"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 31 January 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Slapstick Traces



Most postindustrial

postadolescents have a version

of a late-20th-century coming of

age story, usually some

variation on "The Day I First

Heard the Sex Pistols and How

Punk Rock Changed My Life, etc."

I had the same experience in

1975, nine years old on a

Saturday night, when my mother

told me to come downstairs and

check out a new show. The first

Saturday Night Live implanted

two vivid memories in my preteen

brain: Andy Kaufman's Mighty

Mouse lip-synch, which mystified

my parents (my mother still

hates Kaufman for the women

wrestling bit), and Michael

O'Donoghue and John Belushi's

language tutor sketch - "Feed your

fingertips to the wolverines." An

instant fan of the show, I

placed these comics up with my

other punk heroes, the Marx

Bros. In 1976 SCTV hit the air

(cofounder Dave Thomas' recent

book, SCTV: Behind the Scenes,

looks to be comedy's Please Kill

Me) and I watched a whole comic

scene created, which came to

include Steve Martin, Martin

Mull, and Albert Brooks, and the

rest of the casts from late

night's alphabet soup of sketch



At its best, this scene - call it

slam-dance slapstick - was as

joyously vulgar and as

inexpertly brilliant as either

Moe's or Iggy's Stooges. And

like punks across America, we

ached with pissed-off "sell-out"

outrage when, right around the

time Belushi (comedy-lovers' Sid

Vicious) died in 1982, Dan

Aykroyd came out with Dr.

Detroit, a loathsome, ugly

movie. The fact that Aykroyd did

this picture before Belushi died

only meant his lameness emerged

before the team broke up, and

wasn't a mistake brought about

by grief.



After the '70s, American comedy

got slapped down by three deaths

and one abdication. A year or

so before Belushi's death,

National Lampoon founder Doug

Kenney killed himself (or "fell

off" a mountain), and then

Kaufman in 1985. Kenney wrote

and produced Animal House, which

is still one of the best

slapstick social commentaries

made since Preston Sturges

burned himself out in the '40s.

The abdicator was Michael

O'Donoghue, who grew so

frustrated with network TV and

Hollywood that he retired to

script doctoring, writing

Scrooged and those inventive

but not always genius pieces he

did for Spin.


Throughout the '70s, each of

these four had brought a true

vision to their work, with

O'Donoghue and Kenney setting a

black comedy standard at the

Lampoon. Then they hired

Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda

Radner, Chris Guest, Harold

Ramis, Chevy Chase and others

for Lampoon stage and radio

shows. And Kaufman, on his own,

was redefining the role of

stand-up comic as clown

provocateur at Cafe Wha? and

elsewhere. Lorne Michaels, a

former Laugh-In joke writer,

spotted this hilarious nihilism

at Lampoon shows, and brought a

watered-down version to national

television in September of 1975,

where it's been getting more and

more watered-down ever since.



With these four out of the

picture (O'Donoghue now out

permanently as well), American

comedy lost a lot of its

inspiration and light. Those

remaining continued on, doing

some truly pathetic movies, of

which Aykroyd's are too numerous

to mention (and the worst of the

lot). SCTV folded with very few

of them moving on to interesting

careers, and by the mid-'80s the

only truly distinctive comedy on

TV was Letterman's show. The

stand-up boom was really hot,

and you stopped seeing comic

actors and instead got comic

attitudes, like Richard Lewis,

Jay Leno, Steven Wright, and

Dennis Miller. Some bright spots

appeared, like Chris Guest's SNL

years or Chris Elliott on Late

Night, but they were far and few



Only Bill Murray continued to

push for original work, which

Belushi always wanted to do, but

never could. Yet, with the

exception of Groundhog Day,

Murray always seemed to be

grasping for something he didn't

know how to get at. His more

ambitious films, such as Where

the Buffalo Roam, Razor's Edge,

Scrooged, or Mad Dog and

Glory, all came off muddled

and uneven. And his purely comic

efforts - Meatballs,

Stripes, and Ghostbusters -

succeeded so well they cemented

the trend Animal House started,

giving us the Porky's, Police

Academy, and the National

Lampoon Vacation franchises

(the latest of which Chevy Chase

is now filming in Las Vegas).


Aykroyd's appearance in the Blues

Brothers Superbowl revue proved

that, while his original stint

on TV revealed him to be the

most inventive sketch actor of

his generation (he was 21 when

SNL went on the air), he's

descended further down than

anyone. The Sex Pistols reunion

tour scraped by on a mix of

irony and outright contempt for

the audience, which was

perversely appropriate: they

never really liked their

audience anyway. As for the

twisted, forced humor of the

event - well, if their sales had

been pushed as hard as the

running joke of being in it just for

the money, maybe they would have

broken even. The Pistols were

always a novelty act, anyways;

their switch to shtick was

surprising only because it

didn't happen sooner. But if the

Pistols were rock stars posing

as vaudevillians, and have come

to succeed at the latter, then

the original Blues Brothers were

both, and have come to succeed

at neither.



No other comics could meld rock

stardom and comedy into one act,

and it was brilliant until the

rock star side of it took over.

In the heated pomp and

glittering self-indulgence of a

Superbowl half-time show, the

"regrouped" Blues Brothers -

this time made up of Aykroyd,

Jim Belushi and John Goodman -

might have seemed positively

subdued to some. Indeed, the

half-time show organizers'

decision to skip what proved to

be a truly killer stunt playing

off Chris Elliott's oddly

flavorless Tostitos commercials

could prompt less knowledgeable

viewers to call the whole thing




But in its own way the Superbowl

show offended the memory, if not

of "Dinky" Patterson, surely of

a generation. The

cobbled-together Blues Brothers

act was worse than any of

Aykroyd's other crap because it

ripped the heart out of

something that was original,

smart, funny, and that only

comics born of his particular

historical moment could create.

Watching the half-time revue, it

was hard to remember Aykroyd as

the guy who stormed out of a

room when interviewers dared

question him about John

Belushi's death. And Belushi's

brother Jim, he's the guy who

demolished producer Ed Feldman's

office with a baseball bat when

Feldman put the John

Belushi-bashing biopic Wired

into production. Maybe they just

felt carving up Belushi's legacy

was for friends and family only,

because they sure danced on his

grave Sunday.

courtesy of Furious George


The Sucksters