Q&A with Jim Belushi
As comedy legend and “Saturday Night Live” alum Jim Belushi heads to Beaver Creek, the staff of the Vilar Performing Arts Center sat down with him to discuss his show and his career.
Belushi will perform improv with the Board of Comedy on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase at http://www.vilarpac.org.
Q: You were part of The Second City in Chicago and then on “Saturday Night Live” for several years, two legendary training grounds for up-and-coming comedic actors. What were those years like and how did they shape you as a performer?
A: Second City taught me everything there is to know about character comedy, social satire, comic rhythms, what it’s like to study the craft of doing eight shows a week. When I was 16, I went to Second City and saw my brother John and Harold Ramis perform with their group. When that first act was over, I said to myself, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I want a piece of this.” When I got my first laugh on that stage, the adrenaline kicked in. I was dizzy, seeing colors almost. I was hooked. Second City is the foundation of all my work. “Saturday Night Live” taught me how to maintain under immense pressure. It was like learning to be a surgeon in a MASH unit in Vietnam. It was the most difficult experience I ever had. Everything has been easy since then, including divorce. The only thing I’m frightened of now is when my wife drives.
Q: The early part of your career was spent largely in film doing a series of supporting roles, many of which, including “About Last Night,” were more serious dramas. Were you intentionally trying to move away from comedy or have you always considered yourself more of a serious actor who happens to sometimes do comedy?
A: I wasn’t moving away from anything, I was just trying to get work. It didn’t matter if it was comedy or drama to me. I’ve always done both. In my best works, I mixed the two. Drama isn’t truly great without humor and comedy isn’t truly great without a dramatic storyline. I’m still the same way. I do drama and comedy. I sing, I dance, I write, I direct in all genres of media. I like to do it all. I never put the things I love in conflict with each other. But mostly, I like to work.
Q: How did the concept for the show, “According to Jim,” come about? Was it specifically created with you in mind and how much input did you have in shaping your character? How similar or different are you than the character you played?
A: I had done a wonderful movie called “Return to Me” that Bonnie Hunt, a Chicagoan and Second City veteran, wrote and directed. I played a working-class father in it. During that time, ABC was interested in doing a family comedy. They had seen the film and thought I would make a great television father. So I met with a few writers and chose to collaborate with Jonathan Stark and Tracy Newman. I had a lot of input in the character and I had a lot of input in the context of the show, in the relationships. But I did not create it and I did not write it. Stark and Newman get all the credit for that. They did a spectacular job. Most of the stories came from personal experiences. Not just mine, but also from all the writers, lifted right out of our lives and then expanded. Because it’s a relationship show about a family, everyone would bring in their experiences as a family and we would do shows based on them. I’m very similar to the character in many, many ways. As Jon Stark once told me on the set, “This character isn’t you now, Jim. You’re much more insightful and perceptive. You have to think of this character as the younger you.” The character became much more innocent than I am now.
Q: You have performed in so many genres — TV, movies, theatre, improv and musically with your Blues bands, The Sacred Hearts and The Blues Brothers. Where are you most comfortable and what do you enjoy doing most?
A: I love all genres and I never put any of them in conflict with each other. There is something challenging in each one of them and overcoming the challenge is the joy. But I have to say that I enjoy the live performance genre, whether it’s Broadway, improvisation, the band and of course “According to Jim,” because it was shot in front of a live audience. I enjoy the instant gratifications, the exchange of energies with the audience, and the high jeopardy of “you’ve got to get it right, right now.” That’s joyful. That’s fun. Movies are a different joy, done piece by piece, with no audience. It’s just a different kind of thinking and acting style. But I love when it comes together. It was so satisfying to watch “About Last Night” with of an audience at the movie theater.
Q: Are you naturally musically inclined? Did you have to take any kind of lessons, or do you just wing it when you perform with The Blues Brothers and The Sacred Hearts? What was it like being the opening act for the Rolling Stones?
A: I’ve always been a little musical. I did musicals in high school and sang in the choir and sang in the choir at College of Du Page. I did “Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway. The band thing was different learning all together. Danny Akyroyd wanted me to do The Blues Brothers, so I had to re-train everything in me. It’s the most fun I’ve had, really. Being in a band and singing on stage these great classic R&B songs, it’s like singing gospel music. It’s opened my chest. I feel lighter and more joyful than I ever have in my life. It was a great gift that Akyroyd gave me. For the past 20 years, I’ve been singing and dancing all over the country. There’s an element of winging it, yes, for sure, when you jump up with a band there are certain blues progressions and structures that everybody knows. Same thing with improvising and Second City, there are certain structures that we all agree on before letting ourselves go. Opening for the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field was a trip — a real trip. Akyroyd and I were on stage singing and we looked to the side and there were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood watching us. That was an out of body experience. The Stones were smiling and laughing and were really sweet to us. It was really, really cool.
Q: In performing with the Board of Comedy, you are, in many respects, returning to your Second City and “Saturday Night Live” roots. What do you enjoy most about sketch comedy and improv?
A: Oh man, I’m having a ball. Every performance is different and unique, plus these improvisational actors on stage with me are geniuses. They crack me up every night. I’m just chasing the magic. Everyone, including the audience, is fully engaged and participating and when there’s success in the scenes, there’s nothing like it. And it feels safe when you’re up there with an ensemble as your safety net. What’s great about this show is that it reunites me with Larry Joe Campbell. He’s the best partner I’ve ever had in my career. The problem with improv is that it’s life or death. You either come off stage going, “I’m going back to being an apprentice printer or become a journeyman and do graphic arts because I’m terrible.” You go right into deep depression. Or you come off that stage going, “I am God. I am a gift to all.” That’s the best part.
Q: What can people coming to your show expect from you and the cast?
A: Magic. They’re going to see magic created in front of their eyes. We have no idea what we’re going to do. We do about nine different short form improvisational games. We take suggestions from the audience and we make stuff up on the spot. This is not like watching TV or a movie or a regular theatre performance, where you’re a voyeur. You’re a participant in the audience here. We are as good as the audience’s suggestions. When we have a good audience, it’s a great show, and we capture some magic that people will remember for a long time.
Q: How much will you be doing yourself and what role do you take with the show?
A: We are in the show together. It is a true ensemble. I do take on the leadership of the group, I introduce the evening and explain what we’re going to do. But once we start improvising, I’m in the thick of it. The thick of the danger, the thick of the risk and the thick of the fun.
Q: Say a few words about your supporting cast for this show.
A: Larry Joe Campbell is a stud, a true star. I believe that he truly was the star of “According to Jim.” He’s the funniest man I know and he is effortless on stage to work with. I adore him. He makes me cry on stage, he’s so funny. Josh Funk is on the same caliber as Larry Joe Campbell: heartbreakingly funny, and he’s got a beautiful voice. We improvise a lot of songs and he is the master at it. Megan Grano is the coolest woman I’ve ever worked with. She totally gets our male energy and still keeps the feminine power in these scenes. She’s physical, with an elastic face and smarter than all of us put together. The great thing about Trey Stone, our musical director, is that you don’t notice him. But he plays his piano the whole time, supporting jokes and he’s a master at the improvised musical and the make-a-songs. I love him and it’s not an easy job to improvise music behind improvised acting.
The graduates of Vail Mountain School’s class of 2019 will be off to far-flung destinations next fall, set to enter college in one of 16 different states or explore the world on a gap year. One grad is even attending college in Canada.