Thesp nourished by smorgasbord of TV comedy

Showbiz was an early calling for Martin Short, the 1999 recipient of the Banff Television Festival’s Sir Peter Ustinov Comedy Network Award.

“I used to pretend I had my own TV show,” Short recalls. “I’d go to the back of the (school) bus where the windows were kind of ovalish and it looked more like a private plane. I was totally into the fantasy, and one of the drags of actually going into showbiz was that I had to come up with a new fantasy.”

Short, 49, fed on a smorgasbord of TV comedy as a kid growing up in Hamilton, Ontario. Canada’s CBC and CTV networks offered home-grown fare, and they also carried the cream of the BBC comedy crop. Channel surfers also had no problem tuning in the American TV stations beaming out ABC, CBS and NBC from just across the border in Buffalo, N.Y.

“I loved ‘Route 66,’ ” Short says. “And ‘Dick Van Dyke,’ and the Friday night show that Jack Paar did after he left (NBC’s) ‘The Tonight Show.’ “

That melting pot of primal influences was evident in the late 1970s when Short and fellow Canuck comics like Eugene Levy and John Candy first made their marks with the Toronto arm of the famed Second City comedy troupe. In Second City’s fertile laboratory for parody and satire, Short honed his trademark characters: the nerdy Ed Grimley, the belting lounge singer Jackie Rogers Jr. and the smarmy lawyer Nathan Thurm, to name a few.

Short, the son of a steel industry exec and a local concert mistress, was raised in an arts-minded family. After high school, he headed to Hamilton’s McMaster U. with every intention of becoming a social worker. Instead, he excelled in college theater productions and so decided to take a year off from school to try his hand at thespian work.

“I was really very anal about it,” he says. “I mapped out a very specific timetable for myself — September to September.”

After kicking around local theaters and cabarets, Short landed a role in a wildly successful Toronto stage production of “Godspell,” which also featured Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin and future TV band-meister Paul Shaffer. From then on, he never looked back.

The Second City hitch led to movie and TV gigs, the “SCTV” series, and a 1984-85 stint on “Saturday Night Live.” More recently, Short has tackled Broadway, earning a Tony nom for his 1993 debut in “The Goodbye Girl.” He also garnered solid notices in last year’s revival of the tuner “Little Me.”

This fall, the veteran of “something like 14,000 talkshow appearances” will find himself working the other side of the desk as host of his own syndie talker. It will be called “The Martin Short Show,” but Short promises to bring along his usual clan of oddball characters … and then some.

“I’m happiest in an ensemble,” Short says. “We’ll have a small troupe of three or four people who will play different roles and do remote segments. … Obviously, the reason we’re doing the show is to have guests on and talk, but we’ll also do as much of my style of comedy as we have good ideas.”

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