During her decades-long career Andrea Martin has snared a Tony award, two Emmys and numerous other honors for her work on stage and screens. Recent Broadway-goers might remember her Tony-nominated portrayel of housekeeper Frau Blucher (cue neighing) in Mel Brooks’ hit stage adaptation of his 1974 film “Young Frankenstein.” As the New York Times noted in its mixed review of the musical, Martin is “an inspired comedian.”
But even now, with nothing left to prove and well into her illustrious run, the 65-year-old would much rather play roles than mahjong.
Acting “just kind of pours out of me,” the former Second City Toronto cast member and SCTV standout says. “And at the same time I could be thinking, “People aren’t going to like this,” or “I’m not very good.” But my body and I don’t know what [else] takes over and that kind of obliterates those voices that aren’t so healthy. In spite of what I might be thinking, acting is just a part of my fabric; it’s completely instinctual. Even if I wanted to stop, I don’t know if I could.”
Martin brings her formidable talent and energy to Up Comedy Club in Old Town, where she’ll perform her one-woman show “Final Days! Everything Must Go!!,” May 11-13.
“I wasn’t trying to change the world, nor was I trying to prove anything about my identity, nor was I trying to reach a cathartic moment and transform my life,” she says of the roughly year-old creation, which features stand-up material, musical numbers (ably propelled by accompanist Seth Rudetsky and including an extended Broadway montage), an array of characterizations, video clips and several SCTV sketches. “I wanted this to be about fun and pure entertainment.”
Martin’s brassy SCTV station manager Edith Prickley — who once issued an arguably misguided programming edict of “boobs, bums, good-looking hunky guys and no more sports” — surely would approve.
Question:Should we read anything into the title of your show?
Andrea Martin:Well, it started off as an irreverent poke at my advanced years. Never was I thinking of retiring. And then I did it a few times and everybody would say, ‘So when are you retiring?’ Oh, my God. By then, of course, all the posters had been made, so f— that! I wasn’t gonna go back and change the posters! So then I had to kind of incorporate into the show that I wasn’t retiring; the show wasn’t about me talking about how old I’ve gotten. It was about [the audience] thinking, ‘That bitch looks good!”
Q.Have you had to fight off the complacency that sometimes comes with success?
AM: God, no. There’s no complacency. It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Because you want to be grateful for where you are and not keep on believing in the myth that the next thing is going to make you into something you want to be. On the other hand, you want to keep trying to get that carrot that’s dangling, but you don’t want it to be the center of your universe. I’m always looking for something else, opportunities to create. And the mistake I can make sometimes is thinking that next thing is going to be the thing that really makes me popular or really gets me a lot of money or really makes me visible. “Now the whole world’s gonna know me!” The world knows you when you’re in something everybody sees, and they forget about you when you’re not, and that’s just the way it is now.
Q.It’s hard to imagine you don’t feel validated yet.
AM: [laughs] When I’m onstage, I love it. When I’m working, I feel very validated [internally] and by the reactions the audience gives me. And then there are those long [fallow] periods where people say, “So, what are you doing now that you’re retired? When did you get out of the business?” And then you have to go back and put some Pledge on your Tony award and remind yourself, ‘Please, God, I don’t want to die under my headshots and resumes like I heard [movie star] Mary Pickford did.
Q.How has your Armenian ethnicity influenced the characters you’ve played and your onstage persona?
AM: I think I have been able to use it. I certainly think Aunt Voula, in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” was modeled after an Armenian woman I knew who was a professor at UCLA. The old lady in “Candide,” which I played, was Romanian, so I used some of my background there. In my show, I talk about my roots and about growing up as an Armenian girl in Portland, Maine, and never really feeling like I belonged. But I watched a lot of variety shows when I was growing up — those shows with Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett, where I saw people making faces and being larger than life, really gave me a sense that there was a place for me.
Q.Your grandparents escaped the Armenian genocide in 1915. Did they immediately try to assimilate when they came to America, or did they maintain their ethnicity while you were growing up?
AM: My grandparents didn’t even know what assimilation was, really. They were just trying to stay alive and survive in a new land. But my parents — that generation really tried to assimilate. That was what motivated my [late] father to be the success he was. So it was an interesting time to be a girl who had acting abilities and a vitality about her that maybe other young kids didn’t have. And at the same time I was getting the message to fit in.
Q. Did you feel like you were too extroverted for the society around you?
AM: I think if I had had parents who encouraged my uniqueness and supported it no matter what it looked like, then I probably would have grown up with more confidence about my abilities. But they didn’t want anybody to step out of line. Their mission really was to fit in, to be [among] the very wealthy WASPs in Maine and to be accepted. And I completely understand that with their background. With genocide, your whole family’s annihilated and I get how you would want to fit in and not make waves. But that really wasn’t who I was. Not that I was rebellious, it’s just I was a very curious, animated, energetic child and I needed a place to put it. And so I think a lot of it was stifled.
Q.A friend of your father’s said he “expected absolute perfection from every one of his employees.” Did he also expect that of his children, and you in particular?
AM: He did expect it from me. He expected it less from my younger sister and brother. My sister still says, “You talk about Mom and Dad like we had two different sets of parents.” And I think her experience is different. She was a second child. But I was a first-born for them and also the first-born in the Armenian community in Portland, so there was a lot of onus on me to succeed and to thrive and to stand out.
Q.Someone also remarked on your dad’s “wonderful sense of humor.” What did you take from him in that department?
AM: Well, my dad loved variety shows. And he loved the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. He loved physical comedy. We would spend many Saturdays together watching those TV programs that were run back-to-back. And I remember just being so — what’s the word? — titillated by the joy emanating from him. Because he was a very hard worker, worked round-the-clock trying to build a restaurant and grocery store empire, so he very seldom let loose.
Q.Are you at all offended when people call you the funniest woman they’ve ever seen — “woman” being the operative word?
AM: No, that doesn’t bother me at all. I am a woman. I’m fine with that. I’ve never felt that way, honestly. I’ve never been a feminist when it comes to comedy. I’ve never felt like the men’s club was hushing me. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t fit in. I never felt that I didn’t have a voice. I felt that my comedy was universal and it neither spoke [specifically] to women nor men, that what’s funny is funny. And so I never politicized my comedy or my sense of place in comedy.
Q.When you reunited with your former SCTV cast mates — former brother-in-law Martin Short, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas and Eugene Levy — in late 2009 for Second City’s 50th anniversary, it was impressive to see how vital everyone in the cast remains in the comedy world.
AM: And also how generous everybody was toward each other. Everybody just kind of stood aside and let the other person perform. I’m just tingly when I think about it right now.
Q.It had to have helped that you all have awards, money, fame — you’re all more comfortable in your own skin. A long time ago, that might not have been the case.
AM: I think that’s right. We spent a lifetime doing it and were grateful for it. I think every one of us has a kind of humility or a modesty or maybe the feeling of, “What?! We’re successful?” Nobody takes anything for granted. And, listen, what kind of success have we had? It’s been moderate compared to George Clooney’s.
Q.But it’s been admirably consistent.
AM: It has been consistent. I’ve always said that I haven’t had a lot of momentum, but I’ve had a lot of consistency. I can really say that I’ve made a living as an actress. I’m in the one percent.