Is Martin Short really a comic genius? I had had him pegged as a very weak Jerry Lewis wannabe. And that is a very low bar. But Vanity Fair says he’s fabulous: he’s the funniest guy at the party. He is well-liked by the comedy establishment in Hollywood and New York. Talk show hosts can’t wait to have him: he makes it easy for them, taking on the entire burden of being witty and funny and entertaining.
Am I missing something? Other than those parties?
The comedy I remember from Martin Short always resembled the stuff your older, untalented brother would do to taunt you, and the biggest hits from Oasis. That whining, sneering, wildly effeminate voice and dippy moronic body language. All of it modeled– disgustingly– on the gestures of a person with a mental and physical disability. I have always found that kind of humor repellent, for obvious reasons. It’s broad and offensive. It’s the Gomer Pyle of stand-up comedy.
Short seemed unusually taken with deformity and otherness, with lots of wonky eyes, oddly recessed hairlines, and androgyny.
Decent human beings do not mock or ridicule people who were born with disabilities or defects. You just don’t. First of all, it’s not really funny. If you can’t help but fail, and it’s not your fault, it’s not funny.
What is funny is, for example, a capable person thrust into challenging circumstances through his own fault– a character flaw– and then failing to keep his dignity.
Secondly, it’s an affront to human dignity. We all know that– you don’t laugh at other peoples’ misfortunes. But because Jerry Lewis did not have a disability– other than bad taste– people thought it was okay to laugh at him when he imitated people with disabilities, some of the very people his famous annual telethon was supposed to help.
When he’s not making fun of people with disabilities, Short sometimes plays a more complex character, Jiminy Glick, a talk-show host. Short does the sleaze part fairly well, but where is the humor exactly? It’s mostly humor about the humorists– narcissistic comedy. I feel the same way about it that I feel about a mediocre novel about a novelist, or a mediocre movie about Hollywood, or a mediocre song about a singer. It’s not that they are bad novels or movies or songs– even if they are– it’s that these artists have chosen to make an artwork about themselves. With a few exceptions, these works are boring.
Oh, but there’s more: there’s bodily function and sex jokes.
There’s not much real political or social commentary: Short doesn’t want to offend half of his audience. In an interview on PBS (where he was accompanied by Steve Martin, with whom he is touring), he was clearly a bit discomfited by the idea of political humor, probably because he knows the most respected comics out there are political but the most commercially successful are not.
Short is personally popular– I have no problem believing that he is a nice guy. He will get monuments and awards and banquets and honors, because he has quietly carved out an undistinguished but visible profile among establishment entertainers in Hollywood– the kind of elite that give each other prizes while they are alive.
Now, you might expect a tail here: but the real edgy comedians don’t get awards until they are dead. It’s a little strange to me, but a few years ago George Carlin was honored at the Kennedy Center with the “Mark Twain” prize. George Carlin himself must have read the invitation and checked his own pulse before accepting.