We have discussed some of the Saturday Night Live crew previously so it seemed high time to shine the light on some of the others players who revolutionized comedy in the 1980s. We have already covered Dan Aykroyd (FTV: Dan Aykroyd 4-1-20) and Steve Martin (FTV: Wild & Crazy Guy Part 1 & 2; 9-8 & 9-15-21) in depth. These pieces included some casual references to their SNL mates, but we only scratched the surface of the whole SNL phenomenon. Having recently picked up Nick de Semlyen’s Wild and Crazy Guys – How the Comedy Mavericks of the ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever (2019 Crown Archetype Books) for the second time, I felt it was time to give others the credit they deserve for upping the comedy game. I have a special affinity for SNL as the show first took to the air in the fall of 1975, a mere two months after I had begun my first year teaching in Ontonagon.
De Semlyen starts his book with a bang in the Prologue with what could have been the 1978 version of the Will Smith/Chris Rock Oscar slap incident of 2022. The 1978 version didn’t get any press at the time as it happened backstage, it did not involve a wife, and it wasn’t seen coast to coast on TV. It was later described by one of the principal’s involved as, “[It was really] a Hollywood fight; a don’t-touch-my-face kinda thing.” Director John Landis remembers it a little differently: “It was a huge altercation. They were big guys and really going at it. They were slapping at each other, screaming at each other, calling each other terrible names.” The combatants in question were Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.
Chase had ruffled some feathers in the original Not Ready for Primetime Players camp when he ditched the show in the middle of the second season. Murray was brought in to fill the gap created by Chase’s departure but as for winning over the audience, he got a slow start. The negativity surrounding Chase’s departure had intensified when SNL writer Tom Davis reported Chevy telling him the reason he left; ‘Money. Lots of money.’” Chase had previously said he left the show because his then girlfriend did not want to move to New York. Most had already figured it was the call of Hollywood money speaking to him, not so much the language of love. The fisticuffs erupted when Chevy returned as the guest host during season three. It had been a relatively calm week until he made his way toward the stage for the cold opening. Chevy decided to stick his head into Murray’s dressing room. There he found John Belushi, Murray, and Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle Murray lounging on a couch. Having been needled by Murray earlier in the makeup chairs, Chase took the opportunity to needle Bill back, no doubt in his signature chafing manner. Comedian Dave Thomas (from the Canadian version of SNL called SCTV (Second City lTelevision)) was visiting Aykroyd that night and summarized the fracus as follows: “There was no love lost between those guys. Especially at that time, when it was fueled by extreme competitiveness, alcohol, drugs, and fame. Who’s the most famous? Who’s the funniest? Who’s the best? I still think what happened that night could have been avoided, but Chevy is a provocateur. Chevy says things that make people angry.”
Murray lunged at Chase and the hand-to-hand combat ensued. Bill later said it was half-hearted. His brother Brian, a full head shorter than both, inserted himself between the two until things settled down. As for the insult part of the bout, Murray probably landed the best shot when he wagged his finger at Chase and yelled, “MEDIUM TALENT!” With the pair pulled apart, Chase wandered off to start the show and no one in the audience or at home was any the wiser. Both SNL alums would end up in Hollywood (as would most of the rest of the cast of SNL and SCTV) as de Semlyen notes, “competing, collaborating with each other, and creating a new golden age of comedy. And there was nothing ‘medium talent’ about it.”
John Belushi had done a lot of behind the scenes whispering about Chase the week of the fateful slap-around. There was obvious resentment that Chevy had made the jump to movies before Belushi did. When Hollywood finally dialed his number, Bulushi almost ended up playing opposite Chase in his breakout role as John ‘Bluto’ Blutarski in National Lampoon’s Animal House. The studio suits were not convinced Belushi was the right man for the part, but they decided to hedge their bets, more or less, by demanding director Landis get Chase on board (to play the part of one of the Delta House frat brothers named ‘Boon’).
Landis did not like the edict, so in a meeting with producers Ivan Reitman and Matty Simmons (set up to convince Chevy to take the role), Landis orchestrated the discussion to do just the opposite. Landis said, “Listen, Chevy, our picture is an ensemble, a collaborative group effort like Saturday Night Live. You’d fit right in, whereas in Foul Play (another movie with Goldie Hawn Chase was being pitched at the same time), that’s like being Cary Grant or Paul Newman, a real movie-star part. Don’t you think you’d be better off surrounded by really gifted comedians?” The ploy worked. Landis received a brisk kick in the shins under the table from Reitman before Chase announced he ‘would love to work with their team someday,’ but he had decided to take the Foul Play offer instead. Landis limped away with his intended outcome.
The original 114-page treatment of Animal House was banged out by a writing team of Chris Miller, Harold Ramis, and Doug Kenney. The bloated (and sometimes overly raunchy) script was tweaked and tamed enough for conservative Universal president Ned Tanen to okay it. When they finally rolled on to the University of Oregon campus (the only place that had welcomed them to use their facilities), things started off poorly. Some of the cast members, including Tim Matheson, Karen Allen, and Bruce McGill, decided to visit a real life frat party, only to be pummeled by a group of drunk jocks. When Belushi arrived the next day, they had to restrain him from heading to the frat house to exact revenge. Instead, Landis had them spend an ‘orientation week’ watching World Series games and enjoying rowdy dinners before they commenced the thirty-day shoot. The only problem was Belushi’s schedule. It called for John to film Animal House Monday to Wednesday before hopping a red-eye flight to New York to do that week’s SNL. Yours truly can attest to the travel schedule because one must first take a regional jet to San Francisco to catch an overnight flight heading east. He would then reverse the process to get back to UO’s Eugene campus at six a.m. Sunday morning. This may have been Belushi’s big breakthrough, but he was too tired to enjoy it.
Belushi’s Bluto only had fifty lines of dialogue in the whole movie, but he was critical to the success of the entire film. He accepted his first movie for a lowball $35,000 fee but reasoned it was a stepping stone; his first step toward becoming a big star. Belushi was the only one in the cast given leeway to improvise his bits. For instance, the entire scene showing Bluto trying to cheer up Flounder (Steven Furst) after they had destroyed his brother’s car. The inspiration came from Landis suggesting, “Imagine you’re trying to make a baby laugh.” Bluto’s call to arms in the cafeteria (“food fight!”) came after another lengthy improvised bit that ended with him splattering mashed potatoes all over the same frat boys who were harassing Delta House. His imitation of a zit escalated into the food brawl. Bluto’s antics surely put the ‘Animal’ into the title.
Belushi’s gonzo fighter pilot in another film with Landis, 1941, was not much of a departure from Bluto. In fact, critics started calling the movie, “Animal House goes to war.” Belushi longed to break away from comedic roles and dialed back his over the top lifestyle to try on some more serious parts. The first film, 1979’s Old Boyfriends was a downbeat drama that flopped. His second attempt at a more serious role was that of Ernie Souchak, a hardboiled city reporter who finds love in the mountains of Colorado with a reclusive eagle researcher in Continental Divide. After the madness encountered shooting The Blues Brothers, Belushi used Continental Divide as his own personal detox project, dropping fifty pounds in the process on a diet of mostly cottage cheese. Audiences apparently preferred the ‘Bluto’ schtick more than the streamlined ‘Ernie’ and the movie tanked at the box office. Visiting Steve Martin in Beverly Hills, Belushi confessed he wanted his future to be that of a proper actor and not just as a clown.
His next, and last, movie with Aykroyd was called Neighbors and as a dark farce, it could have been golden had Aykroyd not said, “Hey, let’s switch them and try it.” Instead of Belushi taking on the manic, crazy interloper, he would be the straight-laced, uptight neighbor to Dan’s wild and crazy guy. Aykoyd later reasoned, “We’ve played these other roles before, and we thought going against type would be more fun.” It wasn’t fun nor was it profitable. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb noted, “Their public persona was pretty set. And Neighbors was like Abbott and Costello suddenly swapping places.” The combined effects of bad reviews and another poor showing at the box office caused Belushi to turn on his buddy Aykroyd. John had some serious projects in mind and he blamed Dan for letting him down. He slid back into the behavior he had left behind before Continental Divide and doubled down on the party hearty life. The times he was sober and in control became the exception to the rule culminating in him taking (or being given, accounts vary) a fatal speedball (a mixture of cocaine and heroin) in the early hours of March 5, 1982. He was buried on March 9 at Abel’s Hill Cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard. Belushi had told Aykroyd it was the only part of the world where he could get a good night’s sleep.
John Candy and Rick Moranis both came into the SNL orbit from SCTV. A powerful bear of a man, Candy’s first notable films were The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (with Bill Murray in 1981). Though Stripes was equated to being another derivative Animal House movie (“Animal House goes to war, again!”), it was more successful than other SNL casted movies like 1941 and Meatballs. Candy had been the first choice for the part of Louis Tully in Ghostbusters, but he had turned the part down. Coming off the Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah sleeper hit Splash (1984), Candy wasn’t going to do Ghostbusters for a bargain basement price. When he begged off, he suggested his old SCTV buddy Moranis for the part. John Candy’s film resume did not suffer from declining the part (he went on to appear in 54 movies) but his last, like Belushi’s, came too soon. John was in Durango, Mexico while filming Wagons East with Richard Lewis when he suffered a fatal heart attack on March 4, 1994. John Candy was just 43 years old at the time of his death.
Rick Moranis and another SCTV player, Dave Thomas, became unlikely stars mostly thanks to the meddling of the Canadian government. Radio in Canada was mandated to include at least 30 percent Canadian artists on their playlist. Eventually, this rule was passed down to the government funded CBC TV. They demanded the station air two minutes of ‘something Canadian’ during each show. Moranis’s reaction at the time was outrage: “I went ballistic because every single thing we were doing was Canadian. We were all Canadian. We were in Canada. We could be doing a parody of War and Peace and it would be Canadian.” He and Thomas decided to fight back doing what they did best: make fun of the regulation by filming a series of two minute bits of ‘truly Canadian’ content to air with each episode of SCTV.
De Semlyen describes their act of rebellious comedy: “[They] could be filmed doing the most stereotypical things imaginable: sitting in front of a map of the country, wearing parkas and tuques (usually called Chooks in the U.P.), frying up back bacon, chugging beer, and adding ‘Eh?’ to the end of every sentence. To their amazement, the show’s bosses shrugged and agreed. After one day filming SCTV, the duo stayed behind when everyone else went home. With a skeleton crew consisting of one cameraman, one soundman, and a guy in the audio booth, they cracked open a six-pack, and shot over a dozen two-minute clips, one for each show of the season.” Thus were born the ‘true Canadian’ characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie, purveyors of Canadian wisdom via The Great White North. They recorded an album of the same name and eventually a movie, Strange Brew. What they hadn’t considered was their little act of rebellion became an unexpected phenomenon to the point it bothered Rick and Dave: their two minute segments began to overshadow the rest of the show. As Rick tells it, “It bothered me. SCTV was full of all these dynamic, interesting, colorful, and unusual sketches. Rolling Stone gave us a cover line saying we were ‘SCTV’s best joke.’ SCTV was much more than one best joke.”
Strange Brew came out in 1983 and it was a modest hit, but not a blockbuster. It was, however, the crack in the door that let Moranis slip through and become a movie star in his own right. After developing the nebish accountant character of Louis Tully in Ghostbusters (1984), his IMDb resume includes some notable turns like the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids trilogy and the big screen adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors. After his wife, Ann Belsky, died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 35, Rick found his time making movies in direct conflict with his role as a single parent. In 1997, he stepped back and took what he describes as ‘a 20 year hiatus’ to focus on his family. The movie companies beckoned but Moranis took few offers in this period. Fellow actor Ryan Reynolds finally coaxed him out of retirement to make a commercial for Reynold’s new Mint Mobile phone service. It happened because Reynolds confessed, “I’m just a huge fan…no, seriously, massive.” Reynolds confides he became emotional when Moranis agreed to do the commercial.
In 2021, actor Josh Gad reported Moranis had agreed to come out of movie retirement as well. He will reprise his role as Wayne Szalinski in a reboot of the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise set thirty years after the events of the original film. The film, called Shrunk, is still in development and Gad says, “Fingers crossed I think we’re going to hopefully be shooting early next year. That is the status right now.” As far as the rest of the Wild and Crazy Guys still on the green side of the sod, one can only guess where they will turn up next.
Top Piece Video: Good times were had by all the SNL alums appearing in the Ghostbusters video – even those who weren’t in the movie!