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Published: Wednesday, 7/25/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Certain celebrities drive us to love -- and then loathing

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO --This might be the Jim Belushi of columns.

Underwhelming, hard to love, sort of ... eh.

With one notable exception: This potential Jim Belushi of columns will be weirdly relevant. So relevant that, the other day, taking a spin through Twitter, I counted not one, not two, not three but maybe a dozen references to things, people and places described as the Jim Belushi equivalent of whatever they were. For instance, the sportscaster Chris Berman was described as "the Jim Belushi of sports broadcasting." Also: "Tap water is the Jim Belushi of drinks." And: "Obama is the Jim Belushi of presidents." And: "Ikea is the Jim Belushi of home office furniture." A speech was winkingly referred to as "the Jim Belushi of first drafts."

There's a good reason for this mini-meme: Last spring the NBC comedy Community, a negligible hit ratings-wise but a blockbuster in the blog-twittersphere, returned after a short hiatus. Actor Joel McHale's character was delivering a toast, starting with: "Webster's Dictionary defines ..." Until he was interrupted with a precision-tooled slam from actress Alison Brie: "The 'Webster's Dictionary defines' intro is the Jim Belushi of speech openings! It accomplishes nothing, but everyone keeps on using it and no one knows why."

Which was glib, mean, and spot on -- cutting cultural criticism that took out two cliches in one pithy blast.

But why Jim Belushi?

Actually, it was not the first time Community piled on the Wheaton, Ill., native: Two seasons ago, a character described her romantic relationship as "the Jim Belushi of sexual commitments. It barely means anything, and it grows on what's there over time." And in May, there was this from Danny Pudi, himself a Chicago native: "You're VH1, RoboCop 2, and Back to the Future 3. You're the center slice of a square cheese pizza. Actually, that sounds delicious. I'm the center slice of a square cheese pizza. You're Jim Belushi."

Using the career of Jim Belushi as cultural shorthand predates Community: Conan O'Brien once quipped on his old NBC show that "According to the State Department, Raul Castro is the Jim Belushi of Central America." What's new is the volume, the barbed edge, the intensity: For a brief time last spring, during that Community-led celebrity pig piling, the words "Jim Belushi" were a trending topic on Twitter.

Well, not a topic so much as a kind of emoticon for random blah. Jim Belushi became the anti-Chuck Norris: "Jim Belushi ruins everything" ... "Jim Belushi is just as funny as John was. #TweetsofDelusion" ... "Sorry mum. I thought I was being a total John Belushi but it turns out I was just being a Jim Belushi all along."

And those were tweets I culled from an hour or so worth of Twitter.

All of which, of course, is either alarming or easy to shrug off if you are Jim Belushi; I tried to ask him about this, and his management politely turned down several interview requests. Which was understandable: He has an occasional column in the Chicago Sun-Times. And even at the Sun-Times, in the online edition, in a caption beneath his photo, someone wrote: "Jim Belushi's Bull$#!t." (I called the paper and asked if this was intentional self-deprecation or just a prank, and an hour later the caption read: "Jim Belushi's Issues.")

Besides, the larger question here is not one that Belushi himself could answer:

Why do we viscerally hate certain celebrities, seemingly out of proportion to their perceived crimes? Does Jim Belushi of all people deserve that much free-floating cruelty? Indeed, in the past few weeks, in conversation, I've been told by friends and colleagues that they "hate" LeBron James, Fiona Apple, Alec Baldwin, "that new Spider-Man guy" and Vampire Weekend -- a spry, cheerful group often considered one of the most detested bands in indie music. I've heard from several people who detest Tom Cruise -- always detested, pre- and post-divorce settlement.

Bile punctuates their words.

Which seems like the byproduct of our 24-7 celebrity thunder dome. Our resentment toward Cruise, for instance, may be rooted in something as seemingly minor as his smile, writes Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr in his absorbing upcoming book, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame: "Cruise isn't smiling at us but for us. ... We're just the lesser mortals who get to come along for the ride." So, despite some terrific performances, even as his star ascended, "audiences refused to believe in Cruise as an actor rather than a star." Today, we no longer watch him act. We file every perceived slight into a mental folder.

Escapism is no longer watching famous people. It's hating them too.

And without consistency. Kelly Levy, a longtime writer on The Soup, the E! network's snarky dissection of TV and celebrity, told me her celebrity intake goes something like, "You get obsessed with someone or something, then you can't do it anymore -- you hit a wall. At the same time I love it." Which, years ago, might have came off as schizophrenic but now sounds merely familiar. Cultural critic Maggie Nelson wrote recently in The Art of Cruelty, her book about representations of violence and cruelty, that our first instinct toward vulnerability is often to crush it, a response that "reminds me of a child who plucks a beetle from the dirt, makes it a home in a dish, gives it a name, then squishes it to death, then cries because it's dead."

Of course, hatred can be rooted in practical reasons.

I asked longtime Community producer Jake Aust the reasons behind the seemingly apropos-of-nothing Belushi cracks. He said he didn't know, but that Dan Harmon, who created the show (and was recently fired by NBC), "was particularly good at zeroing in on the cultural meaning of something." Harmon, however, is also friends with Dino Stamatopoulos, a Chicago native (who declined to comment for this column) who plays a recurring character on Community and created Frankenhole, a very clever, very wrong stop-motion animated series for the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim evening programming. Last February, a Frankenhole episode was titled Robert Louis Stevenson's Belushi. The plot: John Belushi's corpse is revived. After he drinks Dr. Jekyll's serum, side effects cause him to turn into a hideous beast: Jim Belushi.

Harmon was the voice of Dr. Jekyll. Comedian David Cross -- who dedicated part of his 2009 memoir to an ugly incident between himself and Jim Belushi on the set of a movie -- provided the voice of Jim Belushi.

And the episode itself? Written by TV scribe Mike Murphy, who worked for four seasons on According to Jim, the Belushi sitcom that ran for eight seasons on ABC. Murphy told me his Frankenhole episode was born out of stories that staffers had told about working on the show. "I heard from people who worked on (According to Jim) who loved (the episode). But there are definitely a few ouch moments. It did get hard.

"But then I'm from Cleveland, so I hate LeBron James too."

Indeed, famous people, through career decisions, can make themselves hard to love. They seem to ask for abuse. Burr told me: "I think [this hatred] sometimes has to do with a lack of a sense of humor on the celebrity's part. Someone like Robert Downey, Jr. -- he went through much of what Lindsay Lohan is going through. But everyone hates her and loves him. What's the difference? Style? Kevin Costner, he's only now emerging from what seemed like a 15-year bubble of loathing. Because he was perceived as overreaching, arrogant. Jim Belushi? I bet he doesn't have to do too much to be perceived as overreaching."

Or pandering.

Belushi, whose long career has been dogged by accusations that he shamelessly capitalizes on his Chicago lineage, performs occasionally with something called Jim Belushi & the Chicago Board of Improv. The other night I checked out Belushi at Ravinia Festival. He was with Dan Aykroyd. They were billed as the Blues Brothers. The band was the Sacred Hearts, Belushi's longtime rhythm and blues group. Seats were $70. It had all the authenticity of a Universal Studios amusement park revue. I ran into Justin Smetters, a teacher, and his friend, Dave Pump, an assistant principal.

Pump said they were there for the music, to honor the Blues Brothers history -- not any one person. "But wait, Jim has been riding on his brother's coattails forever," Smetters said. "Yeah, I guess it is like Diet Coke," Pump said. "Or Coke Zero," Smetters said. "You get the general taste but none of the flavor," Pump said.

Which was spot on. It was the Jim Belushi of concerts.



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