Steve Martin, Martin Short promise 'an evening you will forget' at Tanglewood

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LENOX — You may have already watched Steve Martin and Martin Short's Emmy-nominated Netflix special, "An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life," but you haven't seen it like this.

On Sunday afternoon, the longtime friends and comedic titans will present a different version of the comedy-variety show at Tanglewood's Koussevitzky Music Shed. Since the program's May release on the streaming service, the actors have toured venues across the country, tweaking jokes and segments as they go. Roughly 50 percent of their current act is new material, Martin estimated during a joint telephone interview with Short.

"We make judgment calls about what the audience might want to see again and what they might not want to see again," Martin said, speaking from Los Angeles. "One of the judgment calls was, 'Well, if we open exactly the same way we did on Netflix, it's going to give the audience a deja vu that we don't want.' So, we did work very hard on changing the opening and writing new lines for the [songs], and we felt very strongly that we should close differently, so we have like a 15-minute closer that's completely new. And then we felt Marty's nude suit bit — the audience wants to see that again."

"The stories and chatter are all different," Short added, calling in from a lakeside cottage north of Toronto.

In the Netflix opening, Martin feigns introducing Short on a few occasions before the two begin exchanging the kind of good-natured digs that stem from decades of friendship and life in the limelight. They became pals on the set of the 1986 comedy " Three Amigos!" By then, Martin had emerged as a Hollywood star following a prolific stand-up and late-night TV career that landed him regular appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."

"It was more daunting for me," the 68-year-old Short said. "I had never made a movie. These were big movie stars, and Steve had written the movie. He was Steve Martin. And I had been on [Canadian show] 'SCTV' and 'SNL,' but I had never made a movie, so I was immediately struck by how sweet, vulnerable and down-to-earth — and not intimidating — Steve was. His accomplishments could be intimidating, but in person, he was very in-the-moment as a friendly guy. So, we became friends right away, actually."

"And I remember, at that time, Marty had just had a child," the 73-year-old Martin said. "And I was upset that he had just had a child because I knew that I wouldn't get to hang out with him as much."

The two worked together again on the "Father of the Bride" movies in the 1990s. As has been often the case throughout their careers, Martin plays the lead roles, Short supporting ones. But that hasn't stopped Short from elevating his comedic stature over the years. One of comedy's foremost figures, Larry David, once told Vanity Fair that Short's humor was unparalleled.

"Hands down the funniest guy I've ever met," David said at the time.

Relatedly, The New Yorker recently raised the question of whether or not Short is the best talk show guest of all time. Short prepares extensively for those spots. In the special, he and Martin conduct a mock talk show that draws from "A Very Stupid Conversation," the stage show that the duo has performed in past years and eventually morphed into "An Evening." During the sketch, the actors ask each other about family and fame. Short displays his trademark effervescence and singing voice during stellar impersonations of, among others, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, demonstrating why he has starred in musicals such as a Broadway revival of Neil Simon's "Little Me," for which he won a Tony in 1999.

"I don't know where my energy comes from. I've always kind of had it," Short said.

In some respects, the show serves as a reminder that the actors' creative vitality hasn't waned. They'll still joke about the prospect of two older men taking the stage together at this point in their careers, though. "If We Had Saved, We Wouldn't Be Here" is an alternative title for the show, they quip.

Martin's witty word play elevates his performance, but it also reminds audiences of when he would take the stage for his absurdist solo standup shows during his youth, a dimension of his career that some believe he abandoned too soon. His comedic freedom has changed since then.

"When you first start out, for example, for me, my goal was to be iconoclastic," he said. "And as I grew older, I started to have more empathy for people. So, there's a balance. Iconoclasticism, it seems to be for younger people, and then some artists and writers maintain it their whole lives. I always wanted to do something just solid ... and that's my goal rather than being a barn-burner upheavalist. I guess what I'm saying is that, as I grew older, things shifted from being an artistic terror to just wanting to do really good work that really makes the audience happy. And that doesn't mean pandering to the audience, because pandering is a very different thing, but keeping your integrity and surprising the audience constantly."

Martin's most astonishing quality may be his range. He has written books, guest-curated an exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and, most notably, picked his banjo to the tune of three Grammy Awards. (He also won two for comedy recordings in the late 1970s.) He often collaborates with bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers, who played with Martin on "A Prairie Home Companion" at Tanglewood in 2009. The group participated in the Netflix special and will join Martin onstage Sunday, along with pianist Jeff Babko.

Still, the actors do most of the heavy lifting. Short doesn't feel the weight of comedic constraint like Martin does these days.

"I can say one thing about Marty is that he's much more brave and bold than I am. I say, 'Gee, can you say that line?' And he goes, 'I don't care,'" Martin said.

"Well, that's true," Short said. "I'm not on Twitter, and I'm not on social media, so I'm not constantly worrying about people's reaction to me. I mean, I think of all professions that you can be in, comedy is the most subjective. Most people love Jerry Seinfeld, but there are going to be people who don't, and it's not like anyone's an idiot. It's a subjective reaction to someone."

Most of the subjective reactions to the Netflix special have been positive. For Martin, performing the show several times a month is much less daunting than his recent theater projects.

"I can't even believe I'm still working," Martin said. "But what a great way to live out the next how many years we have left of doing this show — not in life, just of doing the show — to have something successful and funny that you really enjoy doing."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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