Anyone who’s watched Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life, the Netflix special born out of the actors’ variety-style live tour, knows that the old friends love to play up a rivalry. How fitting, then, that while both men earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special, only one — Steve Martin — received a nod in the Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics category for penning the show’s sneakily caustic closing number, “The Buddy Song.”
The duo — who’ll be on the road again at least into December with an updated show that’s about 40 percent new to Netflix viewers — was happy to address the (faux) controversy during a recent chat with Billboard about their 30-plus-year friendship, the early days of their comedy careers and why “The Buddy Song” gets some viewers strangely choked up.
Steve, in the Netflix special, you say you wrote “The Buddy Song” that day. Was that really the case?
Steve Martin: [Laughs] Oh no. No, I worked for several days on that. That’s just part of the show. We love “The Buddy Song.” We’ve taken it out of the show now, but the only reason we’ve taken it out is because it was on Netflix and is our closer, so we didn’t want to close with the exact same thing. Now we have a new closer, “Send in the Clowns,” so we are very, very happy.
“The Buddy Song” is me trying to hog the limelight and tricking Marty into saying wonderful things about me. A lot of times in the show we’re doing jokes and one-liners, which we really like to do, but there are certain bits we also do that are more acted, I guess you might say, and that’s one of them.
Marty, what did you think the first time you heard “The Buddy Song”?
Martin Short: I thought it was hysterical. I’m from Second City, originally, and there’s an adage in Second City that the reaction can be funnier than the action, so for me to just react to all these subtle slights is a dream.
If you had known that it would nab an Emmy nomination, would you have asked Steve to put your name on it as well?
Short: Oh, in one second. Absolutely. In fact, I can’t believe Steve didn’t volunteer that.
Martin: What an ego. I’ll tell you one thing: Before the nominations, I got a call. They said, “What song do you want to nominate?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” “Well, there are songs in there, nominate them.” And I said, “There’s no way, ever, in the history of the world, that one of these songs would be nominated for an Emmy.” They said, “Well, what song anyway?” And I said, “Okay, ‘The Buddy Song.’”
Short: You’re building up the confidence, Steve, for the reader.
Martin: That was the Netflix bonus Emmy money — best decision I ever made in my life.
One of the great lines in “The Buddy Song” is Steve saying, “Let’s count the awards that you have won: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, none.” Which, of course, isn’t true, because when it comes to Emmys, Marty actually has two to your one, Steve.
Martin: I know! And a Tony.
Short: But that’s a perfect example: Comedy must win out.
Martin: I said, “Do you mind?” And he said, “Absolutely not.”
Let’s reminisce about your first Emmy wins. When you won in 1983, Marty, all five nominees in that Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series category were Second City Television episodes.
Short: That’s right. And we won. It was fantastic. The whole cast was together, and we were all in tuxes. We were still doing the show, and we had to go back to Toronto and start writing again, so it was a great people-hadn’t-seen-each-other-all-summer kind of thing. A real celebration.
Steve, you won your Emmy in 1969, for writing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. When you and Marty played “True Confessions” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon a couple of years ago, you tried to sell the lie that you celebrated by going to Cabo San Lucas with a few other writers and having sex with Brigitte Bardot. How did you really celebrate?
Martin: Well, first of all, our show had been canceled — politically canceled — so to win was a big victory. I don’t know how much of a real victory, but for us at the time, it was a big victory. And I was 23-years-old, I think. So it was really, really exciting for me. Every once in a while, I’ll see that photo of all the writers on stage and just remember the great times we had working. So obviously it was a fun night and a night of sweet victory.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Steve’s win, and 35 years since that first one for you, Marty. Now you’re both nominated for writing this special. How has your writing process changed? Have you learned anything that makes it easier?
Martin and Short [simultaneously]: Writing is not easy.
Short: I think writing is rewriting, so I think we’re lucky, in a way, because we get to try things out with audiences.
Martin: Yeah, we can try something and sneak it in, and we’ll know if it works right away. Or sometimes, we’ll give a thing two or three days. We’ll say, “Well, it was really hot out there, let’s give it another go.” Because we’re moving on to the next thing so quickly that a line or idea that doesn’t work has gone by very quickly.
You’ve said before that you haven’t really noticed a difference in the audience’s sense of humor as you travel to different parts of the country, but you do notice that shows can be different depending on the style of venue. You’ve played gorgeous theaters, you’ve played outdoors, you’ve played casinos. How does that affect the show?
Short: Well, logically there is a reason that a theater is kept at 69 degrees, not 84 degrees. So sometimes at an outdoor venue you start early, it’s still light, and it’s hot and humid. And that’s going to certainly give a different energy to the whole evening from both sides. But you have to counteract that as the performer.
Martin: You know what’s interesting? When I was performing in the ‘70s, the worst gigs were Vegas. And now it’s completely changed — some of the best gigs are Vegas because they have beautiful theaters. You’d have the dinner show, and everyone would be in booths, and then you’d have the cocktail show, and they’re just on long banquet tables. And now there are theaters where people sit and actually face that stage.
I saw on Twitter that at a recent show at the Ravinia Festival outside of Chicago, you guys had three men from the audience join you on stage wearing Three Amigos sombreros. Is that a recurring bit?
Martin: We bring the hats with us.
Short: We teach them the Three Amigos salute. When we sing the song, I point to them and have them do it simultaneously, and they usually screw it up — in a loving way.
Have there been any unscripted moments on tour that you wish would have happened while you were taping that Netflix special?
Short: Yes — my chair collapsed one night. I don’t know, it wasn’t put together properly, and I fell back and Steve really, really laughed. We actually showed this clip, because we film the show each night, on Jimmy Kimmel, and it’s pretty funny.
Martin: By the way, Marty, I actually learned we don’t tape the show every night. But, anyway.
Short: So why was it taped that night, I wonder?
Martin: I just don’t know!
Sabotage? Someone knew what was going to happen?
Short: Unless they rigged the chair…
A moment that always gets laughs is when Marty is picked up by Jesse Lunsford — the bus driver for your tourmates, bluegrass group Steep Canyon Rangers — and plays “Amazing Grace” as a human bagpipe. You’ve been doing that bit for at least a decade, Marty. Do you remember the inspiration?
Short: Not really. It was an idea once. Then you keep doing it and changing it, refining it. Then you add, “Oh, what if you’re wearing a kilt?”
Martin: I’m on stage during that bit and get to just sneak looks at the audience, because I’m standing way in the dark behind them. They go insane. People double over. It’s the greatest kind of laugh, when they’re laughing so hard their body is rising and they’re doubling over.
One of the show’s biggest laughs is when Marty does “Step Brother to Jesus” in a nude bodysuit with the genitalia drawn on, and then you come out, Steve, and Marty says, “Top that, motherfucker!”
Short: That line is in the Broadway show [Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me], too.
Martin: The repeat of that line is interesting. [Later in An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life, a mic is set up below Steve’s banjo, near his crotch. Marty asks, “What’s that gonna mic? I mean, I knew you were talented, but…” Steve answers, “You said, ‘Top that, motherfucker.’”] That was suggested. We finished the show one night, and I look on my Twitter feed, and a guy had seen the show and said, “That’s when you ought to say, ‘You said, ‘Top that motherfucker.’” And I said, “Wow! That is great!” I put it in the next night and wrote a thank-you to the guy.
Another favorite part of the show is when the two of you sit down to interview each other. Those stories change out, but in the Netflix special, we hear about Marty meeting Frank Sinatra and Steve meeting Elvis Presley. What are your second favorite stories about meeting musicians?
Martin: I met Bob Dylan once in the mid-‘70s. I was coincidentally touring in the same city, and I was seeing Mimi Farina, who was Joan Baez’s sister, a delightful person. I think Joan Baez was touring with Bob Dylan at that time, so I was invited over. I actually sat on the stage during the whole show. I can’t believe it. But anyway, I met Bob Dylan, and he said, “Heard you’re funny.”
Marty, can you top that?
Short: No, I can’t top that. I leave that to him.
Martin: Finally. Finally.
And that sentiment brings us back to “The Buddy Song.” Some fans have been surprised by how emotional they got at the end of the special. Sean Lennon tweeted that he wept. Others have said they plan on re-watching your dance break in the encore, “Five Minutes to Kill,” whenever they’re feeling down. I think the emotion comes from the joy of being reminded that some things — like your friendship and your comedy — don’t change and can be counted on, even. What does it mean to you when you hear that kind of response?
Martin: I’ll start, Marty. There’s two things here. I had heard that, that some people felt emotional at the end, which I have no clue as to why they would feel that way. And secondly, we never designed it to be emotional or sentimental, ever, at any point in the show. [Laughs] So that’s actually a mystery to me. I think it could just be anomalous, that anything would make certain people cry. But I don’t know what about it—
Short: Listen, I think it’s because we have been doing comedy a long time, the two of us, individually and together. I think I can understand if I were watching, I don’t know, Jack Benny and George Burns, and it was a special together, and they did this great number and they’re tapping. I could see myself getting emotional from my affection for them.
The Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics will be presented during the two-night Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony, which will take place Sept. 8 and 9 and air Sept. 15 at 8 p.m. ET on FXX. The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards will air Sept. 17 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.