summerreads

Was the Horny, Hard-Partying Mayhem of ’80s Comedy Worth the Price?

In his new book ‘Wild and Crazy Guys,’ Nick de Semlyen takes a hard look at the men who sacrificed body and mind for the decade’s comedy blockbusters

This may come as a shock to modern moviegoers but there once was a time when our big-screen heroes never wore capes. In fact, they sported beer-soaked undershirts, novelty Afro wigs, bedsheets and that goofy thing that kept their glasses from sliding down their noses. There was no need for the pomp and circumstance of calling themselves Black Panther, Captain Marvel or Iron Man; they were simpler men with regular everyday names like Axel, Navin, Carl, Egon, Bluto and Del Griffith. Great power didn’t include great responsibility, if anything, it included a steady diet of booze, drugs, misplaced bodily fluids and bared breasts as far as the eye could see. Oh, and what came out of their mouths was rarely profound, but always funny as hell:

And, of course, “Gunga galunga… gunga, gunga galunga.

Film writer Nick de Semlyen, 39, captures the golden era of these irreverent middle-finger-to-the-man heroes in his anecdote-rich new book Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ’80s Changed Hollywood Forever. A features editor at Empire (i.e., “the world’s biggest movie magazine”), de Semlyen dug deep into the archives to find out how a group of hard-partying comic actors from Saturday Night Live and SCTV — almost all men and all white, with one million-watt-smiling exception — became the biggest stars in the era spanning Animal House to Groundhog Day. It’s a fun, fast-paced read filled with the insane on- and off-screen escapades behind the good (Stripes, Trading Places, Roxanne); the bad (Best Defense, Deal of the Century, Summer Rental); and the ugly (Nothing but Trouble, remembered, if at all, because Dan Aykroyd is a nightmare-inducing literal dicknose).

I recently spoke to the London-based de Semlyen, son of an American mother and a British father, about the days when movie fans everywhere fell head-over-heels for the banana in the tailpipe.

I want to start by saying thanks for the trip down memory lane — so many movies are mentioned in your book and I saw just about all of them at some point, except for the huge Dan Aykroyd-directed flop Nothing but Trouble. I did, however, watch clips of it, because as you note, it features Tupac’s film debut.
Somebody actually gave me a copy of that movie signed by Aykroyd about 10 years ago. I’ve interviewed him a number of times over the years, and every time it’s an experience. Once I asked, “How you doing?” and he went on an eight-minute monologue about a ghost who clung to him on a recent motorcycle ride. He’s fascinating; you never know where the conversation is going — the supernatural, vibrating crystals, aliens, Pinetop Perkins. He’s underrated as a performer, too. I watched the first five seasons of SNL, and there’s a lot of dead air, or sketches where you could tell John Belushi had a big night out. Aykroyd, though, was always fully committed and electric. But man did he need an editor, or someone to rein him in. He had John Landis on The Blues Brothers, but left to his own devices, he delivered the debacle Nothing but Trouble.

Growing up in London, were you able to see most of the movies covered in your book?
There were a lot of forgotten 1980s comedies in the book that I didn’t actually see until I started writing it four years ago, but I saw a number of the big movies when they came out. Ghostbusters played all over the world, and I insisted we go to it on my seventh birthday. Oddly, my parents didn’t want me to see it because they thought it was too racy, but they had no problem with The Blues Brothers, which I saw on holiday in Greece. My parents weren’t movie buffs but I went to Virginia every summer to visit relatives, and I loved catching movies at the mall before they came out in the U.K. I was a big Monty Python fan, but American comedies seemed hipper, bigger and more exotic.

The stars of these movies are all Baby Boomers, but the films actually hit screens during Gen X, and a lot of them have a scruffy slapdash DIY vibe befitting of the era. Bill Murray’s “It just doesn’t matter rant” in Meatballs is basically, “Oh well, whatever, never mind,” in the woods…
Animal House was such a huge hit, the studios threw money at these concepts and basically let these guys do whatever the hell they wanted. A lot of the films have an anarchic vibe — youthful dudes rebelling against the system. There are multiple versions of Slobs v. Snobs. A punk rock attitude against authority carried the day. The funny thing about the scene where the Ghostbusters are shut down is that while Walter Peck is an asshole, he has a point. Technically, it’s four guys wandering the streets of New York City with unlicensed nuclear weapons on their backs.

Maybe this is my own nostalgic bullshit, but weren’t these comedies bigger must-see events in the 1980s?
Compared to today’s everything-at-your-fingertips media landscape, for sure. Part of it comes down to the fact that there weren’t other ways to see these guys. Chevy Chase left SNL after a little more than a year, and if you were a fan, you had to go to his movies. This was before VCRs were in every home, but even after that, movies took a long time to get to video, so it made the stars and their movies rare commodities.

Bill Murray is the best example. He basically took off four years after Ghostbusters, the biggest movie on the planet, before making Scrooged, in which he plays a dark twisted lead character, not the fun-loving scamp of earlier movies.

I need to point out, as someone who was a young lad when a Playboy or Penthouse stolen from dad was the best a kid could do, a major part of the re-watching appeal was the ubiquity of boobs. There’s a reason men of a certain age still feel a little funny whenever the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” comes on in the supermarket.
Again, thank Animal House. Nobody knew exactly why that movie was such a big hit, even the people who made it, but sex, drugs and copious amounts of skin were part of the formula — on screen and off it. I didn’t write about Porky’s, but its sole reason for being was nudity and it made $100 million in 1982 and spawned a slew of sub-Porky’s like Hardbodies, Joysticks, Hot Dog and so on. Gratuitous nudity was everywhere, but the sexist nature of it was at least questioned by John Candy on the set of Stripes. He didn’t feel comfortable doing the nude mud wrestling scene, but director Ivan Reitman convinced him it was edgy and hadn’t been done before, even though the movie already had a scene where John Larroquette spies on women in the shower and declares his desire to be a loofah. Even the Meatballs movie poster is weirdly sexual, and that’s a PG-movie for younger audience. It was just a different time.

Speaking of Candy, one thing Wild and Crazy Guys shows is the better movies like Trading Places (cringeworthy blackface Dan Aykroyd aside) are the ones standing the test of time. Was it a drag watching some of the bygone bottom-feeders like Who’s Harry Crumb?
I’d say the low point was having to sit through the 1981 Chevy Chase bomb Modern Problems, which has him snorting ‘demon powder’ and giving women orgasms with his mind. It was released on Christmas Day. Thankfully, the more common experience was watching stuff I’d never seen before but really enjoyed. SCTV has never had a proper release, and it’s near impossible to find in the U.K. I got a hold of some seasons, though, and it was fantastic watching a young John Candy be such a force of nature. Then I saw Candy’s 1991 film Only the Lonely and loved it. He plays a sweet decent assuming Chicago cop, a totally different character than we’re used to, which more than makes up for the film dregs.

Of all the dudes in your book, Candy’s story is the saddest because he died so young and seemed on the precipice of much bigger things.
Obviously, I never got to interview John, so I had less a sense of him as a person. People said, however, that he really was as warm and wonderful a guy as you’d hope. But I also liked finding out that he had a bit of dark soul that came out once in a while, usually after a night of Bacardi and Cokes. There’s the wild story of him at a party putting Chevy Chase’s head under his arm and keeping him there for an hour and a half. That shows a little malevolence lurking underneath the surface. Candy made a lot of crap, but between Cool Runnings, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and his small part in JFK, he was finding his way. His dream was to work with Martin Scorsese. I think he could have done it.

On the other hand, there’s the original golden boy Chevy Chase. Caddyshack, Fletch and Vacation, sure, but the rest of his leading man career was sketchy at best, and he has no big-screen elder statesman/character actor phase to speak of, did we overrate his talent?
Chevy Chase has always been really good at physical comedy, and Clark Griswold is a beloved character, especially in the original. So I wouldn’t totally write him off, but he is a somewhat tragic figure. He was known to be arrogant, to fight with screenwriters and make a lot of garbage. The difference in career arcs between he and Bill Murray is why I open Wild and Crazy Guys with their legendary backstage SNL fistfight. One surprising thing I learned while researching the book is that Chase was really hard on himself — he couldn’t, for example, stand his Caddyshack performance. I think he wanted to be great, but he made a lot of poor choices for piles of money.

I want to say for the record, I love The Three Amigos. In 2011, I put together an article for Empire with the idea that we’d get some of the stars to come. I’d done it before with Goonies and Lethal Weapon. For Three Amigos, I called Steve Martin’s people, and within an hour, he’d personally contacted Martin Short and Chase. It all came together in one night. They even agreed to put on the costumes and do the salute.

At one time or another, did you interview everyone in the book?
All except for Eddie Murphy, who rarely talks to anyone anymore.

It’s a shame because his recent choices have been so baffling. In a lot of ways, his career ends up being the most disappointing — not a novel opinion, of course — because he was so hilarious. And not just funny, but dangerous too. Nobody sneered at Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” like Eddie did. And he was loved for it!
Eddie Murphy was incendiary. 48 Hrs. was a molotov cocktail lobbed into the cinema. A lot of the material in Delirious and Raw, particularly the gay routines, wouldn’t fly today, but in re-watching his stand-up, there’s still palpable danger in the air. It just felt like, “This guy will literally say anything to anybody.” He seemed invincible. That said, I don’t think his meteoric early career was sustainable.

Writing about Murphy was a lot of fun. He comes in about a third of the way into the book, and he’s so fast, so smart, pulling it all off against the odds. On the SNL stage he said not to ever worry about him “going Hollywood,” but by Beverly Hills Cop II, Axel Foley had turned into this arrogant Armani-suit wearing character, the kind he mocked in the original. He hand-picked director Tony Scott for that movie and told him, “Make me look as good as Tom Cruise in the volleyball game in Top Gun.

In fairness, Bowfinger is terrific — although that came out 20 years ago. I wish he’d do more collaborative work like that, as he and Steve Martin worked really well together. I still have faith in Eddie, though, so I’m hoping the Coming to America sequel is a return to comedic form.

The best “What If?” moment in the book was the screenplay idea for Beverly Hills Cop III that sent Axel Foley to Scotland to team up with Sean Connery…
It could’ve been amazing — Connery raising Murphy’s game. Even more mystifying is that Murphy and Sly Stallone were working on a script for Godfather III together, which probably would’ve been better than the one that ultimately got made. I will keep trying to get to the bottom of that story if it takes me to the end of my life.

How did you track down the notoriously elusive Bill Murray?
He was at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival with Moonrise Kingdom. I waited around all day and ended up being one of two people he invited to come in and talk. We sat down for a half hour one-on-one interview, in which he gave me his perspective on the fight with Chevy.

What I thought was interesting from the book is that Bill Murray has always been this way, it’s not a wary middle-aged persona he’s adopted. Reitman had to beg him to stop following minor league baseball to make Meatballs, way back in 1978, because “the idea of becoming more famous scared the hell out of him.”
The more you study Bill Murray, the more of an enigma he becomes. In the 1980s, most of these guys were, “Let’s make more movies, make more money and get more girls,” and yet Murray disappeared after Ghostbusters. Understanding Bill Murray’s anger underneath — the “Murricane,” as Aykroyd tagged him — finding out that he literally broke a guy’s arm, makes his long career all the more intriguing. The one thing I can say about Murray is, not overexposing himself and not taking every high-paying gig that came his way has served him better than most of his peers.

I’d forgotten that after The Jerk, Steve Martin had a fantastic run of neglected films like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and The Lonely Guy. He, maybe more than anyone else in your book, deserves a critical reappraisal, no?
I wish Steve Martin would reassess his own work! I think The Man With Two Brains is funnier than The Jerk, and I tried to engage him in a conversation on this very topic. He didn’t have any interest and doesn’t think the movies are any good. It was during press for Pink Panther 2, which he said was better than those movies. My theory is that it’s too painful. He was a rock-star stand-up, a comedy god who had a hit with The Jerk and then didn’t really have another until Parenthood, a decade later. And he was a writer on all those movies, so they were personal. Martin’s career definitely needs to be revisited; Roxanne isn’t talked about much anymore, but it’s some of the best writing he’s ever done. The scene in the bar where he rattles off jokes about his nose had to be note-perfect. And it is.

Are the days of massive studio comedies over?
You never know when a movie is going to hit and there have been plenty of hugely popular movies and major stars, but I do think the film industry is shackled today. The way those 1980s movies were made is a thing of the past. They don’t physically make movies like The Blues Brothers anymore — and that includes Blues Brothers 2000 — where Aykroyd, Belushi and Landis spent $32 million crashing cars all over Chicago. This was off-the-leash filmmaking. Now it’s a few actors on a soundstage, so there’s less ambition and experimentation. These guys were all orbiting one another and putting them on-screen together led to plenty of happy accidents. These days, there’s way less anarchy and excess — for good and bad.

After all, the 1980s left a lot of carnage in its wake.

*****

Correction: This interview previously stated that John Landis shot a topless version of the Coming to America dance sequence. As it turns out, the topless version was in the script but never filmed. Landis shot the clean version first and let it be.