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Maya Rudolph, Martin Short dish on new variety series 'Maya & Marty'

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Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

Looking for two respected multi-threat performers whose first names begin with “Ma” to headline a variety series? It’s hard to top Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, who star in the aptly titled Maya & Marty, debuting Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. We asked Rudolph (the Saturday Night Live vet who starred in the Peacock’s 2014 variety special The Maya Rudolph Show) and Short (the Tony-winning alum of both SNL and SCTV) about their joining of comedic forces as well as their new show, which boasts other SNL connections: Kenan Thompson is their costar, and Lorne Michaels is serving as executive producer. Read on to learn more about M&M’s journey into song, dance, and sketch. (And to find out which SNL skit by the other person they love the most, click here).

You performed together on the SNL 40 anniversary show, with Maya as Beyoncé. Were there any thoughts of doing a show together at that point? Or did the seeds grow from that appearance?

MARTIN SHORT: I think the seeds grew from that appearance. Lorne had asked Maya and myself to come up with a concept — the history of comedy and music, and the importance of its combination. We had individually in our different eras done so much with that, so he put us in charge, and we found that working with each other — creating it with Marc Shaiman and Fred Armisen — was just fun. Maya and I would improvise together and we’d laugh together. We’d go into little bits and then we’d have dinners. Performing together was very loose and easy, and seemed like a natural fit that had existed for years and yet it hadn’t.

MAYA RUDOLPH: It’s also nice to know each other’s voices even if you’ve never worked together before. I’m such a huge fan of Marty’s and I know his comedy voice, and the nice thing about knowing that I was going to be working with him and Marc Shaiman and Fred, is that we all know each other’s voices. So I knew that I was in these great hands. All the parts that make a whole are the most important thing. It’s just so important to the piece that Marty is the most funny version of Marty that there possibly is, so we’re all gearing toward that goal.

What do you remember of your very first meeting?

RUDOLPH: Marty remembers everything.

SHORT: I have a little bit of the Mary Lou Henner H-SAM [Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory] thing, except that I was telling someone that once and then I realized I couldn’t remember “Henner.” I said, “You know, that girl from Taxi,” so I thought, “Hm, I don’t have it exactly.”

RUDOLPH: You have months, dates, and something else I feel like. You said it was May 2005.

SHORT: Yes, it was May 2005, Tom Brady, Tom Brady — I’m Rain Man. [in Charlie Babbitt voice] Tom Brady was the host, it was raining that day.

RUDOLPH: I’m going to say it’s a light Rain Man.

SHORT: So anyway, that’s when we met. I think he next year I was doing a Broadway show, so I’d come over and I did a couple cameos [on SNL]. Maya was always there. And then of course I did a Paul Thomas Anderson movie [Inherent Vice] that Maya was in.

RUDOLPH: But before I was in it, when I was hearing Paul talk about gearing up to have Marty, I was such a fan girl about it. I knew I could waddle down there, seven-and-a-half months pregnant, and just sit there and watch him. It was such a joy.

SHORT: We had fun.

RUDOLPH: Marty’s the kind of dude that, and I say “dude” specifically because he’s just easy. He’s an easy hang, and when he wasn’t working, we just sat there, and we talked, and you were telling me a funny story about when Gilda [Radner] took you to the Greek, was it? Because you were wearing platform boots.

SHORT: It was hip to wear platform boots. Bette Midler.

RUDOLPH: You were racing Bette Midler. And you fell.

SHORT: Down the stairs in the stupid boots she bought me, and I gave them to Paul Shaffer.

RUDOLPH: And he’s still wearing them today.

SHORT: He needed the height.

How would you two describe your chemistry in eight words or less?

RUDOLPH: Okay. Ready? I can’t think of a word…

SHORT: “I finished school; she didn’t.” That’s five words.

RUDOLPH: I’m not waking up today.

SHORT: “A shared background…” — I’m counting — “of improv…and joy of entertaining.”

RUDOLPH: That’s nine, but I’ll give it to you because I’m not going to credit “a” as a word. I’m going to say, “We speak the same language of comedy.”

SHORT: Exactly what I said.

RUDOLPH: “And joy.” But mine was nine because I didn’t say “a.”

How did you decide whose name goes first? Arm-wrestle? Dance-off?

SHORT: Lady goes first.

RUDOLPH: Is that why? You came up with it. I never asked because I keep my mouth shut. My whole life I’ve known him as Martin Short, but when you get to know him he’s Marty, and Marty is a warm welcome as a name. I felt like it ended there to let you know this is your buddy. Marty is letting you know what you’re in for, which is…

SHORT: Cheap comedy.

RUDOLPH: Cheap thrills.

SHORT: Lowbrow.

You’re both very versatile. Martin, if you could steal one skill from Maya, what would it be? And vice versa?

SHORT: I would say that Maya drifts into people so quickly and that she can be so hilarious and there are no jokes. It’s pure and utter attitude and observation, and then that kind of comedic exaggeration of the people, whether it’s a type of person that can be bitchy or the type of person who talks [affects childish voice] baby talk but she’s 40. You know exactly who she’s doing, the type of person, and the ease that she drifts in and then says, “Where’s my tuna fish sandwich?” I think that’s kind of remarkable.

RUDOLPH: That’s my parrot instinct. I think it comes from music and imitating back what I hear, I’ve noticed that. I think I’m a good mimic because it’s a musical connection. That — and I’m just empty on the inside.

SHORT: Yeah, yeah, when there’s no real person you have to be someone else. I get it.

RUDOLPH: Marty has this wonderful Marty personality that he uses when he’s performing that is so warm, so open, but it’s got such a showman quality. He’s perfected this really dry showbiz sarcasm character that isn’t Marty, but we know it as Marty… [to Short] I mean you did it for [NBC’s 75th anniversary special], and it was like, “Oh yeah, that’s the Marty shtick.” But that’s not the person that you talk to about life and love and liberty. That’s a character. And that’s such a beautiful thing to have, because it’s so skilled and so easy and so relaxed. And also it’s a part of you that you leave at work, that you can go in and out of, and we’re all in on the joke.

NEXT: Rudolph and Short on which celebrity guests you should expect[pagebreak]​

Why is the variety genre such a tough one to crack?

RUDOLPH: I think that people think it’s tough to crack. I’m certainly not interested in trying to do something that’s difficult. This is what I like doing, and this is the format I like doing it in. There might be a perception of it not being as current or regular as it was when we were all growing up on it, but I think there’s far more variety than people are willing to admit.

SHORT: We’ve been asked that a lot. I never really understand it because variety’s completely back. What’s The Voice? That’s variety. What’s America’s Got Talent? That’s The Ed Sullivan Show. Jimmy Fallon is variety. Kimmel.

RUDOLPH: It felt like Glee was a variety show.

SHORT: It just wasn’t hosted by Donny and Marie.

RUDOLPH: It’d be weird if they were all hosted by Donny and Marie.

SHORT: And that’s where you and I don’t agree.

If you guys could time travel back and appear on any variety show in history, which would it be and why?

SHORT: Well, I did Carol Burnett. Sexually. No. I did her show.

RUDOLPH: When did you do Carol Burnett?

SHORT: When Carol came back.

RUDOLPH: Why don’t I know this?

SHORT: Carol came back and did the exact show that she did, [The Carol Burnett Show], in 1991 on CBS at CBS Television City. That was like a surreal fantasy come true. I was her first guest on the first show…. That was kind of like an odd thing: “Wow. I used to watch this as a kid, fantasize what it would be like to be on it before I was even convinced I’d be in show business, and here I am on it.” So I would say that one.

RUDOLPH: I really did want to come here to New York in the 70s and be a part of that [SNL] scene. I felt very drawn to the atmosphere, the coolness, the rock and roll sensibility of it. I’ve always been drawn to New York. And I was little when I was watching the original cast, but there was something about it that was very familiar and I think it was the element of fun that they were having together. It looked like they were having a party, and that’s the thing that I wanted. I was like, “I’ve got to get to that place. I want to be with them and their friends.” [to Short] But you were here. Was it really like that?

SHORT: I was here in the ’80s. I did it after it had been on for 10 years. It was odd when I did it. I had a one-year contract.

RUDOLPH: Yeah, that was different.

SHORT: So I treated every show like it was a special. I didn’t feel that I could slack off at all and I think I therefore created a bit of a monster, so that every show was like, [mumbling] “Oh my god. When does the spring come? When can I go back to Toronto?” I think if I had just known that I was going to be there like a lot of people for five, six years, it would’ve actually been more fun.

Maya, I know that you were a huge Carol Burnett fan, and you watched The Gong Show growing up…

RUDOLPH: I did want to hang out on The Gong Show. I wanted to be…

SHORT: J. P. Morgan?

RUDOLPH: I wanted to be J. P. Morgan. [Short laughs] I wanted to also be one of the celebrity judges on Match Game. That was a big one to me.

SHORT: You know there’s a new Match Game?

RUDOLPH: I know. We were both invited to do it, but I think we have a show.

SHORT: Yeah, we do.

RUDOLPH: But boy, wouldn’t that be fun to sit there like (hums theme song)? [Short laughs] I mean, that, to me, looks like a good hang. And, absolutely, Carol Burnett. Absolutely that camaraderie.

Maya, you did a variety special for NBC two years ago. What lesson did you pull away from that?

RUDOLPH: Make sure you are working with the people who make you laugh the most and that you are thrilled to see when you get to work in the morning. And that work should be a joy.

What’s one promise that you guys are willing to make about this new show?

SHORT: I don’t know if the word is promise. It’s hope. You hope that it will accomplish.

RUDOLPH: I’m going to be with this show in sickness and health.

SHORT: Well, phrase maker, I hope that this show is loose and celebrates our personalities, and is as funny as Maya and I can be just together hanging out.

RUDOLPH: And a fun place to invite people who make us laugh.

Which celebrities will pop up and what will you make them do?

SHORT: Well, on the first show is Jimmy Fallon.

RUDOLPH: We’re going to force him to do a lot of stuff in lederhosen.

SHORT: Miley Cyrus. Tom Hanks. Larry David. Drake.

RUDOLPH: Don’t give it all away. I want them to be surprised.

SHORT: There’s a thing called TV Guide.

RUDOLPH: Do they still have TV Guide, or is it like a digital booklet?

SHORT: No, no. There’s TV Guide. Very hip. I love the TV Guide cross-word puzzle. How difficult it would be: The Tonight Sh–. Two letters…

What advice did Lorne Michaels give you?

RUDOLPH: [To Short] Has he given you advice yet about the show?

SHORT: I don’t know if he’s given me advice. Lorne has great theories about show business.

RUDOLPH: I like two of his theories. One is that you hire people based on the idea that if you run into them in the hallway at 3 a.m., you don’t want to run the other way. And the other one is about SNL, that it doesn’t go on at 11:30 because it’s ready. It goes on at 11:30 because it’s 11:30.

SHORT: [Laughs] I like that. I’ve not heard either one of those.

And how do you feel running into each other in the hallway at 3 a.m.?

RUDOLPH: You have not seen me run faster.

SHORT: I don’t recognize Maya — at that point the makeup’s off.

RUDOLPH: And you don’t want to see that when it falls.

SHORT: I remember one time she smiled, a hunk of makeup fell off and I caught it because I knew she’d want to glue it back later.

For more Rudolph and Short, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new Ultimate Summer Preview Issue, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here now — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.