Pianist Jeff Babko
Steve Martin and Martin Short’s Secret Weapon
By Ross Boissoneau | July 28, 2018
When Steve Martin and Martin Short bring their comedy show “An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life“ to Interlochen Aug. 11, they won’t be alone. Martin is bringing along the Steep Canyon Rangers, the crack bluegrass outfit with which he’s toured and performed. But it’s the other onstage foil who might be the show’s secret weapon, pianist Jeff Babko.
Babko plays background to the two, or accompanies Short as he sings, but he also plays the (somewhat) straight man to their comedic ripostes. Not a bad gig for the versatile musician, who’s also spent time with Julio Iglesias and rock legends Toto; toured with James Taylor, Shelby Lynn, and Sheryl Crow; been part of dynamite drummer Simon Phillips’s band; led his own jazz recordings; and played on any number of recordings over the years. Oh, yeah, he’s also part of Cleto and the Cletones, Jimmy Kimmel’s house band heard nightly on ABC.
Babko admitted he never had a real plan for his career, and failed to ever see himself in the comedy spotlight. “I loved comedy — SCTV [Canada’s Second City Television, a sketch comedy show], Saturday Night Live,” said Babko. In the same breath, he said, “I never dreamed I’d get to collaborate with the greatest comedians in the world.”
He loved seeing comics and absorbing their routines, he said. But getting yucks wasn’t his forte — his skill and passion lay in playing piano. “I was only good at music. Growing up in southern California, [I thought] I’d love to be a session musician.”
Sometimes dreams come true. After graduating from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Babko began working with Iglesias, who was still at the height of his fame. After leaving Iglesias, Babko hooked up with Phillips, then guitarist Robben Ford, and, later, guitarist Larry Carlton (the Crusaders, Fourplay).
In 1999, Babko learned of an opening as Martin Short’s musical accompanist. When asked if he knew a certain comic segment that Short had done previously — Jackie Rogers Jr.’s $100,000 Jackpot Wad — Babko asked if they wanted him to recite it, line by line. Needless to say, he got the gig, and he’s been working with Short ever since.
He credits Saturday Night Live and The Late, Late Show with David Letterman as foundational blocks for where he’s at now. He loved the original band on Letterman: Steve Jordan on drums, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Will Lee on bass, and bandleader Paul Shaffer playing keyboards.
“I thought it was magical. Paul was bringing music and comedy together as a heightened version of who he is. I noticed music and comedy could co-exist.”
Babko said some of “An Evening You Will Forget” is planned in advance, but he’s always ready to follow Martin or Short when they improvise. “The show varies night to night. The structure or arc is set — the running order, this song to this chat, etc.” But if a particular segment takes off, Babko said there’s room to change things up. He cited as a recent example a segment in which Short was doing a piece where he’s a marionette. “It was going long because it was funny. I told him onstage, ‘We could do this all night.’”
He’s worked with Short long enough now that the two can rely on one another. “I can feel Marty’s timing. We read the room, read the energy, and are ready to turn on a dime.”
While Short and Martin exchange their share of barbs, some planned and some in the heat of the show, it’s still clear that the two share a lot of affection for one another. Babko said that heart is at the center of the show. It’s reflected in the hang and the travel. “What’s onstage is real camaraderie. I can’t speak for Steve, but he’s intimated he’s having the best time he’s ever had. He loves to write and create and rewrite and tweak. He loves the process. This gives him a chance to create a new thing every night.”
Babko considers himself extremely fortunate and doesn’t take his success for granted. On the contrary, he makes sure he appreciates it all. “It won’t always be there. So every time I get to spend the summer with James Taylor or whatever is a blessing.”
He said that feeling is a common one. Neither Short nor Martin need to be traveling, going onstage and doing standup.
“They’re doing it because they’re really having fun. Steve loves and trusts the Rangers. He and Marty love one another and lift each other up. Marty and I have been doing gigs almost 20 years. For us, it’s a fun and familial relationship. Add Steve and the Rangers, and it’s a bigger, happier family.”