Saturday Night’s Children: Bill Murray (1977-1980)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

About a year ago, a YouTube video of Bill Murray reading poetry was making the rounds on my Facebook feed. In the clip, Murray jokes about forgetting to wipe off his black eye makeup from a film shoot earlier that day, then he names and rejects four recommended poems before pulling out a short but powerful piece by one of my former professors. My favorite part of the video isn’t just that a celebrity is reading a poem by someone who once taught me, nor is it the way Murray keeps the audience laughing for the first 60% of the video until he reads the first line of the poem – it’s that Murray fucking crushes it, and his reading is met with a tangible pause followed by streaming applause. “Belushi was unbelievably brave on stage,” Harold Ramis once said, “but Bill took that [fearlessness] everywhere, in the streets and in personal contact with other people. He was always unexpected. Where anyone else would go subtle, he would go huge. And where anyone else would go big, he would go very subtle.” Murray’s four years as SNL’s adopted Not Ready for Time Prime brother from 1976-1980 certainly helped shape his journey as not just a lovable comedy king, but an always-surprising and ever-changing artist known for showing up in the least predictable of places, whether it’s on the movie screen, on the street with fans, at a poetry reading, or sliding across the tarp on a minor league baseball field in the rain.

Born to a large Irish-Catholic family in the suburbs of Chicago, Murray participated in theatrical productions in high school and was lead singer of a rock band called the Dutch Masters. Tragedy struck when his father died from diabetes in 1967 when Murray was seventeen years old, leaving his mother with nine children (Bill, John, Joel, and Brian all went into acting while their sister Nancy became an Adrian Dominican nun who once toured the country performing as St. Catherine of Siena). During their teenage years, the Murray sons worked as caddies at their local country club, which later inspired Bill’s brother Brian to write 1980’s Caddyshack. After high school, Murray briefly studied pre-med at Denver’s Regis University, but following his childhood propensity for getting kicked out of organized events like the Boy Scouts and little league baseball, he was expelled from college in 1970.

After returning to Illinois, Murray followed his older brother Brian to The Second City, where he met fellow newcomers Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner and studied under the improvisation master Del Close. The group eventually moved to New York in 1974, where Murray wrote and performed on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Then, while his Second City friends were cast for Lorne Michaels’ new late-night sketch show SNL, Murray (along with his brother Brian, Billy Crystal, and Christopher Guest) premiered on the other SNL – ABC’s Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. While Belushi, Radner, and Aykroyd quickly rose to late-night fame on Michaels’ show, Cosell’s version floundered. But when Chevy Chase left SNL after the first season, Bill was brought on as the first new SNL hire ever.

Initially Murray was lost on the sidelines, but after illustrating his newcomer anxieties head-on in a monologue called “The New Guy” (and after Aykroyd and Belushi’s focus shifted from SNL to The Blues Brothers) he began rising to popularity playing a vast spectrum of manhood, from dimwits like Olympia Café cook Niko and Honker the homeless man to swaggering hams like Nick the Lounge Singer to lovable nerds like Todd DiLaMuca, who he appeared as 13 times alongside Gilda Radner as Lisa Loopner. He also played radio host Dick Lanky, Francis Jocko Leary Jr. in the “St. Mickey’s Knights of Columbus” sketches and impersonated celebrities like Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Ted Kennedy, and late-60s talk show host David Susskind.

What I’m talking about is between you and me. If you could see it in your heart to laugh whenever I say something. I don’t care what it is. Or, if you can’t laugh, think about my family … and the father that I never really got to know. … If I know you’re on my side, I’ll make you laugh so hard, you’ll have to hold your sides to keep from pulling a muscle - or tearing a cartilage. It’s up to you. Yeah, you. Now, I don’t want letters. I just want to make it as a Not Ready For Prime Time Player. When that’s done, I’ll be able to stand here on a Saturday night, in the middle of Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, New York, one-oh-oh-two-oh … and say, [looking heavenward] “Dad? I did it.” [to the camera, with a smile] He’d like that. (via)

Starting in 1978, Murray joined Jane Curtin as Weekend Update co-anchor, and instead of following in the more cynical and detached approaches of Aykroyd and Chase before him, Murray’s stint at the Update desk was marked by an overly intimate and almost boozy humor as he joked sports, carelessly flipped through Oscar winner predictions, and schmoozed the audience as if it were his new girlfriend – but as puppylike as he was, his delivery was still elevated with the same surprising honesty seen in his “New Guy” sketch. Take this quote from an April 1979 Update segment about Anita Bryant:

I recently got a lot of mail here, uh, from some listeners of WGN in Chicago, pointing out to me that Anita Bryant was 31-year old a couple of years ago. It’s hard to believe, because she doesn’t look it, and, besides, Anita and I once had a thing. And, uh – it’s hard to believe, but she’s completely different than she is now. You know, she’s soft-spoken now, and I have to say it’s so hypocritical of her because – if I told you some of the things… that she used to… BEG me to do. It’s incredible! Because, Anita, I’m CALLING you on it: When we went out, you drank nothing but apple juice and you KNOW it! There. I have to say it – a lot of water under the bridge – but it’s me, Anita, so don’t try to fool me, alright?

Behind the scenes on SNL, Murray took on emotionally protective instincts of his post-Chevy Chase cast mates and never turned down a deserved confrontation, whether it was his backstage fist fight with Chase when he returned to host the show in 1978 or his ongoing romantic relationship with Gilda Radner that, according to original SNL writer Rosie Shuster in Live from New York, played out in their sketches as The Nerds: “Todd and Lisa also became a medium for Gilda and Billy to work something through on television. There was definitely some of that going on. They went through different permutations where they were together, they weren’t together, you know. They could probably track what was going on by seeing how they related to each other on the air.” With any and all personal issues sublimated by two dorky middle schoolers trying to one-up each other with lame jokes, The Nerds explains the sadness that anchors Murray’s comedic style when he’s at his very best, and why he was able to transition so gracefully from boy humor to more dramatic roles.

Lorne Michaels left SNL along with the original cast and writers after the 1979-1980 season, and by then Murray already had his first starring film role in 1979’s Meatballs, followed by a streak of comedy hits with Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), Tootsie (1982), and as Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984), a part Murray played in payment to Columbia pictures to finance his dramatic film The Razor’s Edge. Ghostbusters went on to become a mainstream hit, but when The Razor’s Edge flopped, he left acting, moved to France, and studied history and philosophy at the Sorbonne before returning to the states to star in Scrooged and Ghostbusters II in 1989, co-direct and star in Quick Change in 1990, appear in What About Bob? in 1991, and star as Phil in the classic zen-sterpiece Groundhog Day two years later. Beginning with 1998’s Rushmore, he took a turn toward the artsy-dramatic, appearing as a regular fixture in Wes Anderson films The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and most recently Moonrise Kingdom as well as Sophia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, which earned him an Oscar nomination. He also had memorable parts in Kingpin (his entire performance was ad-libbed), Charlie’s Angels, and more regrettably, a starring voiceover role in 2004’s Garfield which Murray signed up for under the mistaken assumption that the Coen brothers were spearheading the project. More recently, he costarred with Robert Duvall in 2009’s Get Low and with Mickey Rourke and Megan Fox in 2010’s Passion Play, and he stars as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson, which is set for release this year.

Despite his long and and eclectic list of film roles over the last four decades of steady fame, at 61, Murray still manages to pull off an otherworldly genius. It might be the way he favors a toll-free number and personal answering machine over agents, managers, and publicists, or the way the internet is filled with fans’ stories of his wonderfully odd but down-to-earth in-person energy. Whatever it is, he’s been as much of an SNL legend as he has been an always-evolving surprise, or put much better by the man himself:

In life and in movies, you can usually guess what someone is going to say—you can actually hear it—before they say it. But if you undercut that just a little, it can make you fall off your chair. It’s small and simple like that. You’re always trying to get your distractions out of the way and be as calm as you can be [breathes in and out slowly], and emotion will just drive the machine. It will go through the machine without being interrupted, and it comes out in a rhythm that’s naturally funny. And that funny rhythm is either humorous or touching. It can be either one. But it’s always a surprise. I really don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Bill Murray (1977-1980)