By Tommy Housworth, contributor
“That time in the 1980’s, when a bunch of very silly men were given very large sums of money and allowed to go play.”
This line, from the epilogue of Nick de Semlyen’s “Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ’80s Changed Hollywood Forever,” captures the essence of, both, the era and the book that chronicles it. It’s the story of a group of maverick comedians – John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Rick Moranis, and John Candy – who, true to the book’s subtitle, altered the landscape of cinematic and television comedy from the mid-70’s through the 1980’s.
The book begins with a recount of a somewhat infamous fight that Chase and Murray got into backstage at Saturday Night Live (SNL), an impulsive, sloppy brawl which sets the tone for how seriously these men took their craft, and how quickly showbiz egos can grow once they’ve had a taste of an audience’s adoration.
De Semlyen highlights each actor’s respective heyday on SNL or Second City TV (though Martin was never a Not Ready for PrimeTime Player, he was the group’s “fifth Beatle”, to be sure). First, Chase decides he wants out after just one season, ready to be a Hollywood leading man. Belushi and Ackroyd make their exits three years later as Belushi grew tired of being thrown in the kind of flimsy sketches that required the cast to don bumblebee costumes. A few years later, Murphy, too, couldn’t abide a middling sketch show after experiencing the back-to-back box-office success of 48 Hours and Trading Places.
Each of the book’s subjects make their subsequent transition into movie roles, with wildly varying results. There are the blockbusters (“Animal House,” “Ghostbusters,” “Vacation,” “Parenthood,” “Beverly Hills Cop”) and more than a few disasters (“Continental Divide,” “1941,” “The Razor’s Edge,” “Oh Heavenly Dog,” “Nothing But Trouble,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Harlem Nights”). To be sure, when these men hit the ball, it went way, way out of the park. However, when they missed, the whiff could be felt across empty multiplexes across America.
While it’s safe to say that Murray and Martin are the two featured actors who have seen the most later-in-life success, it is Murray who proves to be the least compromising of them all, following his muse and taking a substantial amount of box office and critical praise along with him. To this day, the way to offer Murray a role is to leave a message at a 1-800 number he purchased in the 1980’s. He’ll get back to you within a few days or months…. maybe.
Martin, meanwhile, has stayed relevant by expanding his reach, taking fewer risks as an actor (The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen), but then exploring the realms of playwriting, short fiction, and bluegrass music with convincing success.
De Semlyen confirms what many of us have read about the personalities of these comedy legends, on and off the set. Chase is as petulant as we’ve heard, never believing a script is worthy of his talent, nor a costar above his territorial insults. Belushi is all id-driven indulgence, a trait that ultimately leads to his demise at the age of 33. Meanwhile, Murphy is so committed to stardom that he avoids the trappings of drugs and alcohol, even walking away from a line of coke that Belushi personally cut for him during Murphy’s young stand-up days. When it comes to notoriety, Murphy wants to emulate his hero, Elvis Presley, though specifically circa 1957, not 1977.
“Wild and Crazy Guys” also offers up a trove of intriguing anecdotes many of us may have missed, from Murphy being offered a starring role in not only “Ghostbusters” but also “Star Trek IV” (huh?) to Rick Moranis giving up the lead in “City Slickers” to care for his ailing wife. Many may not know that we were almost deprived of Bill Murray’s genius after an ill-fated trip to Hunter Thompson’s cabin in Woody Creek, where Thompson tied Murray to a lawn chair and threw him in the deep end of the pool. Then there’s Dan Ackroyd’s unwavering belief that his California mansion is haunted by the ghost of Mama Cass, and his even more outrageous belief that the situation merited a screenplay.
The book ends with the behind-the-scenes story of “Groundhog Day,” the Harold Ramis-directed film that serves as an appropriate bookend to the rambunctious comedies of the 1980’s. Though a low budget affair, “Groundhog Day” showed maturity and new direction despite the ongoing battle between Ramis and Murray over the tone of the film (Ramis wanted light romance, Murray wanted existential angst). “Groundhog Day” points toward where cinematic comedy was headed next.
One noticeable omission in “Wild & Crazy Guys” is the presence of female comedic actors. De Semlyen says in the preface that his book will focus on this group of men, as they were the driving force behind this era of comedy. While that may be true, one can only hope that today’s women of comedy (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy) will be the subject of a similar tome very soon, and the women who influenced them (Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and others) will be recognized for blazing a trail.
“Wild & Crazy Guys” delivers on its promise to take the reader through an enjoyable and often surprising journey through the careers and lives of these seminal comedians, men who defined an era of American movie making.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can offer is that de Semlyen made me want to go back and watch so many of the films featured in his book, both the classics and the misfires. However, I may skip “Oh, Heavenly Dog.” Nobody needs to relive that.