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‘We make each other laugh’: Steve Martin and Martin Short on their 35-year friendship

By Louise Rugendyke

The comedic chemistry of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez continues to fire in season 2 of <i>Only Murders In The Building.Credit:Disney+

It’s 4.39am and, not surprisingly, I’m in my pyjamas. But, then again, so is Martin Short. It’s 11.39am in Los Angeles and he’s wearing a white bathrobe while reclining on what looks like his bed.

“It’s very late for me to be in a bathrobe,” says Short. “But you know, I had to have coffee, I was doing interviews, I was answering emails … But to be honest, I just got in.”

Where has he been?

“Clubbing. So many, like, different clubs.”

Short is one of three faces on screen. Steve Martin and Selena Gomez are the other two. Martin is on the other side of the US, in New York, where it is a more leisurely 2.39 in the afternoon, while Gomez is in LA (and dressed).

I tell them my daughter is under strict instructions to not get up if she hears me talking. “Bring her in, she can ask some questions,” says Martin, who is also fully dressed and sitting in his wood-panelled study. Behind him is a large painting by Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas.

The trio have become the hottest property on TV with their delightful whodunit Only Murders in the Building. They play neighbours in the Arconia, a ritzy New York apartment building, who unite to investigate the suspected murder of another resident. The catch? They do it all while recording real-time episodes of their new true-crime podcast, Only Murders in the Building.

Cue an avalanche of jokes (like a bus, if you missed one, another was never far behind), a roster of guest stars (Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Jane Lynch and even Sting, playing a fictionalised version of himself), scene-stealing wallpaper and a thrilling murder mystery that really did keep you guessing to the end.

Steve Martin, who plays actor Charles, was inspired to create Only Murders in the Building by the TV classic Murder, She Wrote. Credit:Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Most of all, the show was a great reminder of what comedy superstars Martin and Short are. I never knew I missed seeing them together until I saw them together again (let’s just say 10-year-old me is screaming at having two out of the three amigos on my screen). After 35 years of friendship, their chemistry and timing is even more effortless – Martin’s feigned grouchiness bouncing off Short’s ridiculousness.

“Well, we both make each other laugh,” says Short of their relationship. “It started there and permeated.”

Adds Martin: “When it comes to each other, we’re both very easygoing. Like, we never ask each other personal questions. For example, Marty, ask me a personal question.”

Short: “So Steve, you have one daughter …”

Martin, with his hands over his ears: “Waaaaaaahhhhh!”

He’s a blank slate, obviously.

Short laughs: “No, no, I know everything about him. I think that [our relationship] starts with laughter and we’re very close friends. Why does anyone have a friend after many decades? It’s because they like hanging with them. It’s fun. And Steve is kind. And that’s important.”

That Only Murders in the Building became an instant hit when it premiered last August and went on to become the most watched comedy on US subscription channel Hulu in the US and on Disney+’s Star Original channel everywhere else, was no surprise. What was a surprise, however, was how seamlessly Gomez slotted in with the two comedy legends.

Martin Short, who plays theatre director Oliver, says Steve Martin’s kindness is one of the reasons they have been friends for more than 35 years.

The 29-year-old was barely a twinkle in her parents’ eyes when Martin, 76, and Short, 72, became friends on the set of their 1986 comedy Three Amigos! and built a partnership that has lasted across film, TV and stage.

As the resident Millennial in the trio, Gomez’s dry delivery cuts through the Boomer nonsense of the other two: Martin’s neurotic actor Charles-Haden Savage, and Short’s failed Broadway director Oliver Putnam.

“I was intimidated, for sure,” says Gomez. “I was nervous. I thought maybe I would be a little left out because I wouldn’t get certain things.

“And then the moment I met them individually, I felt so much better. A huge relief. They made me feel so comfortable. And then from there, we were all really good at working with each other. They asked me questions. I asked them questions. We just have a really good work relationship.”

On the other side, Martin and Short did not really know who Gomez was: a former Disney child star-turned-singer who was better known for her love life (Justin Bieber, The Weeknd) and health issues than she was for her acting.

“Marty and I did not know who Selena was, personally,” says Martin, “She was a pop star. And we didn’t know what that means. She could be a diva. She could be different, just not connect at all, you know. To be able to joke around is a big thing in our life …”

Selena Gomez, who plays Mabel, says she was intimidated at first to work with Martin and Short.

Short jumps in: “Yeah, that would be horrible to work with someone with no humour. That’d be just dreadful.”

Gomez: “Yeah, you gotta get irony to get you guys.”

Martin: “Anyway, it was all love at first sight. And it’s been like that ever since.”

Over Zoom, the three are as effortless with each other as they are on-screen. Martin asks Gomez to explain a half “dab” (the dance move that looks like you’re blocking a sneeze), which she does, while Short is playful yet sharper.

To this end, Martin says Short doesn’t care if people do or don’t like his work, whereas Martin is more of a people pleaser. “I don’t think that way,” he says to Short. “I hope people really like [what I’m doing] but you have a different attitude about your performance than I do.”

Short: “Well, my view is symbolised by someone who lives in the real world. And yours is someone who should be living in the Bellevue mental institution.”

Short outside the real-life Belnord building in New York City, where Only Murders in the Building is shot.

Season two of Only Murders in the Building picks up immediately where the first one left off – warning: spoilers ahead – with Gomez’s character Mabel crouching over the bloody body of the Arconia’s resident grouch, Bunny, who has been stabbed eight times with one of Mabel’s enormous knitting needles.

To complicate things further, the trio are now not only famous for solving the death of Tim Kono, they are immediately considered suspects in the murder of Bunny. They even have their own portmanteau: Olimabel. “The Charles is silent,” explains Oliver.

They are not just “persons of interest in this case”, as the investigating detective says, but persons of interest, full stop.

How they navigate that fame – Mabel wonders if she is liked for herself and not just for her infamy, Charles is offered a chance at reviving his famed TV character “Bravos”, while Oliver is busy navigating his new stalker and neighbour Amy Schumer – forms part of the plot but otherwise it is as frisky as ever.

And that, just as much as its stars, is the reason for the show’s success: in an era of very smart comedies that are either dark (see Barry) or tickle rather than cackle (Somebody Somewhere), Only Murders in the Building deftly balances big laugh-out-loud moments (Oliver’s failed Broadway show Splash! The Musical) with more personal fare (Charles’ loneliness).

“I think backstory is a big, phoney myth in Hollywood,” jokes Martin. “They say we always have to give them a backstory. No, you don’t. Nobody cares.”

Martin co-created the series with showrunner John Hoffman because he was inspired, he has said, by Murder, She Wrote. But apart from co-writing the first episode, neither he nor Short contribute to the scripts. Surely, for two seasoned comedians, the impulse to improvise in some scenes must be irresistible?

“Ad-libbing on film is very hard,” says Martin. “Because you’ve got, maybe, three cameras set up, the camera operators have to be able to follow you. They have to know where you’re landing, you have to be lit. You can have the words or expressions but you can’t be too extreme. You also don’t want to let the other actors down, they have to know what you’re going to do.”

Gomez: “They will also say, ‘Have a freedom take.’ So, that’s our take to do whatever we want, to try a different line.”

Short: “Well, with Selena and myself, it’s called a freedom take but when Steve does it, that’s when it’s called a coffin take.”

Boom, boom.

(From left) Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos!, the film where Martin and Short met.

The show is filmed in New York, with the exteriors, courtyard and lift scenes shot on location at the Belnord, a grand 1909 apartment building on the Upper West Side, where $US4.5 million will buy you a renovated apartment. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the Belnord to the San Remo, the twin-towered Baroque building overlooking Central Park, where Martin lives.

“The only thing missing is the incredible intrigue,” says Martin of his building. “I don’t feel there’s intrigue in our building, but maybe I don’t know what goes on.”

As I get the three-minute wind-up, I attempt to make a joke with Martin – a serious art collector who counts works by David Hockney, Andy Warhol and many Indigenous desert paintings among his pieces – about the erotic painting that forms part of the plot in season two’s early episodes. Would he pay $1 million for it?

“That’s an Australian painting by Rover Thomas,” he replies very earnestly, assuming I’m asking about the large painting hanging behind him.

I try again, before Short cuts in: “She means Bunny’s painting.”

Martin: “Oh, well, my only job being an art collector was trying to make it look like a half-decent painting because a lot of times paintings in TV shows don’t look like they’re authentic period pieces. That looks like an authentic picture from the ’30s.”

Would you pay $1 million for it, Steve?

“Well, knowing that it’s made for TV …”

Season two of Only Murders in the Building begins on June 28 on Disney+

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