favorite topic has been America's fascination with Hollywood.

For Short, this is a no-brainer: "It's my profession; it's what I know.

"It's fueled a lot by this ongoing obsession with celebrity," he says, "which intensifies every year. If someone 20 years ago told you that there would be a whole network called E!, and that your grandmother would be able to quote opening-night grosses of a movie, you would say, 'What?' That stuff used to be reserved for Variety. But now there's Access Hollywood and TMZ. It seems unstoppable."

And perhaps so out of control that it makes satire beside the point?

"It gets close to that," Short says. "It's hard to satirize Paris Hilton, for example, because there's nothing to satirize.

"Over the years - from Prime Time Glick back to SCTV - my impersonations were like an Al Hirschfeld sketch," he continues, referring to the iconic New York theater cartoonist. "You celebrate what's great about them and also make fun of their warts. But you don't satirize someone who has no talent, or nothing to offer, because there's nothing there to attract your attention in the first place."

There's always been a certain amount of insanity in show business, says Short, and anyone who knows the early history of Hollywood can attest to that. But there is something different, he says, about the way that insanity has crept into our larger social values. Politics, for instance.

"Many people in the world have watched with fascination the last eight years of George W. Bush, and the reelection of Bush in 2004," he says. "The idea that someone could be reelected because he evidently could be more charming at a barbecue, even though it was already proven that he was not articulate, not intelligent and that his plans all failed. But he was reelected because the other guy seemed a little boring. This would never happen if you were picking the best surgeon or choosing the guy to fly a plane across the country."

Such perspective shows why Short deserves a more substantial title than mere "funny man." A quick catalog of his cast of characters - from the oily attorney Nathan Thurm to the living (barely) legend songwriter Irving Cohen to the hyper kewpie doll Ed Grimley - reveals his inventiveness. Like Jiminy Glick, they all hold a funhouse mirror to our strange times. Critic Tom Shales called the Glick interviews "masterpieces of inanity." And so they are. But their emptiness is full of purpose. If American society is the subject of Short's Hirschfeld sketches, I'm not sure what he's celebrating, but he sure is good at finding our warts.

While Hollywood may be the world Short knows best, he is clearly in it but not of it. Only a certain amount of distance and solid footing could allow him to lampoon his world with such insightful glee. Behind the glassy eyes and twinkling teeth of Short's Fame Becomes Me persona (just look at the ironically airbrushed photo on the show's poster) is an even-keeled artist who knows how to survive.

"The more you do any business, especially show business, the more you realize that the way to continue is not to take it personally," he says. "A friend of mine directed a film once, and someone asked him, 'So how is it?' And he just turned to this woman and said, 'You know, it's the best I could do at the time.' I like that answer. Because that's what most people do in any profession.

"I know many, many people who at a certain point just said, 'You know, this is fun. There are lots of rewards. It pays well. But I can't do this anymore. It's too public. It's too rude at times. And I don't like it.' But if you don't take show business personally, if you just understand that everyone's doing their best...."

He trails off, but it's clear that Short is talking about his own approach to the business. It's a job. Work hard. Try to get along with people. Stay true to yourself.

For Short, though, being true often means being hidden. Characters are his thing. Not the kind of confessional standup that seems ubiquitous in this Comedy Central world. When asked about his comedy heroes, he doesn't mention any Lenny Bruces or Mort Sahls. Instead: Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, Jackie Gleason, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Steve Martin, Bill Murray. Having seen Jiminy Glick fumble with and tumble over chairs and couches, or Ed Grimley bounce around a room, you're not surprised that he's drawn to physical comedians like Van Dyke or Lewis. "When I was a kid I liked Harpo Marx better than Groucho," he says.

Preferences like that speak to Short's improv roots. "Standup is a completely separate muscle," he explains. "People who are monologists, who go up there and talk for 70 minutes, take you through their childhood and philosophies. They really are philosophers. And when they were developing that muscle, I was developing my improv muscles at Second City or SCTV."

It might seem strange to talk about the walrus-like Jiminy Glick in terms of muscle tone, but watching his largely improvised interviews, you can see the way Short has honed his comedy reflexes. The absurd music he makes with Glick's voice is a symphony of shallow bombast, and he knows just when to hit the right accent or spin one more variation on a theme. At times, he'll fearlessly push the envelope (some of his interviewees have walked out), and at others he'll play the perfectly vacuous Hollywood cheerleader.

It will all be on display at the Overture Center Saturday night. But watch closely. With the high-energy, multi-talented Short, it might take some effort to keep up.

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