Pop Culture America let out a collective “awwww” earlier this week when Martin Short switched seats so Chance the Rapper and his daughter could sit together on a flight. Short’s heroism, known among us normals as “decent human behavior,” was lauded by Chance and others — shout out to Jack Frost!
But this wasn’t the first time Short had a memorable celebrity encounter in the sky. An earlier chance meeting (cough) with the first lady of television comedy just might have scarred him for life. Short shared the celebrity horror story a few years ago with Conan O’Brien.
Travel back in time with Short to 1982 or so when he was still starring on SCTV. He’d been on television enough that he was occasionally recognized but not yet a household name. He and a friend hopped on a cross-country flight, an L.A. to NYC megatrek, but he booked a comfortable first-class seat with lots of leg room between the rows. He’d just settled in when he got a thrill — boarding the flight was none other than comedy legend Lucille Ball and (Short guesses) her manager, seated in the row directly in front of him. “It was a vivid red,” he recalls about spotting the icon, miming a massive head of hair. “They don’t make red like that anymore.”
Fast-forward 20 minutes into the flight. Ball suddenly got up out of her seat and turned to Short. Here, Short imitates Ball’s cigarette-ravaged rasp: “Excuse me!” Oh my God, Short thought with a jolt of excitement. Lucille Ball is recognizing me! Er, not quite. “Excuse me! You kicked the back of my seat three times. Would you stop doing that? Thanks.”
Short was baffled. There was plenty of room in first class, and he would have had to make a real effort to extend his legs and kick Ball’s seat. What can you do? He shrugged it off, but 15 minutes later, Ball was back in Short’s grill: “Look! I asked you nice before, I’m going to ask you again, stop kicking the back of my seat or I’ll cry!” (Insert the “Oh Ricky, waaaaaahhhhh” here.) Short was still dumbfounded.
Another 15 minutes had passed when an apologetic stewardess approached. “Excuse me,” she whispered. “I’ve been asked by someone on the plane if you two would keep it down a little bit.” The stewardess cocked her head toward Ball, although Short had a pretty good clue about who was complaining. “I know where that’s coming from,” an irritated Short responded. “It’s coming from the couple in front, and they have been obnoxious since the start of this flight.”
It was on. Ball leaped from her chair in the sky and screamed at Short: “Look! You kicked the back of my GD chair 50 times!”
With the fracas upped a few notches, Short was terrified. This was not the Lucy he knew from television. He pointed at her and said, “You’re out-of-control, lady,” prompting the redhead to call for Barry (again, we assume this is her manager). Now it was Barry in Short’s face, grabbing his index finger and snarling, “What are you pointing at, little boy?” Short pulled his finger away, Barry grabbed it. Short pulled his finger away, Barry grabbed it.
The stewardess intervened, asking Short and his friend if they’d move from first class to business seats in exchange for a free bottle of wine and considerably less conflict. Not that great a deal, Short points out, since liquor was free in first class, but he took her up on the offer anyway. He moved back a few rows, finger intact.
Upon arrival in New York, Short had dinner with John Candy and Bill Murray and retold the tale. “John was so mad upon hearing the story,” Short remembers. “‘Let’s go and find her! We’ll go to her hotel and find her!’”
But Short wasn’t ready for any Candy-style revenge. The most he was willing to do? Find that hotel where she was staying, call her on the phone repeatedly and hang up a lot.
If only Nathan Thurm had been around.