In previous years, when the Kennedy Centre has announced the winner of its Mark Twain Prize for American Humor – people like Tina Fey, Will Ferrell or Ellen DeGeneres – many fans have had the same response: why not Bill Murray?
Well, as Phil Connors says in Groundhog Day, “Anything different is good,” and this year is different: Murray has finally been awarded the prize.
“This guy is so worthy of this recognition,” his friend and Ghostbusters co-star Dan Aykroyd told the Guardian.
“Bill Murray is a national, no, an international, no an intergalactic treasure! Bill Murray deserves the Mark Twain prize and vice versa,” added Jim Jarmusch, who directed Murray in Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers. “Mark Twain would have loved Bill Murray – his sense of humor, his mind, and his general illuminated presence. I say no one deserves the Mark Twain prize more than Bill Murray.”
Murray first gained renown on Saturday Night Live but had a rocky start. Although he had proved his chops in Chicago at Second City and in New York on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, on SNL he was initially seen as the replacement for Chevy Chase – and an inferior one at that. In May 1977, Murray turned the tide with a pseudo plea for help from the audience in which he apologized for not being funny and asking for their support, all in the sly, deadpan style he’d soon make famous.
He mixed that low-key and sardonic wit (his Oscar picks and movie reviews on Weekend Update) with the goofy and outrageous (cheesy lounge singer Nick Winters or Lisa Loopner’s friend Todd). Nothing was lost in translation when Murray moved to the big screen in 1979, where he gave full-throated life to the low-budget camp movie, Meatballs.
In the 1980s, Murray became the second biggest movie star in comedy, behind only Eddie Murphy and far surpassing Chase. The perfect antidote to the conservatism of the Reagan era, Murray was simultaneously antihero and hero. In Stripes and Ghostbusters, he was the quintessential smartass who cut authority figures down to size but he always punched up, and he always came out on top while retaining an inherent likability.
“He has his own mine of American humor and he brings out nuggets for us,” Aykroyd says. “He delivers a real high-quality and distinct American voice that’s acerbic and anarchic, but there’s a sweetness to it.”
Many movie stars are a creation of screenwriters and directors, but Murray truly made his own mark. A master of improvisation, he made an indelible impression in small roles in movies as different as Tootsie and Caddyshack. In both cases he was essentially working off a blank page. In the former, Murray creates a quieter humor as his character, Jeff, holds forth at a party with a rant about his plays with purposely pretentious lines: “I wish I had a theater that was only open when it rained.” In Caddyshack, the crude, creative varmint killer Carl Spackler spews absurdist nonsense. He claims he caddied for the Dalai Lama and asked for a tip, only to be told, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.”
Murray has made as many flops as the next actor but Aykroyd says even in lesser movies like Quick Change, he retained his integrity and gave an affecting and effective performance. “He never compromised his art,” Aykroyd says, “He never did a sitcom – I did – and he never did commercials – I did. He preserved around himself a special blue glowing aura of a real movie star, with an integrity that belongs to few, like Tom Hanks. Billy is right there with him.”
Murray has also shown a remarkable ability to bounce back. Last year’s Mark Twain Prize went to Eddie Murphy, who was unparalleled in the 1980s but who, frankly, has not done anything funny since, besides Shrek. “Eddie was like Jonas Salk, if you develop the polio vaccine it doesn’t matter what comes next,” Aykroyd says.
By contrast, Murray has remained relevant – that’s why in the 2014 movie Top Five, Chris Rock’s character Andre Allen says, “Bill Murray is one of the top three funniest human beings to ever walk the earth.”
In the 1990s, Murray made Groundhog Day, considered among the greatest comedies of all time and then after a brief down period, he revived his career yet again in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Since then he has brought his humor, now more wry and even poignant, to movies by indie directors like Jarmusch, Anderson (with whom he has made seven films), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) and Theodore Melfi (St Vincent). He has proven he can be serious (winning an Emmy for Olive Kitteridge) and still just flat-out funny in Zombieland, where he plays himself. Originally written as a zombie, Murray told the writers it would be more effective if he’s still alive and holed up in his mansion where he is accidentally shot by the protagonists when his practical joke goes awry. As he dies, the character of Murray pokes fun at the real one. “Do you have any regrets?,” he is asked. “Garfield, maybe.”
Murray has also been one of the few celebrities to be consistently funny, engaging and original on the late-night talkshows typically dominated by vapid chitchat. (Perhaps only Steve Martin in his prime could match him.) He was David Letterman’s first guest, creating a mock confrontation in which he refused to give in to the host’s “mind games” and answer pat showbiz questions. Threatening Letterman, he sneered, “I had a chance to strangle Richard Nixon but I didn’t. And I regret it.”
He was also Letterman’s final guest. On his many appearances in between, he arrived once as Liberace and once as a flying Peter Pan; one time he arrived after being kidnapped, cuffed and tasered, another he confronted a (fake) heckler and physically threw him out of the studio. He always made the effort to provide sublime silliness.
And Murray, who studiously avoided becoming a creature of Hollywood – after Ghostbusters, he took four years off and even spent some time in Paris studying philosophy at the Sorbonne – has also spent a lifetime bringing humor to Americans one at a time. There are so many Bill Murray stories out there – Murray crashing a random bachelor party, stepping behind the bar to serve drinks, dancing and clowning for villagers in Bali, driving a taxi so the cabbie could practice his saxophone – that they have become sort of an urban legend. (There’s even a website called billmurraystory.com.) There are even countless stories of Murray sneaking up on someone to give a bear hug or steal a French fry and then smiling and walking away saying, “No one will ever believe you.”
Then again, no one would ever believe that a former greenskeeper could become Masters champion or that Murray, who is actually a former caddy, would receive the Mark Twain prize. It is, truly, “a Cinderella story”.
This article was written by Stuart Miller, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th June 2016 17.20 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010