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.


Dead Milkmen

If the immediate appeal of punk rock is that anyone can make it, then maybe Philadelphia’s Dead Milkmen are punk rock epitomized: a gaggle of now-graying goofs with just enough musical ability to sell blink-and-miss-’em songs so juvenile they could have been conceived for a series of especially daft Second City skits. “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “You’ll Dance to Anything” are the “hits” everybody remembers, but the vaults are deep, and this particular gravy train is still on the tracks. Someday, the Dead Milkmen will receive their due as second-wave punk court jesters – probably sometime after they’ve called it quits, for good.

Sat., June 14, 7 p.m., 2014



Comedian T.J. Miller may be best known 
as the one behind the video camera in J.J. Abrams’s Cloverfield, but, with any luck, you may soon get to see much more of him (he’s been cast in Mike Judge’s new comedy pilot, Silicon Valley). Until then, you’ll have to catch the Second City alum—named one of Variety’s “Top 10 Comics to Watch”—at Gotham Comedy Club, where he’ll be performing for two nights. The star of the hit comedy short Successful 
Alcoholics (see it on Funny or Die immediately) and the cohost of the podcast 
Cashing in With T.J. Miller on the Nerdist Network will regale with you stories on a range of his favorite subjects, such as terrible pickup lines, “creepy” everyday hand gestures, and his medical marijuana prescription.

Fri., Feb. 8, 8 & 10 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 9, 8, 10 & 11:45 p.m., 2013



In the Burt Bacharach musical Promises, Promises, Sean Hayes plays an ambitious pushover who lets his higher-ups take advantage of him in order to climb the corporate ladder. The Will & Grace star, Second City alum, and classically trained pianist would never have to sink to such lows to get a break—although he did once work as a landscaper, his most detested job, according to a brief Q&A, in the latest issue of Playbill, done in the style of those found in Tiger Beat. Mac or PC? “Please. Mac.” Audition song and monologue? “Anything from Glee and anything from Glee.” Dream movie role? “Betty White.” Find out all of Hayes’s other secrets and desires in a live Q&A with Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters.

Mon., May 24, 8 p.m., 2010



Since Monday, 36 comedy teams have been battling it out on the P.I.T.’s stage for SketchProv ’09 glory. What? Never heard of SketchProv? You’re not alone. The term comes from a Second City routine called “The Pad,” in which the teams get suggestions from the audience about locations, activities, and character motivations, jot them down on a pad, and then work out a scene backstage while another group entertains you. Tonight, the remaining teams head into the quarterfinals for a night of high-energy competition. The semifinals and finals will be held Saturday night. We’re sure there’s a good reason for why they’re billing it a “comedy bloodbath.”

Fri., Oct. 23, 7, 8:30, 10 & 11:30 p.m., 2009


Obies 2009: Saying Goodbye to Tom O’Horgan, Paul Sills, and More

They dimmed the lights of Broadway this year for Horton Foote, for Bea Arthur, even for super-agent Sam Cohn, but not for Tom O’Horgan, who once had four shows running simultaneously on that over-celebrated street. This didn’t particularly surprise me: O’Horgan’s fame and fortune were made on Broadway, but his glory lay elsewhere. He made the rock musical a viable form and, in so doing, permanently altered Broadway’s idea of the musical theater. But I doubt that, if anyone had asked, O’Horgan would have called this his ultimate goal in life: What we achieve is never exactly what we meant to do when starting out.

They didn’t dim the Broadway lights for Paul Sills, either, when he died last June, though his story-theater productions caused a great stir on Broadway in their time (he more or less invented the form), and the artists he nurtured through his decades of work with the Second City might be said to have created America’s prevailing comic style. But such honors were probably not important to Sills, who, like O’Horgan, would have been startled, perhaps even annoyed, if anyone had referred to him as “a Broadway director.” What both men had in common—what they shared with so many of the artists on the sadly long list of our necrology at the Obie Awards this year—was a passion for the spontaneity of theater, for the idea that we love it because it is ever-changing, always fresh, always open to surprise.

Within this rubric, O’Horgan and Sills couldn’t have viewed their art more differently—though, in fact, one of O’Horgan’s earliest jobs in New York was providing music for the New York branch of Sills’s Second City troupe, in a club across from Washington Square. Sills basically saw theater as a narrative form, telling stories that, whether in sketch comedy or fairy tale, animated the myths we all carry around inside us. O’Horgan’s idea of theater was visionary and poetic; he dreamed of creating, and nearly did create with La MaMa Troupe, a modern equivalent of the medieval bands of strolling players who, with infinite resource, could tackle any theatrical task that arose as they performed, and could vary the superficial details of a performance without damaging the substance of the work they were conveying.

In their differing ways, both O’Horgan and Sills cherished the theater’s resilience, its gift for fluidity. Sills thought nothing of dropping into a show after it had been playing a few weeks and posting a new running order backstage; when the tech crew grumbled, he would explain that he didn’t want the cast to get used to thinking of the show as a routine. Similarly, O’Horgan found ways to infuse the relatively mechanized structure of a Broadway musical like Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar with a free-form, kaleidoscopic quality that kept it constantly fresh. The debate that has flickered up recently over the extent of his contribution to Hair‘s success mostly misses the point: He never claimed to have written the show (though no doubt he gave its authors some significant hints), and he knew quite well that someone else (a commendable artist, Gerald Freedman) had directed a reasonably well-received production of it before he became involved. What he added was the free spirit that made the show so different from the musical theater’s business as usual. Because the wider public needed that sense of liberation, just then, exactly as it needed Sills’s return to a directness of narrative, what had seemed “experimental” and “downtown” suddenly made for success, and the directorial tactics involved entered into the mainstream vocabulary, though few have used them with O’Horgan’s or Sills’s degree of imagination.

Imagination, the force that sets the theater free, is the hardest of all qualities to preserve. Other art forms—novels, painting, film, composed music—may seem to embody it forever, but in each, the examples that still speak with their original power are notoriously few. Like the texts of plays that have ceased to interest the theater, they lie stored in archives, to be bypassed in favor of the rare items we return to time and again. Granted, unjustly neglected works exist—why else would there be archives at all?—but the justly neglected outnumber them by far.

The theater, in a sense, was set free of this archival weight at its very beginning, when Roman Empire scholiasts selected the few ancient tragedies—by only three out of a large number of playwrights—that they felt would make optimal teaching tools, and scraped the papyri clean of the rest for reuse. We have Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; whether our life would be immeasurably enhanced by having even one complete script by Agathon is anybody’s guess. Menander, who served as the model for the great Roman comic playwrights and pretty much everyone thereafter from Molière to the TV sitcom, was known to the world only through a jumble of fragments until archaeologists found a complete text of the Dyskolos in 1958; it hasn’t noticeably raised his status.


Performances disappear from the world’s memory even more rapidly than plays, notwithstanding the innumerable electronic devices our time has invented to preserve them. Yes, it would be nice to have some of the great occasions of the past downloadable or on DVD. I’m sure I’m not the only theater lover who’s wished himself, with a time machine and a camcorder, back in the Globe Theatre—I mean the one the Burbage brothers built—at the world premiere of Hamlet, or even further back, in that Athenian amphitheater at the first performance of the Oresteia. Who wouldn’t want the YouTube clips of Molière as Arnolphe and Orgon, Duse in The Lady From the Sea, or Pauline Lord in the first act of Anna Christie? Sorry, no can have. Archival material, especially with more recent events, can supply a lot of detail, but the essence will be absent. Even the most sophisticated archival videos, of which I’ve watched many, never feel like more than approximate indications of what occurred. You had to be there, as they say.

If it disappears so fast, if even preservation is only approximation, why make theater at all? Some will say they do it to gain fame and money in their own time. We know what their work looks like; we saw a lot of it during the era of unbridled capitalist frenzy that’s just gone by, when all of civilization seemed to center on big deals and celebrity gossip. That bubble having burst, our lives and our theater may now find themselves differently centered, looking for the meaning that lasts, living in the non-material joy—the joy that artists like Sills and O’Horgan addressed—of the moment that will vanish, leaving behind only what we make of its meaning.

Fame and wealth are lovely things; I’d like some, and I’m sure so would every other working artist I know. But they aren’t what keeps us at our work. Surely it wasn’t greed for fame that kept the late Horton Foote, at 90-plus, sitting in relatively uncomfortable Off-Broadway theaters taking notes during previews when he could have been relaxing in the comfort of his own. And surely it wasn’t a desperate craving for wealth that led the late Eartha Kitt, at a similarly ripe age, to stand her ground like a trooper in the cramping Off-Broadway circumstances of a disaster called Mimi le Duck. No, the theater is something else. Fame and money are fine. But the vividness of the moment, and the meaning the moment embodies, are rather better.

They’re better, too, for the health of the world, if you’ll pardon my playing aesthetic nutritionist for a moment. Thinking about people who’ve gone from us, and about their faith in the vanishing moment, I found I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering—especially when I scanned the news headlines—to a different sort of vanishing act: the one staged by big financial crooks like Bernard Madoff. Until the Bush-era bubble burst, Madoff and his ilk were celebrities of a sort, financial wizards who made huge sums appear magically in the accounts of the well-connected, displaying the glamorous fruits of their wizardry in their lavish lifestyles, showing their magus-like benevolence in their equally lavish gifts to foundations and other good causes, including theaters. Their magical moment, and the witchcrafted money that came with it, have vanished as irrevocably as David Garrick’s performance of Hamlet, though history will probably not view them in the admiring terms it usually accords to Garrick.

The theater, dealing openly in a product that disappears as it goes on, never to be recaptured exactly, must be a more honest place than the financial market, as well as a more exciting one. In the wake of our fiscal collapse, according to a recent news story, the small-town banks that remain among our more stable financial institutions are now busily promoting the idea that it’s good for the banking business to be thought of as dull. It’s when the theater is dull and the financial markets turn flamboyant, you might say, that our system gets into trouble.

One of the artists on this year’s memorial list whom I find myself missing most was also one of the most flamboyant, the playwright Ronald Tavel, who, to my mind, ranks high on the roster of the unjustly neglected, though one can see where his outrageousness would prove a problem to the mainstream. (He was, for example, the kind of writer who would name a gay activist character in a political play “Rob Kuntz.”) Tavel’s plays, bawdy and fleshly, had a paradoxically metaphysical aspect: Their cheerful coarseness always turned out to be a gateway to the intangible. I once invited him, as my guest, to a Broadway show I was reviewing, which I had seen previously in a regional theater, and the blunt brashness of which I thought the author of Gorilla Queen and Boy on the Straight-Back Chair might enjoy. To my surprise, its raucousness left him deeply dismayed, even saddened. “But isn’t the theater,” I asked him, “supposed to give the spirit a physical embodiment?” “I always thought it was the other way around,” Ron replied. “It’s about transcendence—turning the flesh into spirit.”


I’m uncertain as to whether he was right or not. I know that our neo-Ponzi schemers were able to work their ultimately catastrophic magic because of the giant change that came into the world, over this past decade, hand in hand with capitalism’s unrestrained dementia. The Internet and its attendant activities—e-mailing, Googling, Twittering, social networking, chatting, IM-ing, downloading-on-demand—have changed and are changing every aspect of human relations. Our civilization has become “virtual.” The majority of our one-on-one contacts are now computerized, carried on in the absence of each other’s bodies, faces, and often even voices. The theater—a place of three-dimensional solidity that, by its transience, links us to the spirit’s invisible world—has to be both more than virtual and less. It has to build, each night, a context in which an audience wants to live for a time, and it has to fit that context into some larger sense of aliveness that all the virtual contacts and all the downloadable data on the Web can somehow never supply. Its immediacy, its defiant reality, the ultimate invisibility that makes it mysterious—taken together, they make the reason we do it, the reason we remember those who did it well, the reason we so look forward to those who will come to amaze us next, by the way they give meaning to the vanishing moment.



Tonight, after two hilarious days of battle among 16 top sketch and improv teams, the winners move on to the People’s Improv Theater’s Sketchprov 2008 quarterfinals and semifinals. What is sketchprov? Well, using the Second City routine called “The Pad,” a team takes suggestions from the audience, jots them down on a pad, and then goes backstage to plan the sketch they’re going to present while another team performs. Teams include P.I.T. favorites the Avatards, Project: Projekt, and Vacation Island. You help decide who moves on to tomorrow night’s final round.

Nov. 5-8, 7 p.m., 2008



TJ Miller, the guy with the camcorder who plays Hud in Cloverfield and is responsible for all the jerky footage in the monster flick supposedly giving half the country epileptic fits, isn’t very apologetic. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but you should have sat farther back.” The Second City alum says that unlike the insecure Hud, he is more aggressive, especially when it comes to scoring with the ladies (“I think he should have gone for Marlena”). So what can we expect from his stand-up show? “It’s completely hysterical, and you will not get motion sickness.”

Fri., Feb. 29, 8:30 & 10:45 p.m., 2008


Every Improviser in the World

“Every improviser in the world is here!” an excited young man said to his friend at a recent Friday-night performance of TJ & Dave. Indeed—Chicago-based Second City vets and masters of long-form improv TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi have earned a loyal following for creating one-hour plays on the spot.

“Trust us, this is all made up,” the duo reassured us at the Barrow Street Theatre before launching into a very funny piece about two buddies looking for romance and relaxation aboard a cruise ship. While Pasquesi’s uptight character struggles to unwind, Jagodowski’s is ready to cut loose (“You’re not on vay-cay till you have something from a blender,” he says). Both men received big laughs throughout as they deftly riffed on a range of subjects, from the size of whale penises to mattresses with “Space Age” foam. (” ‘Space Age’—is that still the future?” Jagodowski asks. “It’s like Kennedy-Johnson foam.”)

But the show is not just a long string of jokes; we quickly begin to care about the characters, too. When Pasquesi finally meets a woman—played by Jagodowski—we root for him to succeed and are crushed when, in a tender moment of trading secrets in her cabin, he confesses, “By the way, I’m dying.” It’s a heartbreaking way to end what started out as comedy, but ultimately it’s these brilliant twists and turns, pulled out of thin air, that make a night with TJ & Dave so unexpectedly captivating.


I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

Sitcoms about nothing, mumblecore movies—is the thematic three-act structure really dead, and if so, should we say good riddance? Either way, if you’re into the formless baring of the innermost self, you could do a lot worse than Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin’s sweetly tender peregrination, based on his one-man show on being a fat, gig-less, and lonely actor in search of someone to love. Jeff—or is it “Jeff”?— drifts around Chicago playing straight man to an unlimited supply of neurotics and lunatics, most of them played by Curb and Second City buddies like Bonnie Hunt, Amy Sedaris, and David Pasquesi. Sarah Silverman—no stranger herself to the aimless life—plays a crimson-bra’d nut job and love interest with a cruel streak you’ll have no trouble recognizing from her own body of work. There’s nothing radically new about Garlin’s observation that life is governed by absurdities and non sequiturs, but what sets this movie apart from the pack is that it’s ruefully self-aware rather than self-conscious. I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With may be one of the wisest studies of urban loneliness since Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty (which figures in the movie as a remake starring boy-band alum Aaron Carter), as well as the least condescending to little old Jewish mothers, who drive the story more than you’d think.