"If I Know You're On My Side": Bill Murray's Rough Start
I've been reading Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad. It's really interesting; it suggests that when rock and roll gave up the revolution of the 1960s, comedy took over. Saturday Night Live served as base camp for comedy's insurgency; it was, in a sense, the most important thing going on in entertainment.
Hello. I’m Bill Murray. You can call me Billy, but around here everybody just calls me “the new guy.” I want to thank the producer, Lorne Michaels, for urging me to speak with you directly. You see, I’m a little bit concerned. I don’t think I’m making it on the show. I’m a funny guy, but I haven’t been so funny on the show. My friends say, “How come they’re giving you all those parts that aren’t funny?” Well, it’s not the material, it’s me. It’s not that I’m not funny, it’s that I’m not being funny at the right time. Honest. Before, I could be funny whenever I wanted. But now, as a professional, I have to learn to pick my spots, you know. This morning I picked up my laundry, and the guy said to me, “Bill, you know, every time you come in here, you say something funny. But I saw you on the show Saturday night, and you stunk." Well, that hurts. It totally destroyed my confidence. ... Now what I’m asking for is your support. I’ve gotten some nice letters from old friends, and people I owe money to, but from you people, I hear nothing. I’m not asking for letters, but—I know this sounds funny: Support. ... 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.Imagine that on a comedy show. Imagine having to perform it. Imagine it being about you. The goal was to win viewers' sympathies. It didn't work, apparently. He continued to suffer all kinds of indignities--until the last show of the season, in which he performed a sketch he wrote about a man hosting a talk show in his shower, featuring as guests his wife and the man she was having an affair with. The audience loved it, and it became not only the basis for a slew of other SNL characters but a prototype for the persona of most of Murray's comedic roles ever since: the guy who owns the room, yet who barely conceals his great sadness. The guy who points out the absurdity of everything he sees but who knows firsthand how much absurdity can hurt. I've always had a soft spot for Bill Murray. Learning about his rough start at SNL certainly reinforced it--if in fact a soft spot can be reinforced. He's not guiltless in the sordid story of the birth of Saturday Night Live, but he is a case study in persevering through hard times and transforming them into something insightful, fresh, hilarious, and human.