Thursday, June 15, 2006

Belushi, Farley and Me.

Written by Tony Figueroa for STORY SALON, Southern California's Longest Running, Regularly Performing Live Storytelling Ensemble.
Performed on Wednesday, June 14, 2006 by Tony Figueroa.
There are three things that I always talk about at Story Salon, Television, Death and Defiance Ohio. This story is about death but not just any death, celebrity death. People who leave this world and enter immortality.

There was Elvis. I had become a fan of fifties rock and roll thanks to the TV show Happy Days and Hit Radio 11 KRLA. I did have trouble accepting the 40 year old overweight Elvis, to me Elvis was jailhouse rock. But no one was more distraught over Elvis's death than my Dad. Understand that my dad was not a fan of Rock ad Roll he dismissed it all as noise. He is conservative and ex-military but he got to know Elvis when he was in the Army stationed in Memphis. My dad was in charge of drafting Elvis. My Dad knew that Elvis as a kid who had bitten off more than he chew.

There was John Lennon. I was to young to appreciate "The Beatles" when they were together, but as a teenager, thanks again in part to Hit Radio 11 KRLA, I did gain a great deal of appreciation for who they were and what they were about. I even hoped they would reunite some day, after all Loren Michael’s did offer them a check for $3,000.00 made out to "The Beatles" if they appeared on Saturday Night Live.

I want to add Freddie Prinze to the mix of immortals because as a Puerto Rican kid who wanted to become a comedian he meant a lot to me as well as to a lot of other people. Sadly he didn't achieve the same immortality. If you asked a “twenty something” if they know who Elvis Presley and John Lennon were they would know, even though Elvis Presley and John Lennon died before they were even born. If I ask them if they know who Freddie Prinze is, they'll say, "He the guy who’s in the that sitcom, the one that follows George Lopez. He married Buffy and did those Scooby Doo movies with her".

These first three examples of celebrity death caused me to be saddened but not devastated. The next example was different.

On the evening of March 5th 1982, I was living in Puerto Rico and our cable system just got WGN out of Chicago. At 10:00 PM I tuned into The Best of Saturday Night Live. The episode opened with a picture of John Belushi from the opening credits and the years 1949 -1982 at the bottom of the screen. At first I thought, I don't remember this sketch. The Blues Brothers opened the show and when they went to commercial. I channel surfed. I turned to HBO, they were showing The Blues Brothers movie. I changed over to ABC's World News Tonight and they were showing the same Blues Brothers bit that I saw on WGN. At the end off the clip Franks Reynolds said, " John Belushi dead at 33." Oh my God! This can't be true. I was a big John Belushi fan. I loved SNL. We did the Samurai in drama class. Other kids had Rock Stars on their walls, I had a picture of the "Not Ready for Primetime Players". I wanted to grow up and be a "Not Ready for Primetime Player". The next morning I read in the San Juan Star that he died at the Chateau Marmont and there was this mystery women that showed up in his rental car. The following Monday at school a classmate said, " I bet it was drugs". I said, "No way it wasn't drugs. He, he was... just fat. He was fat and he had a heart attack. The teacher stepped in saying, "yeah you’re probably right Tony he was just fat". A few days later I saw, in The San Juan Star, the pictures from the funeral. It was heartbreaking to see Bill Murray placing a rose on the coffin and see Dan Akroid and Jim Belushi as pallbearers. That night it was announced on CNN that John Belushi died of a mixture of heroin and cocaine commonly known as a speedball. I felt horrible. I had just defended the guy. I couldn’t understand why this happened. I knew he did drugs, they all did drugs. The next day I found an editorial cartoon that featured two grim reapers dressed as the "Blues Brothers”. On the arm of one of them was Heroin and on arm of the other was Cocaine. I thought this was in really bad taste. I showed it to my Dad who always let me know whenever I did something in bad taste. To my surprise, he told me that he agreed with the cartoon. “But it’s too soon to joke about someone who just died”, I said. He responded with, “No you have to strike while the irons hot”. I felt that they should show some respect for the dead, and some sympathy for the family. “Not this time”, he told me, “there are a lot of kid’s your age who see that he was funny and he took drugs so if I take drugs I can be funny too”. My first thought was that that’s stupid, he was funny because he was funny, not because of the drugs. He didn’t need drugs to be funny and my dad said, “lot’s of kids don’t see it that logically”. We talked for a while longer and my dad ended the conversation with, well I guess we think differently on this subject. There are two things you need to understand about my relationship with my Dad back then. When we talked, it was usually about me doing better in school and our conversations never ended with us agreeing to disagree.

Over the next year if there was ever conversation about someone having it all and throwing it away, my Dad would segue the conversation to “just like John Belushi”. I really thought my Dad was afraid that I would follow in Belushi’s footsteps.

Years later when I was teaching at a comedy traffic school, they started a drug and alcohol awareness program for high school students. Teachers who had a history with drug use were used in the program. They’d combine comedy with facts about drugs and alcohol and ended with a personal story about how drugs use affected their life. I thought the personal stories were the best part of the presentation. I was told that the school board and PTA loved the program but wanted the personal stories cut out. They feared that kid’s who see a funny person talk about their past drug use will think that if that person took drugs and they’re funny, maybe if I take drugs I can be funny too.

That’s stupid, they’re not exactly glamorizing drug use. They're funny because they’re funny, not because of the drugs. They didn’t need drugs to be funny.

Then I was reliving that same conversation I had with my Dad years before.

A few years later I heard on the radio that Chris Farley died. This guy was my age and we both idolized John Belushi, but he got to live my dream of studying at Second City in Chicago then being on SNL. He had it all. I knew it was drugs before it was announced. Again I was reliving that same conversation I had with my Dad Years before. I thought this was what my Dad feared could happen to me and I wondered if Chris Farley’s dad had that same conversation with him.

To quote Lorne Michaels, "The value system that was around there was as long as people showed up on time and did their job, it was nobody's business what they did in their bedroom or what they did in their lives." "That value system turned out to be wrong."

Stay Tuned and Happy Fathers Day


Tony Figueroa

2 comments:

Peter Miller said...

Very nice Tony!

Peter Miller said...

Actually, when I read the book "Live from New York" I was given the exact same impression your Dad had which was "you have to be high to be funny". It's not true, but that's the impression I got.