John Belushi: He Who Laughs First
July 28, 1975
It’s not easy to offend. We’re so tolerant, the folks in the National Lampoon Show can’t even get a summons for burning dollars on stage. They’ve got to go a long mile to pass the limits of acceptability where satire begins. But there always are limits. Our ever-so-liberal consciences finally shudder at mockery of the blind, paraplegics, blacks, Jackie Onassis. We’re horror-struck by our laughing. The sane agree: they’ve gone too far.
Too far for the Lampooners means something different: when the audience stops laughing. Laughter, according to the director-star co-author of the National Lampoon Show, John Belushi, is good. If they’re laughing, even if they hate themselves for laughing, they’re having a good time.
Belushi is a satirist not because he’s mean, he says, or neurotic, like many satirists, but because he likes to make people laugh. He likes to laugh himself. The touchstone for all his material is whether he and his friends think it’s funny. Unlike mass-market comics, who must gear their message to their audience. Belushi trusts his material to find its own audience of kindred spirits. He does not want to browbeat or abuse or humiliate his audience, merely to communicate with them via laughter, not preach to them (although some of his skits bear a moral load), but share with them the way he is.
On stage, Belushi plays the malignant hulking heavy — the security officer checking the audience for exportable aliens, a greedy Cypriot archbishop advertising his Big-Makarios hamburger chain, the macho stud who thinks he can seduce a girl by insulting her. His cherubically overripe face is made sinister by a beard and eyebrows that he will suddenly arch almost out of his skull. (In college he played Cardinal Woolsey.) In “Lemmings,” the previous National Lampoon show, which parodied the rock scene, he “did” macho of machos Joe Cocker. It’s no surprise that when 12 years old. Belushi’s idol was Brando, whose “The Wild One” he tried to imitate. (By imitating Brando’s performance as a gay in a subsequent film, “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” Belushi happened on his startling Truman Capote imitation. One wonders from these multiple mirror tricks whether a Capote might not always be hiding inside a Brando, and vice versa.)
Belushi is so aggressive in his act, one is surprised by his mildness and modesty. Now that the National Lampoon Show is closing for a breathless nine-month tour with a new cast, he is just another out-of-work actor waiting by his telephone praying producers will not oblige him to come to them. In two years in New York he has never had to audition and the prospect unnerves him. “Because you’re in a revue, they think you can’t act. You’re not serious. I did serious acting in college and stock companies. I can do it. But nobody believes you.”
Complaining, though, is not Belushi’s way. When asked, “Does that bother you ?” he shrugs, “Yeh, it bothers me,” as if his being bothered was both obvious and unimportant. What matters is his good fortune. Born in Chicago in 1949, he grew up studying Brando. At the University of Illinois, he formed a satirical skit group. He also did serious acting. He left college in his Junior year, when he discovered Second City in Chicago, where the likes of David Steinberg. Peter Boyle, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Alan Arkin got their starts. It amazed him that the kind of skits he had been doing as a lark could be considered serious work. He joined. One day a director called, looking for someone who can play an instrument, do imitations of rock stars, improvise, do comedy.” “I can do all of it,” said the unabashed Belushi, and landed the role of the announcer in “Lemmings.”
Next came the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which he acted in and helped write, and of which he later became Creative Director. The show was a popular success but offended too many sponsors to maintain the requisite advertising, Then came the present National Lampoon Show, which Belushi directed, having devised it with his other original cast members.
Belushi is grateful to the National Lampoon organization but not uncritical. “It’s a security trap. Good money, a lot of freedom. They let you write your shows and put them on with no hassles with producers or red tape. They spend as much as you need. But it gets so you can’t escape. Nobody considers you legitimate because you’re National Lampoon.” Now the Lampoon wants Belushi to help write a movie, but Belushi isn’t sure. There’s still that Brando dream glittering in his eyes.
It’s not going to be easy for him. “I couldn’t stand acting in a lousy play,” he says. “I like acting on my own stuff because I know it’s good.” He is uproariously critical of bad acting, especially of the overacting of the Negro Ensemble Company, which he parodied in a skit called, “Raisinette in the Sun — or, Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Act.” If I were a director, I’d be wary of Belushi, not because he’s difficult, but because his standards are high and his wit lacerating.
He has another revue he could do, but he’s tired, for now, of revue work, although that may be just post-closing doldrums and not a permanent attitude. The single route of the stand-up comic he avoids like death. “I hate clubs,” he says, almost shuddering, “the noise at the bar, the talking. When I was at Second City, I met Shelley Berman for a few seconds on an airplane. Because Berman used to be at Second City, I introduced myself and said, ‘I’m at Second City now.’ He looked at me for a moment and said, ‘stay out of the clubs.’ That’s all. Then he said it again, ‘Stay out of the clubs.’ ”
Nightclubs, for Belushi, mean isolation, hostility, standing alone on stage and trying to communicate with a boozy crowd who couldn’t care less. The joy of theatre for Belushi is social: working and laughing and inventing together. Although he occasionally sits down and writes out a solo piece, most of his writing is improvisational, which, he says, “is as much writing as sitting down at a typewriter. You suggest something, you do it, then you work on it, remembering the good beats.”
Most of the hysterical high-points of the National Lampoon Show were developed improvisationally. For instance, having Jackie Kennedy on a celebrity panel show was one person’s idea. Having a starting gun was someone else’s. Having Jackie, in her unforgettable pink pillbox hat and dark glasses, duck under her seat at the sound of the gun, was yet another person’s idea.
I asked Belushi if the Jackie skit wasn’t “too far.” He shrugged: “Everybody laughs,” as if laughter were the ultimate justifier. Strangely, it is. If the skit was merely cruel, as many people thought “The Dead Sullivan Show” was, then one couldn’t laugh, at least not healthily, wholeheartedly. The Jackie moment is not laughing at assassinations, but at our absurdly reverent attitude toward the woman. In laughing at her, we reduce her to a more human, familiar size. Similarly, the skit about Mary Tyler Moore as a blind girl is not cruel to the blind but equalizing, making them no more sacrosanct than the rest of us. Blind people who’ve “seen” the show, says Belushi with a grin, come up afterwards saying it was terrific and they know even better blind jokes and thank God someone was finally treating them like the rest of the world.
To be a successful satirist, one must love life. It is the love that tells you when is “too far.” I know John Belushi is compassionate because his depictions of monsters are less horrible than pitiable. His insight into the weakness hiding behind the stone appearance should stand him in good stead if he ever gets his chance to play the hero, the Brando.