Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2020

Belushi

Filed under: comedy,Film,television — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

Like many other baby boomers (technically speaking, I predated them as having been born during the war), I became a big fan of Saturday Night Live when it premiered in 1975. I had more than the usual interest in the show because I had been a good friend of Chevy Chase at Bard College and was following his career.

As such, I was curious to see what the Showtime documentary on John Belushi would have to say, given the interviews with Chevy and other personalities who worked with him. Belushi was interesting enough in his own right for me to have read Bob Woodward’s “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi” back in 1984. Woodward’s lurid (how could it have been anything else?) biography reminded me a lot of Albert Goldman’s Elvis Presley biography that came out the same year and which I also read. I was struck by the similarities between the two books and the two men. Woodward and Goldman had little sympathy for their subjects and wrote books that were meant to portray them as self-indulgent freaks done in by their gargantuan drug habits and their huge popularity.

In 2005, Tanner Colby wrote another Belushi biography that relied exclusively on taped interviews with his friends and co-professionals. As an oral history, it was a badly needed corrective to the Woodward hatchet job. The Showtime documentary relies on these interviews as well as new material to produce both a tribute to the comedian as well as an effort to understand his decline and fall. For those who are old enough to remember SNL in its prime and those who want to see how good TV sketch comedy can be, I strongly recommend a look at the film, which is titled “Belushi.”

Directed by 58-year old filmmaker R.J. Cutler, it turns Colby’s interviews and newer material into a very good documentary, which is not only an examination of a personal tragedy but implicitly a warning about the dangers of worshipping the bitch-goddess success. Belushi started off as a political radical, having been within 20 feet of the police riot in Chicago in 1968, and saw the theater as his calling, not television that he found vulgar and not worth his time. Indeed, SNL co-producer Dick Ebersole had to plead with Belushi to join the show even as fellow co-producer Lorne Michaels feared that he would be more trouble than he was worth.

Belushi was the son of an Albanian immigrant who put in long hours working behind the counter of a diner he owned in Chicago. Born in 1949, he was typical of my generation. Rebellious to the core, he saw comedy as a means to challenge the status quo just as I saw radical politics. If the ratio between radical art and radical politics was 80 percent to 20 in his case, the numbers were reversed in my own life. In college, Belushi recruited a couple of his friends to become the “The West Compass Trio” that became the talk of the town in Chicago. Belushi’s comic power on stage soon caught the attention of Bernard Sahlins, the head of the city’s legendary Second City improvisational comic troupe and brother to famous anthropologist and fellow CounterPunch contributor Marshall Sahlins.

Belushi joined the group and became its star, alongside future SNL star Gilda Radner. Meanwhile, in NYC, comedy was taking a new and experimental form through Ken Shapiro’s Channel One, an off-off-Broadway revue that satirized TV. Ken was a classmate at Bard alongside Chevy, who had been developing the material down the hall from me in a mansion called Ward Manor that had been turned into a dorm. Chevy joined the cast of Channel One with other Bardians like Lane Sarasohn and my good friend Richard Allen.

In 1972, Chase and Belushi’s paths crossed as they both became cast members of the off-Broadway National Lampoon Lemmings in NYC that was a satire on the Woodstock musical festival. It was there that Belushi developed his over-the-top imitation of Joe Cocker performing “A Little Help From My Friends”. From there, Belushi went on to write and perform for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where he was soon joined by Danny Ackroyd who had been a member of the Second City revue in Toronto. Chase, Ackroyd, and Belushi would then go on to become the original cast members of SNL with Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue and Gilda Radner. This group of 8 would leave its mark on SNL that declined over the years, largely because Lorne Michaels preferred to recycle stale material that would satisfy an increasingly dimwitted fan base that doted on shtick. Although nobody interviewed in “Belushi” commented on this decline, it was obvious to me that Belushi was part of the problem. By getting easy laughs, such as his “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” skit, he helped the show drift away from sharp political commentary.

Yes, Belushi was a gifted physical comedian but I preferred Chevy’s razor-sharp Weekend Update:

Chevy Chase: Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not. The top story tonight: The Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed that the CIA has been involved in no less than nine assassination plots against various foreign leaders. Commented President Ford upon reading the report, quote, “Boy, I’m sure glad I’m not foreign.”

Later, Mr. Ford pierced his left hand with a salad fork at a luncheon celebrating Tuna Salad Day at the White House. Alert Secret Service agents seized the fork and wrestled it to the ground.

Former Governor of California Ronald Reagan formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination Wednesday. Reagan stated, quote, “I haven’t lost my looks yet, and I’m still as knowledgeable on foreign affairs as I was when I was narrating Death Valley Days.”

Meanwhile in Miami, a man tried to attack Reagan with a fake pistol a few short hours after the announcement. Reagan said he was not shaken, but later, he about-faced on an issue that he strongly opposed for years, calling for strenuous toy gun control legislation.

Well, after a long illness, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died Wednesday. Reactions from world leaders were varied. Held in contempt as the last of the fascist dictators in the West by some, he was also eulogized by others, among them Richard Nixon, who said, quote “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness.” Despite Franco’s death and an expected burial tomorrow, doctors say the dictator’s health has taken a turn for the worse.

It wasn’t just that Belushi was good at physical comedy, a throwback to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in many ways. It was also that his skits incorporated brilliant mashups of wildly disparate elements. For example, we see him working behind the registration desk in a hotel but in the guise of a samurai warrior:

The documentary shows Belushi explaining how he got the idea for the skit. He was up in his hotel room and stumbled across some vintage samurai film. The first thought that came to him was how to work that into an SNL routine.

For someone like myself, a longtime fan of Akira Kurosawa, this skit, and even those that recycled the same material, made me laugh.

After watching the documentary, I had a sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t I seen a satire of samurai movies before? Where or when?

All of a sudden, I realized that Sid Caesar had featured the same kind of material on his legendary television show back in 1956, except that he was satirizing a film genre unfamiliar to most Americans. He called his parody “Ubetu”, an obvious reference to Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 “Ugetsu”.

Could John Belushi have seen Caesar’s “Ubetu”? It’s impossible to say but one thing is clear. For the six years Sid Caesar had a weekly show on NBC, he and his fellow writers and performers were pushing the envelope in the same way that Chevy Chase, John Belushi were doing twenty years later. With Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen writing for him, Caesar’s shows were made for the ages.

You had the same kind of powerhouse team working for SNL early on. Unlike Sid Caesar, Lorne Michaels had staying power. Young people continue to watch the show because it is geared to a young person’s tastes rather than to the connoisseur sensibilities of a baby boomer in the year 1975. I avoid commenting on anything going on at SNL today because I simply never watch it, except for whatever shows up on YouTube.

Besides Belushi’s illness (drug addiction is an illness), you cannot escape the feeling that his sad decline and fall was mostly attributable to his worries that he had reached an impasse in his career. He tried making more “mature” films but the critics and the audiences hated them. As his health declined, he was incapable of carrying out the madcap physical stunts that made “Animal House” so memorable.

As for Belushi memorabilia, let me conclude with this photo of Belushi take in 1981 by acclaimed photographer Marcia Resnick, an old friend who wrote this as a preface:

— In early September 1981 I spotted John Belushi in the New York after hours club AM PM. I asked him when he was going to do a photo session with me for my series Bad Boys: A Compendium of Punks, Poets and Politicians. He said, “Now”. I didn’t believe him, until upon returning home at six am I saw a limousine waiting in front of my building. I turned on the music as John and his entourage filed into my loft. I then directed John to an area lit by strobe lights and I began shooting.

John paced around like a caged animal, fidgeting incessantly. He seemed unable to sit still for my camera, uncanny for someone known for being deliberate and fluid when performing. “Where are the props?”, he queried. I first gave him sunglasses, then a scarf. He requested a beer, then a glass. After donning a black wool ski mask that he took off a nearby mannequin, he settled into a chair. Only his eyes and mouth peeked through the openings in the mask. The large, ominous and anonymous ‘executioner’ had finally reached his comfort zone.

5 Comments »

  1. “20 years later”?

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — December 26, 2020 @ 10:10 pm

  2. It should be noted that from 1973 onward the entire National Lampoon vibe that was behind Lemmings and SNL reflected the increasingly reactionary proto-Yuppie frat-boy outlook of people like their main writer PJ O’Rourke who Wikipedia descrrbes as a “political observer and humorist rooted in libertarian conservatism.” No wonder he’s such a frequent guest on an asshole like Bill Maher’s show? It’s no accident that one of the most famous of Belushi’s scenes in the Animal House fraternity was his character Bluto smashing a guitar of a folk singer which symboliized bourgeois culture’s increasing hostility toward the Peace and Love anti-war counterculture and the inf inluence of Bob Dylan and communist sympathiizers like Pete Seeger on American youth. I never thought Chevy Chase much of a comedian except for some of the physical stunts were ho hum. He didn’t do stand up and always struck me as more like a rich frat boy who luckily joiined up writing with PJ O’Rourke in the Lampoon milieu. Although I’m 15 years younger than Proyect I distinctly remember watching live that Weekend Update SNL skit quoted above and not laughing at the time despite the fun poked at Franco. It seems even more dull, humorless and stupid today. It’s well known that the Chicagoan Belushi positively hated working with Chase, who he considered an unfunny privileged and insensitive arrogant prick. Belushi’s instincts were correct insofar as Chase virtuallly nixed himself out of a career by habitually exhibiting as a professiional the very characteristics Belushi loathed.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 27, 2020 @ 12:33 am

  3. Speaking of Chevy Chase, this roast of him was kind of sad.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — December 27, 2020 @ 3:32 am

  4. Wild Raspberries… https://youtu.be/64LJXqyZCek

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — December 27, 2020 @ 8:32 am

  5. This is an excellent review and the U Bet U connection was brilliant. However the point about TV needing to be current begs further edification. How both Sid Caesar and Belushi’s bits transcend yet are limited by racism. Yet this is not critical of them because, indeed, great art does transcend the mucky real world from which it rises.

    Comment by Richard Allen — December 27, 2020 @ 3:22 pm


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