In this saturated true-crime market, innovation can be a challenge. Then Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez walked into the Arconia.
The trio’s unique and surprising chemistry has fueled Hulu’s comedy-murder mystery “Only Murders in the Building.” And it builds in Season 2.
The famous whodunnit threesome — former TV star Charles (Martin), struggling Broadway producer Oliver (Short) and troubled artist Mabel (Gomez) — ever the podcast trendsetters, have become persons of interest in a fresh murder case.
The first season of the comedy introduced viewers to the three neighbors, all fans of a true-crime podcast, who banded together to solve a killing that happened at their Upper West Side co-op — launching their own podcast in the process. After solving the case, Charles, Oliver and Mabel now find themselves suspects in a fresh case: the murder of their co-op board president, Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), whom Mabel found in her apartment, stabbed with a knitting needle.
In an interview this week, Martin, Short and Gomez talked about the new season, the show’s multigenerational appeal and sharing the screen with Shirley MacLaine. The following has been edited for clarity.
The first season was a fresh, hilarious and insightful take on the true-crime genre that set a high bar for the second season. I’m curious what intrigued you about Season 2 and the mystery surrounding who killed Bunny.
Short: Season 1 ended with our arrests, so obviously that was already set up: Are we going to spend the rest of our lives in jail? Are we gonna get out? And obviously since we didn’t do it, who did it? It’s set up very cleverly.
Gomez: I just wanted to keep knowing what was happening, so it was really great. We kind of picked up right where we left off.
Martin: I’m dedicated to solving a murder per season. I think it’s very satisfying for the audience. And then you sort of tease another murder, if one happens, for the next season.
Selena, as a fan of the genre who has attended things like CrimeCon, did you feel like that gave you added insight into how to play a person of interest?
Gomez: Oh, yeah. I love escape rooms, and I was just in a few the other night and as soon as I walked out, my friends looked at me and said, “You are completely Mabel in that escape room.” I’m just fascinated with clues and solving things and trying to figure out the who, the why, the what.
The whole premise of the show is basically three characters that were a little bit lonely but found this common ground, and I think that’s what the bulk of the show is — that you know they all have this in common. And now they’re all being accused of murder, so it brings us closer.
Season 2 has some new faces, including Miss Shirley MacLaine. How quickly did she settle into the groove?
Short: Oh, it was a complete trip. What I love about Shirley is that she’s filled with a lifetime of show business stories that she will share with you right away. There’s an immediate looseness to her, and intimacy, and she asked questions where she actually wants the answer. She’s interested in everything about life. That’s what’s made her so remarkable.
Martin: I just had a lifetime fascination with her from “The Apartment,” which I thought she was so great in, so vulnerable — an instant great actress. So it was an honor for me to work with her, and she was very kind to me. I don’t know if it was an honor for her to work with me. But she acted like it.
I have multiple text chains going for this show that span generations. When did you have a sense of the viewer demographics?
Martin: I have no idea what the demographics are. No one’s ever told me. I’m always fighting for taking our hard language out, and everybody else is fighting to get it in. So I never know quite where it falls. It’s kind of a family show, and it’s kind of not.
Gomez: After doing the first season, the reaction I got really was warm and lovely and surprising. I don’t know, I would say like 15 and older and beyond.
Martin: I have heard, in my day, though, [of] a 14-year-old using the F-word. I read about it.
Martin, if Steve is trying to tone down the language on the show, are you trying to amp it up?
Short: Effing yeah. We’re both aware of certain things of [our] character[s]. For example, I [as Oliver] wouldn’t use certain language in front of Mabel, because that’s who Oliver is. But he wouldn’t be afraid to say to, uh, Steve’s character, whatever his name is.
Short: Oh, you’re Charles. I gotta read some scripts.
Is this what it’s like on set, Selena?
Gomez: All the time. And I quite enjoy it. And then I enjoy our quiet time.
Martin: Oh, that’s good to know. We don’t give you much of that.
“Only Murders in the Building” brought you all back to episodic television after some time away. Two seasons in, in what ways have you found it reinvigorating?
Gomez: The scripts are just so well written, and that makes me feel inspired and motivated to want to live up to those words.
Short: Yes, so much work is put into them, and then you would feel horribly guilty if you didn’t try to equal their work with your work.
Martin: When I first started, I would do some television specials and things and you’d have high hopes for them, but they’d always put it up against some monster show, and you would be wiped out and your show would be over. But now, with streaming, people can sample it whenever they want to, so you don’t have that kind of competition. You can go back to the show when you want to.
Selena has a very wry style to her comedy. Are there any comics that she reminds you of with her delivery or her style?
Martin: It’s unique. It’s like the third point of the triangle between me and Marty; there’s this focus that’s completely different than ours, in terms of how the lines come out, the timing, the volume. Everything is different. So it’s a great balance for us.
Short: I think what makes Selena Selena is that she’s an original. I don’t think there’s many Selenas out there.
Gomez: All right.
Short: Oh, hold on, I just thought of about four people that are like Selena.
Martin: Oh, yeah. I have three of them here.
Selena, I would imagine going to work every day is like a master class in comedy. How has watching them affected you creatively? Has joining in that banter enhanced your comfort with your comedic side?
Gomez: At the beginning, I was very nervous. And then I got to be a little bit more involved. They made me feel really comfortable. I would say by the second season, I felt like I got a really good groove with Mabel, and in general, I felt more comfortable to ask for their advice on a scene, or if maybe that sounded bad. They’re honest with me. It’s nice.
Short: Selena actually does keep a pencil and paper, and she writes things down. And one time I looked over, assuming it was things she’d learned, and the headline was “Things not to do.”
Steve and Martin, you’ve worked together many times before, and you’re on tour together. What’s it like working with each other in this setting versus that setting?
Short: It’s very similar to me because what we do is that, whatever the obstacle is, whether it’s a scene or an audience, you have an agenda of how to make it the best in that moment.
Martin: Doing a live show, we know the lines, we memorize the lines, we have [a] delivery we like. On a movie set, you’re discovering it as you go along. So, you know, live, we’re trying to fulfill a premise. On a movie set, you’re trying to discover a truth.
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There are so many quirky traits that each of your characters has, like Oliver’s obsession with dips. What are your favorite quirks about your characters?
Gomez: I enjoy the dry, sarcastic moments that I have. I think they’re really fun.
Short: I like his [Oliver’s] eating disorder. And I like his unending optimism for the future, even though he’s often hit a brick wall. He keeps hoping for the best, and that’s an appealing part of the character to me.
Martin: For me, I like dealing with playing a has-been. Here’s a guy who was very famous, very famous — and it turned out well for him; he got a nice apartment, but he hasn’t really worked that much. And struggling with that kind of loneliness, I like for my character.
Is that something you ever feared?
Martin: Certainly. You’re making a bunch of movies, and you think, “Well, gee, one day this is going to come to an end.” You do worry about that.
The first season wrapped up its mystery while offering a cliff-hanger. As viewers venture on the journey of this season, how would you describe the conclusion they’re in for? Give me a word.
Martin: Unraveling — it’s unraveling or it’s raveling. The story is coming together into a tightly knit rope.
Gomez: Mine is probably two words: overwhelmingly exciting.
Short: I said exciting, so you don’t then get to put a word before the word I said.
Gomez: OK, we’re about to actually fight.
Short: That’s garbage. Denied.
Tell me there is a group text going between you all.
Gomez: No, but it is really funny when I do email them because … it’s email. They always sign their names. It’s really sweet.