Our favorite funnymen of the 1980s reached glorious heights and managed to endure the decade despite some appallingly unfunny lows. Sharing “SNL” in their DNA, most of them worked together in front of the camera at some point and, behind the scenes, commiserated at times over the vagaries of show business.
Offering colorful film backstories and insightful portraits of Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, author Nick de Semlyen’s “Wild and Crazy Guys” explores the nature of stardom itself — the struggle to be noticed and the even greater struggle to stay noticed. Interestingly, their careers often followed similar trajectories.
One common challenge was surviving all that fame and fortune. Belushi, the “Animal House” and “Blues Brothers” star, couldn’t handle the high of success, morphing from comedic wunderkind to cautionary tale when he died of a drug overdose at 33. Others who dabbled in drugs and alcohol managed to avoid his fate — the late John Candy’s self-destruction was more about food and drink — but they still faced personal and professional stumbling blocks.
Chase’s were less a matter of too much too soon than finding the good material and avoiding the bad. The first star spawned by “Saturday Night Live,” the mother ship of post-Watergate American comedy, Chase enjoyed comparisons to Cary Grant with his star turn in “Foul Play.” Then came “Oh Heavenly Dog” and several other box-office canines. Fortunately, “Caddyshack” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” put Chase’s best qualities front and center again and led to “Fletch” and “Spies Like Us.”
A flaw in de Semlyen’s enjoyable book is its bent toward fact over-analysis. His answer to the question posed by its subtitle — a couple of paragraphs about legacies, rule-breaking and commercial success — feels perfunctory.
Looking back three decades, it’s hard to remember when Murray, Martin, Murphy and Aykroyd weren’t part of the American scene. De Semlyen’s welcome flashback reminds us why their very names still bring a smile to our faces.