As though I needed more proof that I’m getting older these days, last week marked 35 years since the passing of Original Cast member John Belushi. Since 1982, Belushi’s legend has grown a great deal, and he has since reached the level of comic figure that’s usually reserved for an episode of “Biography” on A&E (Which I’m certain he had at one point, I know he also has an “E! True Hollywood Story” and Several authorized/unauthorized Biographies about him…but the less said about those—especially the one Bob Woodward wrote—the better). While Belushi is still fondly remembered to this day, it’s also easy to forget that he was only on the show for 4 years—compared to this day & age where even marginally talented cast members can work for at least 7. And while it’s easy to cherry pick some of Belushi’s best moments; there’s still going to be a number of other moments that are just as great, but unfortunately get conveniently left behind in the analysis. This brings us to a new feature at S.O.S.N.L. that I like to call “Hidden Gems”; every once in a while, we will take a look at some sketches performed by some of the more hallowed cast members that some may have forgotten about in an effort to expand an already expanded spectrum of that performer’s body of work. And yes, like all other lists, we do have rules:
*Non-Recurring rule is in effect…to a point. In this case, I can’t include any of the “Bees”, “Samurai” or “Olympia Restaurant” sketches, but there have been some other “repeating” moments that very few ever talk about—so those will be my exemptions to the rule once we get to them.
*This may be a “List”, but it’s NOT a “countdown” list; This is simply a mere compilation of moments that (I feel) may have slipped through the cracks. Having said that, I will go in chronological order, but I will still show my absolute favorite of the collection as the last sketch on the list.
*The Biggest rule is that the sketches that are covered CANNOT appear on any “Best Of” DVD/VHS compilations that have been released over the years—this is fairly obvious, if not for the fact that those are sketches some of us know by heart, but also because of the expression “You’ve seen the best, now see the rest” (and vice versa). If for some reason, I make a mistake and a sketch actually HAS appeared on a “Best of” reel (Because I don’t own every single SNL DVD in the universe), please let me know, and I will remove it.
*At the same time, any cast member/host who DOES have “Best of” programs are the prime candidates to be included here; partly because it’s easier to do research this way (Figure out which sketches to weed out, and such). This is not to say that I won’t get to other cast/hosts at some point—Hell, Kevin Nealon was on for 9 years and he Doesn’t have a “Best of” reel—it’s just more efficient if I focus the easily focusable first.
*The Other big rule is that the sketch has to have the performer in question either as a Main Character, or a big enough Supporting role that something can be analyzed from it—It’s pretty hard to say something was a good performance if that someone was relegated to a “Background” part—Yes, this means his silent cameo/final appearance in 1981 doesn’t count.
*I can’t stress this enough, these are my own PERSONAL picks. Looking at all the available sketches on NBC & the SNL transcripts website, I’m sure there are a number of other underrated performances that couldn’t be saved from slipping through the cracks. So, as always, feel free to comment below if there’s a Belushi sketch that you like that I missed that also doesn’t appear on any “Best of” DVD/VHS.
With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the Hidden Gems of John Belushi…
VICTIMS OF SHARK BITE (10/11/1975) – While Belushi made his debut at the exact minute the show did the same with the “Wolverines” sketch, this sketch from the same show was a little more substantial. Belushi plays a guest on a talk show with a self-explanatory premise; he seems to have lost his arm in a shark attack, but then his cover gets blown when Jane Curtin asks how long ago the attack occurred—Belushi counts the weeks with his “Bitten” arm, and thus the “Sketch with just one Joke” is born. But unlike all the descendants that have happened since then, this sketch has the courtesy of wrapping up in less than 2 minutes. Though it was hard to tell from watching this as it first aired, but the Genesis of what would turn out to be Belushi’s defining characteristics started to bubble here despite the sketch being relatively short.
TOUGH DIRECTOR (11/15/1975) – If you’re not old enough to remember who the Real Sam Peckinpah was, or you haven’t watched Turner Classic Movies in a long time, this sketch might be lost in translation for some of you. Just read this, and come back in a couple of minutes, I’ll wait…(*WAITS*)…Now then, Chevy was the “Star” of the show at this point in history, but that doesn’t mean Belushi didn’t try to steal some of his thunder. This was probably one of Belushi’s first times he “took command” of a sketch, not only being the sketch’s center of attention, but also its center of gravity by putting his own spin on the so-called “Violent” nature of the Real Peckinpah. The more I think about it, the more I feel this sketch reminds me of another one the Belushi & Gilda did together during their days at Second City—something called “Mary Tyler Rhoda”, where Gilda plays a mix of the two…only she’s blind, and Belushi (as her boyfriend) does a few…shall we say…”hurtful” things to her. If either of these sketches were done today, the ACLU would have a field day. Luckily, Belushi gets his comeuppance at the end thanks to (host) Robert Klein.
WHAT KIND OF GUY WATCHES “SATURDAY NIGHT” (11/27/1976) – Every so often, Belushi would play a version of himself—swaggering & confident whether it’s by name or not. This commercial parody is one of those times as Belushi plays a viewer who’s so confident in his masculinity, that he owns a flower shop AND he’s had Gonorrhea Five Times. What makes this noteworthy is the character name he goes by in the sketch; Steve Beshekis—a name that should be important to Belushi, because he (along with Tino Insana) used to do improv together before 2 out of 3 of them made it big. What’s more, Belushi uses the “Beshekis” name in a number of sketches over the years (Including the infamous “Lifer Follies”); thus allowing “Name-dropping” to not only take place on the show, but also become more common as the years go by.
ADOPT BELUSHI FOR CHRISTMAS (12/12/1976) – Remember when SNL used to hold contests for home viewers? Probably not, because most of these contests were done before many of you were born—but yes, back in the first 5 years, the show would implore viewers to participate in the show in a number of ways; from submitting home movies to the show (a gambit that paid off Big for Walter Williams), to volunteering to wrestle Andy Kaufman, and yes even a chance for an ordinary citizen to host the show (Oh, we’ll get to that soon, I promise). This was one of those “Home Audience Participation” moments where despite (host) Candice Bergen’s seriousness in her appeal, few knew if this was supposed to be taken seriously or not. The basic premise is that John’s then future wife Judy threw him out of the house because he was acting up so to speak (read: Too Much Drugs/Bad Behavior). And after bouncing from one friend’s apartment to the next, the show decided to take on the matter with the opportunity to take Belushi into their home for the holidays. I’m not sure if anybody actually “Won” the contest, but it must’ve done something to Judy—the two of them got married the following month.
H&L BROCK (1976-1978) – Just like Vanessa Bayer breaks out the Totino’s Pizza Rolls on an annual basis before the Super Bowl these days, Belushi’s erstwhile accountant popped up on the show during Tax Time. While his performance as “Lowell Brock” is low-key at best, they still managed to mix up the “17 reasons” why you should get your taxes done there (a send up on the commercials the Real H&R Block was doing at the time with founder Henry Block…none of that Don Draper nonsense today). The first time they did it was a 3-part runner in ’76, culminating in the ultra-rare time Lorne Michaels played prankster by tying Belushi’s shoelaces together. Next in ’77, we see that Brock takes the time and has the time to do the taxes because he’s Doing time for Tax fraud, which is actually a pretty good reveal. Finally in ’78, Brock winds up the set-up to a punchline featuring Michael Palin as a priest faced with a moral dilemma—the reveal of Brock at the end gives the audience a bit of a surprise. Belushi was a “Wild Card” at times, but at least he could hold it together when playing it relatively straight.
DECATHLON DREAM (3/12/1977) – NOTE: Yes, I know, I’m using the “Donuts” GIF for this, but it’s not my fault the search for high quality pictures can be fickle sometimes—Besides, it’s still about Belushi reliving his High School athlete days, so I think we can look past this oversight this one time. Anyway, By this point in time, Chevy left, but Bill Murray had yet to become a star, so the second half of season 2 was ripe for the taking for Belushi. It is both in this sketch, and the one that follows, that we begin to see what the “Real” Belushi truly looks like; a swaggering, charming, sometimes troublemaking performer who can win you over with just a tilt of his eyebrows. This is one of many times in the early years where a cast member makes an appeal for something a person wouldn’t normally make an appeal for, but not unlike “Adopt Belushi” you had no idea if it was real or not (think: “The Al Franken Decade” or “Garrett Morris for White Guilt”). Belushi announces he’s “Retiring” from comedy in order to train & compete in the Decathlon for the 1980 Moscow Olympics; Belushi tells the audience that he can’t make it to Moscow without a little scratch, so he tries to sell us some medallions with his face on it—I COULD say he wound up with egg on his face by the time of the 1980 boycott, but he was filming “Blues Brothers” by that time anyway…we meet again, hindsight.
BELUSHI’S DEMANDS (3/26/1977) – Though not 100% similar to the previous sketch, Belushi still uses his swagger, charm and (in his words) “Reputation as a troublemaker” to practically hold the show hostage by NOT saying LFNY—As you would expect, it only escalates from there, as most bad hostage negotiations in movies/TV shows tend to do. But unlike all the other ones, this is pretty much kept simple thanks to the constructs of Live TV. Belushi’s mock arrogance and the simplicity of the scene come together in a way that just works; it also makes me wonder just how long it’s been since a cold open was less about politics and more about the show itself.
WHAT IF – NAPOLEON (1/21/1978…no video/transcript) – (I don’t know what C31 is, but thanks for the plot summary) Even when he was legitimately sick*, Belushi still managed to give a great performance without saying a word. Case in point; this “What If” sketch where the hypothetical of “What if Napoleon had a B-2 Bomber” is posed. Belushi is decked out in full uniform, and with an assist from Steve Martin, he is able to carry most of the jokes without uttering a single word—something that’s difficult to pull off in the world of comedy…which brings me to the “*”. According to the “Belushi” book by Tanner Colby, Belushi supposedly had either Laryngitis, was on one of his drug benders, or some other outside factor that caused him to lose his voice when it came time to perform this particular sketch…a claim that (with all due respect to Colby & whoever he interviewed), I’m going to call BS on because if you watch the rest of the Steve Martin/Randy Newman episode, Belushi CLEARLY had a number of Speaking roles for most of the episode; and while he did sound a little raspy, I don’t think he was out-and-out “ill”. So either it was a fabricated testimonial, a fuzzy memory by whoever recalled it (maybe even myself), or he probably DID lose his voice at a different date/time, but it clearly didn’t happen here…and, rant over. Point being is that humor while being silent in a world full of synchronized audio is a true rarity in this day & age, and Belushi pulled it off deftly here—sick or otherwise.
CAPTAIN NED – MILES COPPERTHWAITE (1978-1979) – Now here was a performance that was both underrated and overblown at the same time. In one of those rare instances where a host has a recurring character, Michael Palin’s Not!David Copperfield (Dickens, not the magician) is besieged by a number of people who want to take advantage of him for increasingly cruel reasons. But nobody is more advantageous than Belushi as the flamboyant “Captain Ned”, who has just about as much a clue of what it means to be a “Man” as Tobias Funke does—but at least Captain Ned seems to be fully out of the closet when he’s doing so—promising Palin’s Miles the chance to see “Manly” ports such as Key West & San Francisco. These sketches aired each of the times Palin hosted in the 70s, and it seems fitting that by the time the 3rd one aired in May 1979, the season was almost over, and so was Belushi’s time as a cast member—Therefore, I’d like to think of his performances as Captain Ned to be his unofficial “Last Hurrah” before heading out to Hollywood full time.
And my favorite Hidden Gem of John Belushi is…
YOUNG NEWLYWEDS (3/12/1977) – Coincidentally airing 40 years ago This week, Belushi and (host) Sissy Spacek play a newly married white-trash couple who seem to be experiencing problems in the bedroom department, and the (loud) conversation they have may very well be one of the strongest written pieces the show had up to that point in time. This sketch is a testament to a number of things not necessarily limited to Belushi; for starters, it is a testament to the show by proving once & for all that just because it’s a Comedy show, doesn’t mean it HAS to be funny all the time—sometimes you have to slip in a performance that has great atmosphere. It is also a testament to writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller, who often penned such “serious” pieces during her time on the show—especially this one which won her an Emmy AGAINST another great Belushi performance; the famed “Star Trek” sketch. But more than that, this sketch is not just a testament for how chameleon-esque Belushi could be at times, it also makes me wonder how things would’ve panned out if people actually liked his performance in a later movie he did—namely, “Continental Divide” (his one Semi-Dramatic movie that his fans weren’t quite sure how to take). Could Belushi have been a great Drama actor? Could Belushi have wound up with a long running TV show instead of the lesser Jim? Could John have been the one on stage announcing the wrong Best Picture thanks to being such a hallowed enough actor to be allowed the honor to do so? Sadly, who knows—but one thing’s for sure, if people enjoyed Belushi more for pieces like this in addition to the obvious funny stuff, he & Bill Murray could’ve been interchangeable today. At the same time, Seeing Belushi do something dramatic like this reminds me of another Larger than Life personality who wanted to give dramatic acting at least one try—in a sense, this sketch reminds me of when Chris Farley did something a little darker for Tom Schiller (see: 8/31/2016). It’s easy to forget that before SNL or even Second City, Belushi had the chops for Dramatic stage acting—if you come across the Tanner Colby/Judy Pisano book “Belushi”; you’ll find out that during his high school days, despite being the typical all-American jock he really seemed to take Drama seriously. He did Shakespeare plays, he did more modern works, and if he lived past 1982 I would’ve loved to see him play Willy Loman in any given revival of “Death of a Salesman”—that role seems tailor-made for him. We can ask All these “What If’s” all we want, but it’s not gonna change the past. But at least there are some elements of the past that are worth a second look, and Belushi’s performance in this particular sketch is probably the most telling look of them all.
NEXT WEEK: Put your hands on the buzzer and save enough money to buy a vowel, we’re looking at Game Show sketches.