Martin Short’s comic persona has two layers to it: the ebulliently friendly guy and the smarmy, obsequious Hollywood insider with a dark edge. The latter was brilliantly used with his character, Jiminy Glick, the hopelessly oblivious celebrity reporter whose delusional self-regard often got in the way of his work. But it’s the cheery, lovely guy that most people think of when they think of Martin Short. He’s the old-fashioned song-and-dance man, born a bit too late for his generation. In his solid memoir I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short writes of his rise to success from a childhood that turned from idyllic to tragic in Canada, to struggling as a stage performer, before finding success on the classic SCTV and later on finding stardom in Hollywood. Some may have hoped for an essay collection, and though I Must Say won’t have readers laughing out throughout the whole of the book, it’s still good memoir, with some interesting tidbits.
What makes Short’s story engaging is his unerring optimism. Suffering the deaths of his older brother and both his parents before he was twenty, and later losing his wife of almost forty years in 2010 as well as mourning the loss of friends, could make Short’s story a sad read. And often it is when he writes of his mourning. But he creates an appealing, almost underdog of a narrative voice, who processes these considerable tragedies with grace and dignity. His late wife Nancy is an important figure in the book – and she’s written as an intelligent, willful, and funny partner, who constantly kept Short on his toes. Even if Short wasn’t famous, his love and devotion to his wife would be an interesting story. Even if the ending is so tender and sad, there are funny and cute anecdotes about the marriage.
Because this is a celebrity memoir, there are tales of Hollywood as well. None are tawdry and Short isn’t interested in slinging gossip. Even Kathie Lee Gifford who cluelessly quizzed Short on his marriage two years after his wife died is left off the hook. Because Short’s a funny guy, it’s not surprise that other comedians like Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, and Diane Keaton, among others make appearances in his book. His days with Second City, SCTV, and Saturday Night Live also has him cross paths with folks like Dan Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Andrea Martin, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Billy Crystal, and Gilda Radner (with whom he had a surprisingly tempestuous relationship). Martin, who has a reputation for being cold and aloof, comes off as warm and feeling and devoted to his friendship with Short. Short also holds massive, involved Christmas parties, that feature talent shows that starred such famed pals as Tom Hanks, Catherine O’Hara, Bernadette Peters, Rita Wilson, and March Shaiman.
The celebrity stories are okay for the most part – but they tend to feel like the kind of name-dropping anecdote celebrities trot out on the couch of late night talk shows. More interesting are the entries sprinkled throughout the book that detail the genesis of some of Short’s most famous characters including Ed Grimley (whose catchphrase is used as the title of the book), Irving Cohen, Jackie Rogers, Jr., Jiminy Glick, and Franck Eggelhoffer (from the Father of the Bride films). These short passages are interesting and include a monologue in each character’s voice. Though they lose something on print, these parts of the book are a fascinating view of the comic’s creative mind.
In fact when Short writes about his work, I Must Say is at its most interesting: like most people who leave Saturday Night Live, his memory of the experience is rather mixed, but because he’s so generous in spirit, he doesn’t trash the show like other embittered ex-performers. He also looks at his career with a clear and candid view – he’s refreshingly honest about how his stab at leading man status in the 80s was spotty and he accepts his current status as character actor with genial equanimity.
As a celebrity memoir, I Must Say is a solid affair. It’s upbeat and its author comes off as generally grateful and gracious. For some, an edgier voice would’ve been more interesting, and Short’s writing can tip dangerously close to saccharine, but he’s still a brilliantly funny guy and even if readers won’t necessarily get that from this work, it’s still a largely enjoyable and easy read.