The Intellectual Foundations of His Comedic Persona
“Bill Murray is a national, no, an international, no an intergalactic treasure,” said Jim Jarmusch, who directed him in Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers, when the actor won this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. But what, exactly, do we find so compelling about the guy? I launched into my own quest to find out after seeing his performance in Rushmore (regarded by most Murray scholars as a revelation of depth at which he’d only hinted between wisecracks before), watching every movie he ever appeared in. Similarly rigorous research must have gone into this new video on the philosophy of Bill Murray.
“Since replacing Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live in 1977,” says narrator Jared Bauer, “Bill Murray has embodied a very particular type of comedy that can best be described as ‘ironic and cooly distant.'” Bauer references a New York Times article on Murray’s ascendance to “secular sainthood” which describes him as having had “such a long film career that, in the public mind, there are multiple Bill Murrays. The Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters is an anti-authoritarian goofball: the kind of smart-aleck who leads a company of soldiers in a coordinated dance routine before a visiting general, or responds to the possible destruction of New York City by saying, ‘Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!'”
That memorable line makes it into “The Philosophy of Bill Murray,” as do many others, all of which spring from the actor’s signature persona, which “stands slightly at a distance from everything, enabling him to maintain a dryly humorous commentary about what’s going on around him.” Bauer places this in a tradition of American comedy “dating back at least to the vaudeville days” and continuing through to Groucho Marx’s habitual breakage of the fourth wall. He even connects it to 15th-century Japanese playwright-philosopher Zeami Motokiyo and, in some sense his 20th-century continuation, Bertolt Brecht.
But what influence best explains Murray’s distinctive onscreen and increasingly performance art-like offscreen behavior today? Maybe that of his onetime teacher, the Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who, as Murray’s Ghostbusters co-star Harold Ramis put it, “used to act really irrationally to his students, almost as if trying to teach them object lessons.” He taught what he called “the fourth way of enlightenment,” or — more fittingly in Murray’s case — “the way of the sly man,” who can “find the truth in everyday life” by remaining simultaneously aware of both the outside world and his inner one while not getting caught up in either. The sly man thus exists between, and uses, “the world, the self, and the self that is observing everything.”
Bauer sums up Murray’s uniqueness thus: “He turns the usual style of American comedic irony against itself, or against himself,” leading us to “identify not with Bill Murray’s character, but with Bill Murray, who distances himself from the stakes of the narrative.” But whether playing a character, playing himself, or something between the two, Murray seems as if he knows something we don’t about the stakes of life itself. “I’d like to be more consistently here,” he once said to Charlie Rose, who’d asked what he wants that he doesn’t already have. “Really in it, really alive. I’d like to just be more here all the time, and I’d like to see what I could get done, what I could do, if I was able to not get distracted, to not change channels in my mind and body.” A universal human longing, perhaps, but one Murray, the ultimate sly man, has come to tap more deeply into than any performer around.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.