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John Belushi: He Who Laughs First

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.

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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, “Yeah, 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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

The ‘Serious Burger’ at Cheeburger Cheeburger: Taste Test and an SNL Video

The abridged version of the chain, at Newark’s Terminal A

National burger chains are flying into town and running up their numbers so fast we can’t keep up with them. One of the latest to arrive — along with Smashburger, Fatburger (which tried twice in the last two decades, failed, and is trying again), and Five Guys (which had a big head start) — is Cheeburger Cheeburger.

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The Serious Burger (really a cheeseburger) comes wrapped like a birthday present with a nice green olive on top.

This Florida-based franchise takes its name from a famous John Belushi sketch on SNL (also starring Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Bill Murray, and Robert Klein, the writer of the sketch, who appears near the end and sits at the counter) set in a Greek diner. You can read the name on the window backward — the Olympia Restaurant — but the prototype for the sketch was a Chicago bar called the Billy Goat Tavern, known to many of the skit participants, who, you’ll remember, came from the Second City, a Windy City sketch-comedy outfit.

The joke lies in the fact that all the place seems to serve is cheeseburgers, pronounced at ear-splitting volume in an immigrant’s accent, and endlessly repeated as “cheeburger, cheeburger, cheeburger …”

Pillaging Belushi’s corpse, the chain Cheeburger Cheeburger appeared with a single Park Slope branch earlier this year, but perhaps more germane to airline travelers, a stealth express branch materialized more recently at Newark Airport. As a captive audience, the prospect of one of their patties may be more appealing, when you don’t have dozens of other burger choices, as you do in most city nabes.

As the 10-ounce cheeseburger looks, freed of its wrapper

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A qualified “num, num, num” — pretty good for an airport, but the patty a bit dry

Just before entering the screening rigmarole at Terminal A, I grabbed their flagship burger, the Serious Burger, which is a 10-ounce patty, regaled without extra charge with mayo, onions, lettuce, and American cheese. The chain permits you to order the burger done as rare as “medium,” which is an advance over Five Guys, which cooks its burger to a cinder.

The “medium” is the faintest pink in the gray middle, and the size of the Serious is big but not overwhelming. The patty appears to be hand-patted, and is hence of somewhat irregular circumference. The flavor is dull, however, since the beef used is so unfatty. Still, not a bad burger if you’re hurrying through the airport and need a quick bite, much better than the pre-wrapped sandwiches found at other concessions.

Next: A video of the original “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger” sketch, called “The Olympia Restaurant” (1978) …

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The comedy sketch that inspired a Florida burger chain

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FUNNY BUSINESS

For more than 30 years, the improv guru Del Close of Second City urged young comedians (Tina Fey, John Belushi, and Bill Murray, to name a few) to see their craft as an art form that required intelligence, not banana peels. “Treat your audience like poets and geniuses,” he said. Since his death in 1999, top improvisers from more than a dozen cities have come together in his honor at the annual Del Close Marathon, a nonstop weekend (there are literally shows around-the-clock) of more than 150 performances at four different venues—Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Urban Stages, Hudson Guild Theatre, and FIT. Special performers at FIT include Derrick Comedy (featuring Donald Glover of Community), Improvised Shakespeare, The Colbert Report writers, and the musical improv group Baby Wants Candy.

July 30-Aug. 1, 2010