Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book Review: Wired by Bob Woodward

Wired by Bob Woodward, besides being an exhaustive account of John Belushi's life, is in itself an interesting cultural artifact.  Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, took on another subject with a connection to Richard Nixon.  Both had a penchant for self-destruction.  As a biographer, Woodward seemed the wrong fit, but in some odd way delivered something inspired.  I'll try to explain.

Without a doubt, John Belushi was the heart and soul of the original cast of SNL.  His off screen antics were just as legendary as his onscreen ones.   He brought a brash, working class attitude to American comedy.  Whenever he appeared onscreen there was a wild sense of unpredictability.  He was everyone's cool older brother.  By all accounts, Belushi was a loose cannon with a volatile personality.  During the first season he resented Chevy Chase's popularity.  He loved tormenting and intimidating the guest hosts. In Belushi's view, women had no place in comedy and often tried to get their sketches cut.  On more than a few occasions, Michaels banned Belushi from the set for constantly being difficult.  Belushi's characters have an enduring quality from the Samurai Man to the Albanian proprietor of the "pepsi and cheeseburger" diner. Another favorite is an 18 minute Star Trek parody Belushi carried doing a parody/tribute to Star Trek (I'd argue sketch confirmed Star Trek as a cultural phenomenon).  In Dan Aykroyd, he found a comedic soul mate.  Despite all of his shenanigans most attest he was loyal to his friends and was a decent human being when not under the influence.

Woodward's writing style is dry as dust at times.  He also bloated the book with transcripts of well known skits from the show.  At times, the book reads like a courtroom deposition - especially when chronicling Belushi's final weeks.  If you want to be a fly on the wall to Belushi's wild times the book has an addictive voyeuristic quality.  But there's little there on what drove him to such extremes.  

Belushi's attempt to launch a movie career never got off the ground.  While his supporting performance in Animal House as Bluto inspired all future frat parties, he never made it as a leading man.  Starring roles in Continental Divide and Neighbors failed to win over critics.  In fact the whole process of making Neighbors proved a debacle from the get go.

Belushi's work on SNL will live on.  If he had got himself together, I think he would've had a fascinating movie career as a character actor  transcending his early persona. But it was not to be and all that's really left is his work for the box on the Saturday night show - ironically for a medium he personally despised.  

Woodward's foray into celebrity biography stands as a must read for aficionados of Belushi and the early days of SNL. It's about the content.  The style not so much.  For more ingratiating accounts of Mr. Belushi I'd recommend oral histories and firsthand accounts - that's where the folk heroes are truly born.

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