Comic Stripped: The Martin-izing of Canadian comedy

Two SCTV legends credit Toronto for comic revolution that took place in the ’70s

Although it seems like every comedian has a new book out, the two that caught my eye, and have a serious Toronto connection, are Martin Short’s I Must Say and Andrea Martin’s Lady Parts.

I read the two books together because the authors’ lives and careers are as intertwined as the double helix of a DNA molecule, with the core their brilliant work on SCTV.

At one point the two friends were actually related. Short married actress Nancy Dolman, and Martin was married to Dolman’s brother Bob, a comedy writer. But their connection all began with the monumental Toronto production of Godspell.

Reading these two books, it’s impossible to underestimate the influence of the 1972 hippie musical on Toronto and later Canadian comedy.

Not only were the two cast in it but so was Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner and Dave Thomas. A few years later, they were all part of the early Second City troupe in Toronto, and the rest is history.

Both Short and Martin draw a similar portrait of Toronto in the early ’70s — that it was akin to Paris in the ’20s for a new breed of comedian that included John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. There was a comedy revolution in the city that would be felt for over 40 years.

I loved the way both books described a Toronto of basement apartments and cheap schnitzel dinners, of shaggy hair and threadbare bell-bottoms. Everyone was having too much fun struggling to notice the hard work.

Reading Martin Short’s book, you realize he is a truly happy fellow. He confounds all psychological theories about how comedy is rooted in pain and anger. Even though he loses his father, mother and an older brother while still in his teens, he sees the world in optimistic and radiant terms. While others complain miserably about showbiz, he revels in it.

His greatest thrills are meeting his idols, often those he imitated, such as Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Short is an Old Hollywood kind of guy: a comedian but also a song and dance man who throws the best Christmas parties where stars sit around the piano and belt out old hits. He had a wife he adores, until their romance was snuffed out by her untimely death from cancer.

Andrea Martin approaches life more cautiously, and her book is more personal and more neurotic. There’s a strange absence of showbiz detail — her role in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is barely mentioned, and she doesn’t dish about the SCTV years until page 280. There’s a lot of material about her bulimia, her love life, or sometimes lack of it, and her complex relationship with her Armenian parents who owned a chain of restaurants in Maine.

It’s a courageous book by a performer who isn’t afraid to let you into a world that isn’t as blithe and effortless as you might think.

As their books draw to their respective ends, they each gravitate to their first love: the theatre. Both write and perform critically acclaimed solo shows for Broadway. Both win Tony Awards for their acting in big productions.

Short and Martin remind us that a theatre career isn’t dependent on how young you are or how hot your career might be. It’s based on talent because you can’t fake it. And they’ve both got a heap of it.

Post City Magazines’ humour columnist, Mark Breslin, is the founder of Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs and the author of several books, including Control Freaked.