How "SNL" and "SCTV" alum ruled '80s Comedy is a Wild and Crazy Story

The "Ghostbusters" script was based in Dan Aykroyd's real-life interest in the paranormal. The actors were treated like kings on the streets of New York during filming.
The "Ghostbusters" script was based in Dan Aykroyd's real-life interest in the paranormal. The actors were treated like kings on the streets of New York during filming. Columbia Pictures DVD cover
Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever
By Nick de Semlyen
352 pp.
Crown Archetype

The ‘80s were a unique time in the history of movie comedy, when stars like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Chevy Chase (all cover boys here) along with a group of like-minded writers and directors upended the industry with their personality-driven pictures.

In this highly entertaining and interesting work, de Semlyen (the features editor for movie mag Empire) breaks down the making of so many of these movies, how the egos and competitive nature of the stars fueled the films, and what effect it had on Hollywood with an impact still felt today. And for Gen Xers who grew up with these movies and constant viewing on early HBO or VHS cassettes, it’s more than just a walk down memory lane.

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Book jacket
It’s not surprising that so many of the stars of these groundbreaking movies came straight from the casts of two groundbreaking TV shows: “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.” Reinventing sketch comedy with their irreverent (and decidedly Baby Boomer/Children of the ‘60s) topics.

And while the ‘80s are a convenient time marker, this movement actually started in 1978 with the release of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which also set the template of the “slobs vs. the snobs” plot trope of many movies to come.

But for every Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, The Jerk, Blues Brothers, Animal House, Stripes, Beverly Hills Cop, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Coming to America, and Groundhog Day, these Mavericks had just as many flops. Anybody remember 1941, Pennies from Heaven, Where the Buffalo Roams, Nothing But Trouble, Harlem Nights, Under the Rainbow? Or the nadir of the book, Oh! Heavenly Dog in which Chevy Chase shared screen time with and as…Benji?

Sometimes, as de Semlyen writes, success came from accidents. When the producers of the “SCTV” were instructed by the Canadian Broadcasting Company that two minutes of each episode needed to be expressly “Canadian,” cast members Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas came up with the McKenzie Brothers as both an F.U. and to be as stereotypical of the country as possible. They were as shocked as anyone when the parka-wearing, beer-swilling hosers who ended most sentences with “Eh” became a huge hit, spinning off into a comedy album and movie of their own.

Many, many other anecdotes abound in these pages - some new, some familiar. How Billy Murray's "It just doesn't matter" speech in Meatballs was completely improvised. As well as much of the Murray/Chase scene in Caddyshack, which was not even in the script, partially due to the bad blood between the actors who had actually come to blows backstage at "SNL" some years earlier). Also how Sylvester Stallone was originally going to star in Beverly Hills Cop, how Murray (again) didn't even crack the Ghostbusters script until he was in a limo on the way to the first day of shooting, and how the U.S. military surprisingly got on board and offered access and locations with the filming of Stripes despite the anti-authoritarian stance of the movie.

De Semlyen also notes that while many of the stars sort of stumbled into fame, it was the only and red hot driving ambition for the teenage Eddie Murphy. Sheer persistence and a lot of phone pestering got him on the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1980 as a featured player (they already had “a black guy” in the actual cast), though he had almost no screen time and was making $750 a week.

That all changed when, with five minutes of live airtime to fill, producer Dick Ebersol let Murphy fill it with bits of his established stand-up act, which killed. A year later, he was making $4,500 a week, commanding a lot of screen time and characters, and given pretty much carte blanche as the show’s “savior.” And index card on the board planning out each week’s show would just say “Eddie” – leaving it to the performer to fill it however he saw fit.

With a combination of archival research and new, first-person interviews, de Semlyen paints a detailed (if sometimes too rapid-paced) picture of these men, and especially gives light into the life, work, and mindsets of John Candy and Rick Moranis. And it is a sausage party here – no female comic actor at the time had anything resembling the clout or success of the boys here. And though he gives lip service to what Gilda Radner woulda/coulda/shoulda done that never materialized.

Of equal interest is when the narrative stretches into the ‘90s and beyond, which each of the men profiled here falling upon creative and commercial droughts and ebb and flow. And today, only Steve Martin (due to his diversity) and Bill Murray (with his offbeat roles - often in Wes Anderson movies, personal quirkiness and pop culture cache) seem to have survived. Cartoon donkey voice over notwithstanding.

More than just a nostalgia read for Gen Xers, de Semlyen merges in to one volume the disparate stories and fortunes of the “wild and crazy guys” who are known just as much for their personas as their films. And if you disagree, well excuuuuuuse me!
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero