Martin Short long on laughs

After coming off a successful Broadway run of "Fame Becomes Me," his latest one-man show, comedian Martin Short isn't quite sure what he's going to title his appearance in Wichita on Saturday.

"I have a lot of names I've used in the past: 'Party With Marty' or 'Stroke Me, Lady Fame' or 'If I'd Saved I Wouldn't Be Here," Short said with a chuckle over the phone from his summer cabin in Canada near Lake Rosseau, about an hour north of Toronto, Ontario.

In some markets, he jokes, he's even dared to use "Sunday in the Park with George Michael."

"The key is to be spontaneous and loose. That's what an audience is looking for," says Short, beloved from his sketch comedy beginnings at "Second City Television" and "Saturday Night Live," where he created indelible and edgy characters like caustic albino entertainer Jackie Rogers Jr. and persnickety celebrity interviewer Jiminy Glick. Perhaps his most popular is nerdy but sweetly naive man-child Ed "I must say!" Grimley.

"The audience looks for me to be loose so they can have fun. A lot of the show is improvisation, so it varies night to night. But it's not totally free-form. There's more structure than that," he says. "If you narrow down what I do, the best description is 'entertainer.' The audience gives you permission to surprise them and it's up to you to come through."

Short, now 61 and working on a biography about his 40-year (so far) career, says he doesn't have to spark belly laughs to be satisfied.

"Audiences are the same all over. If a line is funny in Boston, it's funny in Baton Rouge," he says. "But individuals react differently. A smile or a chuckle is as good as a belly laugh to me. They're all positive."

To make his appearances one-of-a-kind to each city, Short brings up an audience member, usually a local celebrity, to be interviewed by his probing Jiminy Glick. Wichita Eagle fashion maven Bonnie Bing, a bit of a wit herself from years in local Gridiron shows, has agreed to square off with him, Short says.

A native of Canada, Short was working on a degree in social work at McMaster University when he was cast in a production of the musical, "Godspell," along with then-unknowns Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Andrea Martin.

The performing bug bit and he joined Canada's Second City improv group in 1977 at the urging of Levy and Thomas. That opened the door to American sitcoms like "The Associates" and "I'm a Big Girl Now," and finally to "Saturday Night Live" in 1984-85 to help revive the show after Eddie Murphy's departure.

That's where America got to know the "completely mental misadventures" of Ed Grimley plus other folks like ancient songwriter Irving Cohen, industrialist and art patron Bradley P. Allen and defense attorney Nathan Thurm. Short gets his ideas for new characters from people-watching.

"They (characters) always begin as some form of real-life impersonation, but I modify them enough so that nobody can tell where they came from," he says, noting that he's shamelessly "borrowed" bits and pieces of friends and co-workers. "I change the sex or the look to keep people guessing. Ultimately, they are all extensions of me."

On "SNL" Short also created some of his edgiest work with startling celebrity impersonations of Jerry Lewis and, particularly, Katharine Hepburn with her tremulous, Parkinson's-like voice.

"It was never mean-spirited," Short says of uneasiness in some observers. "It was based on truth and it showed her indomitable, feisty spirit. There is a way to do mean-spirited, and this was never that."

In the latter part of the 1980s, Short moved into TV and movies, including "Three Amigos" with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, the "Father of the Bride" remake and its sequel.

Finally, he made it to Broadway, first in critically acclaimed musicals "The Goodbye Girl" and "Little Me" and then his own one-man comedy romp, "Fame Becomes Me."

If you go

Martin Short

What: Comedian and Tony Award-winner's one-man show with some of his famous alter-egos

Where: Orpheum Theatre, First and Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

How much: Tickets $60 orchestra, $55 mezzanine, $45 balcony; available through Select-A-Seat at 316-755-7328 or www.selectaseat.com or at Dillon's Superstores or at plant employee clubs