Here’s the most important thing to know about Steve Martin and Martin Short’s new Netflix comedy special: There are about five minutes of straight banjo. This is a petty yet useful detail for most people who have long loved Martin’s comedy while warmly acknowledging his bluegrass—perhaps even turning up to a bluegrass banjo concert by Martin, hoping the between-song patter contains some hint of his old, stadium-filling stand-up. The good news is that An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life represents the closest thing to a Steve Martin stand-up special since he walked away from that game in 1981. And while he does play some straight, not especially funny banjo, and he does bring in his frequent backing band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, to do some musical numbers, the fact that you have to sit through them, waiting for Steve Martin to be funny again, is treated like a running gag. “Hanging out with Steve is like the movie Deliverance,” Short says at one point. “It’s all fun and games until the banjos come out.”
Part endless awards show banter, part “in conversation”-style interview, part ironic vaudeville, An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life is mostly fun and games, and mostly about watching these old showbiz-and-real-life pals gently roast each other for an hour-and-change. The special was taped in Greenville, South Carolina, as one of dozens of shows they’ve been touring since 2015—I caught one of them last October here in Chicago. The special is nearly beat for beat what I saw, down to the seeming ad-libs, although it’s missing the part where The Steep Canyon Rangers just played a couple of their own tunes. It’s also missing a section where Martin and Short waxed nostalgic over Three Amigos while doing a little crowd work, bringing three guys up to don sombreros and teaching them the Amigos salute.
Martin and Short have explicitly said theirs is not a “nostalgia tour”—which is true of the special, anyway. At one point, Martin does a few throwaway King Tut dance moves while Short does an Ed Grimley twist. There is a segment featuring Short’s unctuous celebrity journalist Jiminy Glick, albeit in disturbing “ventriloquist dummy” form. But the show doesn’t find Short trotting out old SCTV characters, or Martin sticking arrows through his head, or even that Three Amigos bit. Still, they know full well why the audience is there. Applause greets the merest mention of Saturday Night Live, as does Short chiding Martin with a blue-haired-goon groaner like “Thirty-five years later, and you’re still The Jerk!” As Martin and Short sing, only semi-sarcastically, on behalf of their crowd, “I’m glad I saw their show before they’re dead.” These people came just to share the same room with two extremely famous funny people, not because of whatever fresh material they might have worked up for the occasion.
Which is good, because—as telegraphed by that Deliverance joke—most of their special seems safely milled from a greatest hits compilation of all their best talk show banter. That’s considerable: Steve Martin and Martin Short rank among our nation’s finest talk show guests, always having jocular quips and perfectly plotted anecdotes at the ready and boasting old-school ethics about what it means to be a performer. There’s hardly a misplaced or unscripted beat in this show; it is a veritable wall of expertly timed and plotted gags.
That smoothing has also removed anything even verging on edginess, of the kind that might intrude on someone’s pleasant night. A couple of straight-down-the-middle jokes about Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton elicit some stagy “oooh”s here, but they’re not anything your grandfather wouldn’t forward you in an email. And politics are avoided almost completely: Short’s Glick fires off a few zingers at Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (on Conway: “Someone dehydrated Ann Coulter!”), though they’re all about looks. Trump’s name is never mentioned. Even the pop culture references exist in a sort of comfortingly fixed 1980s sentimentality: Short busts out his impressions of Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn. Martin does a sort-of Elvis while reminiscing about the time he met Elvis. Meanwhile, jokes about Spanx, prostate exams, and Bea Arthur abound.
Creaky as some of this material may be, Martin and Short certainly know how to sell it. Martin’s self-aware aloofness and Short’s flop-sweating eagerness-to-please makes them excellent foils for each other, their dynamic defined by an amusingly gracious, passive-aggressive form of disrespect that finds them ribbing each other endlessly over Short’s tiny stature and relative lack of fame, or Martin’s self-absorption and the fact that “you’ve looked 70 since you were 30.” While they each take solo turns—Martin, with his banjo; Short, with accompanying pianist Jeff Babko, stripping to a faux-nude bodysuit for a song mocking the kind of ’70s rock musicals where he cut his teeth—the show’s best moments are when they’re simply standing there, giving each other well-rehearsed shit.
Still, the slyly acknowledged most memorable aspect of An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life tour is the mere experience of seeing Steve Martin and Martin Short together on stage, not what they actually do up there. This may not be strictly a nostalgia show, but by its own admission, it doesn’t offer much of anything new worth remembering either—particularly if you’re not actually sharing the room with them. As a reminder that Martin can still make us laugh (when he chooses to), or that Short is one of our most generous entertainers, it’s a welcome, often agreeably funny celebration of their great careers. But ultimately it will prove as essential to your appreciation of their comedy—or as skippable—as five minutes of banjo.