While Martin Short was in town over the weekend performing his two-man show at the Chicago Theatre with Steve Martin, the comedian and actor headed over to the Second City e.t.c. theater Saturday afternoon to do a seminar attended by both students of the Harold Ramis Film School and the Second City Training Center.
Also in the audience were Second City CEO Andrew Alexander and Ramis’ widow, Erica Mann — a big school supporter —plus her son, Daniel Ramis, currently a student at the school.
Short regaled the Chicago students with tales of how as a boy he created imaginary TV shows — with himself as host — “because the reality of that was as likely as me going to Neptune.” Canada in the 1950s and ’60s was far more remote than one might imagine. “I didn’t even set foot in the U.S. until I was 15,” said the native of Hamilton, Ontario. “We didn’t have many of the products we’d see on American television. … Charmin? I was dying to squeeze it,” he laughed, remembering the toilet tissue’s famous ad line.
The performer said he was extremely lucky in that his parents and siblings “never laughed at me or made fun of me doing my crazy stuff up in our attic.” In fact, Martin’s brother, Michael Short, is a successful two-time Emmy-winning writer.
When his interviewer, Ramis School Chair Trevor Albert, noted that a lot of the students might not have parents as understanding as Short’s were, the actor agreed. “Frank Sinatra said, ‘My father was there to always piss on my dreams.’ I think many budding actors or others wanting careers in the arts can relate to that.”
Along with talking about his key comedy inspirations — Dick Van Dyke, Jonathan Winters, Abbott and Costello, W.C. Fields, Lucille Ball, Gene Wilder and Harpo Marx — Short shared stories about his one year on “Saturday Night Live,” especially observing writer Larry David, pre-“Seinfeld,” getting frustrated when his proposed sketches were rejected “week, after week, after week. … It drove him crazy!”
Short revealed that he has had long conversations with Martin Scorsese, who is working on a documentary about “SCTV,” the TV spinoff of Canada’s Second City that became a huge cult hit.
“Marty is fascinated with why some comedy is timeless, when certain other comedy and comedians have a short shelf life,” said Short, citing the late Eddie Cantor (“a huge star in his day, but would make you sick if you watched him today”) as an example of someone who faded.
“But look at W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers, and they are just as funny now. ‘I Love Lucy’ still plays on TV, and likely will forever,” said Short, who then gave the students a great piece of advice.
“Whether it’s comedy or something else — country music, opera, you name it — I think it’s important to go see the greats. If you can go see a legend — go, even if you’re not a fan of that particular genre. Everyone should see legends, just to understand why they are legends in their field.”
Then, proving his comedic timing is great, Short quipped with a wink, “So everyone — come and see me!”
After the seminar, Albert gave the Sun-Times a brief tour of the Ramis School, explaining that he quickly came to understand why Second City’s Alexander had come up with the idea for the one-year school to memorialize Ramis.
“When I was going around looking at film schools with my daughter, I saw that among other things, they didn’t focus on comedy. This school is all about comedy, period,” said Albert, a producer who was a longtime friend and 20-year Ramis associate who produced such films as “Caddyshack,” “Groundhog Day” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
Now only a year old, the school is off to a great start, and Albert is excited about the future. “I think this is just about the best tribute one could have created for Harold. I’m guessing he would be very pleased.”