How do you solve a problem like The Blues Brothers? They’re the goofy novelty duo whose enduring popularity says a great deal about our country’s thorny racial history and the commercial cooption of great American art form. To people around the world the Blues Brothers have become the face of blues: the pale, pasty, Caucasian, half-Canadian face of a deep strain of black music. The Blues Brothers leave behind a deep and complicated legacy.
They helped popularize blues and gave crucial career boosts to an army of blues, soul and R&B legends by covering their songs and featuring them in The Blues Brothers and to a much lesser extent, The Blues Brothers 2000 yet it seems both sad and inevitable that millions of Blues Brothers fans would rather hear standards performed by a pair of enthusiastic white amateur chuckle-merchants than grizzled old black professionals.
The Blues Brothers have been lionized as heroes and icons and demonized as cultural parasites. So it’s worth noting that in their very first appearance on Saturday Night Live, which just so happens to be today’s episode, they’re introduced by Don Kirshner as a blues band who had been transformed by various super-Crackers of the industry from a humble denizens of juke joints in Chicago into a “viable commercial product”. So there was definitely a sense of self-awareness wired into the Blues Brothers phenomenon from its very inception.
I am surely not the first to note that there is no real joke behind the Blues Brothers. They don’t perform parodies or do zany stage banter or appear in sketches. Nope, they pretty much just show and bang out enthusiastically amateurish and amateurishly enthusiastic renditions of blues classics. It’s an odd, joke-light conceptual bit but audiences loved John Belushi and Belushi clearly loved performing blues so perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that audiences loved the Blues Brothers as well.
As “Joliet” Jake Belusi gets by on charisma, energy and enthusiasm though when he attempts a growly talking croon he sounds disconcertingly like Dewey Cox singing “You’ve Got To Love Your Negro Man”. Today’s episode was filled with glorious firsts and iconic moments. It was also a great musical episode. Steve Martin donned kitschy Egyptian gear and struck Hieroglyphics poses to perform “King Tut”, Steve Martin and Gilda Radner united for a glorious homage to Astaire and Rogers that alternated between grace and spazziness and “Shabba Doo” and his merry band of poppers and lockers performed a funky version of “Swan Lake”. Yes, it was a great fucking episode all around.
In his monologue Martin riffed brilliantly on the old, “I’ve furtively pilfered your wallet/watch without you noticing” magician trick by inviting Bill Murray onstage and very conspicuously taking his belt and underwear by ripping them off his body.
We were then treated to a sort of ad hoc greatest hits compilation of recurring characters and classic bits. Martin and Aykroyd’s slang-abusing, hormone-addled Eastern European swingers have their seemingly indefatigable spirits broken when Garrett Morris tells them their dates for the evening will never show up. In an ace bit of physical comedy a dejected Martin and Aykroyd shuffle sadly to their front door in a sad parody of their usual ecstatic body language to discover that the American foxes they desire have shown up after all.
Martin then played one of his most beloved/Pythonesque characters, Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber, a gleeful hack who does his brutal, superstitious work with a cheerful bedside manner and wholly unearned confidence. The Loopners turn in another appearance and John Belushi and Jane Curtin played a middle-aged couple with a rather involved, kinky routine for getting in the mood.
Not every sketch killed but the highs were staggeringly high and even the weaker sketches (“Next Week In Review”, “Troff n’ Brew”) had a spark of inspiration and some very funny moments. Yes, Saturday Night Live was firing on all cylinders today. It’s easy to see why Martin is viewed as the definitive host. Today’s episode was good enough to make me almost regret that the season and this TV Club blog will be ending in just two episodes. Almost.
—Oh shit, I didn’t even get into the point/counterpoint where Curtin calls Aykroyd an inhuman, hate-mongering enemy of mankind and Aykroyd responds by insisting that he would have happily performed an abortion for Curtin’s mother to keep her from being born. That was some funny shit but it wasn’t quite dark enough for my tastes.
—You cannot grow up in Chicago without seeing The Blues Brothers at least a half-dozen times. Even more so than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off it is the unofficial official movie of my hometown.
—Up next: Richard Dreyfuss and Buck Henry
—The Blues Brothers: The best or worst thing that ever happened to blues?