the bully boys of saturday night live -- 6/08/18

Today's selection -- from Saturday Night by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. In the late 1970s, a new, era-defining comedy called Saturday Night Live premiered. In its first years, it featured three comedians with working-class backgrounds who came to be known to show insiders as "the Bully Boys" -- John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray:

"John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and then Bill Murray embraced, consciously and proudly, the romance of the outlaw, the flat-out, no-holds-barred ethic that writer Hunter S. Thompson called 'Gonzo.'

"Their defiance was different from that of Chevy Chase, whose confidence was born of privilege. Tom Shales of The Washington Post wrote once that alongside the others on the show, Chevy seemed 'like the lone rich kid at the neighborhood birthday party.' Belushi, Aykroyd, and Murray were staunchly working-class, their humor and the anger beneath it blunt and hard-edged. Like their personalities.

" 'They were,' [writer] Rosie Shuster said, 'bad-assed, macho, go-get-em bravado types. They were formidable in that way, and their charisma came from that as well. They weren't the sensitive, crying males -- this was not that brand. They were in reaction to that. In the first half of the seventies, feminist and gay rights were coming out, but the New Macho guy started to emerge in the second half of the seventies, and that was very much alive on Saturday Night.'

"[Creator and producer] Lorne Michaels, who didn't have that Gonzo mentality and who strug­gled harder and harder as time went on to keep it from overwhelming Saturday Night, came to call them 'the Bully Boys.'

"John Belushi embodied Gonzo in its rawest form. It was no accident that he had an intense friendship with the Prince of Gonzo himself, Hunter Thompson -- Thompson once said that John was more fun in twenty minutes than most people were in twenty years. Neither was it a coincidence that Belushi did a superb imitation of Marlon Brando, the original Wild One. Like Brando, John didn't seem to act his emotions onstage so much as exorcise them. Many of his strongest characters -- the Samurai Warrior, Rasputin, the demon child Damien -- spoke no words at all. Belushi breathed them to life on the power of sheer presence, and, strangely, it is the power of sheer presence that transmits best through the tubes and transistors of television.

"Belushi was like that offstage too. Writer Marilyn Miller describes the way he came into a room: 'John would go into these paroxysms about life,' she said. 'He was mad at everybody, or something was wrong. He would talk about anything, like an actor talking. He would come in and be like your brother and breathe real hard; then he'd be like a Shakespearean character, serious. Like a tornado that would spin itself round and round and then be exhausted.'

"Belushi's friends say he had two distinct personalities: the Teddy Bear and the Creature. The Creature would ask to borrow money and then take every dollar you had out of your wallet (sometimes he didn't ask); the Teddy Bear brought flowers the next day. Many afternoons Belushi came to work and sheepishly made the rounds of people's offices. 'Was that you I was with last night?' he'd ask at each stop. 'Sorry.'

"One of the least appealing aspects of Belushi's machismo was his misogyny. He believed, or pretended to believe, that women weren't funny, and he said so all the time. He often urged Lorne to fire all the women writers, and although he undoubtedly would have been surprised if Lorne had taken him up on it, several times he threatened to resign if they weren't.

"Anne Beatts and Rosie Shuster (whom Belushi called 'the boss's wife') took much of his abuse. There's a long list of parts they wrote, including the Todd part in the original Nerds sketch, that Belushi refused to play, simply because, Beatts and Shuster were sure, they wrote them. Belushi once burst into an office and tore into Beatts about something she'd written, yelling at her so violently that when he left she burst into tears. Those who witnessed it were shocked that the Ball Buster [Beatts' nickname because of her hard-edged personality] would ever break down, but she said she just couldn't take John's attacks anymore. A few minutes later Belushi came back in and apologized profusely."



Doug Hill


Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live


Belch Tree Books, William Morrow


Copyright 2015 by William V. Madison


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