Wednesday, March 5, 2014

John and John, Where Have Ye Gone?

If you're a comedy lover, March 5, 1982, and March 4, 1994, are two days in history where you had better laugh just to stop from crying.

When you talk to someone born between, say, 1940 to 1960, they'll have some sort of story about how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked them like no other death of a public figure, or for that matter, any other tragic event they'd witnessed. After that, it gets a little more fragmented and particular, depending either on your political stripe or entertainment taste. And for me, my personal JFK moment has always been when I came into my father's house on a Friday afternoon, just after buying snacks for the evening's VHS rental, and as I walked into the dining room, the news on the TV was announcing that John Belushi had died.

I thought I was pretty together for a 12-year-old. Sure, it was shocking when Elvis died at 42, I had been listening and pantomiming his records alone in my room and was thus a fan, but I was in grade school and he was my parents' rock star: I shook my head and went on. I was up past my bedtime watching "THE TONIGHT SHOW," as was my regular routine, when the news interrupted that December night in 1980 with news that John Lennon had been shot; again, I was shocked, especially since his new album had only come out three weeks before, but somehow I got over this too. But when I heard Belushi was gone, I was inconsolable for weeks, and there's a part of me that's never gotten over it.

Perhaps it is because unlike Presley and Lennon, Belushi felt like he was mine, a star that belonged to me and was not my parents' hand-me-down. I found him by staying up late to watch "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE," I had the ludicrous tingle of going to an R-rated movie like THE BLUES BROTHERS to see him do his magic...nobody older than me had to set the stage and sell me on any sort of past track record, I was seeing his legacy happen from the ground floor. And at that stage of my life, I was a little husky like he was, and I looked up to his ability to be physically graceful and command attention and be attractive to girls. I wanted to be him when I became a man. And in most of the right ways, and even some of the wrong ways, I still want to.

It seems strange to make this kind of observation about a man who is remembered for his domineering qualities, but Belushi emerged from an artistic mindset that is very hard to find in the entertainers of today, where genius was not only in how they could project, but also how they could hold back. If you watch enough classic SNL sketches you will see how John can play completely normal while another player or guest star takes focus and gets the laughs. It may not have been his personal instinct - he was notorious for trying to sandbag female writers' sketch ideas - but once a sketch made it to show, and the camera was on, he was all about the scene, whether he was the prime mover or the straight man. And while he certainly owned the frame when he was headlining a movie, when he was playing support, such as to Talia Shire in OLD BOYFRIENDS or Jack Nicholson in GOIN' SOUTH, he knew when to turn his wattage up and when to turn it down. Maybe that's old Second City discipline straight from Viola Spolin and Paul Sills, maybe it's from working with people whom you enjoy playing back-and-forth with, but it is a skill that is missing from a lot of comedy nowadays. I am not here to accuse modern comedians of being attention hogs, far from it: most have trained in the same talent incubators (Second City, the Groundlings) under the same standards, and in the best comedies, are still capable of this proper give and take. I feel the finger is better pointed at more modern comedy producers, who after overpaying for talent, panic if every second of their screen time is not taken up with a laugh.

Example: I saw ANCHORMAN 2 in December, and pretty much hated on it for multiple reasons, but especially because it felt like for all the trouble it took to reunite all the principal cast from the first film, it was fully the Will Ferrell show with maybe Steve Carell getting the most significant screen time because of his increased stature, while the rest were just left to get a few sporadic moments to shine. But I went the other night to see the "763 New Jokes" alternate R-rated cut that was reissued to theatres this past weekend (in advance of the home video release), and while it still has many problems, actually liked it better, precisely because it spread more screen time and material to the supporting players, but certainly carried the perceived downside of making the movie longer. As such I could easily understand the pressures on Ferrell and director Adam McKay from all sides, and deciding to hedge their bet and sacrifice development for jokes-per-minute. John Landis has often remarked on the decision to carefully parcel out Belushi's appearances in ANIMAL HOUSE for maximum impact, and even in many of those moments, he is in concert with the primary cast, and not always getting the payoff. Landis would likely not have that option today, instead he'd surely get besieged with studio notes demanding more Bluto scenes, "because he's the star."

This is what I wish more people would dwell on when the legacy of Belushi is discussed, rather than the usual topics of his excessive behavior in films and in real life. He was described as being able to walk into a room as if he were on horseback, to pull all eyes to him. However, too many don't recognize that once he had that attention, he gladly gave it away to others. It can be as obvious as the easy rapport he enjoyed with Dan Aykroyd in their multiple movies, or sometimes not for public consumption, as when he came to support friends Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas during a press op for STRANGE BREW, and insisted on not being filmed, so that all attention could be given to the rise of the McKenzie Brothers. There was a touching testimony by the late SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue for a Rolling Stone memorial issue, where he listed five reasons why John went straight to Heaven - I can't find the original text, but two that stood out to me was that he regularly sent money to Albanian relatives he'd never met, and that he reunited his old high school band to play together for all their friends. In short, what made Belushi special was that he not only had the confidence to draw attention to himself, he had the generosity to spread the wealth around..."Oh, you think I'm funny - here's these guys I know and enjoy, you should be watching them too."

That is what I think I love most and miss so much about Belushi decades later, and the lesson I've tried to carry on from him: the notion of shared elevation, of making everyone in the scene look good. As a high school football star, he knew if you can grab that ball, then go ahead and run with it all the way to the goal, but if you got a teammate to make the pass to, trust in them to rise to the occasion.

One of the prime recipients of his comedy trust managed to go on running with the spotlight, and my heart, for over another decade. And when he unexpectedly died 12 years later, one day before Belushi's marker, and within days of another comedy legend, Bill Hicks, it made me so despondent I left a sobbing message on a friend's voice mail bemoaning, "All my heroes are dying."

Upon discovering the quasi-adult pleasures of watching "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" as a child, I was soon hungry for more. And I don't know how precisely it was that I found "SECOND CITY TELEVISION," later to just be "SCTV;" I guess I somehow saw it listed in the TV Guide described as a sketch comedy show, and my curiosity drove me to fiddle with the antenna to get a decent signal from the Dayton station that aired it after SNL since no Cincinnati stations carried it. But after that first episode, I was hooked. And, naturally, was the only kid on the playground talking about Count Floyd and Edith Prickley and Bobby Bittman. And, when I did get to go to that previously-mentioned taboo screening of THE BLUES BROTHERS, when a smug detective showed up where the boys were staying, I was certainly the only kid my age in the theatre to look at the screen and excitedly say, "That's John Candy!"

To this day there are plenty of people who don't care for Belushi or his work, who merely see him as a fat pampered train wreck, but there is practically nobody out there who doesn't have a kind thing to say about John Candy. His history is similar to Belushi's in terms of Second City education, ensemble performing, and public charm, and also full of outgoing gestures to friends and fans, of cooking large meals for the crew of his movies, of sitting in the cheap seats with hockey lovers who came to see the team he co-owned for several years. The popular perception is that Candy was a more sensible person than Belushi, since he lived longer, didn't abuse drugs and liquor, had a more solid marriage and raised children, and did not have a record of erratic behavior to sully his image. But as demonstrated in his final years, Candy was susceptible to the same addictive swings that Belushi was prone to, just through more socially accepted dependencies on cigarettes and food. And as such, both men reached such a need for those perceived comfort items which they inherently knew would decimate them, it put all who loved them in the position of either enabling or disengaging, and speaking from personal experience, disengagement is worse precisely because you don't know how bad things are getting.

Candy, I feel, also had a gift that is often overlooked when his body of work is discussed. Belushi only made a handful of movies, and while the greatness of some of them remain in debate (I count myself in the small but vocal rally behind NEIGHBORS), he didn't leave behind any clunkers. Candy was not as lucky; there are plenty of stiffs in his resume, including, sadly, his swan song, WAGONS EAST. But I maintain that while Candy has appeared in movies that didn't work, he never gave anything less than 100% to those roles. He could take substandard material and elevate it just enough so that you never felt like your two hours were a total waste, only a minor disappointment; you never lost your goodwill towards him, if anything you bemoaned that the rest of the movie didn't deserve him. As a tweener, I thought GOING BERSERK was a neglected masterpiece, and even though through my adult eyes, I can see how threadbare and misbegotten it is, I remember his scenes and I'm still laughing. Candy could sell like a champ: he could take a tired predictable punchline and make it gold, like this one from another misfire, ONCE UPON A CRIME:

"Why, you married for money!"
"That sir, is an outrage! I married for lots of money! Huhuhuhuhuhuh!"
(seriously, that classic Johnny LaRue laughing-verging-on-sobbing is irresistible)

Selling when the ship is sinking is another lost art. It's not that there aren't devoted actors today who try to make the best out of lousy material, but ultimately they come off as too guarded or too desperate. Somehow, Candy was always eminently watchable no matter how badly everything else was turning out. You can try to just blame it on '80's nostalgia, but I guarantee you 10 years from now there will be more people watching ARMED AND DANGEROUS than, say, THE WATCH, and I'll stand on Ben Stiller's coffee table in my Chuck Taylors and say that.

Ultimately, Belushi and Candy were brothers from another mother. They were friends, excellent team players, men who challenged conventional notions of attraction, and engendered enormous audience affections that continue long after their departure. For whatever vices they picked up that should have been left behind, perhaps even those were simply part of how they treated their art and their lives, from the cardinal rules that everyone is taught to do in improvisation: say yes, explore, and heighten. And in the best moments, and the detrimental moments, they kept to that standard.

Belushi would have been 65 and Candy would have been 63 today. And they would have been as grief-stricken as we have been at the recent loss of their friend Harold Ramis. As all three of them were when Doug Kenney inexplicably departed before properly enjoying the success of the movies he co-wrote with or for them.

In his exploration on Belushi's legacy, Roger Ebert observed, "Tragedy is when you know not only what was, but what could have been." That's why my elders have not forgotten the shock of their fallen heroes, nor I mine. I think if there is a difference, it's because, well, if the two Johns stuck around a little longer, we would have had a lot more laughs in the world. And we're always going to need those.

But thankfully, we have what they left behind, which is still a lot of great stuff.

Little Chocolate Donuts will always be the donuts of champions!

And Johnny LaRue will always be NOT GAY!

1 comment:

  1. Well said. They were two unique talents who left an indelible impression on me and many others. While other comics water themselves down for the money, these guys really cared about their art and reputation. Wonderful entry!