The enduring magic of "Caddyshack": How it helped usher in a new age of American comedy

Salon talks to critic Chris Nashawaty about his new book on why "Caddyshack" was such a watershed film event

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published May 6, 2018 5:30PM (EDT)

Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" (Warner Bros.)
Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" (Warner Bros.)

It’s been nearly 40 years since the release of the iconic American comedy “Caddyshack,” but when the film debuted back in 1980, nobody would have predicted it would become a classic.

Chris Nashawaty, film critic at Entertainment Weekly and the host on Sirius XM's EW radio channel, dives in deep in his new book “Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story,” exploring the creation of the cult classic that featured comedy greats like Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis.

Nashawaty joined me on a recent episode of “Salon Talks” to discuss how “Caddyshack” sparked a comedic revolution in American movies.

To call this a book about “Caddyshack” is really underselling it, because it is so comprehensive. You go way back. You start the story decades, really, before the movie itself comes out in 1980. I want to start at the beginning, which is the inspiration for these characters, this storyline that takes places at a golf club, and it really starts with the Murray brothers and with Doug Kenney.

It goes back really far. I think that "Caddyshack" is a movie that is really sort of a story about Bill Murray and all his brothers. They were nine kids growing up just north of Chicago, Irish-Catholic, working class. To make money to go to Jesuit school to pay their tuitions, they worked as caddies in the summer. Their teenage years were filled with stories about being shag boys, or they're in the driving range chasing all the balls down, or being caddies, and they just encountered all these really colorful characters and colorful caddies that they caddied with. They had this bank of stories. When it was time to write “Caddyshack,” Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill’s older brother, he was one of the three writers on the film with Dough Kenney and Harold Ramis, and he just had all of these crazy, crazy stories and they just found their way into the movie.

The book is really about a decade of comedy. It sort of comes to fruition with “Caddyshack,” but it traces the roots of the National Lampoon and the nightlife in Second City and how they all meet together in this movie.

In this perfect storm of comedy.

Yeah.

So you have to step back a little bit and start at the Lampoon. If this book has any kind of a protagonist hero, it’s Doug Kenney.

Yeah, sort of a tragic hero in a way. Doug Kenney was, you know, everyone I interviewed — I interviewed a lot of people for this book, 60 or 70 people — and all of them, to a man or a woman, all just said, Doug Kenney was the smartest guy I ever met, the most charming guy I ever met, the wittiest guy I ever met. He had just one success after another. He started as an editor at the Harvard Lampoon as an undergraduate. And then he went to New York in 1970 to start the National Lampoon, which is this huge publishing sensation, sort of a cross between Mad Magazine and the New Yorker, if you can imagine that. Then he goes on to write “Animal House,” which becomes the highest grossing movie comedy of all time.

At that point, until 1978, it was success, success, success, success. Then “Caddyshack” came along and everyone assumed it was going to be another “Animal House,” and it wasn’t, at least not at first. That really sort of sent Doug down a spiraling hole. He was sort of peaking with cocaine addiction at that time. He is the hero of the book, but he’s a flawed sort of genius, I think.

There’s a line in the book that really kind of breaks my heart, where someone is quoted saying, “Nobody had died yet.” That is really the era in which this book takes place.

Yeah. I mean there’s a lot of foreshadowing in this book, especially with the amount of drug use that went on [while making] “Caddyshack.” I think Chevy Chase, when I interviewed him, was talking about how just everything was so readily available. They made this movie in Florida in 1979, which, you know, Florida in 1979, that’s pretty much the gateway into the country for cocaine, and there’s a lot of it on the set of this movie. Chevy said something to the effect of, No one knew that cocaine was addictive, that you could die from it. This was three years before John Belushi would die. It just seemed like the last innocent age in a way, but the foreshadowing, troubling sort of warning signs are all there.

One of my favorite descriptions of this movie set is, it was a party where occasionally a movie would break out.

Which is so true. They weren't taking massive amounts of drugs as the cameras are rolling, but for sure like as soon as they called wrap for the day, these people were not going back to their hotel rooms to learn their lines. I mean, there were lines involved but not dialog lines. It was insane the amount of things that went wrong on this movie. It’s sort of an Exhibit A on how not to make a movie. Inexperienced director, first-time producer, no real studio oversight, actors who are completely ad-libbing and throwing away the script. This is how you shouldn’t make a movie and yet miraculously somehow a movie came out of it.

That bumblebee stays in the air, right?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really sort of freak event. I think if you make a movie like “Caddyshack” under these conditions 100 times, 99 times it’s just unreleasable, and this is the one time they got lucky.

Luck is such a slippery word because it certainly didn’t seem like it was lucky at that time. It comes out the same summer, and really very much competing with, another film by “SNL” veterans, “The Blues Brothers,” and also “Airplane.” You said in the book, Doug Kenney saw “Airplane” and he saw the writing on the wall.

Yeah, he was gutted when he saw the movie. It’s funny; I mean, after “Animal House,” the group that made “Animal House” split into two groups and half of them went off to make “The Blues Brothers” in Chicago and half of them went down to Florida to make “Caddyshack.” There’s a lot of competition between the two different productions about how much money they were spending, about how many drugs they were doing, about how far behind schedule they were, who’s going to open bigger, and “Airplane” was sort of the sleeper. No one saw that movie coming. When Doug Kenney, shortly before “Caddyshack” was released, went to a showing of “Airplane,” he was the only person in the theater not laughing because he just saw that this movie was so much funnier — or he thought so much funnier — than “Caddyshack” that he just became a little bit unhinged about it.

He’s just like Zero and Gene in the back of “Springtime for Hitler,” right?

Yeah, right. Exactly.

What an embarrassment of riches to have the summer in which those three epic films come out at the same time. And this is also around the period where we’re getting the “Star Wars” movies and the “Raiders” films, all of those. This really was part of a watershed moment in cinema comedy because, as you point out, it kind of starts out in print with the Lampoon, moves to television with “SCTV,” and also improv theater, right?

Yeah.

Because you’ve got all of these people who are coming from the world of sketch comedy in Toronto and in Chicago who move to television. The people who are watching television, the young people who are staying up late, they know about this, but the movies before this were kind of a dead zone for comedies in a lot of ways.

Yeah. The studios are being run still by sort of old white guys who are not clued into what is going on in the culture. You’ve got this really great golden age in serious dramatic movies in the early ’70s, late ’60s, the New Hollywood movies of Scorsese and Coppola, but Hollywood comedies were still sort of square. You had Clint Eastwood playing around with an orangutan in “Every Which Way But Loose,” or George Burns playing God in “Oh, God!” and Burt Reynolds making redneck jokes in “Smokey and the Bandit.” It was not cutting-edge stuff. And “Animal House” and then “Caddyshack” were sort of the two first salvos of this new sort of counterculture comedy going into the mainstream. You could argue that the revolution that happened with those movies is what we’re looking at in comedy today. It’s sort of we’re still in the post-“Caddyshack” stage.

It’s interesting because there is, alongside these kind of really terrible 70s comedies, you do also have the Mel Brooks movies, which were so successful. And you do have the [Monty] Python films which are also — but those are still really peripheral. Those are still really considered films that are sort of outside the mainstream. To have something like “Animal House” that just made back its money so fast . . .

Yeah, I think it was the number one movie in the country for like 13 straight weeks, which is just unheard of. It was made for 2 million dollars and it made 140 million. One of the writers of this film, this guy Chris Miller, he was saying, you know, they had some net points in the movie which normally mean nothing because the studio always finds a way to sort of rob you of your royalties on these things, but he said there was no accounting that was creative enough to hide the amount of money that that movie was making, so they all sort of got rich off “Animal House,” even though if it was a normal movie, they wouldn’t have. It’s sort of an amazing watershed moment in Hollywood as far as I'm concerned.

Doug Kenney in so many was really a victim of all of that success. I always feel like there are no spoilers in things that really happen in life.

Sure.

It’s very clear from the beginning of the story, anyone who knows the story knows, that Doug Kenney died pretty soon after the film completed, in very mysterious circumstances. But at every step along the way, it seemed like he was so close to going off the rails because he had access of being able to go off the grid for a year at a time with a check for $145,000 in the bank…

Yes, uncashed in the back seat of his car.

And yet you also portray him as this unbelievably generous spirit.

Yeah. I think that it all came very easily for him. I think he was in his 20s still when he got his first huge payout from leaving the National Lampoon. He sold his shares and overnight he was this young guy with almost 3 million dollars in his wallet. He just sort of didn’t know what to do with it or what that meant. Then the next thing he does is “Animal House.” All of a sudden, he’s a millionaire again. It’s just everything he touched turned to gold. I think that that sort of overnight success, especially when you're doing a lot of drugs, is just, it’s like putting a pile of oily rags next a box of matches. It’s just something bad is going to happen. When “Caddyshack” came out, there had been a lot of concessions and compromises made on the movie. He hated the idea of the gopher in the film.

The poster.

Yeah, the poster. Just every step of the way, he felt more and more alienated from the production. It was just sort of leading down the path that wasn’t a good path. The irony is that he died about a month after the movie came out and saw all the negative reviews, but didn’t live long enough to see people supporting the movie years later. He didn’t get to see what a success it really would become.

When you think about the unbelievable circumstances, this seemed like this would never be a success, that they're improvising, they're sending in script changes on the fly, they're changing how large certain people’s roles are, how small certain people’s roles, they're recasting as it’s going along. There were natural disasters.

Right.

Then it opens to this incredibly tepid, tepid response. Then yeah, it does become this [classic]. Why did you think it endured the way that it does?

I think it had the benefit of coming out at a time when VHS was really coming into its own. I don’t know about you, but I'm of an age where our family had a VHS VCR and the tapes were so expensive that if you owned one, your family only owned maybe three or four, so if you had “Caddyshack,” you would watch it over and over and over again until like the tape turned into dust. You would learn every line and you could quote it. I think that it’s one of these cult movies that people know every line to. Right now, you could go to a supporting event tonight, you could go to a Knicks game or whatever -- well they're not in the playoffs, but you could go to a Knicks game anytime and someone is at the free throw line and someone yells out “Noonan” from the movie. It’s just become where everyone can recite Bill Murray’s Cinderella story monologue. It’s amazing how it’s become sort of embedded in the vocabulary and the vernacular. It’s very rare. It’s a rare thing.

Yeah, and it feels like there is somehow this magic in it still. There’s this magic in the script. There’s the magic in this cast that not everyone liked each other. I didn’t even get to talk about Rodney Dangerfield and what he was doing in it in this very late in life success that he had and yet one of the biggest cokeheads on the set.

Yeah, right. Right.

Yet it creates this magic and you look at it now and there are tragedies in that story, and not just Kenney. Then there are these people who were on the precipice of becoming the most important, most influential comic voices in movies for now four decades.

Yeah. It’s incredible that this is sort of a hothouse for the talent that will come to define Hollywood comedies for the next decade and longer. I mean, Bill Murray, who’s just getting started in his career, starting out live, such an epic improviser that they didn’t even write any lines for his character. They just knew that anything he came up with on the spot would be better than what they could write. The script underneath his character’s name is just white space and it just says "Bill revs here" and he can just go off — I mean, for example, the Cinderella story monologue that he does, probably the most famous scene in the movie, before they shot that scene, Harold Ramis, the director, pulled him aside and said, “This is what I kind of want you to do but do your own thing and do whatever when you're playing golf, like narrate golf in your head to sort of egg yourself on.” Murray’s like, “Say no more. I got it. Roll the camera. Let’s roll.” He nailed that scene. It’s 90 seconds of pure improvisation. They did it once. What you see in the movie is what he did, and it’s just shocking to think that someone could be that good on the spot with no written lines.

Rodney was like that too, much to the dismay of Ted Knight, who he has a lot of scenes with. Rodney would just say whatever popped off the top of his head and Ted Knight’s this classically trained actor who’d been on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and his idea was to recite every line of the script and get to the set early. He’s trying to keep up with Rodney just throwing out these firecrackers and it just pissed him off. I mean, those two really sort of hated each other by the end of the movie. Like a lot of the rage that his character has, that’s not acting. You know what I mean? That’s like real method rage. There’s a lot of stories like that about the making of this movie where you just see how imperfectly this movie was made but somehow it became perfect anyhow. It amazes me what a recipe for disaster this was and how they got something out of it at all.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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