On Monday, May 2, the actor Martin Short was the lead guest on Late Show with David Letterman. He did hammy imitations of Lucille Ball and Bette Davis and performed a brief musical number about how spring made him want to commit adultery (“Demi Moore, let’s engage / I can play half my age … “). It was one of those “meta” situations: Mr. Short was promoting his new movie, Jiminy Glick in La La Wood, to be released May 6, in which he plays a manically misinformed TV celebrity interviewer burrowed unrecognizably into a fat suit. (Yes, he of the glorious 2001-3 Comedy Central series Primetime Glick.) But now, finished with that character, he was receding into the form of just another celebrity interviewed on TV.
Two and a half days earlier, Mr. Short was ordering a cheese omelet in the Pacific Palisades-L.A.’s White Cliffs of Dover, where he has lived for 20 years with his actress wife, raising three children. “How ahhh you?” he said to the blond waitress in a fake English accent. He had unexpectedly beautiful sea-green eyes and smelled of aftershave.
“I’m fabulous,” the waitress said, setting down cappuccino with a clink.
“Walter Matthau lived in the Palisades,” said Mr. Short, 55, who maintains a boundless mental archive of showbiz old-timers, “and he would always walk the dog around here and say”-his voice turned low and cranky-” Why would anyone go to the South of France? Why would you ever leave this place?”
In his uncanny capacity for impersonating other people, real and fictional, Mr. Short is perhaps only rivaled by Robin Williams (whom he cheekily mimicked on Letterman). But unlike Mr. Williams, he has not made the transition to touchy-feely leading dramatic roles, nor indeed very many leading roles at all, at least not as Martin Short (distantly, as if through a faint mist, one might remember the embarrassing 1980′s sex comedy Cross My Heart, with Annette O’Toole). He said his next big project is a one-man Broadway musical that will open in New York in December, called If I Saved I Wouldn’t Be Here. But lately his film résumé seems especially stacked toward freaks and geeks and ‘toons: Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper, 101 Dalmations II, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, the Mad Hatter in a production of Alice in Wonderland. Mr. Short professed to be just fine with that. “It’s much more ‘American actor’ to look at movies as the ultimate,” he said, sounding a bit irritated (he was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and still has a house north of Toronto). “You know, I’ve done this for over 30 years. I don’t take show business personally. I only do this for myself. I don’t do this to pay the rent anymore-for a long time. This doesn’t define me, you know? I’m not defined by success or failure or the admiration of strangers. And if someone comes up and expects me to be wacky and crazy and jump in the air, I certainly don’t feel that I must respond to win their approval. Because I actually don’t care about their approval.” A flash of teeth.
In 1999, Mr. Short tried an eponymous syndicated daytime talk show of his own. “I could have easily started that show by having a cup of coffee with a female host and saying, ‘How was your night?’” he said. “But we literally did a late-night show: pre-tapes and sensibility and weird sketches. I thought one of the best things I did was play a German look-alike of Martin Short, and how frustrated”-German accent-” zee bitterness that he had toward Mah-tin …. ” The Martin Short Show got eight Emmy nominations, but horrible ratings.
“So you could say, ‘Is that frustrating?’” Mr. Short said. “Well, actually, I kind of knew that was going to happen, by not starting off having that mug of coffee, by not saying, ‘Hey, what are we cookin’ today, gal?’ That’s O.K.”
Mr. Short claimed he’s always been nonchalant about his métier, ever since those golden days of Canadian comedy with Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd et al. “I was happier than I’d ever been,” he said. “But people were trying to establish careers to the south. I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’d better do that, too.’ I was more competitive than ambitious. I’ve often thought that if no one had left, I wouldn’t have left.”
Weaned on Nichols and May rather than Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart, he always preferred the camaraderie of ensemble work to the cold and lonely glory of a solo microphone. In 1978, he did his first and last standup-comedy set, opening for a band called Rough Trade at some club called the Edge. “I wrote a monologue, throwing in references to Camus and things like that, and the audience was just drunk and punk and screaming,” he said. “I did this piece as a rabbi lecturing about why you had to be Jewish to be funny, and this guy thought I was being anti-Semitic and threw a beer in my face. It was terrible. That was kind of lonely for someone like me. I like the interaction, the playing with other people. I like banter.”
In Jiminy Glick, who didn’t so much banter with as crush his interrogatees-stuffing powdered doughnuts into his cheeks like a squirrel-Mr. Short found his most apt and hilarious incarnation since the exuberant Saturday Night Live nerd Ed Grimley. It was the perfect tonic to the sudden and sick-making profusion of “entertainment news” shows of the new millennium, all staffed by strange celebrity one-offs like Bush cousin Billy ( Access Hollywood), Jennifer Lopez’s sister Linda ( E!), Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath ( Extra) and the now-disgraced Pat O’Brien ( The Insider). But Jiminy Glick is “not a comment on journalism at all,” Mr. Short insisted. “The reality is that I’ve had a very easy time, over a long career, with the press. So I don’t have that ‘I’m gonna get ‘em,’ you know. Jiminy could have easily been the principal of a school. He could have been in politics. I mean, you see on television all the time, some of those politicians in Washington or Congressmen or Senators. You say, ‘How in the name of God could Zell Miller, how could that person be?’
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “The insanity of celebrity-the 15 minutes of fame which has become seven seconds of fame, the fact that Paris Hilton can exist-was ripe for fodder.”
But Jiminy, like everyone in Mr. Short’s repertoire, always had an invisible expiration date stamped on his forehead. “You know, when you do that kind of show, you’re not doing it necessarily for commerce,” said his creator. “You’re doing it for personal enjoyment. I mean, why would you do seasons 5, 6, 7, 8? It always sounds pretentious when people refer to what they do as analogous to art, but it’s like if you have a big canvas and you’re painting a picture: You might spend a month on it, you might spend a year on it, but it is eventually done-and then you sell it or you give it away.”
One studio wanted him to do a big-budget Glick movie, with Jiminy playing a detective, but Mr. Short had another vision: Jiminy trapped in a faux David Lynch film, in which he would also impersonate the Blue Velvet director. “So that’s fine, but don’t expect me to get any money for it,” he said. “That’s O.K.” The resultant La La Wood cost $3 million to shoot. Reactions at a recent Century City screening were mixed, with one viewer laughing hyena-like while others sat in disappointed silence.
Mr. Short chalked it all up to the subjective nature of comedy.
“When the mother dies in Bambi and the little deer cries, that’s going to affect a whole audience,” he said. “A man slips on a banana peel? Some audiences will laugh really hard, and some people will say, ‘Oh, that’s just stupid.’ When I did SCTV 20 years ago, there would be older-generation comedians saying”-Borscht Belt voice-”‘ I don’t get it. Where are the jokes?’ Some people adore Jim Carrey; some people can’t take Jim Carrey. You think a 21-year-old guy could care less about Fat Actress? To him it’s as dull as toast! Is he an idiot?”
Mr. Short’s own personal comedic tastes run, currently, to Everybody Loves Raymond, MadTV and Tina Fey. “If I’m in the house and Saturday Night Live is on, I turn on Saturday Night Live,” he said. “I think it’s fun. I don’t judge it very hard. I know how hard it is.”
And with that, he was off to buy a picture frame from a store down the street.
“I’m not optimistic and happy,” Mr. Short said with another flash of teeth. “I am a comedian that actually laughs on the inside. But I think that if I were ‘on’ and ‘wacky’ right now, you’d want to ultimately hit me. It’s pretty boring.”