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An Oral History of Martin Short's 1994 Movie 'Clifford'

Martin Short in Clifford. Photo: Orion Pictures

‘Look at Me Like a Human Boy!’
An oral history of Clifford, the 1994 cult comedy about a deranged little boy played by Martin Short.

by Rob Turbovsky

It takes a special kind of person to love the Martin Short movie Clifford. Released in April 1994, it opened at a disappointing seventh at the box office, behind the sequel to Major League, the sequel to The Mighty Ducks, and the second sequel to Naked Gun. It endured some of the most negative reviews a film could ever hope to avoid; in a half-star pan that declared the movie “irredeemably not funny,” Roger Ebert wrote that there was “something extraterrestrial about it, as if it’s based on the sense of humor of an alien race with a completely different relationship to the physical universe.”

“What we have here is a suitable case for deep cinematic analysis,” Ebert concluded.

Short was 40 when he starred in Clifford, playing the titular ten-year-old character. The effect is unsettling. Clifford is neither boy nor man. He’s a raging storm of desire, chocolate cravings, and Ethel Merman impressions that has assumed human form. Suffice it to say you don’t watch Clifford to go on the hero’s journey. But sure, there’s plot. When his Uncle Martin (Charles Grodin at his prickly best) reneges on a promise to fulfill Clifford’s dream of visiting the Dinosaur World amusement park, Clifford embarks on a sadistic revenge mission to humiliate Uncle Martin in front of his boss (Dabney Coleman) and estrange him from his child-loving fiancée, Miss Sarah Davis (Mary Steenburgen). Moviegoing audiences didn’t take to it. But thanks to persistent airings on basic cable*, Clifford built a small, devoted following. 

*The television version of the film contains several scenes cut from the theatrical release for pacing and length reasons. These include a sequence in the airport where Clifford pretends to be a deaf child to solicit donations, as well as an added scene in which Clifford gives Miss Sarah the ring his uncle Martin had been intending to propose to her with and then demands it back after she tells him she can’t take him to Dinosaur World in the morning.

Twenty-seven years after its release, simply because nobody told me to*, I decided to track down the people who made Clifford, as well as some of those fans who discovered it later. Actors** and filmmakers, viewers with unexpected connections to the story, and some people with barely any relationship to it at all gathered to offer the deep cinematic analysis Ebert suggested and Clifford — beautiful, crazy, misunderstood Clifford — deserves.

*Full disclosure: I am a devoted fan of Marty Short and Clifford. I am also one of the writers for Marty’s upcoming series, Only Murders in the Building. I have never been explicitly told that I am allowed to call him “Marty.”

**I was unable to speak with Charles Grodin, who sadly died on May 18, after most of these interviews had been completed. Still, his presence is indelible in the recollections that follow.

“Oh, That’s Gonna Bomb”

For many of the people I spoke with, it had been years since they’d talked about Clifford — if they were ever asked to talk about the movie at all. To tell the story, it is necessary to go back to the very beginnings of the idea for the film. Which, surprisingly, predated even the involvement of Martin Short. 

Steven Kampmann (co-writer, Clifford): You’re the first person I’ve talked to about this at all. And not because I’m sensitive. It’s just … there’s no reason to discuss it. No one’s ever approached me about the making of the movie.

I worked with Will Aldis*, who was my [writing] partner. And we had an idea about doing a funny version of The Bad Seed, which is a movie with the idea of a child being evil. I guess I always thought it was funny. We decided to pitch it to Orion [Pictures], where we had done Back to School**,Co-written with Harold Ramis and PJ Torokvei, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School was the second-highest-grossing comedy of 1986. so they were friendly about hearing from us. Will’s next-door neighbor’s son was named Clifford, and so we named the movie after him. In fact, [the neighbor] is a well-known actor.

*Aldis died in December 2019.

**Co-written with Harold Ramis and PJ Torokvei, the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School was the second-highest-grossing comedy of 1986.

Ken Olin* (the neighbor): I mean, our son’s name is Clifford, after his maternal grandfather, and I think that they just liked the name? I don’t even know the movie, frankly. The character wasn’t at all based on Clifford. I think Will Aldis just found that to be a funny name for a boy. I don’t even know if my son saw it.

*Ken Olin was the star of thirtysomething and is now a prolific television director.

Clifford “Cliff” Olin (Ken’s son): I’ve seen it. Oh, I’ve seen it.

I remember rewatching it in middle school or early in high school, because there were people who were very familiar with it and who didn’t believe that it was named after me. I have always checked with my parents: “That is a fact, right? That movie was named after me?”

Kampmann: I came in [to Orion], and I acted out every scene of the movie. Will and I loved to do the pitches. We’d basically outline where we wanted it to go. It wasn’t every perfect scene, but it was enough to know the basic structure of it so they could see it. They got the comedy of it. I was coming off a movie that I co-directed with Will, called Stealing Home*. Will wasn’t as interested in directing as I was; he was kind of a writer’s writer, so I wanted to direct it. We pitched the idea that I would direct and we would write it.

Will and I had been partners onstage at Second City in Chicago. When we wrote together, we recognized that the voice that we used was neither his nor mine but kind of a unique voice. Because we performed for two years together many, many hundreds of shows and improvs, we had a very easy way of improvising. I would say, in general, in my career, I’ve been considered the structure person. Will had a great strength for dialogue. And together, we both had a good sense of building the character. So our process was we would leave town, and we took with us a guy named John Bates — who also has passed away, unfortunately — and we would go to the mountains. Will and I would sit in different seats, and we would then do dialogue, and John would get it down on the computer. What was remarkable about our process was the quantity of work we could do. We generally would go to Taos, New Mexico, for a week at the most. We always returned with a script of at least 120 pages. And that was the process on Clifford.

*Stealing Home was a 1988 romantic drama co-written and co-directed by Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis (under the name Will Porter), starring Mark Harmon, Jodie Foster, and Harold Ramis.

Marc Platt (then-president of production at Orion Pictures): As I recall, the producers of the film were Larry Brezner, who has since passed, and Buddy Morra, who were managers. I believe they were Marty’s managers. They had a deal with us at Orion. They produced a couple of films, like the [Danny] DeVito movie Throw Momma from the Train. 

Pieter Jan Brugge (producer/unit production manager, Clifford): It started with Larry Brezner, who was, aside from being a producer, also the manager of a lot of comedic talent. He was, at the time, part of Rollins, Joffe, Morra, and Brezner, which was a management group that represented the lion’s share of the great comedic talents in the United States: Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Martin Short. Larry developed this script, and he invited me in as his co-producing partner. I became aware of the script and I thought it was hilarious. Larry was someone who was creative, who had unbelievable instincts of what was funny and how to put the right people together. I had knowledge about movie making and putting a film together.

Kampmann: Larry was funny, and he got the idea, and so he got attached to it. We messed around with it some more. Then we got actually greenlit by Orion to make it. So this was going to be casting a child with the storyline that pretty much is in the movie as it is. But Larry got a little concerned that there was another movie coming out with John Ritter called Problem Child*.Shot in the fall of 1989, Problem Child was released by Universal Pictures in July 1990. A comedic version of The Bad Seed, the film was a hit at the box office, grossing $70 million and spawning two sequels. So the concern there was, you know, do we try to get out before they get out? What happens if we don’t? He had decent concerns about it. It was my understanding Larry put a halt to it. We actually had a greenlit movie that got a halt, which you don’t see every day. It was suddenly going to be shelved. And I had the idea … of Marty.

*Shot in the fall of 1989, Problem Child was released by Universal Pictures in July 1990. A comedic version of The Bad Seed, the film was a hit at the box office, grossing $70 million and spawning two sequels.

Martin Short (actor, “Clifford Daniels”): It was Steve Kampmann’s idea to have me play a little boy.

Ken Olin: When you picture somebody calling Marty Short  dressed up like a little boy — Clifford, I think they thought that was funny. That was pretty much the measurement. It is Marty Short, in shorts, being called Clifford. It’s funny. And probably if they called the movie Bill, it wouldn’t be as funny. But maybe it would have been.

Kampmann: I’d been in the Chicago company [of Second City] for two years. I found all the people in Canada very funny. I wanted to work there, so I went up and performed there with [Short] and Robin Duke and occasionally Catherine O’Hara. That’s where our friendship began. Marty was a fan of The Bad Seed.  

Short: I’d seen that film a million times. That was one of the most perverse films in the world. I think what was inspired by The Bad Seed was the idea of the nonstop, obsessive nature of getting what you wanted, at any cost.

Kampmann: He would pretend to be the star, Patty McCormack. And we used to laugh at the idea of a child being evil.

Short: There were things that Patty McCormack would do in The Bad Seed, like, “Oooh, I like that.” So I would go, “Oooh.” “Oooh, I like that.” Little phrases.

Kampmann: So I said, “Why not try Marty? It’s risky. But if anyone could pull it off, he could pull it off.”

Platt: I do remember thinking, That’s either the greatest idea in the world or the worst idea in the world.

Paul Flaherty (director, Clifford): The first time I heard about the idea I thought, Oh, that’s gonna bomb. I kept that to myself.

Platt: The deliciousness of imagining what Marty would do with that felt like it added to the sinister nature of the kid in a comedic and fun kind of way. It was a way to really give a platform to Marty’s genius.

Short: I wasn’t sure if this was just too insane an idea. And nor was my manager, who produced it. I tend to be very pragmatic. To me, it was like, Let’s do a screen test; we’ll have an answer.

Kampmann: I played Charles Grodin’s role. That’s where we improvised the world of “Steffen,” the dinosaur.

Platt: I remember being convinced in the test that this could work.

Short: Everyone found the screen test improbable and hilarious.

Kampmann: We made the screen test and showed it to Orion. I sat with [Orion co-founder] Mike Medavoy, who said, “This is gonna make $100 million.” That’s what he said. I said, “Okay, great.”

Platt: I don’t remember that. I don’t remember those being the days when many films did $100 million. I know there was excitement at the company after the test.

Short: And from that, Orion greenlit the movie.

Platt: If you look back, there were a lot of films that were what I call “high-concept comedies.” And Clifford fell into a genre of films that were being done in those days with some regularity. It wasn’t an anomaly. The anomaly was: Let’s put a concept on top of the concept. It’s not just a Bad Seed comedy, it’s a Bad Seed comedy where the kid is played by a grown-up genius comedian.

Short: I’d just done a special called I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood*, where I played ten different odd characters, including a dancing fence. So the idea of doing something like this … I didn’t really sit back and say, This is gonna make a fortune. I didn’t think that way.

*I, Martin Short, Goes Hollywood was broadcast on HBO on June 3, 1989.

David Letterman (comedian, Clifford fan): If they’d had a child actor in that role, I’m not going to see that movie. But you put Martin Short in that role, and where do I get my tickets? I’m coming. I’ll be there.

“Chuck Is So Brilliant”

With Short cast, attention turned to finding an actor for the other lead role, Clifford’s put-upon uncle, Martin Daniels. From the beginning, the filmmakers had only one person in mind.

Kampmann: I was always a huge fan of Charles Grodin. I knew he would bring out the anger that I wanted.

Clay Dettmer (assistant to Charles Grodin*): They approached Chuck and said, “We have Martin Short, and we would like you for this part.”

I remember Chuck questioned, like everyone questioned, “Can Marty play a 10-year-old?” You know, one, he’s, what was he, in his 30s? And two, he’s not five feet tall. Those were the two things. But that really wasn’t a concern for Chuck. That was a concern for the producers and the movie makers.

*Clay Dettmer worked for Charles Grodin from 1989 until 1999, as an assistant on several films and later as a producer on his talk show.

Short: I fell in love with Charles Grodin in The Heartbreak Kid. I thought it was the funniest performance. I still do. One of the top five great performances. The commitment to this rogue was so brilliant. He always played the kind of sarcastic antihero. Very dry. He was a genius, Charles.

Richard Kind (actor, “Julian Daniels”): Chuck is so brilliant. When he gets excited, it doesn’t get to a loud volume. He’s so brilliant; he underplays when he goes over the top. It’s sublime.

Flaherty: He was one of the most obsessive-compulsive people you’ll ever meet. We went to New York to meet him the first time, and he was not comfortable with the temperature in the room. He fiddled with the thermostat about 30 times. Could not stop. That really tells you something, right?

Photo: Orion Pictures

Dettmer: Chuck was very affable. You go to dinner with him, it was an hour full of entertainment. But he wanted out after an hour. Chuck would tell jokes, we’d laugh, and after about 80 minutes, Chuck would say, “Look, I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. I don’t want anyone to leave. But I’ll be in the car.”

Flaherty: Grodin is from Pittsburgh, where I’m from. And one day there was a Charles Grodin Day in Pittsburgh, and it was not the crowd that Charles was expecting. He took it as an insult, and he disowned Pittsburgh. So he became a New York Mets fan — a fanatic New York Mets fan. While we were shooting, he would have Clay just off-set listening to the Mets game and coming in between takes and giving Chuck a blow by blow of how the game was.

Dettmer: Chuck’s reputation was for being … I don’t want to say difficult, but maybe fastidious, right? Sometimes on a set, the general consensus, especially amongst maybe the producers, or the Teamsters, is “Chuck is difficult.” And I would always go, “How is he difficult?” He only has two requests: “Can I get the Mets in my trailer?” and Diet Coke, and it never changes. I said, “Have you ever seen him throw a tantrum? Have you ever seen him blame a PA for anything?” Never. Not once.

Mary Steenburgen (actress, “Miss Sarah Davis”)He was incredibly sweet and respectful and almost chivalrous in a very kind of old-fashioned way. He was certainly funny around me and made me laugh and enjoyed making me laugh, but he couldn’t have been more of a respectful gentleman. I think the sarcasm and all that was just a really fun part of his humor, but in life he was a very sweet man who adored his family and talked about them a lot.

Dettmer: The one thing that I would say is that the bit was a bit, and that actually, he was the opposite of the bit. He was the nicest, sweetest, most generous person you can imagine*.

*Charles Grodin was a supporter of the Innocence Project, and his family requests that donations be made to the project in his name.

Short: Some people, their idea of improvising is you say, “Hey, you were at the beach today.” “No I wasn’t.” Curtain. That’s the end of the scene. Charles would just go along with it. He never at any time tried to be funny. He knew the attitude to play and went with that attitude. That’s what made him a great actor, and that’s what made him great when he’d go on Carson or Letterman and play that character of the disgruntled guy who didn’t want to be there.

He didn’t care if he was unlikable. He found unlikability hysterical.

Dettmer: Marty said a couple of things that I disagreed with [in an interview about Grodin*]. I believe he said something like, “Chuck really doesn’t care what anybody thinks.” Of course, that’s not true. He cared deeply what they thought. But if he thought it was funny, he was going to go there.

*In an interview on an episode of the Double Threat podcast after Charles Grodin’s death, Short said, “The great thing about Charles is he wasn’t fueled by the admiration of strangers. He really didn’t care. If he thought it was funny, that was all he needed. He didn’t need your approval.”

Short: When there were critics of Clifford, he was the first one to shut them down. He adored that movie. And he loved his own performance.

“One of Those Quote ‘Artistic Differences’ Things”

Once the leads were cast, the film entered pre-production. But disagreements emerged between director Steve Kampmann and other members of the creative team. 

Kampmann: If I had to do it over again, I would probably just have said, “I’m happy to get it made. Go make it.” I think it took a lot out of me to get it to the point that it got to. Because it was really discouraging. You had to come back and resell it. And then there had to be a screen test. And you never know how that’s going to go. Getting it just to the point of getting it made was a lot of work.

Platt: I have a vague recollection of sitting with Steve Kampmann and talking it through with him. I can’t remember what motivated it specifically … whether it was the studio, like a “We’re not sure in the direction you’re going” kind of conversation, or if it came from the producers.

Kampmann: Remember, it was [originally] going to be a real child. I didn’t think about audiences. And there’s a difference between the audience I would think of, obviously, if it’s a real boy, that’s going to skew younger. With Marty, it just skews bizarre. That’s like the big shift, I guess.

Kind: I would have been much different if I had been with a real kid. Oh my gosh. And I could have done it, but I would not have approached it that way. It was Richard Kind getting mad at Marty Short for making me laugh. I would never have been that angry and seething [with a kid]. So it’s an over-the-top performance without being cartoonish. Marty was over the top and cartoonish. It really is a genre decision.

Kampmann: With a real child, you have as many scenes as you want. But when you are doing something of that kind of risk where you’re taking an adult and making them into a child, you’re not actually looking for more scenes, you’re looking for probably less scenes.

Let me give you an example. Rodney [Dangerfield] — everyone knew he was funny. But any movie he’d done, after about 30 minutes, people got kind of tired of it a little bit. So Harold [Ramis]’s great genius there, if you go back to Back to School, was in the very beginning to make Rodney really likable. And that gave [him] the kind of wheels to last through an entire film. So with a real child, I’m going to add as many scenes as I think the movie can stand. But with Marty, you don’t want to expose him in a way that would break that agreement with the audience; you want to be careful about that.

Flaherty: There were strongly felt things on Marty’s side about the direction it was going and the screenplay itself.

Kampmann: I don’t think at the time that I understood as much that the tone was going to change. What is it — is it more of a sketch movie? How do you play it?

Short: Brezner and Steven [Kampmann] had creative differences.

Flaherty: It was a terrible situation. One of those quote “artistic differences” things between Steven and Orion. And they parted ways.

Kampmann: Larry Brezner had a lot to say about who the producers were going to be and how things worked. I’m not gonna get into all that, but it was an environment where decisions weren’t happening right away.

I’m not busting him, because I liked him. But I think we did see it in a different way. And he’s the manager of Marty. He’s looking after Marty. That’s his job.

Short: Now Paul Flaherty’s in.

Flaherty: Marty called me and told me what the situation was — that Steven was being replaced. To be honest with you, at the beginning, I was hedging. I was leaning toward not wanting to do it. It was an icky situation. I knew Steve — not well, but I knew him. Very funny guy, very bright guy. I knew it could be misinterpreted as kind of a knife-in-the-back sort of thing, which was the farthest thing that I ever wanted to be involved with.

Then I ran into him once, maybe a year later after the film had just been completed or whatever, in Century City, and I said, “Hi.” He said, “Hi.” And it was obvious that it was not the friendliest of “Hi”s, you know? I thought, Shit. Steve probably thinks that I was part of it and I wasn’t.

Kampmann: If you ever speak with him again, tell him I never looked at it that way. Because I know he was put in a position. Someone was going to direct it. He’s close with Marty. Marty trusts him. That’s the reality of the business.

Brugge: Paul Flaherty knew Marty from SCTV, and I think that Marty was seeking that level of trust.

Flaherty: [I met him] at a party in Eugene Levy’s house in Toronto, and I had no idea who he was. It wasn’t very consequential. I never really got to know him until they hired him for SCTV. He shot a scene where he played Mr. Rogers in a boxing ring with Julia Child. I saw the makeup that he had, and he came around to get in the ring and got his legs tangled up and did a pratfall. I knew from that point that I was going to like him and work with him, just for how crazy he was.

Short: There is a trust factor that if someone comes up to you, and they’re laughing and saying, “That’s what we should do,” you feel confident. When you’re working with someone you don’t have any trust for — and I have been in situations like that in my career — you then make everyone love you and you weasel out as many takes as you can. “Can I please have another take? Can I? One more, please?” They go, “Oh, Marty! Should we give Marty another?” “Yeah!” And then you go home and you say, “Okay, I’ve given this moron every version of what he needs. He has it. He’ll screw it up two months from now when he’s putting something together, because he’s not very good, but I’m going to toast myself with a glass of Champagne. I did everything I had the power to do.”

Flaherty: Larry Brezner called me and said, “Look, I know you’re hesitant, because of Steve, but that’s a done deal. Steve and Orion have parted ways. We’re looking for a director.” So then that changes things. I thought, Well, if Steve is definitely gone, they’re going to be hiring somebody else. This is definitely something to consider working with Marty on. Although I still had that fear about the 10-year-old-kid thing. But I talked to Marty about it, and about how he was going to approach it, and then I felt, Well, this could be really funny.

So I came aboard.

Short: It was not my intention to jump into the screenwriting of this. There was always a part of me that thought, Well if it doesn’t happen, maybe it shouldn’t happen. It’s not like Innerspace, where you read a script; there’s a beginning, middle, end; it’s plausible; it’s sci-fi; oh, and Spielberg’s attached. You go, We’re fine. This was an eccentric idea to begin with. He wasn’t 13. He was 10.

Flaherty: The [rewriting] was mostly Marty. It was mostly Marty going in the direction he wanted to go in, with me adding whatever. I jumped aboard a moving train.

Preproduction had already been well underway. They’d hired John Alonzo*John Alonzo, who died in 2001, was a legendary cinematographer whose credits included Chinatown, Norma Rae, and Scarface. and a bunch of other people. A lot of important crew.

*John Alonzo, who died in 2001, was a legendary cinematographer whose credits included Chinatown, Norma Rae, and Scarface.

Steenburgen: John Alonzo was really brilliant. Probably one of the most underrated DPs I’ve worked with. What was crazy was that before Steadicams came to pass, John Alonzo was hand holding and shooting a huge percentage of the movies that he was doing. And it was every bit as effective and steady as a Steadicam.

Brugge: When you look at his movies, his lighting was always naturalistic, and it was simple, and it didn’t get in the way of the actors. When you make a comedy, the last thing you want is someone who, on a visual storytelling level and a lighting level, gets in the way. John had a real skill of making actors at ease. So it was a set that was really pleasant and enjoyable to be on. I mean, that isn’t to say that there wasn’t tension from time to time, but people were in an atmosphere where they could thrive.

“Either You Accept the Concept, or You Don’t”

After rewriting the script, the filmmakers cast the other important parts: Richard Kind as Clifford’s father, Jennifer Savidge (St. Elsewhere) as his mother, and Academy Award winner Mary Steenburgen as Sarah Davis*,According to Kampmann, other actresses who auditioned for the role included Sharon Stone and Marilu Henner. Uncle Martin’s enchanting fiancée and the object of Clifford’s love. But a larger challenge lay ahead: how to make 40-year-old Martin Short look like a 10-year-old boy. 

*According to Kampmann, other actresses who auditioned for the role included Sharon Stone and Marilu Henner.

Kind: Marty is a really good man, and he likes to help out people who are close to him and people that he’s a fan of. I was at Second City, and this role came up. He was a fan of mine. I think Paul Flaherty was a fan of mine from Second City. I don’t remember auditioning, but I remember meeting [casting director] Lynn Stalmaster, so I must have auditioned.

Jennifer Savidge (actress, “Theodora Daniels”): I got a call for it. I read what the character was, and I thought, Well, I could be drunk.

Steenburgen: I like things that are kind of off a little bit. So I think I liked the idea, and I really adore Marty, and I have a massive respect for what a unique, wildly talented, charismatic person he is. So there would be no way in which I would’ve doubted his ability to pull off something magical. Whether or not it felt like a 10-year-old, I knew it would be hilarious and fascinating.

Flaherty: It was a real pain in the ass, I’ll tell you that. It was a constant, constant pain to keep up that illusion. I couldn’t just shoot a scene.

Photo: Orion Pictures

Brugge: There were long conversations about it. I mean, to shrink somebody, like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids format, is very complicated and expensive, and the movie didn’t support that kind of a budget. There were discussions about, “Okay, do we create a larger chair for Marty so that he can feel smaller in the chair? Or are we just gonna simply play it for real and not worry about any of those attributes that make you feel that you’re trying too hard?” I think you either accept the concept, or you don’t.

Short: I remember in the scene at the party, all the extras who were dancers and teenagers were six-foot-two or something. Even in the clothes that they would make for me, everything was oversized. They probably used the same thing for The Incredible Shrinking Man. So for the vest, the buttons would be bigger than normal to make me seem like a smaller person in a big vest. And when Grodin could be on a box, he would be. I’d be in a chair, and the chair would be designed to be a little bigger. They’d angle it down. They just had a whole bunch of tricks.

Steenburgen: I had heels on certain times. Or he was in a trench.

Flaherty: I don’t recall us building anything oversize. We might have. Usually, we accomplished it by raising the other actors up. Any other time that you see him in the same shot with somebody is a wider shot with a kid who’s a double. Like at the airport when he gets on the moving sidewalk, there’s a shot from behind with Grodin getting on. That’s a little boy. And then when I cut around to the front, Grodin is standing on a box.

Savidge: We were waiting for a scene to start one time, and makeup and hair had him wearing Milton Berles. You know what those are? Milton Berles were these things that were taped behind your neck and had an elastic band that went around behind and attached to the other side. And so it would pull your face and defy gravity.

Steenburgen: They were these weird things old movie stars had worn.

Savidge: Apparently, Milton Berle used to use these all the time when he was doing his show to look like he was younger than he was. I don’t know what the official term for them is.

So he’s wearing these, and I’m standing there talking. He’s telling a story, and all of a sudden I looked at him, and I started laughing, and I said, “I hate to tell you this, but half of your face just fell.” The strap had snapped. But it was really funny to me. “You just aged several years.”

Short: I’d like to think there were hours and hours of Brando-esque preparation for it. It was just from that screen test, we thought, Okay, now we have something. I don’t know if it will work. We have something.

“Those Are Words You Don’t Say to a Child”

Short’s co-stars all found different ways to bring a level of reality to their relationship with Clifford. 

Kind: I wasn’t used to working single-camera at all. And Marty just made me laugh. He knows how to make people giggle.

During the scene where we’re on the airplane, he would have to get by me, and my legs being long, he would have to climb over me. And when he did, it was almost as if I were, like, one of those walls in the Army that you have to climb over. So he would make me laugh by the way that he would climb over me. Because although he’s playing a 10-year-old boy, he’s a 150- or 160-pound man. And he would climb over me, knee in the crotch, rubbing his face against mine.

And what he would do is make the smallest little fart sound in my ear as he was climbing over — the smallest, tiniest little fart sound that a microphone would not pick up, and I would laugh every single time. It got to the point where Paul would say, “Marty, please don’t do that. He’s gonna laugh.” It didn’t stop him. He would do it over and over and over again, and it just killed me. And I’m getting so angry, and I’m acting angry because Clifford is a pain in the neck. However, if you have that core anger, it just turns into laughter. And he would just do it time and time and time again.

Savidge: I don’t recall treating him like a 10-year-old. I treated him as a brat, you know? There are a lot of adults who are brats.

Steenburgen: It’s funny because I just realized for the first time that I’ve played in a couple of films where my character is supposed to be completely oblivious to the dangers inherent in the situation. In Elf, I happily encourage my husband to embrace his son, who’s dressed as an elf, and I happily embrace this 10-year-old who Charles Grodin has very mixed feelings about.

Kind: “IS THERE NO END TO YOUR MADNESS?” It’s so large. It’s a plea, and it’s angry. And those are words you don’t say to a child. You say that to an adult who’s playing a child. To a child, you would say, “Stop it. I have had enough out of you.” So when you are studying the script, as a teacher of mine said, “Every answer you need is in the script.” And no adult would ever say that to their child.

Steenburgen: I think one of the most interesting things about being an actor is the intuition of tone. It’s a hard thing to teach that ability. It’s not something I’ve ever heard taught in acting schools. But one of the most critical things you can know as an actor is to understand the painting around you, not just visually but in terms of what it’s supposed to feel like. I remember feeling like, Just show up and hold on to the reins, because there’s horses galloping right now.

Kind: Mary Steenburgen is a woman who is incapable of lying. Every word out of her mouth, no matter what it is, is sincere. Take a look at her in Step Brothers. It’s sincere; she doesn’t know how to lie. I know how to lie. I’m not that good. My performance is over the top. She’s never over the top. Every line she ever commits to has only reality to it. She plays inside the scene and lets it be funny. But it’s not that it’s funny; it’s funny in the context of the scene. That’s how good she is.

Steenburgen: Because Marty and I are real friends, I think a lot of it was just the awareness of the delight in each other. And because Sarah is supposed to represent the opposite of what Charles Grodin is doing.

It was just sort of delicious, being enchanted by Marty, because I am enchanted by Marty. That wasn’t really hard to do. Marty is also just a really good actor. Probably a little underrated, because people are so dazzled by his humor and also his extraordinary vocal talents.

“It Was Special and Kind of Genius”

The film’s most memorable moments almost all come in heavily improvised scenes between Short and Charles Grodin, who plays Uncle Martin with an edge-of-insanity exasperation that has rarely been equaled in studio comedy. 

Tom Scharpling (writer, comedian, Clifford fan): There are moments when the acting is, for comedic acting, at the highest possible level. When they’re sitting there, and Clifford is playing with Steffen [the toy dinosaur], it’s some of the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m not joking. For two comedians to build a scene that’s just nonstop tension …

Letterman: For Grodin, the age of the kid goes out the window almost immediately. He is his nemesis and adversary. And he’s so filled with hate for the kid.

Dettmer: It was a morning where Chuck was sick as a dog. He could barely get out of the trailer, with a head cold and everything. And then I’m sitting here watching him do this incredibly long, elaborate scene …

Flaherty: “Look at me like a human boy. You can’t do it.” That’s improvised. That’s Grodin. That’s the moment from the movie that people remember. And then Marty doing that reaction face — his version of what a normal boy looks like, with that dumb look on his face. [Laughs.] So what you got there was the best of Grodin and the best of Marty right in that little moment.

Short: All the me touching him and the dinosaur stuff, I would change that in that moment from take to take, and he loved that. He loved responding to the moment.

Flaherty: Grodin loves improvising. We were gonna have a read through. He said, “Well, why do we need a read through? I think we should just show up and be open to whatever happens.”

Steenburgen: The combustion between the two of them was so intense. With Charles Grodin, what’s dangerous is you don’t always see the explosion coming until it’s upon you.

Dettmer: You know the scene where he drinks the Tabasco sauce and gets red in the face and all that? I was an actor. I mean, how did he do that? No rehearsal, no practice. He just had a complete trust when it came to it. Where do you draw from? Maybe he draws from Stanislavski. I don’t know. It was a slow burn and looked real.

Platt: Watching it as they were shooting it, those scenes are unbelievable. I haven’t seen the movie in many, many years; I have to tell you the truth. I will never forget seeing those exchanges. Just the two of them improvising. It was special and kind of genius. They fed off each other.

Flaherty: Marty is not a selfish performer. He likes setting up his fellow performers to get the funniest from them, and he is willing to step back and let them be the funny one at a certain point in a scene. Some actors are incapable of doing that, of being that unselfish. If he were improvising and was ready to go in a certain direction, and then the person he was improvising with took it in another direction, he would let them go and not try to push his version or agenda or beat. Or if he knew that they were good at doing a certain thing, he would make that part of his improv to set them up to get them to do it.

I always admired that about him. So many actors get competitive, especially in an improvisational situation. The absolute best thing an improvising actor can do is listen. And that’s why Marty and Grodin are great improvisers. Because they listen.

“We Just Have to Be Sincere Within the Bizarreness”

Short is the rare performer with the energy and skill to sustain a larger-than-life character for far beyond the length of a comedy sketch. 

Brugge: I remember shooting the big scene with a train out on the train station, and Marty going down the length of the train, his arms spread. I mean, isn’t that a really indelible moment in the movie?

Flaherty: That was my idea. It was so long ago, and I always hate saying it was my idea. I could be wrong. But it was Marty’s idea to sing “San Francisco” and sing it like Ethel Merman. It was my idea to add the high note at the end. I took his voice and raised it an octave in post.

Platt: I remember watching that in dailies with a group, because those were the days everybody went into a screening room together to watch dailies, and I can remember everybody really laughing at that, and thinking how wonderful he was and how funny the movie was.

Scharpling: It’s a movie where Martin Short did not want to worry about what an actual child would know. For him to suddenly break into show tunes, like, “San Francisco, open your Golden Gate …” That’s not a 10-year-old. That’s Martin Short. And he’s just doing what he wants to in that moment.

Taran Killam (actor, Clifford fan): It’s such a good performance. There is an authentic nuance to it that speaks to me. He’s taking mannerisms and facial expressions and the speech patterns of a 10-year-old and then just ratcheting it up to 11. And it’s the type of broad, intense commitment that only Martin Short could pull off.

Short: How does Joaquin Phoenix — you know, everyone compares us — how does he maintain the Joker? It’s just that’s what your job is, and you’re trying to modulate between. “Okay, that was really extreme. Let’s do a very odd, quiet one. Let’s reveal more and more about the complexity of this kid.” I don’t analyze tremendously what I do. I try things. I go to the dailies. I say “Oh, that. That’s funny. But that seems like I’m asking to get a laugh.”

Letterman: Looking at it from a medical standpoint, clearly there’s something wrong [with Clifford]. What would be the diagnosis of that human? Because there’s pathology going on here. But what is it?

Short: I just always found that, surprisingly, you can go big into character as long as it doesn’t make it look like you’re trying to make the audience laugh. So that’s what we would do. With Clifford, we tried different things: “Let’s do one a little bigger.” “Let’s do one a little smaller.” “Let’s go very sincere.” “Let’s just try it.” And then especially in the early days [of the shoot], you kind of look at it and say, “No, the whole thing is heightened. We don’t have to worry about that. We just have to be sincere within the bizarreness.”

“There Is Very, Very Little Real Ride in That Movie”

The most technically challenging part of the shoot was filming the harrowing climax, in which a crazed Uncle Martin kidnaps Clifford, taking him to Dinosaur World and forcing him to ride the Larry the Scary Rex over and over again. 

Brugge: I found a guy who was the head of maintenance over at Magic Mountain and discussed with him creating a mini–dinosaur ride that we used. The production designer designed the car. And Alonzo really had the skill to pull it off so that when Marty is hanging, he might not make it, and Grodin comes in to save him and reaches out his hand. And that dinosaur is there. I mean, it all plays.

Photo: Orion Pictures

Flaherty: Steven Spielberg asked Marty, “Where was that ride that you guys shot that on?” The actual ride that we constructed was about 20 feet worth of ride. The rest was all done with miniatures, rear-screen projection, guys in Larry the Scary Rex costumes, motion-control animatronics. There is very, very little real ride in that movie.

Short: Steven’s a very close friend of mine. So yes, he phoned me up, and what Steven is really great at, particularly if your film hasn’t opened, is he will make sure he phones you, and he’ll stay on the phone for a long time dissecting why it’s so great. Part of it is because he’s a great friend, but part of it is hopefully that he means it.

Flaherty: [Composer/former Oingo Boingo keyboardist Richard Gibbs] wrote the whole Larry the Scary Rex song.

Flaherty and Gibbs singing the Larry the Scary Rex song.

Richard Gibbs (composer): When a composer is hired to score the movie, he goes away and writes the themes and — at least this is the way I would do it — I just think about it and go over to the piano and noodle it out, and then write down sketches of what I think. I had written those main themes: the main Clifford theme, the mischief theme, and the love theme for Miss Sarah*.

*The love theme begins at 46 seconds into the track titled “The End” here.

I’m guessing there’s probably 70 minutes of music in that puppy. We spent five days recording the orchestra. I think we had a 75-piece orchestra for that particular score.

Okay, here’s a funny little side story: Marc Shaiman* and I were both represented by Richard Kraft, same agent at the time. I knew Marc — not like we ever hung out, but we went to dinner once or twice with other people. Very affable, funny, charming guy. And when Clifford came out, apparently Marc went to see it. He’s one of the few people who saw it. He called up Richard and said, “Hey, I just went to see Clifford. Apparently, Richard Gibbs has discovered the Lydian mode,” which is the scale that I use for most of the thematic material in the movie.

*Marc Shaiman is a prolific Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony-winning composer and lyricist known for his collaborations with Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, and Rob Reiner, as well as for writing the music for the Broadway adaptation of Hairspray.

It was him being kind of a smartass. I was just flattered that he went and watched the movie and made note of the music at all. I thought that was really sweet of him. I didn’t think anything more of it. Years later, a movie comes out called The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin and scored by Marc Shaiman. I really loved the movie. I’m talking to my then–music editor, a guy named Will Kaplan. And he goes, “Yeah, I really liked your theme in there.” I go, “I didn’t write that. What are you talking about?” He goes, “You didn’t recognize it?” So I went and somehow got a copy of the love theme and listened to it. And sure as shit, it’s the same phrase as the opening of the love theme for Clifford.

“Who the Fuck Do You Think You Are?”

After the initial cut of Clifford was completed, the film was screened for test audiences. The results were … not what was hoped for.

Letterman: You think you’re gonna see a regular movie, because it looks like a regular movie — the color is regular, it’s bright, it’s crisp. It’s got the people you know and understand are talented and funny and should be in movies. And then Clifford begins.

Flaherty: The goal was to make something that everybody loved.

Gibbs: I remember that they were testing it, and it wasn’t testing well, and the response that came back on a lot of the cards was that they wished he had died on the ride. They wanted the kid to die. And that was not, of course, the desired result.

Flaherty: It showed up in the cards: “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” “Fuck you!” Scrawled on the thing, you know? And then two cards later, “This is brilliant. This is genius.” Going into detail about every character, every joke, every obscure reference that they got. Then the next one: “Yeah, right. I don’t buy a fucking 40-year-old guy as a kid. Fuck you.”

"You think you’re gonna see a regular movie, because it looks like a regular movie — the color is regular, it’s bright, it’s crisp. It’s got the people you know and understand are talented and funny and should be in movies. And then Clifford begins."— David Letterman

Brugge: Test audiences are very useful to see where the humor is. They’re less successful in terms of telling you what you need to do, of how you need to solve the problem.

Platt: I do remember there was some reshooting, that the picture did not work as well as we had hoped, at least with the test audiences, and that we did need to do some additional shooting, which helped. I don’t think it ever tested as great as we’d hoped it would. Whatever flaws the movie may have had creatively, it’s also probably the kind of idea that, to some, can be brilliant and to others can be, That is just too weird for me.

Flaherty: There was a whole thing about Clifford having a girlfriend his own age. We actually had the real adult [Bad Seed star] Patty McCormack on the plane portraying a passenger who warns Clifford that his behavior is going to wreak havoc. We had to cut the scene for time — I wish we had left it in.

Short: I’m sure we shot endless footage. Even The Irishman was longer at one point. They have to cut things down.

Flaherty: The original ending was Clifford parachuting out of a plane to get back to Dinosaur World. He went on to go to Hawaii with his parents. At the end of the movie, we see them leaving at the airport, and he’s kind of made up with Grodin. Clifford and his parents get on the airplane, and then at one point we cut to a shot of the empty sky. Then we just see Clifford’s legs come into frame, and he’s in a parachute, and he makes the Clifford face. And that was the last shot of the movie.

Gibbs: That’s when they realized they’ve got to do these bookends.

Short: Obviously we didn’t do it because we were testing through the roof.

Flaherty: I remember being so sick and tired after all these screenings. I remember one of the Orion executives saying, “I would say, conservatively speaking, that about 40 percent of the people that saw it just really hate it.” And then he got around to saying, “We’ve got to make some changes.” I said, “Well, how much do you want me to change?” And he said, “I don’t know, maybe 40 percent.”

Platt: So I think the idea of the wraparound was both to redeem the character but also to show the older Marty and the younger Marty. And somehow, because you’re flashing back off of him, it’s a ramp, a bridge into the conceit of Marty playing this little kid.

Short: By making it a story that an old priest could reflect on himself as a child, it’s heightened. Because it’s now in storytelling as opposed to literal.

Flaherty: That was shot months after the first round. We didn’t have that whole cathartic thing with Uncle Martin.

Photo: Orion Pictures

The wedding [was added], and a bunch of other stuff. The scene in the kitchen where Grodin has the [bread loaf that he’s using as a] baseball bat — that was a reshoot. You know how you can tell it’s a reshoot? Because Marty is looking buff in it. He went off and did another movie and was lifting weights. And he came back, and I said, “Wait a second. How does this work? Why is Clifford buff all of a sudden?”

Marty kept denying that he had been working out, but he was! All of a sudden, he didn’t fit his Clifford costume anymore. His biceps were bulging in the Clifford jacket. If you watch it, you can see it in that scene. He’s too big for that jacket.

Short: I had been working out. I always worked out. For the main shoot, I got really thin. And it’s not that I got fat for the reshoots, I just didn’t do my normal going-to-the-gym thing. The main thing that I see in the reshoots that makes me laugh is the wig, because I was shooting other films where I would always change my hairstyle.

“It’s Pretty Scary If You Think It’s for Kids”

Though the movie was shot in 1990, Clifford’s release was delayed by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures*. The movie wasn’t released until April 1994, a year in which the highest-grossing comedies were The MaskDumb and Dumber, and The Flinstones. Enthusiasm for marketing it was as low as enthusiasm for seeing it.

*After a string of hits in the mid-1980s by directors like Paul Verhoeven, Jonathan Demme, Milos Forman, and Woody Allen, Orion endured a disastrous series of flops in 1989 and 1990, forcing it to shut down its production arm, sell off various properties, and eventually go into bankruptcy.

Brugge: Orion was no longer the same company.

Flaherty: We were really in limbo. We didn’t know what the hell was going to happen. And because of those original screenings, this wasn’t No. 1 on their list.

Short: There wasn’t a big budget to release it at all, to the point where Larry Brezner said, “You will do what you want, but I can’t advise you to even promote this.”

Kampmann: It wasn’t a perfect situation when we saw the movie. I just didn’t think it was great. Orion themselves hadn’t done anything with it. And after all the work that I put into that movie to get it to that place, if you take your name off of a movie, you won’t get paid. So I just used the name Bobby Von Hayes, which is named after a baseball player that I loved named Von Hayes. Will did the same*. We put pseudonyms on it because we hadn’t been involved in the process, and it was four years [earlier]. So it’s just a way of keeping our hand in it but not in it.

*Will Aldis is credited as “Jay Dee Rock.”

Platt: Comedy is generally of its moment or wants to be of its moment. The films that got delayed a couple of years, I don’t think any of them fared that well. And I’m sure the robustness of the release and marketing probably wasn’t as significant as it would have been.

Short: Clifford’s release was not helped by the fact that it was kind of something getting off the shelf that MGM was pushing out with not much promotion. Especially because it had been so many years, it had the stench of a four-years-on-a-shelf film, and then you add its absurdity …

Flaherty: Charles Grodin called me up. We sent him a rough cut. He just loved it. He just kept saying, “It’s so original.” Then before it came out, we did a screening for friends. I can’t remember where it was. Maybe the Directors Guild allowed us to use one of their screening rooms. Harold Ramis, who was a friend of ours, came to see it. And after it was over, he said “A hundred million. The movie is going to make a hundred million easily.” And I thought, Oooh, Harold is always right! He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Steenburgen: That [ad] is just so bad. It’s like, Who are you trying to attract with this?

Savidge: It’s pretty scary if you think it’s for kids.

Scharpling: The poster is like the apex of bad photoshop.

Short: The one thing I’ve learned about show business — very few things — but one is no one wants to hear the truth when it’s all done. You need to hear the truth when you’re on the road with a show, for example, or when you’re inviting a friend to a screening and the movie can change. But once it’s locked, no one needs to hear the truth.

“Nobody Sets Out to Make a Cult Movie”

Despite a seemingly warm reception at some press screenings, critics were not kind to Clifford. No major publication gave it a positive review. Its current Rotten Tomatoes score is 13 percent.

Short: I remember going to a critics’ screening, sitting at the back, and the place was raucous. And yet the reviews did not reflect that. You then want to say, “Oh, so you think getting laughs in a theater is really, really easy?”

Flaherty: I can laugh and joke about it now, but it was not fun to find out that Roger Ebert had that horrendous reaction to it.

Chaz Ebert (widow of Roger Ebert, publisher, RogerEbert.com): I have no recollection of seeing this movie or of ever reading this review. I read it for the first time just now, which is strange because we saw most films together. Every so often, a movie would strike Roger this way, and he would just write a review that was probably as painful for him to write as it was for the filmmakers to read. He, of course, wanted to like all the movies he saw. But when he didn’t, he was painfully honest about his feelings, sometimes excruciatingly so for the filmmaker.

Steenburgen: I don’t read reviews.

Savidge: Why read the reviews? Everybody has an opinion. Is that opinion going to affect you, or is it not going to affect you? I’m the kind of person that it probably would affect, so I thought I’d better stay away from it. But I did read those reviews. I was a little surprised by it. You know, it was a quirky movie. I’m sure that Martin was really disappointed.

Short: I put that [Ebert review] in my book to symbolize what the critical response to the movie was. But no, I didn’t care about Roger Ebert. I didn’t know him. I didn’t have particular regard for him either way, you know? He was a nice man, but the thing about reviews is the only time they hurt is when you know they’re absolutely right, and then you’re kind of caught. But if you think something’s funny, and someone writes and says, “It’s no good,” you go, Well, you’re an idiot, or You don’t get it. You don’t hate them. But you do realize that reviews will help maybe get more seats in the theater.

Platt: I can’t imagine at the time that I wasn’t aware. We used to actually read reviews back in the ’90s. As opposed to, you know, a number on the Rotten Tomatoes scale.

Kind: I’ll be damned if anybody knew that this would be popular the way that it is. You want to make a really funny movie that gets an audience. That’s your goal. Nobody sets out to make a cult movie.

Kampmann: At the time we went through it, it was a disappointment. But as time goes by, everything seems to work out the way it’s meant to work out. It was hilarious and fun to write. I have good memories of it. Marty and I are good friends. So there’s no issue there.

Short: I’m not trying to profess anything is ahead of its time, but most of my career has been spent in not worrying what people thought of it. What was important to me was what my friends would think of it. And in a way, that’s how we did SCTV. We assumed that the audience was as bright as we were, and we were a bright group, and that our level of satire would be appreciated.

Gibbs: That’s kind of what Oingo Boingo was like when I was in the band. It was always kind of a cult band. I, personally, relish that. I’ve always found that if I start to chase what popular opinion is that it’s going to fail. That’s not how to do it. The audience has to come to you.

Short: If I’m on some talk show, and I missed it, I now go to YouTube. If you read the comments below, a lot of them are wonderful. And then there’s someone who’s saying, “I just can’t stand him and never could.” You’re never gonna win those people over. Comedy is the most subjective thing in the world, and what’s appallingly unfunny to someone is genius to someone else. The only thing I know is that the people that hate me and say, “He just bugs me,” I know that if I had dinner with them, I’d be bored. That’s the only thing I can say back to those bastards. [Laughs.]

“People Love an Underdog”

Twenty-seven years after its release, the legacy of Clifford lives on.

Steenburgen: What do people say about this movie? [Laughs.] I don’t know.

Nancy Meyers (writer/director, Clifford fan): I absolutely love Clifford. I just thought it was insanely brilliant.

Platt: Is it worth watching again? Will I be horrified, or will I laugh?

Scharpling: What do I love about the movie Clifford? It’s just insane. It’s truly insane. It should not exist, ultimately, because it’s the weirdest conceit for any movie ever. And the movie is basically a horror movie. It’s just terrifying in spots. And the two-hander aspect of it is just off-the-charts brilliant. Like, you’ve never seen these guys just clear the deck and do their thing. They just make room for these guys to go back and forth, back and forth. It’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Photo: Orion Pictures

Killam: It’s shocking to me, particularly in the world of comedy, how rare it is to come across somebody who has seen it. Until adulthood, you could not have told me that Clifford was unsuccessful. I’d be like, “You’re an idiot. It’s one of the greatest comedies of the early ’90s.”

Scharpling: I’ve rammed this movie down everyone’s throat as soon as I had any kind of platform to do so. Trying to convert people to seeing Clifford was one of the first things I did with any audience that I could express anything to.

Killam: One of the first things I asked [Short] about was Clifford. I said that I love it so much: “It’s so funny to me. It’s one of my favorite things you’ve done.” He’s like, “Oh, you’re a dear boy!”

Steenburgen: My son [writer-director Charlie McDowell] has friends that are also writer-directors, and they have a movie night where they pick different people and they play a couple of their films. And one of the films that they wanted me to watch and then come talk to them about was Clifford. I’m like, “Are you serious?” and they’re like, “Yeah!” So I don’t quite understand if it’s all loving something that’s sort of camp in a hilarious, weird way …

Killam: There’s nothing ironic about my love for Clifford. I find it to be an authentically hilarious dark comedy that I think I watched within the last three years and still feel it holds up.

Kind: I began to hear about it when people would say, “Oh my God, you’re the dad in Clifford. That’s one of my favorite movies.” And I just would go, “Well, you have horrible taste.” You know, that was my joke: “Well, you’re an idiot.” And then more and more and more people said it. It was young people, 15 to 28. They gloried in the stupidity of it and loved it. To this day, do I see why it is? Yeah, I guess I could justify it. It’s an anarchist comedy.

Flaherty: When I saw reenactments of it on the internet, I thought, Wait a second. These people knew every line, every cut of the scenes. It’s usually the Grodin and Marty “human boy” scene. There’s one reenactment where instead of Clifford, it’s the guy’s grandmother playing the part. She knows all of Short’s lines.

Kampmann: I took note of it when I began to hear, “Oh, yeah, it’s a cult movie.” Then I began to pay attention, and I’ve seen it a couple of times on TV, and things make me laugh. So, you know, I just missed out on all of the cult part. I would love to be part of the cult*.

*Steven Kampmann invites anyone who wants to get in touch with him to do so through his website, thedreamscourse.org.

Short: I always thought of my career that you could reflect on it through the decades by who comes up to you and says what. If it’s a 40-year-old woman, she’s gonna talk about Father of the Bride. If it’s a 40-year-old guy, he’s gonna talk about Three Amigos. If it’s a 55-year-old guy, he might talk about Ed Grimley. But definitely, if it was a 29-year-old stoner, he would mention Clifford. Because he’d seen it 18 times in a row high in his dorm room.

I use the word “stoner,” and it probably is not fair. I don’t think that you had to be stoned in your dorm to like Clifford, but I do think it’s like what Conan O’Brien once said about SCTV — that it was on from 12:30 until 2, and he and his brothers thought they were the only people in the world that had discovered it and that it was for them. And I think when a film is obscure enough, you feel it’s now yours. Your parents don’t know this film, but you do. So it’s your film. And then you get into the pace of it and the oddness of it. Especially if you’re high. And it becomes more like it’s talking to you.

Steenburgen: I do notice that the people that come up to me and mention Clifford — and there are people that do — they’re probably more often men. But I have had some women say they like it, and they’re usually kind of clearly unique themselves. If that tells you anything.

Meyers: It deserves a following. Not a weird one. A special one. It’s completely special.

Short: Nicolas Cage had just won the Oscar*, and he came up on a plane … this is in my book, I think. I had never met him. I thought I must go over and congratulate him because he’s so great in that movie. And suddenly I looked, and there he is kneeling behind me, very sincerely telling me, with the great Nic Cage sincerity, “I destroyed my VHS machine because I rewound that [“Look at me like a human boy”] scene 35 times.”

*Nicolas Cage won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas.

Nicolas Cage (actor, Clifford fan): It’s true, but that wasn’t the scene. It was the scene in the kitchen after Martin Short put the Tabasco in Charles Grodin’s drink, and Martin Short starts reenacting Charles Grodin’s physical response … [Attempts to stifle laugh, can’t, starts laughing.] … to the Tabasco. It’s just the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I did keep reviewing it, because I got so much joy out of rewatching it. The more I would press play and rewind and play, the funnier it got. He does these beautiful things with his hands. He’s very physical. He’s like, [High-pitched] “And then you went … [makes hacking noise]!”

I saw him on an airplane, and I said, “Mr. Short, I’ve got to tell you: You’re a genius, man. I mean, you are a genius.” I really mean that. I think he’s as good as it gets, and there’s nobody funnier. So I’m glad he remembers that moment.

Steenburgen: I do remember Elizabeth [Taylor] loving Clifford. I knew her. That woman had the world-class sense of humor. People talk about her in all different kinds of ways. I think she’d known a lot of pain in her life. She wanted life to make her laugh. She sought out laughter. And she was ridiculous and hilarious.

Short: I remember Steve [Martin], Chevy [Chase], and I were being interviewed by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show for Three Amigos. And he clearly didn’t like the movie, because one of his questions was, “How do you feel that people will look at this film and say it’s just silly?” And Steve said, “Well, it depends how you use the word ‘silly.’”

Steve Martin (comedy legend, Martin Short frenemy): I can give you a quote about Clifford if you want. Ready? Here it is: “I’ve heard of it.”

Scharpling: Did you ever see this movie An Actor’s Revenge? Early ’60s Japanese movie. That’s a masterpiece. But it’s really not dissimilar from Clifford in a way, where it’s just somebody playing coy and acting innocent for the entirety of a movie but then taking care of business. And Criterion put that out. Where’s the Criterion Clifford?

Short: You’re doing a film that you hope will make people laugh. That’s your agenda. And when sometimes something doesn’t connect at all to the public, you can look at it and say, Well, it’s not very good. That’s why; that’s one thing. Or you can think, I would have thought there were more unusual people to find this funny out there. I guess I was off, or that your comedy is specific to what you think is funny, and maybe that’s too odd for the room. So when the room starts to get a sense of what you were trying to do, it’s amazingly gratifying.

People love an underdog, so it’s nice when anyone comes up and says how much “blank” meant to them: “Oh my God, my four daughters got married and every night before every wedding, we’d watch Father of the Bride I and II.” Well, that’s lovely. But if someone is talking about something less heralded, you go, “Oh, you like my son who is red-haired and unappealing? Wow. Thank you!”

Letterman: Every aspect of it defies what we know about the world, about life, about existence. But yet there it is, brightly lit up. I’m just pleased for everybody who was in it. I don’t know what they thought when they were making it. It’s a piece of wonderment now.


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