Unexpected Inspiration

I would not have expected to learn a valuable life lesson from Martin Short. In fact, I wouldn’t have expected to learn anything at all from Martin Short, because the man is barely tolerable to me. I avoid his work whenever possible, but he snuck in this morning: I had the animated show The Cat in the Hat playing for my daughter and thought, “This is terrible casting for The Cat. Was Carlton the Doorman not available?”* Then I realized it was Martin Short and everything made sense. The show’s producers probably thought, “What a coup, we got Martin Short for the lead!” That’s the difference between those producers and me: If Martin said he would do my project for free, I would have replied, “Sorry, we don’t have the budget for that.” (In his defense, Short was nominated for an Emmy for that work in 2011, though all that proves to me is that Emmy voters don’t watch the shows they are voting on and instead reward so-called “stars” who phone-in crappy voiceover work.)

I don’t recall ever having laughed at Martin Short. Some readers are likely thinking that I simply haven’t seen the “right” Martin Short, and want to enlighten me to the comic brilliance of Ed Grimley (improbably annoying) or Jiminy Glick (impossibly annoying) or some other overblown, overwrought character. Please don’t. I have seen enough to know that it’s not a matter of limited exposure. You can enjoy him all you want, but to me, he’s in a league with Dane Cook (can he legally be classified as a comedian?) and Jim Breuer (a man who has somehow parlayed a career out of what seems to be a terrible Jeff Spicoli impersonation.) In the large circle that is the Venn diagram of my life, there is zero overlap with the circle labeled “Martin Short.”

The fact that Martin Short makes a living “being funny” is more preposterous to me than Michelle Bachman making a living “being a consensus builder”. At least with Bachmann, I can postulate why a person might appreciate her positives enough to ignore her negatives. I don’t see that with Mr. Short. What anyone would enjoy in his various twitchy, grating personae is an utter mystery to me. He doesn’t push the comedy envelope, he pees in the envelope and hands it to you while pretending to be a flamboyantly gay mailman. He gives comedy a bad name. Hell, he gives Canada a bad name.

Yet he does make a living at it, somehow managing to make lemonade out of dog shit. He might even be described as a beloved actor, by intelligent people who call him that without making the air quotes around it like I do. Despite the enormous body of evidence of his numerous shortcomings, his exaggerated buffoonery continues, inexplicably, to draw an audience.

That’s why he inspires me. Because if Martin Short can make a living being “funny”, that should give us all tremendous hope – and ample evidence – that we can excel and thrive in the endeavor of our choice.

I am grateful for the inspiration, because like many writers,** I struggle with self-doubt. There are so many writers out there, and so many good writers, and I worry that I am not one of them. Fortunately, I occasionally write something that I am proud of, something that felt good to write and I’m excited to share, and those moments encourage me to keep writing, to try to get better. Self-doubt is a chronic problem, despite my knowledge of this irrefutable fact:

There is no quantifiable definition of good writing.

James Joyce is a hailed member of the literary canon, yet many people find his work impenetrable and would rather curl up with Stephen King (so to speak); Elmore Leonard’s novels aren’t staples of college curriculums, yet no writer is more adept at creating compelling dialogue; JK Rowling has a brilliant imagination, but as much as I love the ideas, there are scarce quotable sentences among those thousands of Harry Potter pages. Tastes are subjective, and entrenched: the person who revels in the bluntness of Charles Bukowski is as certain of Buk’s genius as the person who insists that Faulkner was the pinnacle of literary skill.

So if it’s just a matter of tastes, then it’s not about being “good.” Whether it’s writing or comedy or any art, the key is finding an audience, reaching the people who will appreciate your voice and point of view. And the way to do that is to create the art that personally satisfying, look for a way to get it in front of people, and hope they react. Being “good” should make that easier, but the fact is, there are some very successful artists who have strident detractors. Fretting about whether you have the skills to be recognized for your craft is really a waste of time – the real question is whether you have the staying power to keep at it until you can find the audience that appreciates what you create. Self-doubt shouldn’t even be a factor.

Martin Short reminds me of that. While I would rather sit on the bus next to a malodorous jesus-freak than Jiminy Glick, Martin gets to have the last laugh, because it doesn’t matter what I think. He’s found his audience, and has proven Thoreau’s assertion correct: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagine, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

So maybe Mr. Short can’t make me laugh, but he’s made me think: if he can do it, why not me? Why not you? And more importantly for both of us, why not try?

© 2013

* I’m old enough to remember when the man who provided the voice for the unseen Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda was later incorrectly cast as the voice of the animated Garfield.

** At least I hope it’s not just me