Today would have been John Belushi’s 64th birthday. The comedian, who was part of the original era of the “Not Ready For Prime Time Players” on Saturday Night Live from 1975 – 1979 and represented one of the last of the renegade, reckless, revolutionary comedians that was a by-product of the radicalism of the late 1960s which saw comedy conventions being splintered by way of troupes and publications like The Firesign Theater, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and National Lampoon Magazine, died from an injection of heroin and cocaine on March 5th 1982 at the age of 33.
Belushi brought to SNL and to the comedy world in general a kind of madness not often seen on television, and not seen since his passing. Although he grew up as a child in the 1950s and early 1960s of a generation weaned on television that was safe and predictable, Belushi’s style became anything but. He manifested his comedic talents the way he lived, the lines between Belushi the public figure and Belushi the real man were blurred for the most part.
It always seemed that whatever comedic guise he was under — whether it be the many characters he played on Saturday Night Live, like the mute but physically out of control expressive Samurai; the uncontrollable, boomingly loud, and funnily intimidating weatherman on Weekend Update; the spastic imitation of Joe Cocker, complete with Cocker’s unintelligible warbling; or even as Jake Blues, the one half of the fictional Blues Brothers band with his brother Elwood (cast mate and long time friend and confidant Dan Aykroyd) — there was always a sense of danger involved with the comedy, the unpredictability of watching him go at it and not really knowing where it was going to wind up.
Although the show was and continues to be performed live, only John Belushi seemed to be the only cast member in the show’s almost 40 year history to almost cross that line where because the show was live, anything could happen. There had never been an instance on the program where there was a major disruption, by an audience member, or a huge technical gaffe, or even worse, a possible violent act that could have occurred without warning. Belushi could have easily been a major disruption from within, every week. And even though he really shared nothing with fellow innovative comedian Andy Kaufman, what they both shared in common was their knack of not only making you laugh, but also making you feel slightly unsettled while doing so.
And he didn’t just do it on TV. He made films that even though some may have been conventional, raunchy, and somewhat pedestrian compared to the almost subversive style Saturday Night Live flirted with in those early years (and never went back to again as the show became a super hit), Belushi was still able to be an axis of that style of comedy he was best known for. Whether it was portraying Bluto in Animal House, the doesn’t-need-many-words-to-express-himself college dropout who had an unquenchable lust for creating college mayhem with just a simple loud bellowing, an utterance, or a raised eyebrow (a Belushi physical trademark that he used in many of his productions and sketches throughout his career); the quiet, calm, yet sneaky Jake in the Blues Brothers film; or even in his last film, the mostly unseen yet creative cult black comedy Neighbors, in which he plays it straight and leaves the out-of-control comedy to Dan Aykroyd, the Belushi stamp was still firmly affixed on the production.
His biggest downfall, although to some it was viewed with green-eyed jealousy, was his personal life, which was, as documented in varying accounts and somewhat botched rewrites of his history, one big party. Endless jaunts up and down Sunset Boulevard and in New York City; riding crests of narcotics and alcohol; having the power and giving it in forms of money, excess, and always being “on” to the crowds, sycophants, fellow drug heads, and just about anyone who would give him and want to get immense amounts of lip service, physical and otherwise. He once said that “the best thing about being successful, is that you can walk away at any time,” meaning that one didn’t have to be tethered by say a nine-to-five daily gig, or the repetitive regiments of life in any way, shape, or form. For John Belushi, his financial and career successes gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and however he wanted. The tragic end result was his overdose at the famed Chateau Marmont, up in the hills off of Sunset Boulevard, 31 years ago this year.
But in spite of all that, the man lives on; his shadow still looms over anyone who pushes the envelope on Saturday Night Live, and in comedy in general. A lot of what he did then can possibly be construed as archaic now, as most comedies and sketch comedy today is more about raunchiness and epithets, juvenile turns that make one belly laugh, but still take easy routes that it seems that anyone can do (although arguably it can be said, that the seeds of a lot of today’s styles were birthed with Animal House). The secret of Belushi’s skill is that he made it seem like his skills and talent derived from a fresh approach of seeing what was in himself, and then turning up the heat. He succeeded many, many times in that approach, and although he arguably may not have been the very best cast member ever to come from the Lorne Michaels stable of Saturday Night Live, again, his presence looms and hovers over the show and always will, regardless whether or not a new generation of viewers even remembers who the man was.
Remember the blazing comedic comet that was John Belushi today. Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, or even his contemporaries (at the time) like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Albert Brooks, and writer/performers like Michael O’Donoghue and Steve Martin, John Belushi too remains and should always remain a titan of a style of comedy that set the bar, and kept it there. Not many could then, could now, or will be able to in the future, effortlessly hurdle over that bar like he did, time and time again.