F/M/K: Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase

by Julie Klausner and Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Natashy, this is tough like Jehu. Tough like the rind off a New York Strip from Tad’s Steaks. Tough like a horde of Hell’s Angels with filthy, stew-ingredient-ridden Santa beards.

I have been wrestling, Michael Shannon-style, with this trio of icons — but specifically with the sticky wicket of Chevy vs. Steve. I’ll explain it all in a bit for those of you rolling your eyes/flipping your hairs back and forth. But let’s just say the 92nd Street Y debacle helped me seal my deal.

Oh, obviously you marry Bill Murray. That is a no-brainer. Yes, he was probably an absent husbo in the way he is an agentless, anchorless, “Is he or isn’t he coming to Japan tomorrow because we’ve shot everything we can without him?” kind of actor. But truly, deeply, honestly, ultimately, once you choose this — and you will — at some point you’ll be saying to somebody at a party, “Oh, I’m married to Bill Murray.” And how many punk rock points is that worth, exactly? The amount belonging to the cast and crew of the new True Grit times everybody who ever fucked William S. Burroughs. I don’t know this math! But, to my credit, I’m neither dumb nor illiterate. I can read semiotics, and Bill Murray’s are blinking neon hieroglyphics on the side of a cave, etched into your own arm in blood, written in the sky with broom smoke. Surrender, Dorothy. You never had a chance.

“Medium talent, “ Billy sneered at Chevy post fist-fight, and because you know this story — because it’s the punchline of that particular chapter of the mythology — it means Billy won. Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loves Chevy Chase, and everybody — and I mean, EVERYBODY — crushed on Bill. And though I tend to morph into sex margarine for an underdog (SEE STEVE BUSCEMI DEFENSE 1.0), Billy is, in this case — and has always been — the coolest guy in the room, the one you follow around like he has a leash and you’re a goddamned Labrador. Men want him, women want him, animals will share screen time with him. Even Pauline Kael brightened at the mention of his name, after Wes Anderson reminded her he starred in Meatballs. Or did she brighten at the butter cookies?

The point: Bill Murray’s iconography isn’t tin, it’s gold. It’s what I reconcile with rock ’n’ roll, because I don’t collect vinyl or hum with camaraderie when somebody mentions a tidbit from the new Keith Richards book, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll be in the corner re-watching What About Bob?, because it still FUCKING KILLS ME. And if I had half the charisma, half the cool, even a fraction of the punk cunning, of the hypnotic talent, of the funny and the magnets and the sexy and the crazy that Bill Murray has in just one heavy lidded eye from his Stripes poster, you’d be in the corner with me, looking up at my face, waiting to hedge on my smallest reaction to any idea that shifts into my worldview by chance. It is what bigness is. You marry that. You lock that shit down.

Okay, back to Medium Talent versus Silver Smarts. Steve versus Chevy. The thing you’d think would be easy but turns out instead to be agonizingly complex.

I will start with an anecdote.

I was on a redeye from Los Angeles to New York three years ago when I read Steve Martin’s memoir from cover to cover (don’t laugh; it was a big deal for me, I’m a slow reader, even when there are pictures). How was the book, Julie? It was okay. It was interesting! Look, it bummed me out.

In Born Standing Up, a memoir that’s neither a novel about art collecting nor a novella starring himself as Ho-hum Humbert in a Goddamn Neiman Marcus, Martin covers the time during which he was best. So brave, so weird, so funny, so new wave. Talking Heads to the SNL 1.0 cast’s Ramones, or something. And what I was dismayed to find in Martin’s telling of his white suit, comedy album years was that his looking back on his youth was tainted (hee hee) with the tortoise-shell framed lenses of his present persona. Which, despite his current contributions to film & TV as a performer (and Anthony Lane nailed it when he reminded us how Martin’s cameo in Baby Mama — “Amazing salmon” and all — was a much-needed Kinnear-termission to see what a film actor really looks like) has, frankly, been, well — how do I spell this out in L.A. Story neon LCD. Hugely pretentious. And my friend and esteemed collegue, comedy scholar Gary Rudoren, once told me that Americans will tolerate just about anything but pretentiousness. It explains the Gwyneth schadenfraude, and why we turned on Madonna. (The English just hated her because she had no business jumping that horse.)

Martin’s post-comedy-record record has been a torah-sized unspooling of New Yorker piece writing, New Yorker editor-marrying, 92nd Street Y audience-admonishing, art collecting, playwriting, Oscars hosting, and steampunk banjo-playing art for art’s sake. So at what point does the man you grew up wanting to be become the guy you want to deflate? Like, knitting-needle-to-the-Macy’s-balloon-of-his-ego? And does that ruin everything?

Now, Chevy is somebody I warmed to later in life, because of my own miseducation. And Chase has sort of the flip side of Martin’s career, at least in terms of my developmental perception of who he is and what he does and did and stands for.

A child of the ’80s, I grew up with Vacation and European Vacation and then the short-lived punchline The Chevy Chase Show, and the cancellation thereof. After that came him-as-himself, at roasts or just being a jerk about town, and then, finally Community, a.k.a. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be Network TV’s Answer to Ted Danson in Bored to Death.” So, I basically knew dummy Chevy into angry asshole Chevy into ironic Chevy at the apex of his camp reinvention. And this was all context-free, from my virgin eyes. Because! Because I never saw Caddyshack until I was in college. Late bloomer! I know. To my credit, it is because I am a woman. Ask me how many times I’d seen Big Business by then. Or don’t. Anyway, I get it now. It’s Here, There and Everywhere, and I was listening to When I’m 64? Sort of? How am I doing with these rock metaphors, BTW? Save it.

So, my twenties-hood begat Chevy’s early SNL stuff (limited as it was to approximately 15 minutes, as he, like any cool prick, was the first to leave the party), and Fletch, and somewhere I even have a DVD copy of the National Lampoon stage show, Lemmings (don’t scoff; when I was dating it was great fanboy balm), which starred Belushi as Joe Cocker and Christopher Guest doing a pretty incredible James Taylor impression, and our man Chevy as John Denver, but also really as his lanky-ass self. Tall drink of so-and-so with fuck-you-long hair and a tight t-shirt body.

And, then, Caddyshack. When I finally saw it, embarrassingly late, I felt so dumb. I realized, “Oh, you know how that ‘detached, sarcastic dick’ thing is basically everything we know comedy to be?” Chevy Chase invented that. While Steve Martin was making a wild and crazy ass of himself, fully committed and — despite his pretentious-smart/current old-guy self looking back in haughty anger on his silly-genius-young-kid self — the truth is, the young Martin was so clearly smarter than anybody else, too. You wouldn’t have known it to read the memoirist Martin describe the full house of chanting stadium fanatics singing along to “King Tut,” but perfecting that kind of smart-stupid — or, in Martin’s case, inventing it — would have been a crystalline legacy, a standalone jabberwocky worthy of its own gospel. But in the years since “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” because I think that’s the smoking gun — an original stage play with an artist and a French cabaret in its title — I guess when I think about Steve today, I am sad. And when I think about Chevy today, I am indifferent. But when I think about Steve in the ’70s, I am envious. I don’t think I ever wanted to fuck him, as good-looking a chap as he always was (in his memoir, pussy runs way too plentiful for, face it, a magic geek). I wanted to be him.

I guess it’s best that way. And also, fucking never needed smart, did it? I mean, it helps. But isn’t it as much about cool, charming, funny? The ineluctable modality of the fuckable? There, Steve. I quoted Ulysses. But ultimately, I’m sorry. You fuck Fletch. You kill The Spanish Prisoner. The Jerk is there, he confuses you, you remember how Martin dated Bernadette Peters for a time and it weighs in, but then you realize it’s more about her. But ultimately, with the following era qualifiers, I hereby commit to the following:

Fuck Chevy. Caddyshack Chevy, SNL-era Chevy. Ride him til he quits smirking. And, do me a favor, use a condom and don’t act surprised when once he’s done he’s like, “Sweetheart, I can’t stay for eggs,” or something else glib and mean that seems a lot more funny at the time than when you quote it, later, to your sympathetic — and jealous — girlfriends.

Kill Steve. 92nd Street Y era Steve. Eulogize him appropriately, adding your voice to the booming chorus of millions — intellectuals and comedy nerds and cultural historians alike. Some Europeans. Art critics. Wine aficionados. You look around and quit mourning for a second, and realize you feel like Martin did during “King Tut,” back in the day. “Fuck this, I’m leaving.” You go back home and you listen to “Let’s Get Small” in your bedroom instead, like you used to with your older brother. And when it ends, or the needle starts skipping and you’re ready to go to sleep, you change into a nightie, and then, for the fuck of it, call up YouTube and sing along to “Tonight You Belong to Me,” doing both parts, just to hear it a couple of times before drifting off. Maybe you do some air ukelele, or trumpet, even. I know, he was handsome. It was all beautiful. But believe me. It’s better this way.

* * *

Julez, I want to put my hand over your parted lips like you were a doe-faced John Cusack in a ’90s Woody Allen flick, and I, as a bob-wigged Dianne Wiest on a Central Park bench during a clandestine romantic rendezvous, were pleading to you huskily, “Don’t speak!” because to articulate the erotic cosmic bond between us would be too acute! Too grand for words! Too shattering! Like magnets of the same polarity smashed together! “DONNNT SPEEEAK” quoth Stefani and her harajukus, I know just what you’re thinking, Julie.

The problem we run up against in this iconic trio is irony (the great redeemer and destroyer of modern culture/lolz!). So much of their comedy was done in quotation marks, which means one has to do a lot of sloshing passed bullshit to get to the sexual marrow of these men.

On the question of marriage we reach a paradox at the Martin/Murray intersection.

Now, as a lady of substantial maturity I abhor schtick. I want things to be REAAAAL, brutally real like a Hungarian abortion, and with Murray there’s still some obvious too-cool-for-school/Garfield 2 schtick going on. When Men of a Certain Age still cling to a bit or a persona, they are, as we know, usually broken and therefore fall into the fuck or kill buckets. However, while Martin has revealed more of himself over the past three decades it’s made him less palatable, whereas Murray’s in obfuscation has made him more desirable. In fact, the off-beat acting choices he’s made over the past decade have revealed his *tRuE ~* nAtUre*~*. Murray’s authentic personality has been unmasked: he’s an adventurous and ambitious artist striving for something above a laugh.

The most vexing issue of a marriage to Murray is that it’s all manias and mannerisms with him. It’s like the scene in Sunday in the Park with Mandy Patinkin when Bernie Peters says aloud about her lover George Seurat, “George is very special, but maybe I’m not special enough for him.” Murray would NEVER tell you that you were special enough for him. Indeed, he seems to have a large capacity for emotional cruelty because he’s so withholding, whereas Martin is just a babbling geyser of feelings. Nevertheless, Murray has a far stormier and more intriguing center than Martin. So yes, of course you marry Murray. You scream, fight, drag each other around the living room by the scalp, whatever, he’s special, sign me up, til death do us part.

There is no doubt that Chevy needs to be fucked raw. Chevy is a standard who we are introduced to, automatically embrace, rebel against, then must make our peace with. That peace can only be made vaginally. Chevy’s comedy has always had an acrobatic athleticism to it; compared to the buffalo slams of Jim Belushi, Chevy broke through the prop tables and phony ladders with the grace of young Baryshnikov, maneuvering his gangly limbs through the wood splints to get the maximum audience reaction (like a drunk ballerina!). In the high holy days (the ’70s) he was more a Buster Keaton than a Lenny Bruce. Chevy, all sinewy and tan, fresh off the Vacation set, Gawd, he’s like a bowl of noodles and cocaine that I just want to slither around in all day. Good call on the condom-sheathed bone sesh, though. He’d probably show up, saying he was just buying some Trojans from a coin-operated dispensary in the men’s bathroom at the corner deli and thought he would “drop by.” And after a round of afternoon sport-fucking sans eye contact he’d say it was well worth getting the change at the counter and he’d see himself out.

OK, so, that leaves us with Steve Martin. My mother would kill me for this but he has to be put down. Everything you say is true. He needs a sincere eulogy and then a merciful execution behind the Old Yeller shed. There is no doubt that Martin still has a physical charge, and that he’s all kinetic with cleverness and instruments and he spins like a top when he get him going but we’ve reached the logical conclusion of Martin’s initial appeal, as High Priestess of Taste Pauline Kael put it in 1983,

“A comic’s naked desire to make us laugh can be an embarrassment, especially if we feel that he’s hanging on to that laugh — that he’s experiencing our reaction as a life or death matter. Steve Martin is naked, but he isn’t desperate.”

He’s certainly not desperate, but Martin treats his audience like a vessel rather than a collaborator, and yet is in CONSTANT need of their attention. The attitude is that if we as an audience are smart enough to buy a ticket to see Steve Martin, then we should accept, nay applaud, his piddling about on the banjo, musings on the Renaissance, or mildly amusing short story about romance in New York City. There is a clear disdain for his audience that Bill Murray also has, but Murray seems to have been able to establish some kind of boundary over the years, which Martin increasingly transgresses against. Inviting the audience in only to subtly sneer at them is an awful trait. Even now, 20 years past his prime, he still has this conspiratorial attitude against his audience. And what’s even more distasteful is that it is increasingly unearned. Do not like, do not want, do not marry, or fuck. *COCKS SHOTGUN*

Previously: Hugh Laurie, Rahm Emanuel, Anthony Bourdain.

Julie Klausner wrote a BOOK and Natasha Vargas-Cooper wrote a BOOK, and both of them are experts in concurrently frightening and arousing weak men with discourse and panache. Sophie’s F/M/K is a regular column on The Hairpin!