Hall of Unsung Heroes #1: Brian Doyle-Murray
Welcome to the first and possibly only entry in the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place Hall of Unsung Heroes. It’s a tribute to those unsung heroes of pop culture who don’t receive the appreciation and respect they deserve, possibly because their over-rated super-famous brother is revered as the Dalai Lama of Fun and Joy. To paraphrase one of his brother’s most famous lines, Brian Doyle-Murray is a huge talent in an unassuming package.
Bill Murray is such a titanic figure in pop culture that even a comedy lifer as accomplished and talented as his brother and sometimes collaborator Brian Doyle-Murray is doomed to exist perpetually in his outsized shadow.
I think an awful lot about Brian Doyle-Murray these days, just as I’ve never stopped thinking about Phil Hartman and mourning his death. As a Best Show listener I have the show’s deserved reverence for what it depicts as one of the single greatest, most underrated and overlooked moments of the last fifty years of screen comedy.
I’m talking, of course, about the transcendent moment in Harold Ramis’ Vacation where Doyle-Murray, playing “Kamp Komfort Clerk”, a man working the desk at a rundown campground, answers Clark Griswold’s question as to why he’s asked for his home address (Chevy Chase) while checking in with a deadpan “We like to send out a mailer” while hungrily devouring a slab of watermelon, a sideways cowboy hat completing the look of pure hayseed ignorance.
It’s hard to know exactly what makes this particular moment not just far and away the funniest moment in the film but one of the funniest moments in any film, ever. It could the incongruous sense of formality and professionalism the watermelon-slurping yokel brings to the line. Or it could be the dry absurdity of a seedy, third-rate campground thinking enough of itself to want to cultivate ongoing relationships with the poor souls unlucky enough to end up having to use their facilities.
There’s a wonderfully lived-in quality to this scene, a sense that through the actor’s gestures, clothes, body language and tone of voice we know this character intimately. He has a soul, a history, a weird magnetism. It’s a perfectly realized moment thanks largely to Murray’s droll understatement.
We inherently buy Doyle-Murray as whatever character he’s playing. In the first season of Get A Life, for example, he has one of the funniest roles in one of the funniest episodes as the sleazy proprietor of bogus modeling academy the Handsome Boy Modeling School. Yes, Dan the Automator and Prince Paul got the name of their super-duo from the episode. All good people love Get a Life.
Handsome Boy Modeling School is the Trump University of modeling schools, as evidenced by the fact that it would take on a sentient paunch like Chris Elliott’s Chris Peterson as a student. If Murray had gone the expected route and played this bogus modeling school charlatan as effete fashion world casualty it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as funny as Murray playing him as a corrupt Chicago ward boss type who just so happens to be making his ill-gotten gains through the seedy world of male modeling.
Get a Life understandably did not score boffo ratings its first season. It was too weird. It was too conceptual. It was too dark. Its protagonist was too unlikable, to the point of seeming like a sociopath. He was too much of a loser, and mainstream audiences found that off-putting. So what does Get a Life do in season two? It doubles down on everything that made it audience-unfriendly. It got weirder. It got more conceptual. It got darker. Its protagonist got even crazier and more off-putting and started getting killed at the end of many episodes.
To help guide Get a Life deeper and deeper into even darker and weirder and scarier waters it of course finagled the services of Brian-Doyle Murray as our anti-hero’s new landlord, “buddy” and partner in crime. With Chris Elliott and Brian Doyle-Murray as the stars and a writing staff that picked up a pair of promising writers in Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk, the second season of Get a Life is a thing of warped beauty and Murray is a huge part of the reason it’s even more demented than the first.
Doyle-Murray only has two screenwriting credits but one of them is Caddyshack, which was partially based on the writer/actor’s experience as a caddy growing up outside of Chicago. So without Doyle-Murray there is no Caddyshack. There is no “be the ball”, no “So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice”, no “You wanna make 14 dollars the hard way?”, no Doyle-Murray in an underrated and overlooked performance as the harried middle-aged man in charge of the anarchic caddies.
Murray isn’t just a singularly funny comic performer. He’s also a terrific dramatic actor as well, as evidenced by his scene-stealing turn in Bill Murray’s 1984 passion/vanity project The Razor’s Edge. The movie was supposed to illustrate Bill’s gifts as a dramatic actor. Instead it was his brother who showed off his acting chops.
No matter how bad a movie might be, if Murray’s name is in the credits you know you’re going to at least enjoy his work. Christ, that’s even true of Jury Duty, where the veteran character actor managed to create a sense of color and personality and life in the middle of an endless comic and creative desert.
The movies haven’t always been Groundhog Day or Wayne’s World for Doyle-Murray but no matter how dire the project, Murray invariably hit the exact right note. He is a consummate professional, a character who wouldn’t seem out of place in Preston Sturges’ repertory company playing a corrupt politician or a drunken cop on the take.
So god bless you, Brian Doyle-Murray. You single-handedly make the world a better, funnier and more interesting place.
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