Comedian Martin Mull at 80

Boston’s Smart Duckys

By: - Jun 29, 2024

Martin Mull, who has died at 80, was a man of many talents: Artist, musician and actor in some 100 or so films and TV shows. He was a hit with such 1970s sit-coms as “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and the ersatz talk show “Fernwood 2-Night.”

In “Mary Hartman,” he played Garth Gimble, a domestic abuser who met his demise by being impaled on the star atop an aluminum Christmas tree. He also appeared in “Clue,” “Roseanne,” “Arrested Development” and “Veep.”

Before he took off for Hollywood, Marty had a stretch as a satirical artist and member of Boston’s legendary Smart Duckys.

He and partner Todd McKee had graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. Todd’s wife Judy McKee is renowned for her whimsical furniture.

With the Studio Coalition, and America’s first open studios in the late 1960s, a new and vibrant generation of artists emerged in Boston. With their witty spoofs of high art the Smart Duckys were a breath of fresh air.

With Fred Brink, who soon dropped out, they had their first exhibition in a pop-up loft/ gallery on Newbury Street. Their humorous works were displayed along with commercial toys on pedestals.

I reviewed their show for the daily Boston Herald Traveler with a catch. I was the jazz and rock critic and not the art critic. For overnight reviews of concerts the practice was to file a place holder for the first edition. With a midnight deadline that was pulled and replaced by the review which ran in the mailbag, with another replate for the morning edition.

My boss, theatre critic Samuel Hirsch, was a stiff but I convinced him to let me run art reviews as place holders. I informed the artists that they had to pick up the paper from a news stand at midnight. It wouldn’t be in the morning edition.

They were, however, pleased to get a review in the Herald.

After that first show they went on to create other memorable events. They were taken on by art dealer Sunne Savage. She got them access to a function room in the space over the site of “Cheers” the long running Boston based TV show.

The theme for the show was the invention of artist appropriated hors d oeuvres. Gerkin pickles were assembled as Matisse miniatures. Layered squares of cheese were an homage to Josef Albers. Colored splattered cream cheese on crackers evoked Jackson Pollock.

At the time Todd told me of how exhausting it had been to create all that art which was consumed during the lively vernissage. As a finale Marty, wearing a chef’s hat, kicked a football through a large paper drawing of a goal post. It appears that for a time he was a practice squad kicker in the NFL.

In another stunt Todd was an organizer and exhibitor in “Flush with the Walls” a guerilla exhibition in the men’s room of the venerable MFA. I believe by then that Marty had gone Hollywood.

He was also a hilarious musician. In particular he mastered bottle-neck slide on a ukulele. His slide proved to be a baby bottle.

There were several amusing albums. Jon Landau invited me to write record reviews for Rolling Stone and I suggested Marty’s album. When I ran it by Hirsch he killed it saying “You work exclusively for the Herald Traveler.” I told you that Sam was a jerk.

Some years later Marty came through town and we had dinner at the Wursthouse in Harvard Square. I published an interview for the daily Patriot Ledger.

It was the last I saw of him. In New York I covered an exhibition at a large Chelsea Gallery. It was pleasing to see that he continued to work and evolve.

I treasure a work “Seats Over Troubled Waters” which I bought for $129.95 back in the day. The riff on a Paul Simon song was part of a series of ersatz Disney animation cells.

There was no end to his wit and imagination.