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I Drastically Underestimated Martin Short’s Funny

The new mayor of Harrah’s Southern California has never cooked a dinner in his life, hates red food, and would like to feed Eugene Levy a Balance Bar
Mayor of Harrah SoCal's Funner, California Martin Short behind a bar holding a martini in a purple suit
Courtesy of Harrah's Resort Southern California

“The first thing I did when I came to this country was go to a department store and squeeze the Charmin,” says Martin Short. “I had to know.”

The new mayor is sitting next to me at a professional, un-contagious distance, wearing purple sparkly shoes (rhinestones? A glittery mirage of unfathomable political power?). His purple suit is elegant yet playful, inhabiting a world somewhere between a nicely tailored Crown Royal bag and the singing dinosaur with obvious inflammatory issues who gave a whole generation of children morning-routine PTSD. 

He is wearing a cumberbund, which is one of the fashion world’s kindest gestures to men—an ancestor of Spanx that hides our midsections’ emancipations or the fact that the pleasure of eating Pringles sometimes disables your ability to not burrow through the entire joy silo in a single sitting.

Minutes earlier, I had stood in the hallway waiting my turn. Handlers handled me. For prep, I pondered how no carpet felt as good as casino carpet. It’s like the soft, verdant loam of money; carpet so thick and giving it’s nearly a bounce house. Eventually, the door to the PR suite opened, and a journalist exited. He looked a bit stunned from his encounter, as if he saw what was inside the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction, and it was Mr. Short. 

Martin Short, of course, doesn’t need the cumberbund to hide any abdominal discretions. He is lithe and vibrant and very Canadian in the most pleasant of ways. He and I have exactly 15 minutes with each other, a luxurious infinity pool of time allotted by the media architecture of press junkets. I imagine by the end of this vacation together, we’ll blithely phone Steve Martin from the gas station where we choose the proper jerky for the road trip all new buds take to cement our forever bond.

I have become mildly obsessed with what I consider to be one of the greatest ad campaigns of all time for a regional casino, Harrah’s of Southern California. They officially renamed—officially!—an entire town an hour north of San Diego “Funner, California.” And, every couple of years since 2017, they have “elected” a new mayor. The first mayor was David Hasselhoff. You’d see him all over billboards in San Diego, his handsome face that seemingly came into the world expressing a flirty wink or a double-guns. That double-guns face lorded over the city for years, proclaiming him the preeminent public official of a casino-based woohoo. Destinies had never been so perfectly aligned. 

Mayor of Harrah SoCal's Funner, California Martin Short in a purple suit standing with former mayor Jane Lynch
Courtesy of Harrah’s Resort Southern California

The Hoff was followed by geometrically-chinned boy king Rob Riggle and, most recently, the towering dutchess of deadpan, Jane Lynch (I sat with Jane when she was “elected,” too. You can read about our deep, meaningful relationship here). And now, Martin Short.

I enter the large suite and Martin Short is sitting at a conference table, purple as a magnificent bruise. There is an adjacent “living room,” where no fewer than four people also sit but make no eye contact whatsoever. Then, a kitchen with three barstools, all of which are full with people charged with overseeing this interaction. It is… dead silent, as if someone has just informed the group that AI has made it into the national drinking water. It’s in my nature to not ignore anyone in a social situation, so I briefly say hello to Mr. Short and then try to make eye contact with every single person. It is unreciprocated—not in a cold way, but in a professional “please do your job; we’ve been here all day” way. 

Martin, understandably thinking I’m looking for direction, says, “You can sit over here. Ask me anything you want.”

“Okay, great,” I say. “We’ll start with politics, move into religion, and finish up with sex.”

“TROY!” the PR agent blurts.

She’s a friend, a very capable and talented person who is here on the behalf of her important client. It would be better for her if I didn’t go completely free radical, leaving her to later answer many strongly worded questions about pre-screening interviewees for obvious emotional instability. I smile and become the best professional I possibly can be.

Eight people will now watch Mr. Short and I attempt to wrestle something meaningful out of 15 minutes of conversation. Which I fully realize, having been around some famous people at this point in my life, is a lifetime. Minutes are the most precious possession of the truly famous. Their time is continually requested and picked at by the rest of us. The true interview artists can go from “Hello, my name is…” to “crying over past traumas but in a meaningful, shared way” within 15 minutes. 

I am not that professional. I mostly ask him dumb food questions. 

Mayor of Harrah SoCal's Funner, California Martin Short in a purple suit standing by a pool with a cocktail in his hand
Courtesy of Harrah’s Resort Southern California

Here’s what should be said about Martin Short. First, I admit to having drastically under-appreciated this man’s talent. For whatever reason, I’d only seen him in roles that required him to perform with wild, almost cartoonish theatricality. Though his performances were remarkable in, say, Father of the Bride, my heart bends toward the blacker, dead-inside forms of comedy. I giddy most at the cigarette-smoke non-emotion of Lenny Bruce, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedburg, and Neal Brennan, or even the dopey, mellow wonderment of Nate Bargatze. Even The Chappelle Show was too animated for me, which I consider a stain on my ability to comprehend greatness. 

And Mr. Short, in person, is an extremely high IQ’ed Canadian with immaculate emotional composure and a hilarious, no-bullshit wit. His answers are far less fantastical and lampoonish than I expected, but express some self-deprecating insight and wry cultural criticism. “I appreciate food people; I really do,” he says. “Eugene Levy would phone me up and say, ‘Do you want to drive to the valley and go to DuPar’s?’ And I’d say, ‘Orrrrr… eat a Balance Bar and go for a hike?’”

When I ask him for San Diego memories, he doesn’t bother polishing the fakery. “I distinctly remember going to the Hotel Del and the zoo,” he says and gives me a look that says, No clue, man. And I appreciate that amount of real, which again, I hadn’t expected. I’d expected him to embellish every moment, milk it for the ersatz. He also points out, “What do you know about Hamilton, Ontario? Probably not much.” Imminently fair.

The whole time he looks at me with the same look I imagine I’m giving him. “What, dear god, are we going to get from each other in less time than the intro montage of each episode of Game of Thrones—but, hey, let’s try.” And yet, he’s game, a consummate professional, polite as ****. And we get what we get. 

The whole room laughs multiple times throughout our conversation… and not in a way that suggests they’re paid to laugh (they are). I’m laughing, too. His wit leaves the station first in any conversation—as it has been for nearly five decades now—and, more often than not, drops you off at a pretty damn funny destination

By the time my PR friend announces from behind me, “Two minutes remaining, Troy,” I’ve decided that I do want to get some gas station jerky with my new buddy, head toward some uniquely American tourist attraction like the world’s largest petrified wad of hummus, and stop at a grocery store somewhere, half drunk on road cosmos, to squeeze a little Charmin. 

Mayor of Harrah SoCal's Funner, California Martin Short in a purple suit accepting the key to the city
Courtesy of Harrah’s Resort Southern California

Hard-Hitting Questions With The New Mayor Of Funner, California: Martin Short

Troy Johnson (TJ): What are you going to change about Funner, California during your reign?

Martin Short (MS): It’s going more modern and muted tones. I’m a painter. If you ever saw Ordinary People, it’s going to be as depressing as that. Changing nothing is my policy. 

TJ: What is fun to you? What gets your giddy going? 

MS: I have a lot of funny friends. 

TJ: You don’t say.

MS: I swear to you, I have had 500,000 funny dinners. So funny to me is a great dinner, great cocktails, funny people, and a good vibe. 

TJ: Let’s talk drinks. When you look at your hand, what is sloshing there?

MS: A cosmopolitan or white wine. Or, what my siblings and I all drink is rum and Cokes with a slice of lime. I’m not doing the Jack and Coke like you kids. When I was doing The Second City, I would always have a Rusty Nail. It was called a liquid Quaalude in the US and a kilt-lifter in Canada. You have one and you lift your kilt.

TJ: Your shoes are fantastic. Did you dress yourself?

MS: This is just stuff I had lying around. Dorothy-esque.

TJ: Let’s say it’s your final meal before you leave every human behind. You’re never going to see Steve Martin or any of them ever again. But you’re in charge of the menu. All that matters is you. What are you eating?

MS: I would order a Caesar salad, and then I’d go to roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, asparagus. And then for dessert, I’d go for ice cream. When I have guests at the house or Christmas or whatever it is… whenever they leave, and it’s just me, I will take that ice cream out of the freezer and leave it in the sink and let it melt. Because it’s like heroin.

TJ: I knew you were a man of distinction, but I didn’t realize you had this much distinction.

MS: I remember, in Canada, they didn’t have Baskin Robbins. My sister was going to the University of Michigan. I remember first experiencing pralines and cream, mocha almond fudge. And I would get up at 3 a.m. in the morning… I’d never tasted anything like it. So for my last meal I’d have a butterscotch sundae. 

TJ: You had universal healthcare in Canada but not 31 Flavors? That seems like Canada’s priorities may be off.

MS: No. The first thing I did when I came to the US was go to a department store and squeeze the Charmin. How soft could it be? Talk about an ad campaign that worked.

TJ: And was it soft as my middle-aged midriff?

MS: Unbelievably soft. Started making out with it and they threw me out of the department store or wherever I was.

TJ: What’s your food pet peeve?

MS: Well, I have a lot of neurotic food stuff.

TJ: Oh, GREAT. This is juicy. Here we go.

MS: I don’t eat red things. I wouldn’t eat a beet, I wouldn’t have a radish, and I don’t eat tomatoes. But I love ketchup and I love tomato sauce. But if someone hands me a turkey sandwich with tomato on it, the first thing I do is take it off.

TJ: Interesting. So you’re like a bull. Red inflames and enrages you.

MS: One time, my father was drinking milk from the quart, because he’s Irish, and I said, “Dad, be careful. I think that’s a little bit turned,” and he went “Hmmm… a little bit,” and kept drinking it. To this day, I’m traumatized. I don’t put milk in my coffee. I’ll put skim in my cereal, but just moist enough to cover the Raisin Bran. 

TJ: So what tomato hurt you?

MS: I don’t know. 

TJ: Pineapple on pizza?

MS: No. No, no, no, no, no. Mushroom and pepperoni. 

TJ: What do you have in your pantry at all times?

MS: I have peanut butter, some tuna in a can. I make poached eggs in the morning. 

TJ: That’s cooking-esque.

MS: Breakfast I can do. But I’ve never made a meal. I’ve never made a dinner. I can have a Balance Bar for breakfast, a Balance Bar for lunch, a Balance Bar for dinner, a sensible protein at the end of the night. 

TJ: Okay, that makes sense.

MS: It doesn’t, really. It sounds kind of sad. 

TJ: We’re San Diego Magazine. Do you have San Diego stories?

MS: I remember vividly staying at Hotel Del. I love the film Some Like It Hot, so that was exciting. Going to the zoo. That’s my image of San Diego. 

TJ: So, not much. We are the souvenir cup of California, but we’re getting better.

MS: What do you know about Hamilton, Ontario? Probably not much.

TJ: I know they have healthcare and their red food sucks.

MS: Exactly. 

TJ: What do you love about the resort experience?

MS: I love a good spa, but not the cucumbers. I would not eat a cucumber. You like all this stuff—you like all the foods, don’t you?

TJ: Well, not all. I’ve tried to like uni. All of my friends who’ve cooked in great restaurants say, “You have to like uni; it’s like the foie gras of the sea,” and my response is, “Really? Because it tastes like slimy gonads of a sea creature.”

MS: I’m weird because I would not eat a cucumber, but I do love escargot. I like sushi. I love steak. A good cheeseburger. But I eat a lot of chicken and turkey. And I think my favorite meal would be Thanksgiving—the mashed potatoes and turkey and dressing. In Canada, we don’t mash the potatoes because it feels too aggressive. 

TJ: You just kind of stare at them and hope they’ll do their thing?

MS: I envy the foodie. I really do. I pass people painting a beautiful gorge, and I wish I could do that. But the only thing I can do is fill in “one” and then fill in “three.” I envy someone who can get joy out of cooking for three hours with a glass of white wine and youthful music playing. But me? I eat for energy.

TJ: Someone hands you a glass of white wine, and it has two cubes of ice in it. Does it activate your über-pretentious gene where you say, “Oh dear, oh my, nobody desecrates the terroir of the wine on my watch?”

MS: No, I take the glass, I down it in one gulp, and I say, “How dare you?” You know who does? Diane Keaton will take the best glass of red wine and put ice cubes in it.

TJ: You’ve been doing comedy for a couple years—what makes you get up and do what you do?

MS: Well, I think that you love doing it. It’s trickier in any career when you realize you’ve got the rent covered. Why do you want to keep doing it? The second you become complacent—or you realize the effort you would put in at 30, you’re not willing to put in at 60—then you should move aside.

TJ: And you’re not there yet, obviously. Do you ever see yourself getting to that point?

MS: I think after the third stroke I won’t be as active as I’d hoped. 

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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