I should be upfront about my reservations regarding An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Netflix special, which, from its title on, is an attempt to recapture the snarky anti-Hollywood showmanship of the 1970s. From far away, this whole thing looks like a perfunctory, half-enthusiastic Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame performance. Nope. Somehow, these two have crafted a show that fully delivers, even if it doesn’t always surprise, just by letting both of them express how much they genuinely still love performing. There is a shocking lack of phoning-in to be seen here, despite an expected duo-roast-to-individual-set-to-reunion-bits format.
It’s most emotional to see Martin find his legs again. He, after all, has the most to live up to, the longest gap in-between these kinds of specials and the most public reluctance towards returning to live comedy. Once Martin’s segment starts up, he actually does get pretty close to recapturing the old magic of his absurd ‘70s stage presence, while still imagining what that man might’ve grown into. It’s like watching an old master lovingly pick up a forgotten instrument for old times’ sake.
Which he does, literally. And as much as Martin takes it on the chin for the sheer nerdiness of his multi-decade banjo obsession, when the jokes melt away and we just experience Martin’s virtuosity with the instrument and his barely concealed excitement at getting to directly share something he’s so passionate about, the show becomes more effortless, and sort of beautiful.
Martin and Short bring out the best in each other most successfully during the light mutual-career-ribbing section that starts off the night, but the special unfortunately starts to lose its way once Short is given free rein. The special on the whole can feel overwritten, but this is especially true with Short, whose sketch comedic rhythms sometimes make the phony showbiz schtick that both men traffic in veer too close to actual phoniness. Still, his impression work is uncanny, and he has an astounding level of energy that Steve Martin can’t match—though, with his cool, confident dad/playwright demeanor, he doesn’t need to.
Short’s manic energy is here applied to a misguided attempt at edginess that I’m not sure what to do with. His solo material is pretty tame, but when he follows up “you never say to Bill Cosby, ‘hey Bill, can you fix my wife a drink,’” or “we’re the aliens you don’t deport” with a surge of cabaret piano and a self-satisfied smirk, watching Short’s delight is soured by the embarrassing flatness of these angles. “I had no idea David Spade was transitioning” is Jiminy Glick’s take on Elizabeth Warren, which is the worst of the “_____ looks like ______” jokes we’re in for, which should communicate how exhausting that character’s reappearance is.
Martin’s genial laughter at his old friend constant joking is charming, especially when the Short material reaches its heights, which are impressive, but one still begins to resent Short for putting Martin in a straight-man position, when we’ve just seen how much he thrives when left to his own devices. “That you laughed at that makes me very disappointed in you,” Martin says to the audience in admonishment after a bizarre (though in this case kind of amazing) interruption from Short as a human bagpipe.
And, honestly, that captures most of my frustrations with the special, which stem from the audience and their tendency to roar at the celebrity duo no matter what they do. This is hardly Martin and Short’s fault, but it ends up burying their best and worst material when the reaction is so same-y and sycophantic. Short literally does the old “did you hear about the blind prostitute? You had to hand it to her” and the audience reacts as if…that’s the joke. Like that’s his joke.
By the time the audience is howling at Short dancing in a spandex body suit with genitals painted on it, you start to wish these people got out more.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.