The Enigma of Rick Moranis

A June 1981 episode of NBC’s SCTV Network 90 begins with a straight-to-the-camera editorial by Rick Moranis, assuming the role of cranky veteran newsman David Brinkley. Clad in a three-piece suit, with his hair combed back and dark circles drawn under his eyes, Moranis’ embittered Brinkley grimly recounts his long and disappointing history with marijuana, ultimately concluding: “What the hell? It doesn’t really matter anyway. I don’t get stoned anymore. I just smoke and get depressed.” It’s a justly praised, brilliantly bleak bit by Moranis, who uncannily commits to his dour character. What’s most fascinating about it, to the modern viewer, is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the standard Rick Moranis screen persona.

When one thinks of Rick Moranis, one almost immediately pictures a clumsy, bespectacled, utterly guileless nerd, the kind of vaguely Jerry Lewis- or Woody Allen-inspired schlemiel destined to be shoved into lockers his whole life by the burly jocks of the world. It’s a role Moranis played over and over again in movies, to great success, from roughly the mid-1980s, when Ghostbusters cast the die for his career, to the mid-1990s, in the aptly-named Big Bully with Tom Arnold. Moranis famously walked away from Hollywood and feature films during the Clinton years and has worked only sporadically since 1997, pretty much exclusively as a voice actor. His wife passed away in 1991, and he wanted to concentrate on being a single father and raising his two children. Fans waited for a return which never came.

When Rick Moranis makes the news these days, it’s usually because he’s refused to participate in another Ghostbusters-related project. He turned down the opportunity to reprise his jittery accountant character, Louis Tully, in Paul Feig’s upcoming reboot, just as he said no thanks to that Ghostbusters video game back in 2008. Seven years ago, the alibi for Rick’s absence from the game was that he had too much money to ever have to work again, having appeared in several profitable Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movies at Disney. But when the Feig story surfaced, a more detailed explanation was required. “Why would I do just one day of shooting on something I did 30 years ago?” the 62-year-old Canadian comedian asked The Hollywood Reporter. Moranis would like to work again, he has explained, just not as Louis Tully.

Moranis’s reticence is perfectly understandable, but it’s a standard problem for actors who graduate from sketch comedy to feature films and sitcoms. Even at the highest levels of showbiz, they can easily fall prey to typecasting. SCTV, where Moranis was a regular from 1980 to 1982 as the show changed networks and formats, was a unique sketch-sitcom hybrid set in a bizarre, fictional burg called Melonville. The series focused on both the programming and the behind-the-scenes intrigue of a ludicrous television network whose naked ambition constantly outstripped its threadbare resources. As the series indulged in the kind of of baroque comedic world-building later practiced by The Simpsons and South Park, cast member and writer Moranis was required to play a dizzying variety of roles, ranging from rabbis to business executives to lounge singers. And he did so with aplomb.

Rick’s celebrity impressions on SCTV, particularly his self-amused, condescending Dick Cavett, were more like eerie, full-body possessions. It might have been Moranis’s spot-on Woody Allen, as in the classic “Play It Again, Bob,” which forever typecast him as a meek, bumbling nerd. But Rick was not nearly so limited on TV as he would be in his subsequent movies. The most fully-realized Moranis creation, unflappable “video jockey” Gerry Todd, was rooted in Rick’s own experiences as a radio announcer. Even Rick’s best known SCTV character,  beer-swilling hosehead Bob McKenzie of the Great White North sketches, is not really in the classic Moranis nerd mold. Tellingly, Moranis has been willing to reprise this one particular role in subsequent years, post-SCTV: in 1983’s feature-length Strange Brew, in some late ‘90s Molson commercials, in the abortive Animated Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie series in 2003, and even (indirectly) in Disney’s Brother Bear franchise. It must have helped, too, that Moranis had a hand in the creation of Bob McKenzie and that it wasn’t another geeky role merely imposed on him by a movie studio.

Not that there isn’t variety in Rick Moranis’s film work. Skid Row florist Seymour Krelborn in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors and overprotective yuppie dad Nathan Huffner in 1989’s Parenthood exist at opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale, for instance. But they’re still variations on that same, familiar theme: poor nerd, rich nerd. Often during his decade-long tenure in Hollywood, the diminutive 5’1” Moranis was cast as the sidekick of some other, more dominant alpha-comedian: the 6’0” Steve Martin in 1990’s My Blue Heaven, say, or the 6’2” John Goodman in 1994’s The Flintstones. In 1987, Moranis’s role as baddie Dark Helmet in Mel Brooks’ sci-fi spoof Spaceballs gave the SCTV vet the rare opportunity to play a villain, someone who wasn’t expected to be nice all the time. But Dark Helmet, who wore even dorkier glasses than Moranis’ other characters, was just as hapless and ineffectual as Seymour Krelborn or Nathan Huffner. He was no match for the 6’2” Bill Pullman as Lone Star.

Rick Moranis can take comfort in the fact that it was seemingly always thus for veterans of sketch comedy shows. Moranis’s fellow SCTV castmate, John Candy, had the most success on-screen when he let his round frame and boyish likability carry him through “nice guy” parts in films like Stripes, Splash, and Uncle Buck, while his weirder, more out-there performances in films like Nothing But Trouble and Who’s Harry Crumb? left audiences cold. So Candy found his comfort zone and basically stayed there for his entire career. And no one would have dared call himself the leader of the fiercely competitive, six-man Monty Python troupe, but John Cleese nevertheless became the most famous member of that ensemble and went on to have the biggest crossover success with such post-Python projects as Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda. Why? Because he had a persona which even the non-sketch-savvy public could easily understand. He was the pompous prig with the jutting chin and the beanpole physique, forever bossing people around. In the early years of Saturday Night Live, rivals Bill Murray and Chevy Chase portrayed, respectively, scruffy and preppy versions of the same basic comedic archetype: the immature wiseass trying to schmooze and bullshit his way through life. Both milked that bit for decades.

In the 1980s, was Eddie Murphy a bigger post-SNL success because he worked harder at his craft than frequent sketch partner Joe Piscopo? Not really. In Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, writer Bernie Blaustein alleges that Joe actually “worked really hard” on his characters, while Eddie more or less came up with his voices and mannerisms spontaneously. But Eddie was nevertheless the one with the charisma and the star quality which carried him from scene to scene, while, even at his best, Joe tended to disappear into the parts he played. Speaking of which, in a 2002 interview with IGN, Kids in the Hall star Dave Foley explained how he moved from that sketch show to the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. Again, it was a matter of finding a persona to which the audience could readily relate:

One of the reasons [NewsRadio creator] Paul [Simms] hired me in the first place was because he had seen the first “Chicken Lady” sketch Kids in the Hall had done. This is a sketch where I was on a blind date with the Chicken Lady, and Paul had seen that and noticed I was getting all these laughs in the sketch from straight lines. I was getting huge laughs from reaction shots. I was saying what sounded like straight lines, but in the context was getting huge laughs, and that was what he wanted for NewsRadio. Someone who was able to do that.

So, once again, even though fellow troupe member Mark McKinney was the one dressed as a chicken and playing a grotesque, outrageous character, it was relatable, likable Dave Foley who got the long-running American network sitcom out of the deal. That’s showbiz for you.

Modern comedians can learn a great deal from studying the careers of Rick Moranis and others who crossed from sketch comedy shows into feature films and situation comedies. They must ask themselves whether they want to commit to a basic comedic persona in project after project, even if it means being typecast. To cite a more recent example, Kristen Wiig, during her tenure on SNL, generally played flaky, talkative women who desperately seek attention but then seemed flustered when they get it. That, in turn, is the kernel of her onscreen persona in movies, post-SNL. Whether her films are realistic (The Skeleton Twins) or broadly exaggerated (MacGruber), Wiig generally retains her core persona from role to role.

[caption id=”attachment_82135” align=”aligncenter” width=”634”]©Paramount Pictures[/caption]

Of course, there is another way a sketch veteran can go, but it’s a tough, uphill road. Dan Aykroyd was another early star of SNL, and he had a skill set as a performer which was eerily perfect for the program. Unlike Chase or Murray, though, he had no real overarching personality to unite his various characters on the show. And that remained true of his movie roles as well, once he graduated from SNL. Very little connects Elwood Blues, Beldar Conehead, and Yogi Bear other than Aykroyd’s participation. Notice that, in Trading Places, Eddie Murphy plays a character, con artist Billy Ray Valentine, which is not far at all from his usual sketch persona, while Dan Aykroyd’s character, rich snob Louis Winthorpe III, is entirely different from roles Aykroyd had played in the past or would play in the future. Unlike Eddie, Dan had to build his character from the ground up. That gets exhausting after a few decades and dozens of films.

Years later, SNL’s Mike Myers, an obvious disciple of Dan Aykroyd, would find himself in a similar situation, career-wise. He has been involved with at least three very successful multi-media franchises over the years, but he’s always been required to submerge himself in the parts he plays, be it Wayne Campbell, Austin Powers, or Shrek. Even Myers’ work in prestige films like 54 and Inglourious Basterds has required affected voices and heavy makeup. And when the public doesn’t enjoy a particular disguise Myers has adopted, as in The Love Guru, the comedian is utterly out of luck. Unlike Rick Moranis, Mike Myers doesn’t have a default personality he can use as a safety cushion.

In other words, live by the funny voice, die by the funny voice.

The Enigma of Rick Moranis