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Samurai Snobs


The legacy of John Belushi is for rent at your local video store. For a mere three or four bucks—or $29.95, for trivia compulsives who insist on ownership—anyone with a VCR can feast on The Best of John Belushi, a 60-minute package of the burly comic's sketches from "Saturday Night Live." The word "feast" is used advisedly. In these highlights from the golden era (1975-79) of the long-running and, to some, landmark NBC show, it is food, not any other performer, that constantly threatens to upstage the star. Belushi's Elizabeth Taylor stuffs herself with chicken; his samurai deli waiter uses his sword to slice hero sandwiches; his Vito Corleone gags on an orange; his Greek luncheonette counterman incessantly pushes cheeseburgers and chips. Not that food is the exclusive topic of Belushi's comedy—ethnic stereotypes are equally ubiquitous. In addition to the Japanese, Italian, and Greek caricatures, there's a German (Beethoven, sounding like Göring), an Irishman (Belushi makes no attempt at the accent), an Englishman (Joe Cocker, singing "A Little Help from My Friends"), and most persistently, a black. According to The Best of John Belushi—which was assembled by Lome Michaels, the creator and producer of "Saturday Night Live," and Judith Jacklin Belushi, the comedian's widow—nothing is more representative of the Belushi spirit than the neo-Negro "Blues Brothers" numbers he performed with his pal Dan Aykroyd. The opens and closes this compilation tape is "I'm a Soul Man."

To which one wants to respond, in paraphrase of Belushi, "Soul? But noooooooo!" Even dexterous use of the slow-motion replay button is unlikely to uncover much soul in The Best of John Belushi. The humor swings between the juvenile and the cruel, lacking as much in heart as in laughs. Except during the Joe Cocker routine—which predates SNL, having been perfected by Belushi during his early '70s tutelage in the off-Broadway revue Lemmings—the viewer keeps wondering what all the heat was about. Why did this monotonous performer and his SNL co-stars spark a national sensation, complete with magazine covers and fanatical fans, akin to that once produced by Lucille Ball, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason? Why did Hollywood, having expended Belushi's gift for food jokes in his first major film role (National Lampoon's Animal House), squander millions on bigger and bigger canvases for his limited talents? (The Belushi filmography—Goin' South, Old Boyfriends, 1941, The Blues Brothers, Continental Divide, Neighbors—is unlikely to be the occasion for a revival-house retrospective any time soon.) And why did one of the most valuable journalists of our day, Bob Woodward, pour months of his time into the task of pinning down the exact circumstances of Belushi's demise and then write an encyclopedic account (Wired) of the predictably grotesque findings as if they were of the same historic importance as The Final Days? One might think that Belushi—the most representative figure, as well as the first casualty, of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players of "Saturday Night"—was a seminal figure in American renegade humor, the baby boomers' answer to Lenny Bruce.

He was not, and neither are the colleagues who've survived him. Since leaving SNL, the alumni of the original cast have sought their true level. Chevy Chase's considerable charms are now parceled out ungenerously in junk movies like Spies Like Us (also starring Dan Aykroyd) and the National Lampoon "Vacation" series (not to be confused with the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" pictures). Jane Curtin stars in "Kate & Allie," a hit network sitcom that SNL might once have rudely parodied. Laraine Newman, Gilda Radner, and Garrett Morris are heard from mainly in disposable films or second-rank television programs. While Bill Murray, perhaps the most talented of the group, starred with Aykroyd in the largest-grossing Hollywood comedy in history, Ghostbusters, the movie's jokes were pitched at a far younger (and sillier) audience than the SNL generation. That audience has since pledged its fickle heart, at least for a year or two, to the "brat pack" (one of whose brattier members, Anthony Michael Hall, was a regular on last season's revamped SNL).

As for Lorne Michaels, the guru who first recruited these bright young talents for NBC over a decade ago, he retreated to SNL once again last fall, after an absence during which he tried and failed to match the success of the show's performing stars. During his hiatus, the biggest phenomenon in SNL's history came and went: Eddie Murphy, a suburbs-bred Blues Brother who effortlessly achieves the campy recreations of black stereotypes (e.g., Buckwheat of The Little Rascals) to which Belushi could only slobberingly aspire.

Forlorn as the SNL team may seem now, however, its legend remains. It's now part of pop culture mythology that in its early years, this ragtag weekly revue was revolutionary television, keeping the spirit of the 1960s alive in the heart of corporate America, during the semiclandestine time slot of 11:30 to 1 on Saturday nights. (The slot had previously been a dumping ground for Johnny Carson reruns.) Tom Shales of the Washington Post, in an early review of the show in 1975, wrote that "Saturday Night Live" (then still known as "Saturday Night") was

Probably the first network series produced by and for the television generation—those late-war and postwar babies who were the first to have TV as a sitter. They loved it in the 50s, hated it in the 60s, and now they are trying to take it over in the 70s....[It is] a live, lively, raucously disdainful view of a world that television has largely shaped. Or misshaped. 

As one of the show's executives put it, SNL was "the post-Watergate victory party for the Woodstock generation." One wants to believe that the party amounted to more than the food gags and crude ethnic humor that Michaels and Mrs. Belushi have culled from the archives in their representative sampling of the "best."

That faith is hard to sustain after reading Saturday Night, the highly readable and mighty depressing "backstage history" of the show by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. This book may well prove that SNL is an important chapter in pop-culture history—but not exactly the salutary chapter that one might have wished.

Hill and Weingrad do start out as fans. Their first chapter has an epigram from Fitzgerald's "Echoes of the Jazz Age," and somewhat later the authors characterize SNL as 

the first program of its kind to commit itself consciously to the subconscious, to emulate as much as it could the spirit of artistic abandon embodied and endorsed by the gods of 20th-century hip. Baudelaire, William Blake, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Ken Kesey, the Beatles, and Hunter S. Thompson were as much the fathers of "Sat- urday Night" as Kovacs, Carson, Benny and Berle. Dan Aykroyd called it Gonzo Television. They were video guerrillas, he'd say. Every show was an assault mission.

Yet Hill and Weingrad, try as they do to be friendly, are such thorough and non-partisan reporters that they can't prevent the much different and sorrier truth from seeping into and finally overwhelming their narrative. As the reader soon learns, Lorne Michaels resembles Fitzgerald only in that he enjoyed "circulating in some of the higher, hipper echelons of New York City chic," he loved spending money extravagantly, and he, Paul Simon, and the writer Michael O'Donoghue threw an annual "elegant lawn party" in the Hamptons at which the guests were required to dress in Jazz Age white. (Michaels, who desperately hoped that the Not Ready for Prime Time Players would be the "Beatles of comedy," got the idea after having "heard of a similar party Paul McCartney once threw.") The aesthetics of SNL were also more white than "20th-century hip." The show's players and writers were as gluttonous as Belushi's on-air characters--for fame, money, and drugs. They were all too ready for prime time. 

In their behavior and comedy, one sees not so much the keeping of the "Woodstock flame as the dawning of the age of narcissism. SNL was not a link between William Blake and the video culture. Nor was it, like the prototypical NBC television revue of the early 1950s, "Our Show of Shows," a breeding ground for writers who would later transform, dominate, and, at their best, elevate mass American comic taste. (Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel brooks, and Larry Gelbart, among others, all came of creative age writing for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on "Show of Shows" or its immediate offshoots.) Rather, the history of SNL is an object lesson in how the rebellious spirits of the 1960s were bought, packaged, tamed, and sold during the 1970s—thus making the country safe for the return of the complacent, business-as-usual ethic of the 1980s.

The Hill-Weingrad Saturday Night unfolds a paradigmatic morality tale of the period that has been played out in many other fields—journalism included. As the authors note, Jann Wenner, a constant presence in the Rockefeller Center studio on Saturday nights, turned Rolling Stone into a “house organ” for SNL. What could have been added is that SNL’s decline into pap almost exactly parallels the transformation of Wenner’s once provocative alternative news outlet into a celebrity-fixated, teen-generation People. The SNL historical model similarly fits such phenomena as the public lives of Jerry Rubin and Eldridge Cleaver, the history of the National Lampoon (once a breeding ground for SNL writers), the on- and offscreen progress of Jane Fonda, and the rise of a generation of movie-industry “baby moguls” trained (to win, not struggle) by SDS.

With the major exception of Michaels, a Canadian joke-writer, most of the original contributors and performers on SNL did start out on high ground. They actually were incendiary, Hunter Thompson-esque humorists prior to enlisting in network television. They had toiled in the fringe political comedy troupes and revues of the late '60s and early '70s—the various Lampoon stage and radio shows, Boston's The Proposition, Chicago's Second City, New York's Channel One. They followed what Michaels described as a countercultural comedy "code:" "knowing drug references, casual profanity, a permissive attitude toward sex, a deep disdain for show business convention, blistering political satire, and bitter distrust of corporate power."

Some of this flavor did turn up on SNL, especially in the early days, when the biting and clever commercial parodies may have cost more to produce than genuine commercials brought in. Ralph Nader, a guest host, was given a national forum for his assault on oil companies. Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon—not to mention his physical clumsiness—was so strenuously ridiculed that SNL may have contributed to his electoral defeat. Michael O'Donoghue, the most obnoxious and probably the most talented writer on staff, could give full vent to a nihilistic, ghoulish, "cut and slash" comic sensibility that really did mock middle-class pieties (however sadistically).

But the predominant mission of the show was mandated from the outset by its network underwriter—to deliver those crucial demographics that television had lost during the ‘60s:

NBC's ratings in the 18-34 age group were dismal, as were those of the other networks. There was, the affiliates knew, a whole blooming, unpredictable but overflowing youth market out there that wasn't, for the most part, watching TV. Millions of consumers were going to waste, and advertisers were aching to get at them.

SNL became the instrument for relieving that ache.

What's fascinating about the selling out of SNL is that it happened organically and internally—rather than as a consequence of outside pressure or censorship. The show's first breakout star, Chevy Chase, needed only to make the cover of New York (which labeled him a potential successor to Johnny Carson) to "become the very thing he'd been parodying—a plastic celebrity." Self- indulgent drug use and arrogance toward his fellow cast members soon followed, and inevitably led to his departure for Hollywood. This same pattern repeated itself with nearly every performer who hit it big on SNL. Years later even Eddie Murphy became a temperamental monster the moment he first achieved acclaim and rose above the show's low, Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland starting salary. Most of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players quickly became younger, druggier parodies of such typically preening guest hosts as Paul Simon and Milton Berle, both of whom were less interested in rehearsing their sketches than in protecting their bald spots (Simon with lighting, Berle with shoe polish) from the camera's prying eye. Only the means and degree of self-destruction varied from SNL star to star—ranging from Belushi's fatal overdose to Radner's bulimic masochism. Jane Curtin was the sole member of the original cast who left the show in the same levelheaded condition in which she had arrived.

Once the SNL performers became consumers in the "youth market" that their show sold its products to, their humor inexorably reflected the marketplace as well. No one had to tell the cast how to sell out; their off-screen perks and amusements corrupted their aesthetics insidiously. Just as the 1980s show business descendants of SNL are the vapid, moneyed post-adolescents of "brat pack" movies, so it is now clear that the real antecedents of Belushi and his male co-stars were not the Beats but the "rat pack" of the 1950s. Substitute coke for booze, and Garrett Morris for Dean Martin's and Frank Sinatra's token black crony, Sammy Davis Jr., and the parallels in decadence fall into place.

Soulman Belushi, for instance, was an unabashed old-school misogynist who frequently threatened to resign if all the female writers were not fired. ("He believed, or pretended to believe, that women weren't funny, and he said so all the time.") The staff's penchant for breast jokes incited the feminist protest of even Raquel Welch, and one of the show's most controversial early sketches was a parody of Betty Rollin's First, You Cry in which the husband was seen as the principal victim of his wife's mastectomy. Morris was alternately ignored and ridiculed. "For all the professed radicalism of the writers on the show," report Hill and Weingrad, "they seemed unable to produce material that dealt with black issues in anything beyond the coarsest terms, if they dealt with them at all." In the end, Morris was pigeonholed in drag impersonations of Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Pearl Bailey. Only at the last minute was he spared performing in "a parody commercial for a toothpaste called 'Tarbrush,' which darkened blacks' supposedly shiny white teeth."

Such humor is as establishment as any establishment that SNL had originally set out to attack. Hill and Weingrad call it anti-comedy: "The comic release [SNL] provided came not from pointing up the human foibles we all share, but from the more cynical exercise of pointing an accusing finger at the banality of others." That banality was usually found in people poorer, older, or less "white" than the SNL cast. The butts of most of the sketches were consistent with those on The Best of John Belushi—"wild and crazy" bachelors from Eastern Europe, or "nerds," or Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella, the idiots of Weekend Update. Chase, the anchorman of Update, introduced himself each week by saying "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not," and that signature line could sum up the entire show's sensibility: peering through a cocaine fog out of the limousine window, the SNL stars saw themselves as the haves, and everyone else as the have-nots. Garry Trudeau, who did survive both the '70s and success without losing his comic bite, criticized the "screw-you" humor of SNL with precision in a commencement address in 1981:

For all its innovations this kind of satire tells society's nebbishes that they are right about themselves, that they are nobodies, that to be so un-hip as to be disadvantaged, to be ignorant, to be physically infirm, or black, or even female is to invite contempt.... It reflects a sort of callousness so prevalent in the survivalist ethic. If this is to become a society intolerant of failure and uncompassionate in the face of suffering, then we are lost.

The ethic of SNL lingers on not merely in Hollywood's and television's ever more efficient and ruthless methods for cashing in on the youth market but, far more dangerously, in the society at large. The young people who might be today's SNL staffers now seem to gravitate toward arbitrage, where the money and coke may even be better than they were at NBC. Perhaps today's inside traders grew up on the best of John Belushi as Belushi did on "The Honeymooners."

The current version of SNL panders to the times much as the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players now do: instead of mocking the present occupant of the White House last season, Lorne Michaels enlisted the president's son as a guest host and lets him exploit the show for self-promotional effect. Maybe Michaels got the idea from "Laugh-In," the cautious SNL precursor that helped Richard Nixon humanize his image during the 1968 campaign by making a cameo appearance to deliver the line, "Sock it to me!" Lest anyone doubt that there's a pattern to history, it should be remembered that Michaels worked on "Laugh- In" shortly after he immigrated to the United States from Canada.

Before returning to SNL last year, Michaels briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to conquer prime time with another "Laugh-In" clone, a variety series called "The New Show." As Hill and Weingrad tell it, one of that program's writers, Tom Davis, "was sitting around [its] offices with some of the other writers one day and noticed that they were all talking about real estate deals. 'Funny how different it was from the other show,' he thought. 'The other show was filled with incredibly hungry people.' The story of Saturday Night is the recurrent but still depressing saga of what happens when a hungry, renegade American generation confuses a belated invitation to success with a license to pig out.