Steve Martin and Martin Short are not exactly new to the television business: Steve Martin won an Emmy Award back in 1969 for his work as a writer on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and Short has won two Emmys over the years, including one in 1983 for his work on “SCTV.”
Before Tuesday, they had been nominated for nearly two dozen Primetime Emmys combined, for work that included the Academy Awards (which Martin has hosted and written for), the FX drama “Damages” (on which Short played a sinister right-hand man to a Bernie Madoff type), and their 2018 variety special “Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life.” (Short has also received nominations for the Daytime Emmys.)
In the series, which alternates between broad farce and dark comedy, Martin plays a once-famous TV actor and Short plays a never-that-great Broadway director who live in the same Renaissance-style building in Manhattan. With the help of an enigmatic young neighbor (Selena Gomez), they try to solve a crime in their residence — or at least parlay the mystery into a popular podcast. (Martin, who created “Only Murders in the Building” with John Hoffman, also received a nomination in the comedy writing category, and the show received 17 nominations overall.)
Short and Martin are longtime friends and collaborators (dating back to the 1986 comedy “Three Amigos!”). So you would think they might be happy for each other’s success and excited to compete for Emmy honors. But their feelings are perhaps more complex. They spoke together in a video interview on Tuesday; these are edited excerpts from that conversation.
“Only Murders in the Building” was recognized many times today. How does it feel?
STEVE MARTIN Well, we’re thrilled. We’re thrilled at the nominations, not only for us but for the show. We’re dismayed that Selena was not nominated because she’s so crucial to our performances, really.
MARTIN SHORT She is nominated as an executive producer.
You both have storied histories as TV nominees —
MARTIN I don’t. Marty does.
SHORT Steve, let’s do our joke from the show. Hey, Steve, how many Emmys do you have again?
MARTIN [thinking] Oh, I want to say five. [pause] Well, I want to say five, but I have one. If I were to win, I would be on a roll. Because that would be 53 years since my last win.
SHORT Gee, I’d hate to see what you look like by the time you get your third win. I’ve won twice.
Who is this a bigger honor for?
MARTIN Oh, definitely Marty.
SHORT I would say that if I weren’t nominated, I would go to Vegas and wager $100,000 that Steve would win. But we tend to think that we split the vote a little.
MARTIN It’s a big honor for everybody. Because two years ago, we weren’t working.
SHORT To think that, when I was a kid, there was prime-time: ABC, NBC and CBS. And now you have a billion shows — so many that I’m told by my family are just brilliant and I have not seen. To thrive in that kind of era is pretty great.
MARTIN Also, I believe that the comedy acting category should be divided in two, for Overly Broad and Way Too Subtle. So whatever the nominations are, you have subcategories. Marty could win Overly Broad, and I could win Way Too Subtle.
SHORT You could be in your own category, which is Too Pale to Actually Light.
MARTIN When they’re doing a close-up on Marty, they use me as a bounce board.
Have you ever been in direct competition before?
SHORT Just emotionally.
MARTIN Every minute of every day.
Martin, this is the first continuing series that you have been involved with for a while; Steve, this is your first continuing series ever. Is there any way in which you feel like rookies?
MARTIN I was surprised, I thought the shooting would be quite different. I thought it would be two takes and you move on, and two takes more and you move on. But no, it’s just like a movie. We’re shooting five hours in 12, 14 weeks. A movie is two hours in 10 weeks.
The second season of “Only Murders in the Building” has devoted story lines and episodes to characters other than yours. How do you feel about stepping back or receding from the series when you need to?
MARTIN We love it. I learned that from “The Jack Benny Show,” that he was always stepping back for other talents, and I’m grateful. I know Marty isn’t, but I’m grateful when a really talented person comes in and does their thing. We had Nathan Lane, he’s nominated. Jane Lynch, who’s nominated. Amy Ryan, unfortunately not nominated, but she deserved it.
SHORT James Caverly was brilliant. I came from ensemble [on “SCTV”], so I was used to it. If John Candy had a great thing to do, you step back.
MARTIN It’s funny, because you say you came from an ensemble, but today you’d never know it.
SHORT My thing is, I’m tired of ensemble. And you know what helped me on this one? I was fed up with working with equals.
MARTIN Well, that can be interpreted only one way.
Are you going to be able to support each other on Emmys night? Or will it get cutthroat? Will it be each man for himself?
MARTIN I suggested to Marty that he withdraw, but he doesn’t say why. It’s just a mystery. And then he starts a whisper campaign that it’s because I have a fatal disease.
SHORT Steve told me this last night, and I said: “I don’t quite understand. It seems to service you more than me.”
MARTIN I said he comes off like a hero. He’s stepping back for his friend.
SHORT So if this all happened, and you’re sitting there and you hear, “And the winner is — Bill Hader,” what do you do?
MARTIN [leaping up from his seat] I’m well!
I think that plan will be received in the correct spirit.
SHORT I don’t think that was too bad.
MARTIN Nothing is received in the correct spirit. I tweeted a photo the other day. They brought me a latte, and they can do these fancy designs — it had my picture on it. I thought, this is amazing, I’m going to tweet this. Then there’s one response that says, “If you had tweeted this two years ago, I would have enjoyed it, but now I can’t even afford a latte. [Expletive] you.”
SHORT Please put that in. That symbolizes everything.