To many, comedian and actor John Belushi still feels like a contemporary artist — owing to the tenacity with which his work has embedded itself in pop culture — but the fact is that Belushi has been dead for a long time. A friend who accompanied me to the opening-night performance of a new play entitled With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi wasn’t quite two years old in March of 1982, when the hard-partying performer died of an accidental drug overdose in a Hollywood hotel room. But while she wasn’t even born yet when John Belushi broke comedic ground during the first incarnation of Saturday Night Live, and probably didn’t see Animal House until it had been in the can for 20 years, my friend has a conversational knowledge of all his best bits. That’s what it means to be a legend.
The story behind The Rise and Fall of John Belushi is seriously overdue for a stage or screen adaptation, and playwright/actor Jack Zullo — who fully embodies Belushi’s manic energy and uncompromising spirit in the title role — admits that it’s been over thirteen years since he was first inspired to work on John Belushi as a character study, and immersed himself in the comedian’s material. What started out as a spec feature film script evolved into this current stage production of With A Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi, which was previously honed through multiple West Coast performances. With a goal of finding a place in the NYC theater scene, Zullo aspires to reverse-engineer the play back into a feature-length script to tell the story of John’s life in narrative form; something that has been attempted by many, but not successfully executed.
With a Little Help opens quietly on a scene in the bungalow at the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi spent his final moments of life, having just fatally overdosed on a combination of heroin and cocaine. As he collapses on a mattress and takes his last breath, a chorus of disembodied voices ring out in the theater, admonishing the reckless thirty-three-year-old for being such a “dumb sonofabitch.” But the tragic tone quickly segues into a high-energy flashback of John, accompanied by his girlfriend Judy and best friend Steve, on a night in 1967 when he attended his first comedy show at Chicago’s The Second City club. John is visibly bursting with creative inspiration as he declares that he has found his life’s calling and intends to pursue a career in comedy.
From there, we follow John Belushi’s rise to prominence as an iconic American entertainer; working his way up from an indie college performer in 1968, to Manhattan in the mid-1970s, where he was part of the infamous National Lampoon Magazine and its Radio Hour, all the way through his four-year stint as one of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live.
The story of Belushi’s quick ascent to pop culture success shines the spotlight on his struggles to maintain control on the excesses afforded a budding star, counterbalanced with his desire to always be ahead of the curve by keeping the work fresh and exciting, and setting trends rather than following them. With a Little Help effectively revisits a time in American TV when the field of comedy was a Wild West for creative invention. John Belushi’s career was a wild ride while it lasted, but it’s not like we don’t already know how the journey ends.
With a Little Help takes its title from the now-legendary Saturday Night Live skit in which Belushi gives an over-the-top impersonation of British singer Joe Cocker’s eccentrically-mannered performance of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” This skit is recreated in the play, as are musical numbers made famous by The Blues Brothers — Belushi’s band with Dan Aykroyd. The production features the terrific Crazy Tomes Band, who provide a live soundtrack, accompanying the many musical numbers in the show, and playing a set of covers before the play starts.
In addition to the great live music, With a Little Help truly becomes a multi-media production, as it incorporates both newly-produced and archival film and video clips, which further the action in ways that would otherwise be impossible, such as when John and friends experience an LSD trip, or when SNL cast members indulge in drug binges that history tells us were common on that set.
The play’s supporting cast of characters includes John Belushi’s devoted wife Judy Jacklin (Jennifer Lieberman, who also appears as Gilda Radner), as well as a who’s who of the comedian ‘friends’ who supported, collaborated with, and cajoled Belushi on his path to fame, such as the National Lampoon’s Tony Hendra (Len Rella), Christopher Guest (Benjamin Batchelder), Brian Murray (Artie Brennan, who also play’s Belushi’s close friend Steve Beshekas), Joe Flaherty (Nicolas Dipierro, who also appears as Lorne Michaels) and Dan Aykroyd, portrayed brilliantly by Keith Saltojanes. All the actors are excellent in their handling of multiple roles, but Jack Zullo as Belushi is so spot-on in his timing and physical comedy, I forgot multiple times that I was watching an actor and not Belushi himself.
John Belushi did not get to live a long life. It’s tragic that his comedic legacy also includes the bleak Hollywood cliche of self-destructive behavior, but With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi is less a cautionary tale and more a celebration of and homage to a phenomenally talented individual whose body of work has been, and will continue to be, endlessly influential. Funny, smart, and deeply nostalgia-inducing, With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi is a story whose time is now.
Directed by Levy Lee Simon With a Little Help . . . It’s John Belushi runs through December 22nd only at Theatre 80, located at 80 St. Marks Place, in NYC’s East Village. Tickets are super affordable at just $30 — $40 and are available via With a Little Help Show Dot Com. Showtimes are Thursdays at 7 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 7 PM and 10 PM, and Sunday Matinees at 3 PM. A portion of ticket sales from the Theatre 80 run will be donated to The Comedians Assistance Fund and Gilda’s Club charities.
Watch The Trailer Below: