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'Only Murders in the Building': A Killer Comedy

Steve Martin and Martin Short spill the secrets of their true-crime spoof

spinner image Steve Martin and Martin Short star in Only Murders in the Building
Steve Martin (left) as Charles and Martin Short as Oliver in "Only Murders in the Building."
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

At a party with three other actors over age 70, a producer told Steve Martin, 76, “You should write something for them.” Says Martin, “An idea came to me: older guys who want to solve crimes but don't want to go downtown, so make it Only Murders in the Building” — the title of his Hulu series (premiering Aug. 31). His characters hunt a killer in the Arconia, their ritzy Manhattan courtyard building (kind of like the San Remo, Martin's home for 35 years).

"I thought, Wait, I'm old — I could be in it,” says Martin. “And who do you think of next? Martin Short, the imp who aged!”

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"Steve's always had an obsession with true crime,” notes Short, 71, who has been Martin's comedy crony longer than Bing Crosby razzed Bob Hope in their Road to ... movie franchise. “When we do shows on the road, I'll go back to my room and read important books like Chaucer, and Steve will watch a true-crime show he's already seen.”

"True crime is one of my favorite genres,” Martin agrees. His character, the washed-up star of a 1990s cop show called Brazzos, loves it, too — and he channels Martin's fond memories of Michael Parks in Then Came Bronson, Jack Lord in Hawaii Five-O, and Mike Connors in Mannix, though Only Murders in the Building is more like a comic takeoff on Rear Window, Clue and Manhattan Murder Mystery. It's Martin's first lead TV role and his first regular TV role since The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in 1972.

He befriends Short's character, a neighbor in the Arconia. “I'm a theatrical director who's had great success, but not such great success recently, because of my fiasco production years ago called Splash: The Musical, where people were injured, kind of like in Spider-Man.” In the 2011 Broadway play Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, five actors were seriously hurt onstage, one almost fatally. “I thought of your character as a guy who had moderate success off-off Broadway, and then off-Broadway, and then you got your chance on Broadway and blew it,” says Martin.

spinner image Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building
(Left to right) Selena Gomez costars with Steve Martin and Martin Short in the Hulu series.
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

But both characters get a new lease on life from their enthusiasm for a Serial-like true-crime podcast called All Is Not OK In Oklahoma, with a very famous host (Tina Fey). When a neighbor dies, they reject the cops’ theory that it was a suicide, bond with a fellow crime-podcast fan — an artist (Selena Gomez) who's renovating her aunt's Arconia apartment — and decide to sleuth out the murderer and do their own podcast. Like a more empowered version of Hope and Crosby's sidekick Dorothy Lamour, Gomez brings the project intergenerational appeal (plus her 248 million Instagram followers).

"I'm less interested in the angst and pain of the crime, and more interested in how it's solved, with modern crime-fighting science,” says Martin. “Of course, Marty and I and Selena don't have those scientific instruments available, like DNA and fingerprints, so we have to solve it the old-fashioned way. I've always liked crime as a genre because of its great storytelling, and at the end you find out whodunit."

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The 10-part series, which Martin created with Grace and Frankie writer/producer John Hoffman, boasts a stellar supporting cast. “Nathan Lane [65] and Sting [69] live in the building,” Martin says. “Sting plays himself.” Lane plays a deli-chain owner who has supported Short's ill-fated shows, and taken his disastrous advice not to invest in Hamilton and Les Mis. “We have Jane Lynch [61], and Amy Ryan [53] becomes my girlfriend,” says Martin, who plays a concertina-bassoon duet with Ryan across the Arconia courtyard.

Though fans of Martin and Short's banter will love lines like Short's putdown of Martin's podcast narration — “It's so PBS-y, like a Ken Burns documentary on the history of boredom!” — there's drama as well as yocks. “It's not like slapstick,” says Martin. “The comedy ranges from, I would say, very subtle to ... Marty!”

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.

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