Dick Ebersol deserves a lot of credit for his crazy gambit the season I joined: shell out a bunch of money, George Steinbrenner style (that was the metaphor he used), to hire proven veterans, and let it be a somewhat different show—maybe a little more grown-up, a little more ready for primetime. It was due to the amazing people he had already recruited that I was swayed to say yes.
Billy Crystal, who had hosted the show twice the season before, agreed to come aboard, along with Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, who were red-hot from their mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the comedy event of the year. Dick also hired Pamela Stephenson from the British sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News and the stand-up comedian Rich Hall, who had his own cottage industry with his Sniglets books of wordplay.
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Like a lot of high-priced dream teams, this one didn’t always gel. There was also the separate issue of the people retained from the previous season—Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mary Gross, Gary Kroeger, and Jim Belushi—who now had to take a backseat to the newcomers who very quickly emerged as the focus of the ’84–’85 season.
Billy I knew a little from our days as Witt/Thomas/Harris actors, when I was in I’m a Big Girl Now and he, like Nancy, was in Soap. I had immediately taken a liking to him—so smart, fast, and versatile. Harry I also knew a little, because we had a friend in common, Paul Shaffer. Chris Guest I didn’t know at all. But at our very first SNL read-through he struck me as a kindred spirit, both in his sense of humor and his own ambivalence about having enlisted. During Dick’s tenure, there was a little stage in the writers’ room where, if you were so inclined, you could get up with your script and act out a sketch idea rather than just table-read it. At the read-through for the first show, Jim Belushi and Gary Kroeger got up to act something out. Everyone, me included, pivoted their chairs toward the stage to watch them—everyone, that is, except Chris Guest, who sat stock-still, his back to the stage, the whole time Jim and Gary were doing their thing.
When I turned back around, I saw that Chris had written three flight options back to L.A. on the top of my script: United 274, American 117, American 133. Pure Chris. I now knew that I was not alone in my fretfulness, and that I was in the presence of a very dry wit. Years later, he would ask me, “Martin”—Chris is one of the few people who addresses me by my full name—“tell me, what is your new film Captain Ron about?” I said, “Well, it’s about a man with three children who inherits a boat.” Without emotion or hesitation, Chris replied, “I didn’t say spoil it for me.”
Excerpt from “I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend,” by Martin Short. Copyright (c) 2014 and reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.