The Crazed Charm of Martin Short
Comedian wows audience with familiar and fresh served up fast and funny.
Comedy can be fresh or familiar – or both. It can thrive on the unknown or enduring creations. In the annals of exceptionalism, audiences continue to respond to Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First,” Jack Benny’s skinflint and violin gags and even Johnny Carson’s golf-swing monologs. When topical jokes become dated, the style and permeating talent of an original still bring grins to our faces and fresh laughter to ache our ribs.
Still, it’s tough to be Martin Short, to know his fans are there to remember and yet find ways to surprise them with the novel tucked in among the wanted.
Short came to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater January 18 for a one-man demonstration of how to do it all. An icon of modern comedy at age 63, he scooted across the stage with the nimbleness of a child, the rubber-legs of an acrobat and the timing of a master to whom playing with an audience is as natural as bouncing a ball. So it’s great they want the old stuff, he seems to be saying, but let’s serve it up as a comforting pasta with unexpected seasonings.
From an enormous backstage trunk (I’m speaking figuratively, of course — we can only imagine the hidden helpers or careful planning), he kept popping out favorite characters from television, stage and movies of the past 35 years. Then he updated the familiar skits and the connecting interludes with commentary stripped from the headlines.
It was a deeply-detailed and much-practiced show that put the Pabst Theater’s technician (handling the videos that are part of the act) to the extreme test, given Short’s quicksilver physical and vocal ability to re-emerge rapid-fire as Ed Grimley, Katharine Hepburn or the body-suit paunchy Jiminy Glick, whose nonstop insultingly personal questions are the ultimate in celebrity interviewer gone haywire.
He also tailored material to Milwaukee and to his skills at improv repartee. He pulled three guys out of the audience to play “The Three Amigos” and mined local humor. And when as Glick he brought Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to the stage for typical implausible grilling, Barrett not only handled the ridiculous with good-nature but got off some zingers of his own.
If there is stuff Short can’t completely re-create onstage it was there in the videos, notably the SNL synchronized male swimming team training for Olympic Gold. If he worried the audience might need a new bit among the beloved familiars, he added such moments by becoming a human bagpipe.
Short also offered a hilarious takeoff on the death of bin Laden and a beautifully pitched excerpt of “Real Live Girl” from the 1998 revival of the Broadway musical “Little Me” that won him a Tony. The stagecraft and sophistication were clear in his choice of onstage foil and accompanist – the keyboardist on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel show who is also Short’s own TV music director, Jeff Babko.
The annual “Laugh It Up Milwaukee” series decided with some trepidation to step up to the larger Pabst domain for its third year, and needn’t have worried. In Short it found the perfect fit for patrons willing to spend big for tickets and remain committed through time and pocketbook to the causes addressed by the Jewish Community Center and the MACC Fund (Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer).
Though building the show around his personal life, Short never hinted at his personal family tragedies with cancer. As much as he adores live shows and the Pabst, this was clearly not a needed paycheck gig for an actor engaged in multiple TV and movie projects. He told friends that only a community coalition devoted to cancer research and projects against hunger and bullying would have lured him.