Jean Smart and Martin Short don’t just have names that might make them a perfect comedy-cabaret double act — they’re also both excelling in cross-generational comedy stories. On HBO Max’s “Hacks,” Emmy defending champion Smart returned for a second season as stand-up queen Deborah Vance, who’s still in a rivalrous partnership with her writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder); on Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” Short and longtime creative collaborator Steve Martin teamed with Selena Gomez to solve sweetly melancholy mysteries in their Manhattan apartment complex.
JEAN SMART: I just binge-watched your show, and I cannot tell you how much I love it. There’s something about the style of the show that is so unique and so mesmerizing and so fun. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s not like anything else I’ve seen.
MARTIN SHORT: Great creative people got together. You know, it doesn’t happen very often.
SMART: And you can’t wait to see the inside of people’s apartments. Ooh, I want to go into them.
SHORT: It’s a very New York feel. Every day-player, someone who’s just there for the afternoon, is phenomenal. Because they’re from the theater.
SMART: And that makes all the difference in a show.
SHORT: But we were talking about “Hacks.” See, I’ve seen four episodes of Season 2. And they are phenomenal. The Deborah Vance character is fascinating to me because you push this woman’s narcissism right to the brink.
SMART: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
SHORT: You as a person. No, no. The character goes right to the brink of narcissism, but also is massively likable. And it’s a very interesting thing to balance.
SMART: As you know, the writing’s got to be there.
SHORT: There’s a moment in Episode 2 or 3 of Season 2 where you’re pissed off at Hannah, understandably. This scene where she admits what that email was.
SMART: Oh, God.
SHORT: It is amazing to me certain actresses can do so much by doing so little. I remember when I was on “Damages,” and it was the last scene of that season, and Rose Byrne is standing there, standing at the end of a dock, and she says, “Is it worth it, what you put people through, what you put yourself through?” And Glenn Close is just wearing sunglasses and doesn’t respond, and you know everything she’s feeling. That’s what you did in that scene.
SMART: Well, thank you.
SHORT: When Hannah tells you, “I have to tell you honestly what this email says.”
SMART: It’s horrible. It’s painful. But your show does the same thing. You’re able to balance stuff that’s screamingly funny and then go right to something that’s dark and scary, and it totally works.
SHORT: Well, I think great characters are complex and light and frothy, and they have secrets. In your case, this idea that your drug-fueled daughter lets the paparazzi know —
SMART: It’s so sad.
SHORT: And you know that, and yet you accept it because it’s good for her.
SMART: And I feel like a crappy mother.
SHORT: The guilt of that. These are things that combine why Deborah Vance is one of the greatest characters of all time.
SMART: Hopefully people will love Season 2. I hope, I hope, I hope. Have you guys started shooting?
SHORT: We just finished Season 2.
SMART: Selena Gomez, oh my God. She’s very funny and dry. I didn’t expect that at all. I don’t know why. But she’s absolutely adorable, but she keeps up with the two of you.
SHORT: Because of COVID in Season 1, we never got to meet. We just would read scripts over Zoom. The first day of shooting, I’m saying to myself, “She could be a nightmare.” I’m stuck. For one season, anyway. And she was this lovely, professional, adorably kind and sweet person. Who also believes, as Steve and I do, that the only thing that you can cling to is making it. So you don’t know if it’s gonna be any good, so that the set experience has to be fun and light.
SMART: There’s no reason it shouldn’t be like that. First of all, life is too short.
SHORT: Who’s the biggest prick you’ve ever worked with?
SMART: Oh, Steve Martin. Absolutely. I feel for you.
SHORT: It’s the mood swings that kill you. And it’s also that he’s so pale in person. He looks like something we all snorted in the ’80s.
SMART: I snorted Sweet’N Low in the ’80s. I’m diabetic.
SHORT: He looks like Anderson Cooper froze to death on New Year’s Eve.
SMART: Now, you guys are going on the road together, like Hannah and I pretend to. Do you call it “Steve Martin Short”?
SHORT: The critics always do. One title was “Two for the Price of Three.” There’s a lot of titles. “If I’d Saved, I Wouldn’t Be Here.”
SMART: Like “Smart and Short.” It’s all in the name.
SHORT: “Short and Smart.” Or “Smart and Short.” Please — I would put you first always. Did you get along right away with Hannah?
SMART: Yes. She is an extraordinary person in every way. I literally have turned to her with personal crises. I auditioned with some young actresses, and I just said, “Without a doubt, she’s the girl.” I just believed she was a writer.
SHORT: Back to this idea of Deborah Vance as potentially unlikable. Have you ever found that they’ve gone too far, and you have to say, “I don’t know if I can make this work?”
SMART: With the meanness? No. Well, when I’m throwing things at her, that concerned me a little bit. I actually hit her a few times. They were made out of rubber, but still, it’s hard rubber.
SHORT: Oh, that was fantastic.
SMART: I decided that you need a girlfriend on your show. You need a tall blonde. Maybe Swedish, you know? A little long in the tooth?
SHORT: Oh, baby. We have Shirley MacLaine on Season 2. I can’t reveal anything, because it’s all tied to the plot. But the greatest thing about Shirley was getting her to open up, which she’d do in a second about any of the Rat Pack.
SMART: Oh my God. I decided that Deborah Vance has a policy that she doesn’t sleep with married men, so she only sleeps with her boyfriend, Marty, between marriages. But I decided on my own, just to amuse myself, that she actually broke that rule once for Dean Martin.
SHORT: Oh, Shirley said she fell in love with Dean, deeply.
SMART: Well, he was so adorable. When I was young, I had such a crush on him.
SHORT: Is “Hacks” something you’d like to do for five, six seasons?
SMART: I don’t know about six, but four or five, I’d be very happy.
SHORT: This is an ideal job for us. Because we like going to work. We like the hang. In fact, Steve and I have a tradition. If we finish together, we share a car home. And there’s a bottle of wine.
SMART: While you’re driving?
SHORT: We’re in the back, and of course, it’s illegal. We used to say with our driver, “Do you want Diet Coke or just Coke?” One was red wine, one was white. So we’ll sit, and then go park, and we’ll talk about the day. We’re great friends who do this show, and then you add this brilliant Selena Gomez. It’s ideal.
SMART: I feel like, and maybe you feel the same way — although you’ve been so famous for your whole career. But I sort of feel like, you know, gee, I wish this had come along 20 years ago. But it wouldn’t have been the same.
SHORT: Twenty years ago, you were on “Designing Women.”
SMART: Thirty years ago. Actually, more than 30 years ago.
SHORT: Is that true?
SHORT: When Jan Hooks came in…
SMART: Jan Hooks took over my role, because she played my cousin.
SHORT: Jan was my old buddy. So funny.
SMART: I felt so bad when we lost her. That was shocking
SHORT: No one was funnier.
SMART: Did you ever work with Alice Ghostley?
SHORT: No, but Alice Ghostley and Paul Lynde were kind of the same person, weren’t they?
SMART: I was so excited when they asked me to do this with you.
SHORT: I was thrilled. Because they gave me four possibilities, and the other three said they don’t want to do it with me. So the fact that you were the fourth made my heart soar.
SMART: Yeah, that made me feel good.
SHORT: I am the biggest fan of “Hacks.” It’s such a work of art.
SMART: Well, thank you. The same back to you.
SHORT: So, I upstaged Steve Martin?
Variety’s “Actors on Actors” is presented by Apple TV+.