Monday, March 05, 2012

The End of a Force of Nature

OK, I'll admit it. The knowledge that it has been 30 years since John Belushi died is disconcerting.

I do feel older — but not for the obvious reason.

You'd have to call Belushi a force of nature, I think. No other phrase really does him justice.

I am an adjunct professor in the local community college, and most of the students with whom I work are in the traditional college age range. Memories of Belushi are relics from my college days, not theirs.

In order to have more than a fleeting memory of Belushi when he was re–defining TV comedy on Saturday Night Live, a person would have to be in his/her 40s — at least.

I have worked with a few of those — but not many and none this semester.

Most of the people who would have watched him in his SNL and Not–Ready–for–Prime–Time days had to have been old enough to be allowed to stay up late on a weekend night.

Even with unusually permissive parents, anyone under 10 probably won't have enough stamina to stay awake that late. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is usually weak.

Consequently, I assume that you had to be at least a certain age then to have any memory of John Belushi now.

I was in high school at the time so staying up late on weekends was not an issue for me — and I remember his most classic routines — the Samurai warrior (and his variety of Western occupations), the Blues Brothers, the King Bee, his spot–on impersonation of British rocker Joe Cocker, his obese Elizabeth Taylor being interviewed by a starstruck Bill Murray on Weekend Update (and nearly choking on a turkey leg), his takeoff on Beethoven, his contributions to skits featuring the Coneheads and the Land Shark.

Those were the days (well, I guess nights would be more appropriate than days).

Thoughts of his Point/Counterpoint segments with Jane Curtin on Weekend Update never fail to bring a smile to my lips — if not an outright laugh. I still crack up whenever I see his impersonation of Bill Shatner as Capt. Kirk.

I always liked his "little chocolate doughnuts" commercial — in which he played an Olympic athlete who claimed, with a smoldering cigarette in one hand, that little chocolate doughnuts had been part of his training regimen since he was a child.

When the country was more or less familiar with him from his Saturday Night Live years, he embarked on a movie career that was short but no less entertaining.

I guess most people remember "The Blues Brothers" when they think of Belushi's movies, but I think first of "Animal House" — and Belushi's somewhat twisted take on Pearl Harbor.

The guy was just funny, no matter what he did. I honestly think he could have come out on stage and read the New York metro phone book and the audience would have been in stitches.

And then I think of that day 30 years ago today — when I heard that the laughter had died.

I was in college. It was spring break. The country was struggling economically, jobs were hard to find. It wasn't a great time to be getting out of college, but it still seemed like a wonderful time to be young and free and alive. The news of Belushi's death cast an enormous shadow over everything, at the time and ever since.

There were, of course, the recriminations, as there always are — the accusations, the investigations, the charges and trials. Books were written. Life went on.

But just think of all that we missed.

What a gift it was to make people laugh as easily as Belushi did — and what an appalling waste it was to lose him so soon.

Thirty years without Belushi. It wasn't fair to him — or us.