Sunday, February 16, 2020

Wild and Crazy Guys (2019).

One of the interesting things to note about the history of the arts is how often you tend to find differing and separate individuals grouping together or clustering around what can only be described as a burst of creative energy.  This is a subject that's been examined more than once on this blog.  We've looked at least two types of this same phenomena, one of them occurring in the mid to late 70s.  The other happened quite a while back, and centered around artists like Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling.  Both of those instances had a kind of continuity between them, as each group was concerned with taking the major materials of the fantastic genres and molding them into the modern forms that we know today.  What's notable about this interlinked artistic development is how it is both important on both a historical and aesthetic level, while at the same time being all too easy to miss.  It's this lack of notice that poses a danger to valuable bits of history slipping through the cracks.

This same phenomena of artistic group clustering was not limited to just the fantastic genres, however.  There have been moments during the closing years of the 20th century when varying talents would come together in collaboration in the field of the comedic arts.  Unlike the New Wave Fabulists or the California Fantasists, this comedy oriented phenomena was a bit more noticeable, and has managed to carve out a lucky space for itself in the memories of pop-culture.  To this day, there are still people who can recall every single line of dialogue from Ghostbusters, or Beverly Hills Cop.  Guys like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have managed to use their talent to etch their place in the hearts and memories of an entire generation of grateful fans.  Their collective ability to bring a laugh out of others is so impactful that it seems they're now in the process of winning over a lot of millenial fans as this is being written.  It's the kind of thing you hope goes on long after time has made them all take a final bow.

It's sort of why it's a service to future generations when some aspiring fan decides to set down a chronicle of the accomplishments of each one of the funny men of the 80s.  That's the goal Nick De Semlyen set out for himself when he decided to write Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changes Hollywood Forever.  At the center of this study lies a small, yet substantial number of talents, each of whom would go on to have a major impact in the shaping of the pop-cultural landscape, part of them originating, according to the author, from the NBC stages of Saturday Night Live.  "Many huge starts would be launched from the show, including Dan Ayckroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy.  Meanwhile, up in the chillier and considerably less glamorous environs of Toronto and Edmonton, John Candy and Rick Moranis were working alongside people like Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara, cutting their teeth at SCTV.

"Together they made up a sprawling, smart, subversive collective...Their approach to comedy was freewheeling, hip, and fearless.  And whether their on-screen mission was to save the world from supernatural forces, get the girl, or make authority figures fizz with rage, they were about to inherit the Earth (xv)".

Semlyen follows this statement up by asking a rhetorical question that has, at least as far as this critic is concerned, a definite claim to validity.  "Try to imagine what cinema would look like without them.  Collaborating with behind-the-camera talents including John Landis, Ivan Reitman, Carl Reiner, and John Hughes - and fellow stars such as Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Goldie Hawn - this new wave would produce a litany of big, brash blockbusters and evergreen oddities: National Lampoon's Animal House, The Jerk, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, The Man with Two Brains, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Fletch, Coming to America, and Scrooged to name but a few.  That list alone makes a compelling case that this period is as good as things have ever gotten for big-screen comedy (xvi)".

I'd have to argue that at least in terms of wit and delivery, that might be the case.  Although I don't think that's enough to erase all the genuine accomplishments of past cinematic eras.  Just recently I've had the opportunity to examine the work of old-timers like Carol Burnette and Tim Conway, and I found myself having to hold my gut just take in air.  It's a testament to level of talent involved, even before the 80s crew came in to take over things.  Because of this, I've got to go with the idea that humor is perhaps just a bit more timeless than a lot of jaded and cynical reviewers (the kind that are too focused on, or just plain obsessed with the present moment) are willing to give it credit.  This holds true just as much for older funny guys and gals like Lucille Ball or Mel Brooks, as for those who came after.  Still, the comics of the 80s have a fair share of accomplishments to their name, and it's the nature of these achievements that Semlyen is here to look at.  He lays out his goals of his study in the introduction as follows:

"This is the story not only of how these classic movies were made, against the odds and frequently under the influence, but how their stars handled the perils and pitfalls of fame.  Murray, Murphy, Martin, and company all hurtled onto the A-list, becoming global celebrities pursued by paparazzi and fending off, or accepting, frequent offers of sex and drugs.  Not bad for a bunch of guys - and despite the early promise of Gilda Radner, it was exclusively the men who hit big - who generally looked more like maintenance staff, or appliance salesmen, than members of the Rat Pack.

"There was plenty of fun, as these stars lived out an extended adolescence, getting paid obscene amounts of money to goof about in lavish screen fantasies.  But when you're flying so high, the pressure is immense, and even the seeming perks could become nightmarish.  "When I started plying stadiums, I did have girls trying to get into my room a few time," Steve Martin recalls.  "But it wasn't a fun thing like you'd imagine.  You don't want someone knocking at your door at two a.m. when you're exhausted and trying to sleep"

"Everyone acclimatized to the lunacy in different ways.  Rick Moranis wound up retiring in the early 1990s.  Eddie Murphy embraced his celebrity with both hands, strutting around in a red leather boiler suit from the stand-up set Eddie Murphy: Delirious and employing a full-time entourage.  Johns Belushi and Candy died tragically young.  Bill Murray sailed through rumpled but uncrumpled, seemingly doing whatever he damn well pleased (xvi-ii)".  The artistic highs and lows of the comic talents that came out of the SNL era is the kind of story that's well worth telling.  The real challenge for any chronicler of this particular artistic movement all comes down to two simple questions.  Is the story told well, and is it the truth?  


In the opening pages of his study, Semlyan classifies the nature of comedy in the 1960s under the crude encapsulation of "a dweeb in specs (xiv)".  For Semlyen, Woody Allen's low key sense of existential angst serves as the best idea he either has or can find, or is capable of dredging up from the records of the past in order to gain a sense of the comedic styles and methods that came before.  At no point during the study does Semlyen ever budge or expand outward from this point.  This is a perfect example of the weaknesses in his study.  Sometimes the author's critical aesthetic interests are hampered by a very narrow horizon line.  Anything beyond a certain point in the past is just too uninteresting for him to bother about.  This is a mistake on several levels, however for the purposes of Semlyen's text, it is a simple question of having an imperfect picture of the comedy of the preceding ages.

As a matter of fact, pre-1970s comedy was made up of multiple strands, each one interacting with and influencing one another.  This is a multi-faceted topic on which Semylen demonstrates a frustrating lack of awareness.  A good instance is when he names drops the Monty Python comedy troupe, and yet fails to make the connection that their work was born and nurtured in the 60s, and by the very psychedelia and creative surrealism for which that decade is still best known.  Semlyen is therefore capable of listing the troupe as an influence on 80s comics without being able to give the slightest hint of why this is important.  It gets even more frustrating when you stop and consider that the Pythons in turn might have taken inspiration from earlier, 50s era funnymen like Ernie Kovacs.  It's just the natural way that creativity spreads and germinates, and which makes its reach and influence so important to track down.  Instead Semlyen's approach means he has to content himself with a catalogue of lists without the benefit of insight, leaving him unable to say just how important these artistic connections are.

Instead, the author takes a much more drive-by survey approach to this particular aspect of his subject.  This hurts his premise inasmuch as the comics who are supposed to make up the main focus of his study tend to be treated as if they all emerged sui generis, or as one-offs with little to no connection to anything that came before them in the past.  When it comes to the possible motive the author has for this method of approach, then it could be because of the way he views his subjects.  For Semlyen, the 80s comedians are classic rebels against the establishment, with each artistic project a way of thumbing their nose at their chosen satirical targets.  To be fair, this is a legitimate aspect of the work of people like Murray and Murphy.  The problem however is that Semlyen doesn't seem to have a complete grasp of the nature of their form of satire. This is not just short-sighted, it is also possible to accuse the author of being guilty of a kind of chronological snobbery in certain passages of his own book.  What makes it so frustrating is that it is not the only drawback of the text.  However, there are strong points on display, when the author puts his mind to it.

One of Semlyan's skills is the way he is able to trace the trajectories of his subjects.  The book is not limited to any single personality, rather a number of comic talents are spotlighted and followed over the course of the study, making the book as a whole an ensemble piece.  Semlyen is able to give a welcome insight into the biographical background of his subjects.  The first thing that strikes the reader is just how much of a hardscrabble type of upbringing a lot of these guys had.  "Born in Waco, Texas, but raised in California, (Steve Martin) had a difficult relationship with his father, which caused him to become an independent teenager.  He worked for eight years at Disneyland, helping out at a magic store in Fantasyland and learning the ropes, literally, as a lasso twirler in Frontierland.  He became a self-taught entertainer, poring over copies of books like Joe Laurie's Vaudeville and Daniel Fitzkee's  Showmanship for Magicians.  And although he studied philosophy at Long Beach State and considered teaching the subject, he ultimately decided to put his curiosity about the human psyche to a different use (18)".

Semylen doesn't take an exact chronological approach towards his main cast, yet in retrospect this is one deliberate choice with a least a modicum of sense behind it.  The reason the biographer starts out with Martin is because his backstory acts as a kind of prototype for all the other talents he'd soon end up working with.  For instance, it's almost uncanny how the basic setup of Martin's home life matches that of the brothers Bill and Brian Doyle Murray.  "One of nine siblings...Murray's formative years were spent in Wilmette, Illinois.  Even more insubordinate than the young Aykroyd or Belushi, he was kicked out of the Boy Scouts before even being issued a uniform.

"...Murray's was a Catholic household, but a rowdy one.  "No drunken audience could ever compare to working our dinner table," he said in 1981.  "If you got a laugh, it was like winning a National Merit Scholarship."  His father, Edward, was a thin, quiet, diabetic man, a lumber salesman by trade, who could still administer a mighty smack; Bill would study him scientifically, figuring out how to make him laugh, not least so he could talk himself out of trouble when he got busted for something.  "One of my strongest impressions," he wrote in his slim 1999 golf book cum memoir Cinderella Story, "is falling off my chair at the dinner table while doing a Jimmy Cagney impression.  I hit my head hard on the metal foot of the table leg, and it hurt terribly.  But when I saw my father laughing, I laughed while crying at the same time.  I guess that was some kind of beginning (26)".
It's been said that sometimes hardship can serve as a good workshop in which comedy can be born.  It's one of those ideas that can best be represented by the phrase, "it all depends".  Sometimes hard knocks aren't required to hone one's craft.  Some people are just lucky enough to be born with a natural, and highly developed funny bone.  On the other hand, there are cases like that of Richard Pryor, in which a lot of personal pain and it's exorcism and catharsis on-stage was the whole point and main content of his entire career as a comedian.  It's because this sort of thing can happen that I almost want to play it safe and be as cautious as possible with the subjects of Semlyen's book.  I don't think it does anyone good to try and compare notes over who had the most traumatic childhood.  I'm not even sure how relevant it is to guys like Murray or Martin.  Instead, what I think can be said is that their craft as a good example of comedy in the face of adversity.

This same situation applied to Chevy Chase.  Semylen describes the National Lampoon star as someone who "fell all the way to the top (25)", a reference to the comic's fame as the king of pratfalls on Saturday Night.  Chase inherited his sense of humor from his dad, Richard, while his mother had a mental breakdown, leading to an inevitable divorce.  His father's second wife was abusive toward him.  "It was an odd life: Dickensian levels of misery alternating with Ivy League privilege.  Paternal grandfather Cornelius Chase, from whom, Chevy got his real name, was enormously wealthy, and so the young Chase would spend holidays aboard a 200-foot yacht, or watching servants scuttle about a the mansion.  It looked like that fortune would pass down to him.  But it was not to be.  Instead, Cornelius divorced his own wife, fell in love with a Zen Buddhist, and ultimately bequeathed most of his riches to a temple, leaving little for Chevy.

"Chase did, however, attend a series of exclusive schools, where he quickly established a reputation as a smart-mouthed brat.  Chase's antics, which saw him kicked out of both Riverdale prep school and Haverford College, were many and varied (48)".

That leaves us with just three others.  In comparison with their American counterparts, Rick Moranis and John Candy come off as the products of relatively normal households.  The only major blip on the radar is that the early death of Candy's dad from heart failure left his son with a sense of unease.  It was a personal specter he was always trying to outrun, even as his weight expanded to outshine his even his old man.  Throughout it all, Candy remains one the decent sorts, while Moranis comes off as the kid next door who found that being the class clown was a good way to compensate for a lot on the playground of life.

Perhaps the most amusing background belongs to Eddie Murphy.  "As a fourteen-year-old growing up in Roosevelt, Long Island, Murphy's dream had been to own a Mister Softee ice-cream truck so he could snarf free cones.  But another fantasy slowly came to the fore.  Down in the basement of the family house, he liked to stand in front of a full-length mirror, lip-syncing to the Elvis Presley album Live at Madison Square Garden and gyrating until he was dripping with sweat.  Occasionally he'd sit in a chair and practice with a ventriloquist's dummy.  It was unusual behavior for a boy in his early teens.  His mother, Lillian, looked on with a mixture of of curiosity and awe.  "He looks in that mirror," she said, "and he's on a natural high...

"...In 1976, the fifteen-year-old Murphy and a friend were asked to host a regular talent show at their local youth center, though really their job was closer to crowd control.  If a heckler piped up, Murphy tossed back insults getting the crowd laughing.  But after he'd done a few shows, he decided to try his luck, putting on an Al Green record and throwing some moves onstage.  To his amazement, it got a riotous reception.  "Girls started screaming," he marveled.  "And I said, 'Shit, you can't make girls scream in a Mister Softee truck (80)".

There are just two figures left in the rogues gallery of Semlyen's book.  The frustrating part is that one of them is never really talked about at all.  It was something I almost didn't notice until I went back and reread the opening chapters for this review.  Everyone was there with all their backstories more or less given their time on-stage.  It's just that something felt off, like I was missing something.  Then it occurred to me that I couldn't remember Semlyen talking about John Belushi and everything fell into place.  If you come looking for an insight into one of the brightest shooting stars of the 80s Comedy scene, then Semlyen's study will leave you disappointed.  I have no real idea of why this should be the case.  It could be because of the fallout over such texts as Bob Wooward's infamous Wired bio, or maybe the Belushi family just didn't care to speak to the biographer.  All I can say for certain is that the omission of Belushi's background leaves him as something of a blank slate that somehow manages to be larger than life while always being reduced to something life-sized.  It makes him sound less like an active participant in his own life, and more like one of those laughing/sad Janus masks they used in Greek theater.  I don't know if that's the best Semlyen could do, or was allowed, either way Belushi deserved better, and I'm still waiting for someone to fill in the gaps.

That just leaves Belushi's sometime partner in crime, Dan Aykroyd, to fill out the cast.  In some ways, Aykroyd's background is the most colorful of the lot  "Grandson of a Royal Canadian Mountie and the owner of webbed feet, Aykroyd was very different from Belushi, whom he affectionately nicknamed "Thing," "the Black Hole in Space," and "the Bear Man."  Whereas Belushi was an impulsive, freewheeling spirit, Aykroyd was self-disciplined to a fault...Still, he was edgy in his own eccentric way (11)".  Basically, Aykroyd was one of those types of guys who for some reason look at the world at a slant.  "Curiously, for someone with such an anarchic streak, he was also obsessed with law.  At Carleton University in Ottawa he took a college course in correctional policy and deviant psychology, as if he was trying to figure out his own brain.  Mitch Glazer compared him to a cross between a state trooper and an android.  Former girlfriend Rosie Schuster said his ultimate fantasy would be to commit the perfect crime, then arrest himself.  Many of his friends were convinced he was attuned to a bizarre frequency nobody else could detect.  "You look at the floor and see the floor," he said to one of them.  "I look at the floor and see molecules."  Sometimes late at night, in his and Belushi's room at 30 Rock, he would take out a stash of gold coins and make strange gibberish sounds like incantations, awakening other people on the floor (11-12)".

The entire collective picture that Semlyen gives could almost serve as a textbook snapshot for the idea of the misfit.  Each of these actors came from backgrounds where circumstances placed them as the odd men out.  Perhaps its incorrect to say they were isolated.  Instead, a better way to put it is to realize they each found themselves placed in positions that weren't those of power, rather it was more like one of those oblique angles that allows you to view life from a perspective that is not so much from the outside as it is distanced enough to spot all the incongruities, foibles, and ironies of daily existence.  They were all capable, in various ways, of being able to spot the discordance between what people and society around them claimed themselves to be, while also being aware of the truths and reality that others, especially those who really were in positions of power, were either unaware of, or else couldn't bear to face.  This is prime territory for developing a scathing sense of satirical humor.

Highs and Lows.

Semlyen's method is to focus the lens on each of his cast members in turn, and then move the history forward by examining their exploits.  Sometimes this places them alone on-stage, while at others times we see multiple figures in the spotlight as they come together in collaboration on various projects.  Each of them found their own way in through the door of showbiz.  From Disneyland Martin hit the stand-up circuit until he caught the attention of Lorne Michaels.  Bill Murray found his start by filling in at the Second City comedy club when his brother Brian was too sick to take his usual part.  After that, Bill became part of the regular lineup.  Guys like Moranis and Candy found themselves on the more gradual upward slope through the Toronto improv circuit.  It wasn't long before their skills in this venue landed them a gig on SCTV.  One of the most remarkable things to read in the book was just how much of a take-no-prisoners attitude was displayed by a very young, lean, and eager Eddie Murphy.  "Murphy wasn't like his Saturday Night Live predecessors, Belushi, Aykroyd, Murray, and Chase", Semlyen writes.  "All of those guys had essentially stumbled into stardom, talented but lucky to be in the right place at the right time.  Murphy, on the other hand, raced after the game like a greyhound chasing a hare.  Any possible distraction from his goal was ruthlessly eliminated.  He didn't drink alcohol.  He didn't smoke weed.  He sure as hell didn't snort cocaine (79)".

 "Audiences lucky enough to catch him were amazed by his self-assurance.  He'd spit out obscenities with a giant grin on his face.  In one routine he pretended to be mid-inauguration as America's first black president, then drop to the stage, felled by an imaginary bullet.  Another night the crowd was unenthusiastic, so Murphy told them, "Hey, y'know what?  In three years I'm going to be on The Tonight Show, so you can all kiss my %#$."  He walked offstage (81)".  As I read those passages, and others like it, the almost contradictory nature of things, as they stand now, just sort of hit me.  What happened to the Murphy in the pages of this book?  He sounds like a real fun guy to hang around with!  More than just being funny, this guy had actual, raw talent.  It was equal parts drive and determination, combined with an instinct for the comedic target, welded to an iron resolve to never let anyone get in the way of his delivering the punch line, and heaven help you if you tried it.  It was this kind of determined and channeled energy that Murphy brought to his breakout role, 48 HRS.  It's there up on the screen.

At the same time, there are hints here and there of the kind of Murphy everyone seems to have gotten used to.  "Murphy had always seemed effortless in front of a live crowd.  But on location, with only the silent crew watching and no time to rehearse, he seemed to flounder.  "At the risk of saying, 'I told you so,' it was exactly as I had predicted to Nick," says (director Walter) Hill.  "You'd do four takes and Eddie would be very good in one and not so good in a couple and OK on the other one.  In dailies, his deficiencies were on display as well as strengths (85-6)".

"...It was crisis time.  But Hill held firm: he'd seen enough flashes of genius from Murphy to be convinced he was just the man the movie needed.  He assembled footage to  show to the studio head Michael Eisner, then ordered another pass on the script to emphasize Murphy's strengths.  "We came to the conclusion that Eddie was best whenever he was competing with Nick over something in the scene"..."That activated some nerve center in him and suddenly he'd come alive and be mesmerizing.  So we had to work up moments that were like a jump ball in basketball, with two guys going for the ball.  It has to do with stand-up - he was incredibly responsive to provocation that was right in front of him (86)".

Murphy wasn't the only one experiencing professional difficulties.  We also get follow along with Belushi as he begins to scale all the way to Parnassus.  We also are allowed to see the toll it took on the actor.  He's only on-stage for the early segments of Semlyen's book, yet for almost every moment that he features in, we see what amounts to a force of nature worn down for the most part by  his own insecurities.  From very early on, Belushi began to worry about being typecast as just the comic slob character.  It seems lie he wanted to break out into material that was as far as possible from Bluto Blutarsky.  It was this drive that made him even try out for roles in dramatic parts.  When that failed to pan out, his own sense of inadequacy started to get the better of him.  The rest of the story is almost rote by now.  Then the drugs came in, and while he tried to get a handle on it, Belushi wound up being consumed by his fundamental lack of self-worth.  It's become the stuff of legend, so it's a relief to be able to report that Semlyen handles it with a sense of reserve and tact.  There are no frills or indulgent passages, just the sad lament of a wasted talent.  

Rising and Falling Action.

Semlyen's book can be graphed almost as a kind of ascending and then quickly descending curve.  We go from humble beginnings to a series of heights.  Everything about the book seems to be a lead up to the moment where the author talks about the making of 1984's Ghostbusters.  From there, unfortunately, everything begins to take a downward turn as it seems like Semlyen sort of runs out of a lot of interesting things to talk about.  I am willing to suggest that maybe this isn't entirely the fault of the biographer.  The simple fact is that after the triumph of that film, things began to change for the entire troupe of jesters.  I think the real crux of the matter was that audience tastes were starting to undergo a barely visible shift.  In retrospect, it's easy to realize that the all major years for that whole SNL and Second City style of comedy was in the fading years of the 70s and at or about the first opening five of the 80s.  The monumental blockbuster phenomenon of Ghostbusters seemed to trigger a response in viewers.  It was inarticulate, yet the basic sentiment went something like, "Okay, well, I suppose these guys have done all they can with this kind of material.  Guess that means it's time to move on and find the next big thing".  The rest, I suspect, has now in fact become history.

From that time on, the major driver for 80s comedy didn't really shift away from guys like Murray, Aykroyd and Murphy, so much as they often found their careers relying on people like John Hughes.  It was Hughes, in fact, who sort of emerged as the main driver for that style of comedy pioneered by the likes of Steve Martin and John Candy.  I almost want to say that the best of Hughes' films can be looked at as extended SNL skits of the kind that were always more low-key yet effective.  They may not have featured any of the signature roles and performances for which the show is now mostly known, yet they still manage to have a kind of comedic dignity of their own.

He emerges and functions as mostly a background figure in the text.  However, much like Belushi, though he doesn't appear on-stage all too often, Hughes does come across as one of those quiet types who are able to leave a big impact through the virtue of their artistic abilities.  He was something of an import from the National Lampoon magazine who was able or lucky enough to make the leap from the printed page straight to Hollywood and the big screen.  We catch up with him just as he comes to the rescue of Chevy Chase's career.  "Up until this point, (Chase had) exclusively played single guys chasing women.  But the next film he was offered drastically recast him from cool-witted lothario to ineffectual husband and dad of two kids.  There was still a flirtatious beauty for him to pursue, but he had as much chance of getting together with her a Wile E. Coyote did of bagging the Road Runner (97)".

That movie, National Lampoon's Vacation, came out in 1983.  I think there's a significance in that film because it marks the moment where the baton was passed, so to speak.  Everyone tends to agree that the glory years of Saturday Night Live was from its debut in 75 right up until all the original cast left in 1980.  All of them had sought greener pastures in the movies, and so it just makes sense that the same kind of energy which used to be found on the small screen would eventually make it's way onto the big one.  From that perspective I guess it makes sense to view the films that came out of this transition as a kind of collective successor to the Not Ready For Prime Time format.  Lorne Michaels was, maybe not so much the guiding light of this format, but he was sort of the organizer who helped the talent find and have their voices.  Michaels was never able to make that transition to the movie houses, yet Hughes did.  It's because he was able to carve out a place for himself in the film industry that I'm convinced it makes sense to view Hughes as Michaels' successor for this kind of comedy scene. He was not an overseer like Michaels, yet he was able to assert an influence on the direction that a lot of the material would take throughout the 80s.  What we have then is an interesting historical continuum in which this particular brand of humor was able to live and thrive. 

The unfortunate problem is that this is all information that Semlyen either forgot to take into account, or he's just plain unaware of.  The result, as stated above, is a closing section that just sort lags and meanders while waiting for the author to wrap things up.  It's another example of the weakness of Semlyen's approach to his subject that he often seems unable to see any of the bigger picture implications tucked away in the works of guys like Hughes, and how they connect and reinforce the work of others that have gone before. 


Perhaps the biggest criticism to have about Semlyen's book is that it's author often doesn't go perhaps as far into his subject as he could.  There's a reason this group of comics and their films and creative projects lasted as long as they have.  It's possible to understand why that is, however to do so, you have to dig a bit deeper into their work than just reciting the dry surface facts.  For that you have to switch out the historian's toolbox for that of the critic.  You need to not just look at the facts of the case, but you have unpack them in order to examine important elements such as theme, motif, and whether or not any of the artists keep returning to a basic set or pattern of ideas in their stories.

In some ways, by failing to meet these requirements, it is possible to say that Semlyan falls a bit short.  He decided to write a book about a subject that is rich in subject matter, and he gives it almost the bare minimum of attention needed to bring his subject to life for both longtime fans as well as newcomers who are just getting started in exploring a great and valuable body of work.  The curious part is that while I can't bring myself to call Wild and Crazy Guys a complete success, I somehow can't recommend that readers just throw it away either.  I know how odd that must sound, and maybe their is a certain amount of self-contradiction involved.  However, the trick is that while Nick de Semlyen has not written a definitive account of this creative movement in the comedy field, then he can at least be said have provided something like a decent sort of beginner's text.

We are treated to a basic general outline with Semlyen's study.  We follow Murray, Aykroyd, Murphy, and Martin as they make their way across the stage of history like pieces on a chess board.  The book provides its readers with certain dates, summaries of proceedings, and the occasional backstage anecdote along the way.  This is less than I might have liked for a topic like this, however, it will have to do for a start.  The task of the next critic with an interest in this subject will be to take a deep dive into the creativity of the 80s comics themselves.  It's like something of a debt owed to posterity.  What needs to be done is each artist and performance or story needs to be looked at in turn.  First on an individual basis, and then slowly, and with care, all the pieces need to be assembled together to discover what themes and dramatic ideas were shared by, and which united all their work as a whole.

It's a tall order, and I can't pretend to have all the answers in just a single blog post.  It really is one of those projects that will have wind up being one of those haphazard collective efforts by multiple hands across more than one generation.  What I have to emphasize here, at the moment, is that one thing any future critic should make sure about is to realize that the 80s comedians didn't emerge and operate in a creative vacuum.  There is a sense of historical continuity that needs to be stressed in any future writing about their careers.

This is an aspect of 80s comic satire that Semlyen doesn't quite understand, or grasp what it's about.  Guys like Murray and Aykroyd were and remain in a unique position when it comes to the humor of bygone days.  This relational position is what determines the nature of their form of satire.  The truth is they are beholden to the past, and don't just throw it away.  Rather, their approach is to criticize what was wrong with  it, while also recognizing the value of all that was best about it.  This makes their humor both satirical, yet also accommodating.  It explains the human element that is almost always present in these features.  A key example of this is John Hughes' Uncle Buck, with its focus on bridging the gap between generations.  It features a level of maturity that I think has been lost over the years, and perhaps the genre itself could do with some reminding of how and what it used to be like, and whether it's possible to find ways of recapturing the old spark.  The good news is that all of these comedies and their stars are still fan favorites to this day.   Perhaps that means it falls to this same fandom to keep the meaning of these films alive as a reminder of their values and ideals.  Nick de Semlyen's Wild and Crazy Guys might not be the perfect vehicle to kick things off, though perhaps it'll do as a good place to start.  


  1. (1) I haven't read this one, but I did read the LIVE FROM NEW YORK oral history of SNL, which was fantastic. In the 80s, for the 10th anniversary of the show (I think - maybe it wasn't that, I remember it being around 1987 or 1988, or hell maybe it was 1990, for the 15th) I had a great People magazine overview of the show, with tons of interviews and great quotes, which was quite a pre-internet treasure trove for my SNL fandom at that time. The shadow this group of comedians and performers cast over the 80s is formidable indeed.

    (2) What an oversight to devote such little space to the other troupes that came before and paved the way and contextualized Murray, Chase, et al. though!

    (3) Ackroyd is indeed a weird cat.

    (4) I spent years trying to catch a glimpse of 70s-era Rosie Schuster, having read about how hot she was back when she was daying Ackroyd (while married to Lorne, with his blessing - twas the 70s, or sometehing). Even in the internet age it's harder than expected, but I finally fulfilled this promise to my teenage self some point last year.

    (5) My first unrequited celebrity love was probably Gilda Radner. Did you ever read It's Always Something?

    (6) Steve Martin's Playboy interview from the early 80s (I think - might be 1979) is another treasure trove of insights, both into comedy and this whole era. It's interesting to see the Martin of this stage of his career, transitioning from 70s comedy mega-fame and wackiness, into his 80s persona, and laying out his reasons and predicting quite accurately the way it was going to go.

    (7) I always feel kind of bad for Chevy. He's embodied so many contradictions and behaved abominably, and yet at the same time, I still empathize with him. And will always love FLETCH and a handful of other pivotal Chevy moments in my adolesence. I was happy he got a late-innings revival and did good work (and got good scripts) on COMMUNITY, although it's unfortunate that show fizzled as it did. Still, he got some of the most memorably moments of his career (even in the episodes he wasn't in after his character died but they kept using him for plots.)

    (8) I watched RAW recently and couldn't get into it all. It had an Andrew Dice Clay quality to it, mixed with Dane Cook.

    (9) I've never read WIRED, but both Peter Criss's and Ace Frehley's Kiss memoirs have several fun anecdotes of partying with him. He and Ackroyd owned that little bar they used only for post-show all-nighters. It was at that bar that Jerry Garcia, high as a kite, talked Francis Ford Coppola's ear off about making Vonnegut's SIRENS OF TITAN. It's weird the little anecdotes you remember, tucked away behind other ones.

    1. (1) I own a copy of Miller and Shales' "Live". Another treasured piece of SNL history that I own is "Saturday Night" by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. It's unique in the sense that it was written and published during the show's first big transition phase. Michaels was temporarily gone, and the later generation with Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell had yet to make their mark. It's an interesting snapshot that's worth checking out, and best of all, it's kind of online.

      (2) Yeah, that's a fault that a lot of future critics are going to be guilty of, I'm afraid. The one thing no one seems to learn is that you can't understand the present without gaining some perspective on the past. This goes double for the nature of pop-culture in general. Right now, all anyone can do is hope that smarter scholars will come along and fill in the gaps.

      (3) I didn't put this in the blog, on account of it might not seem relevant, or else in bad taste, yet I've heard it said that Aykroyd has an interesting, high functioning case of autism. If so, he's a good example of why such individuals should not be cast aside or looked down upon.

      (5) Sadly, I have not read the book in question. It's a bit of a shame that Radner has been off my radar for some time, of late. That's another shame, because she's one of the legends of comedy, and yet the worry is that she'll disappear between the cracks of history as well.

      (6) I think I might remember catching a snippet of that interview. All I recall is Martin saying that he either realized that he was safer as a straight-up movie star, or else that he was just making better bank on the screen than on the Stand-Up circuit. Either way, yeah, that one has a ring of familiarity somehow.

      (9) Another question for a what-if, alternate level of the Tower. Somewhere some lucky bunch of bastards got the chance to see a totally tripped out Coppola version of Vonnegut's book.


    2. (5) I have Alan Zweibel's memoir of crushdom on Gilda, BUNNY BUNNY, as well. Haven't read that one yet, though.

    3. I'm familiar with Zweibel mainly from hearing him mentioned in connection with the Second City improv club, and also because he wrote a novel called "Lunatics" with the greatest writer of all time, i.e. Dave Barry.

      Let me know if the Gilda book is any good. Right now, I've suddenly got an old SNL skit running through my head "La Dolce Gilda". It was originally meant as a spoof of a Fellini film. In my memory, however, it just comes off as an unintentional touching tribute.


    4. (7) I am aware that Chevy Chase is reputed to be an absolute calamity of a person, but I look at his best work and will NEVER not find it funny.

  2. (1) "One of the interesting things to note about the history of the arts is how often you tend to find differing and separate individuals grouping together or clustering around what can only be described as a burst of creative energy." -- I enjoy the macro looks you take at things like this. Projects well worth the doing!

    (2) "Guys like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have managed to use their talent to etch their place in the hearts and memories of an entire generation of grateful fans." -- It strikes me as both wild AND crazy to think that I was privileged enough to grow up in the era during which so many pantheon-worthy comic talents were working in film. I'm no expert on any of them, and still haven't seen anywhere near all of even the key works from the era; that's because to some extent, I took it for granted at the time. But it will be incredibly satisfying to possibly someday sit down and go on a run through all of those highlights, and see both what I missed out on and what I didn't with the eyes of hindsight.

    One thing that interests me is the question of whether such movements are always actually that great, or whether nostalgic retrospective looks retroactively make them that great. I tend to think it's usually the former; but if it's the latter, well, fine by me.

    (3) I think it's a mark of shame for the entire era that Gilda Radner never broke big the way some of the guys did. Sometimes things just don't work out, though; sad, but very true.

    (4) Does the book cover "Strange Brew" at all? I've loved that weirdo movie ever since I saw it on HBO back in the day; haven't seen it in forever, and should fix that.

    (5) "At no point during the study does Semlyen ever budge or expand outward from this point. This is a perfect example of the weaknesses in his study. Sometimes the author's critical aesthetic interests are hampered by a very narrow horizon line. Anything beyond a certain point in the past is just too uninteresting for him to bother about." -- I think being restrictive in one's focus makes a certain amount of sense, but I inherently trust what you're saying here. It makes me think of how if you're writing about rock bands of the eighties, you've got to at least have *some* familiarity with rock bands of the '70s and '60s as well, and probably would be well-served to know aspects of both the '50s and '40s. Makes sense to me that the same would be true of comedy.

    (6) I honestly don't know how you'd do a book like this without Belushi being a major figure within it. And I say that as someone who never quite managed to love Belushi's work.

    (7) Amazingly, I have still never seen "48 Hrs." Jeez.

    (8) Sounds like a mild success of a book, but one which would probably make for a decent jumping-off point for further study.

    1. (1) This was a factor I sort of stumbled upon by accident. Looking back, I think you can say its something that was always there, it just took a while to notice. I think what got me started on the track was just noticing how a lot of the great writers could sometimes be found participating in these kind of informal writing groups. Then I just began to realize that a lot of the best talent partook of the same practices.

      There's probably some underlying principle in all this, similar to the ways that normal human communities ten to cluster into societies over time, or in the way some cities like NYC or London eventually tend to sprout artistic communities and enclaves. I'm far from done with this topic, though, that's for sure.

      (2) I was lucky/unlucky in that I had no choice in the timing. I first saw daylight in the middle of the year Orwell made famous. This was year Ghostbusters was released. I knew about it from the kids cartoon, rather than the movie. So I saw the cultural impact while knowing nothing of what the hell sparked it all off.

      I only began to catch up after all the dust had settled, and I got curious about a Best of Dan Aykroyd SNL collection. When my Dad discovered that he had the good sense to insist on renting a copy of the Best of Belushi, and from there my education in modern humor sort of began.

      In terms of nostalgia, I think the artistic merit of these films is of enough worth to say its more than just fond reminiscence. I think they've got a lot going for them on their own terms. That said, no reason it can't be both.

      (3) She really did seem to posess the most talent of all the girls in the troupe. I don't know how that must sound, and I'm NOT AT ALL knocking Larainne Newman or Jane Curtain. It's just that with Gilda you got a sense of an extra effort being put into the act. There was a dedication and a drive there that promised things could have gone far, if Ka or whatever hadn't gotten in the way. I feel sorry for her on that score.

      (4) According to Semlyan, that whole routine came from Moranis and Thomas's frustration with what the network wanted them to do. It was meant as a slap in the face at the stereotypical perception of what Canadians were. Somehow, though, the joke got mistaken and took on a life of its own that was never intended. It became the duo's signature role, much to their chagrin.

      "The result was 1983's "Strange Brew", a peculiar, Hamlet-inspired concoction that pitted the backwoodsmen against a madman, played by Max Von Sydow, bent on drugging Canada's beer supply. The stars had hoped to be fairly hands-off, given that they were burned out enough by doing their ninety-minute weekly TV show, but they ended up not only rewriting the script but directing the film themselves. "It was insane: we'd never directed; we didn't even want to direct!" says Thomas. "We were sort of reluctantly scrambling to salvage it as something we recognized as true to the characters (112)".

      To be concluded.


    2. Concluded from above.

      (5) I think a distinction needs to be made between a necessary sense of focus, and what Semlyan is up to. In studies like this, I believe, a proper sense of historical context and continuity is an essential aspect. It does not have to over-shadow the main subject of study, however it does have to be there to lend support and grant a sense of perspective.

      These are all aspects that Semlyan tends to fudge, I'm afraid.

      (6) I'm still shocked that in chronological terms, the guy was something like a meteor. He's there in a flash, and then he's just a name on the rolls. It all comes off as surreal, yet I can also kind of see how that kind of trajectory contributes to the growth of legend around a figure.

      (7) I dunno. I never even "knew" about the film until I bought a required text for a college film course, and there it was, listed as an essential. It was the first time I'd heard of the film, and the review had that all important effect of getting the reader interested in the subject. I still haven't got around to it, yet its somewhere in the pipeline. On the whole, I'd say that makes us even.


    3. (2) Those Best-Of SNL collections were great. SNL on the whole is great, even though 90% of it is lame and unsuccessful. That remaining 10%, though -- whoo-whee! boy, look out!

      (4) I'm glad it got some coverage in the book.

      (6) Those meteor-like stardoms happen once in a while. I guess a guy like Belushi was bound to burn out no matter what he was doing, so at least he was able to channel it in a useful way for a while and leave a rich legacy behind him.

      (7) I think the massive success of "Beverly Hills Cop" kind of rendered it irrelevant in some ways. But I've always heard good things about it, so I would like to see it someday.

    4. (2) &5-80. I think those were the times that said it all, really.

      (6) I'm reminded of Neil Gaiman's thoughts on the whole matter. "He died alone. It doesn't matter who was with him at the time. He died alone".

      (7) I'm just curious to meet the glory years Murphy, compared to how it is now.