Why you should care
Because funny seems to be in very short supply these days.
On March 5, 1982, I did something I had never done before: I sobbed in public.
The occasion? A newspaper headline that said that actor and comedian John Belushi had died in Hollywood.
Stuff like this sneaks up on you. I was 6 years old when Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were killed, 15 when Elvis died and 18 when John Lennon was murdered. None of those tragedies, be it age or disinterest, brought me to tears.
But standing in Northern California outside the trailer where I was living, after hearing that Belushi had speedballed his way into the great beyond? The swell of emotion in, on and beyond that hit me. Not from a fan perspective — though there was that too — but from a much more personal one.
“There’s going to be this great show. George Carlin is going to be on it. Could be funny.” My stepfather was telling me about Saturday Night Live, a new television comedy show. I was old enough to stay up late enough to see it but too young to be heading out clubbing, so I tuned in. Wised up on a steady diet of Cheech and Chong, The Groove Tube and National Lampoon, I was primed. Which is to say I got the drug humor, the sex jokes and, more than this on the cusp of adolescence, I was ready for the transgressive.
“BELUSHI!” He didn’t so much as shake my hand as he slapped it into a shake.
And the patron saint of transgression? More than the great Carlin, or one of the later hosts, Richard Pryor, who was a comic god of transgression, one stood out from the rest. That one? John Belushi. It’s hard to communicate after 43 years of sketch comedy on the show that he helped build how much of an anarchic revelation he was. Even harder still when any and most kinds of rebellion these days are packaged like cheese. Or margarine.
While it was quickly and readily apparent that Eddie Murphy, a later supernova, was way too big for the show, Belushi, you could imagine, was probably a little too big not just for the show but for the bar, the party, the club, life. So it was with a glimpse into future events as yet unknown that I started tuning in. For the Samurai Tailor, the Cheeseburger guy, the flip-out newscaster, wicked impressions of Marlon Brando, Joe Cocker, Truman Capote, sure. But beyond that for a guy who perfectly embodied the spirit of “anything could happen” since that’s where most of the good shit happened anyway.
These were all intimations of not what most teenagers seem obsessed with — cool — but a very definite kind of heat. Which was in short supply all up and down Fifth Avenue, where I worked at the time. I was a French-cut T-shirt-wearing teenager for all seasons working at Dennis’ Fast and Natural Health Foods. When business was slow, they’d put me out on the street to hand out flyers. Or inside on the cash register. Or mopping. Or delivering food to a steady retinue of models, photographers, Andy Warhol, urban professionals and whoever else could afford pricey “organic” hot dogs and blueberry muffins. I had seen it all.
… after getting as close to him as I could, I flipped him a double bird.
Until one day shouldering my way through some gilded doors at an office building on Fifth, I had to pause or squeeze in with the great man himself. Belushi. Much shorter than he had ever seemed on television but about 100 times more electric. And even though New York is still New York — watching Michael Stipe from REM try to get “noticed” on a New York City street years later only to be ignored was a prime example of not-giving-a-fuckitude — this was IT.
He bowled his way through, head tilted into wherever he was rushing off to. “BELUSHI?” You can’t control it. Or maybe it was the only way to be when sharing some sort of space with Blutarsky from Animal House.
“BELUSHI!” He didn’t so much as shake my hand as he slapped it into a shake. And then to my horror, we were headed for the same elevator. Horror? Because: Now what? I’d recovered enough of my inner New Yorker to where fanboying out was no longer an option. But the urge to indicate that I, of all people, had heard his call, the call of the wild, was overpowering.
But better safe than sorry, I stuck with a noncommittal “How’s it hanging?”
“Mostly to the left.” He didn’t say it to be funny. He just said it. Probably partially true, but as honest of an answer as I had hoped for.
The doors open, he bolted. But from then on out I’d snag any and all deliveries to that building and was lucky enough to see him a few more times, feeling some weird vindication when, on the third meeting, he recognized me.
I quit the job, left for California and punk rock, and it wasn’t until a show at the Olympic Auditorium in LA that I saw him again. The band FEAR was playing, and on the side stage he stood, a friend of the band. Tuned up.
There were a few thousand people there, the pit was fighteriffic, bottles flying through the air. I spun into a pirouette and then a stage dive right after getting as close to him as I could, I flipped him a double bird. It was the only thing that seemed to make sense at the time.
A few weeks later, on March 5th, he was dead from a fatal mixture of coke and heroin, the aforementioned speedball. And 36 years later, I’m still sad about it.