Why Martin Short Loves To Play the Self-Absorbed Narcissist

6 minute read

With its first season, Hulu’s hit series Only Murders in the Building satirized true-crime podcasts and their obsessive fans. In season 2, premiering June 28, the comedy starring Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short pokes fun at how hard it is to follow-up a successful first season. Especially when you become the lead suspect in the crime your popular podcast is now investigating.

Season 2 picks up right where the first left off: with another murder in the Arconia building. Aspiring artist Mabel (Selena Gomez) is found covered in blood, cradling the dead body of the building’s cranky president, Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell). The murder weapon? Mabel’s knitting needles. Now, her septuagenarian co-hosts—former TV star Charles-Haden Savage (Martin) and self-absorbed theater director Oliver Putnam (Short)—must help her clear her name by putting it all to tape. Short knew it was a risk to return to the scene of the crime, but even he wanted answers. “He’s such an optimistic character despite so many setbacks,” he tells TIME. “You’re kind of rooting for him to succeed.”

The same could be said for Short. For the last 50 years, he’s managed to do big things with small parts. (Father of the Bride certainly comes to mind.) Only Murders feels like a breakout project for a performer who has had many: his stint on SNL, the 1994 cult classic Clifford, and playing the oversized celebrity journalist Jiminy Glick. Not that he’s letting it go to his head. “I used to have a great manager named Bernie Brillstein who’d always say, ‘It’s only showbiz kid.’ In other words, don’t take it so seriously,” he says. “The only thing you can absolutely be in control of is the process of doing it. You can’t be in control of whether the audience will like you or not.”

Below, Short talks about his friendship with Steve Martin, his love for Selena Gomez, and why he won’t be tuning in to actual true-crime podcasts anytime soon.

You’ve been working with your Only Murders in the Building costar Steve Martin since the 1986 film Three Amigos! and are once again going on tour with him this summer. What makes him such a great comedic partner?

There are so many things. We’re very, very close friends so that makes it fun on stage. But what’s also great about working with Steve is you’re working with someone with literally perfect timing. We actually don’t even have notes for each other. We don’t say, ‘Oh Steve, I think you should say that a little bit faster or a little bit slower,’ because he’s already made that decision.

Since you do know him so well onstage and off, has there been anything that has surprised you about working with him on Only Murders?

After 35 years of knowing him, working with him, there are no surprises. But I guess I’m always a little surprised at how deeply important it is for him to get it perfect. He is a perfectionist. If he doesn’t hit it, he wants to do another take.

You’ve said that when you first met your other Only Murders costar Selena Gomez, you didn’t really know what to expect. After two seasons, what has delighted you most about working with her?

I’m always delighted to watch the show and see how the camera just adores her. There are some brilliant actors who the camera doesn’t care about, but Elizabeth Taylor was someone that the camera adored. Meryl Streep, too—and Selena. The camera just loves her.

I think there are many people who watch the show and wonder if the dynamic between you, Steve, and Selena is similar to what they see on screen. Do you see similarities in the relationship between the three of you onscreen and off?

The show plays into the millennial aspect, but the reality is Selena—and I think actors tend to be like this—is a little more timeless. It’s amazing that people 40 years apart in age can be friends, but I don’t think [age] even comes into our conversations. We’re just three people who really dig each other.

Martin Short, Selena Gomez, and Steve Martin in 'Only Murders in the Building'Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Only Murders does a great job at parodying true-crime podcasts. Were you a fan of Serial or anything like that before the show?

None, zero. Steve and Selena, absolutely. She’d been to CrimeCon and Steve’s always, for years, obsessively listened to true-crime podcasts. But not for me. I would rather see an old Dick Van Dyke Show, something light. I want to escape the horrors of life, not delve into a murder.

You have played more than a few self-absorbed narcissists in your career, Oliver included. What makes those kinds of guys so funny?

Anyone who is self-absorbed, but doesn’t think we’re aware of it is always funny. To me, one of the funniest images was when Richard Nixon looked into the camera and said, ‘I’m not a crook,’ but above his lip was sweat so we knew he was lying, and he knew we knew he was lying. I find those scenarios funny.

Oliver is a dips guy. He basically subsists on hummus and little else. What are your personal thoughts on dips?

I hate dips. I’m not a dipper. I would never say, ‘Oh, I’m just dying for some hummus.’ That wouldn’t be me.

You got to work with screen legend Shirley MacLaine this season, who is known for her stories. Was there any story that she told on set that stuck out to you?

She told an adorable story about falling madly in love with Dean Martin and him inviting her to his beach house on Saturday. And she’s like this young 22 or 23-year-old thinking, ‘Ah! Does Dean want to have an affair with me?’ And she got there and he said, “Here’s my wife Jeanne and this is my eldest.” He was just inviting her to a lovely Saturday afternoon BBQ.

You’ve been working in the entertainment business for half a century. Are there things on your Hollywood bucket list that you’d still like to accomplish?

Well, there’s certainly people I’d love to work with; Meryl Streep comes to mind. But as far as something like, would I ever want to direct? I kind of think with bucket lists, if you haven’t done them yet, then maybe there’s a reason you haven’t done them. Either you don’t want to do them or maybe you shouldn’t.

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