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Just an Ordinary Guy: A Salute to Michael Keaton’s Deceptively Normal 1980s Comedies

Whether hanging out in a morgue in ‘Night Shift’ or getting paranormal in ‘Beetlejuice,’ the veteran actor was one of the decade’s most underrated funnymen — and also one of its most restless and self-critical.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

If Michael Keaton had stopped making movies after 1989 — and thank god that didn’t happen — we would think of his career very differently. Obviously, we would have missed out on a number of great performances — his Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman, his role as a hard-edged special agent in Jackie Brown, his total authority playing newspapermen in The Paper and Spotlight — but we would also think of him as primarily a comedic actor. Because Keaton has been so good for so long doing so many different kinds of films, younger viewers may not be able to fully appreciate what a terrifically funny performer he could be. In fact, he might have been one of the best of his era, back before he decided he didn’t really want to be pigeonholed that way. 

We tend to think of comic actors as people who just do comedies, occasionally switching gears to dabble in something serious. (The Robin Williams model, you might say.) Keaton is different: He’s a very good comic actor who chose to remake himself because he knew he could do more. He’s been so successful at that transition, we don’t automatically lump him in with Williams or Eddie Murphy or other big 1980s funnymen. The Keaton we have today is an incredible actor, but the world shouldn’t forget the guy he left behind.

Keaton started out doing TV and stand-up in L.A. in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not much of his stand-up exists, but this clip is pretty remarkable just because, as sharp and funny as some of this material still remains, even here it’s clear that he was destined to be an actor — and an especially intense one. For Keaton, comedy was about dialing up to a degree, but not to the manic extremes of, say, Jim Carrey. In this early clip, you see how he knew to be locked in, how it gave his onstage persona a little bit of a spark. His observations aren’t spectacularly funny — he comes across as an actor playing a stand-up — but his edgy demeanor suggests a seemingly normal guy who might snap at any second. That tension was the fuel for his future film stardom.

Keaton’s movie career got going with 1982’s Night Shift, a comedy where he played Bill, the new guy working at the morgue alongside the tightly wound Chuck (Henry Winkler). Bill is the prototypical loose-cannon character who’s meant to get laughs opposite Chuck’s long-suffering straight man — it’s the type of part that John Belushi or Bill Murray would do. But when you watch Keaton, he’s so much more human in the role — not nearly as untethered from reality. What makes Bill funny is that he’s actually not that much of a weirdo. He’s just a little too self-absorbed and unreasonably pleased with his great ideas, which he dutifully says into his tape recorder so he never forgets them. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear he was just an ordinary dude. It’s only when that Keaton edginess comes out that you can tell Bill is a handful.

He could have kept doing that sort of thing — the crazy sidekick — but he famously turned down Splash (which, like Night Shift, was directed by Ron Howard). In a 2012 interview, Keaton admitted he couldn’t recall if he was up for the Tom Hanks or John Candy role — it sure seems like it would have been Candy — but, regardless, he just wasn’t feeling it. “I just remember at the time thinking I wanted to get away from what I’d just done on Night Shift,” he said. “I thought if I do it again, I might get myself stuck.” (A few years later, he indicated that he was up for the Hanks part: “I turned it down because it was basically the same formula [as Night Shift] — two guys, one guy’s the wild guy, one guy’s the other guy. The only thing I miss is that I didn’t get to work with John Candy, who I loved.”)

So instead he did Mr. Mom, a modestly radical comedy for its era about a father who has to assume the househusband duties after he gets fired and his wife Caroline (Teri Garr) becomes the breadwinner. Jack is a decent guy who’s about to discover not just how hard the traditionally female role in the family is — he’s also going to have to confront the humiliation of being emasculated because of how the world now views him. 

It’s a funny performance even though Jack isn’t some alpha dog who gets taken down a peg — his ordinariness humanized his shame about no longer being a provider, and Keaton’s live-wire spark hinted at just how much panic the character feels because his masculinity is being threatened. And it marked Keaton as an actor who wanted to try new things simply because they didn’t remind him of other things he’d just done. Tellingly, Mr. Mom’s classic scene, in which Jack tries to overcompensate around Caroline’s smug boss Martin Mull, is the exact opposite of his goofy character in Night Shift. Jack’s so normcore that his attempts at being macho are increasingly pathetic and hilarious — but because Keaton played it with such humanity, the scene’s also downright touching.

Like any comic star, it wasn’t all successes during this period. Johnny Dangerously, a spoof of 1930s gangster pictures, is notable for just how strenuously Keaton tries to embody a mobster cliché — we’re far away from the brilliance of an Airplane! — while The Squeeze is a dull comedy you either don’t remember or have never heard of. (Hint: It’s the movie whose poster finds Keaton being squeezed by the Twin Towers.) 

But there were also times where the movie wasn’t so good, but he was really interesting in it. Take 1986’s Gung Ho, which like Mr. Mom was a societal comedy — in this case, a commentary on American anxieties that Japanese innovation was going to leave us in the dust. Keaton plays a foreman at an auto plant that’s been purchased by a Japanese corporation, and while the culture-clash element is merely okay, the actor keeps trying to figure out what’s relatable and funny about the situation. Keaton made a silly, topical idea heartfelt, which might be foolhardy but also gives Gung Ho a real resonance. “I really like that movie,” Keaton said in 2015, although he admitted, “I always felt like I kind of let [director Ron Howard] down on that one and I don’t know why. I think I could have been better. I can’t put my finger on why.” 

The truth is, Howard and the writers let him down, not the other way ‘round.

It was that seriousness that Keaton brought to comedy — whether during his stand-up days or his subsequent films — that suggested he’d eventually grow tired of some of the limitations of broad studio movies. (Plus, it wasn’t like he’d been in a string of blockbuster hits.) “After Night Shift and Gung Ho and that, I started to see how it could go,” he said in a 2014 interview. “I mean, it could go that direction, and I could never get off that road. The glib-young-man thing.”

Keaton’s onscreen version of glib was actually far more nuanced than he’s giving himself credit for — in his low-key way, he was riffing on the decade’s vapid, cynical slickness — but, still, it’s probably no surprise that such a self-critical actor would try desperately to break free. He’s commendable in the 1988 alcoholism drama Clean and Sober, but the truth is he’s better in a movie that came out a few months earlier, the horror-comedy Beetlejuice. And he almost didn’t do it — just like he’d passed on Splash.

“I turned down the role because I didn’t quite get it, and I wasn’t looking to work,” Keaton explained in 1988. But after director Tim Burton encouraged him to make the character of Betelgeuse his own, Keaton was allowed the opportunity to move away from the grounded roles he’d been playing throughout the decade. It liberated him, as he explained in that same interview:

“It turns out the character creates his own reality. I gave myself some sort of voice, some sort of look based on the words. Then I started thinkin’ about my hair: I wanted my hair to stand out like I was wired and plugged in, and once I started gettin’ that, I actually made myself laugh. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a good sign, this is kind of funny.’ Then I got the attitude. And once I got the basic attitude, it really started to roll.”

Hiding behind makeup — or, more accurately, empowered because of it — Keaton didn’t seem concerned about being pigeonholed or keeping things real. At the time, Beetlejuice was a revelation because it was a Keaton no one had seen before — he was like a cartoon character let loose in a live-action world. (Funny enough, the movie hit theaters about three months before the partly-animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit debuted.) Betelgeuse was one of those inspired creations that comes around once in a while that feels obvious once it exists but was impossible to imagine when it was being conceived. (As Keaton recalled, “I showed up for work, and I walked on the stage. And I said, ‘This is either going to be way off the mark or… I don’t know what [Burton’s] going to do.’”) But playing Betelgeuse seemed to open Keaton up to the idea of what kind of actor he could be. Part of the fun of the film is watching him make that discovery in real time.

With Beetlejuice a success, Keaton essentially said goodbye to the 1980s version of himself with Batman, merely the first of many Batman movies whose casting enraged fanboys. “Michael Keaton is basically an ordinary guy, a regular human being,” Burton, who reunited with his Beetlejuice star, said around Batman’s release. “I thought it would be much more interesting to take someone like that and make him into Batman. I met with a number of very good, square-jawed actors, but the bottom line was that I just couldn’t see any of them putting on a bat suit.”

Although Batman wasn’t technically a comedy, Keaton plays his dual role like it is. His Batman has a wry sense of humor — he seems to get a kick out of the fact that he strikes fear into the hearts of crooks — while Keaton plays Bruce as a bit of a put-on. (Yes, Master Wayne is tormented by the murder of his parents blah blah blah, but his brooding is mitigated by a sarcastic, self-deprecating demeanor. This might be the only onscreen Bruce Wayne who really understands that, hey, he is a wealthy playboy, so everything ain’t all bad.) As usual, Keaton’s desire to play the character as relatable — a bit odd but, basically, relatable — made the movie funnier and more intriguing. Of course, he’d be destined to be overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s Joker — Batman is often less dynamic than his flashy nemeses — but Keaton’s everydayness gave Batman its wry kick. How the hell did Mr. Mom end up in Gotham City?

Keaton did one more Batman movie, Batman Returns, and then left after Burton got booted. Plus, it sounds like he was tired of being a movie star. “[I got] a lot of attention [in the 1980s],” he said in 2017, “which is not something I’m crazy about. I don’t hate it, but it’s never my first choice.” 

It’s not like Keaton stopped doing studio comedies. (There are plenty of fans of his 1996 film Multiplicity, which offered audiences a whole slew of Keatons — and is, in some sense, a continuation of Mr. Mom’s exploration of dads facing the modern world’s shifting definition of masculinity.) But he also did smaller, cooler things like Jackie Brown, which helped people forget about garbage like Jack Frost. Especially recently, he’s been on a roll, excellent in everything from Birdman to Spotlight to Spider-Man: Homecoming, where his Vulture is among the MCU’s best and most layered bad guys. (And, then, apropos of nothing, he’ll do a poker-faced sendup of the standard cop-movie police chief in The Other Guys.) 

But that lively, strange spark is still there — not so much in comedies anymore but in his work in general. And, in the process, Keaton’s greatness is finally fully being appreciated. It’s more, though, about the body of work than any particular performance or era, which is a compliment to his versatility — and proof that he was right all along to keep pushing against other people’s expectations.

“I choose not to be at the whim of others,” Keaton told Variety in 2014. “I want to be at my own whim. I figured early on — maybe I was lucky or it’s just the way I’m built — that this is a fear-based industry, and you’re pretty fucked if you buy into it.”

Keaton’s 1980s comedies weren’t all good, but it’s the period in which he was biggest as a movie star. Actually, a guy like Keaton makes the whole concept of “movie star” seem pretty silly and limiting. But those early films — when he was figuring his way around Hollywood and trying hard not to repeat himself — has served him well and probably helped sustain the career he’s had. You can see the fast-talking huckster of Gung Ho in 2016’s The Founder, where he’s superb as Ray Kroc, the brash man who helped invent McDonald’s while stepping on some people along the way. Birdman’s self-loathing actor Riggan can be found in the fidgety Betelgeuse. The stand-up persona — seemingly unremarkable, but imbued with fascinating little absurdities — is what you see years later when he’s nonchalantly quoting TLC lyrics to Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg while insisting he’s never heard of the band. 

Over the last several years, Keaton has enjoyed a new golden age — it’s often referred to as his comeback — and it’s certainly a different Keaton than the one we saw four decades ago. Nowadays, he’s more than just a comic, but the seeds of his greatness as an actor are in those early films where he tried to see how funny an ordinary guy could be. Even if that ordinary guy was cutting loose as Betelgeuse or dressing up as the Dark Knight. 

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