Bill Murray: All the World’s His Stage

Nick_Winters_lBill Murray may be the coolest living celebrity. This is due in large part to his very approach to celebrity. Murray is one of the few movie stars that is able to balance a consistent public presence, amassing both commercial and cult status, with a genuine private life.

You may see him at Cannes, but not on Facebook. He’s on Letterman, but not Twitter. He is evasive without being reclusive, reserved without being withdrawn. He famously has no agent or manager and can only be contacted through a 1-800 number, which his own lawyer uses to reach him. He reportedly has homes in South Carolina (he is co-owner and “Director of Fun” of the minor league baseball team the Charleston RiverDogs) and near the Pechanga Indian Casino in Temecula, California, as well as PO boxes in New York and Martha’s Vineyard (at least). The truth is, Bill Murray is never in one place for very long and is notorious for randomly interacting with fans at bars, fast food restaurants and, of course, karaoke booths. He’s crashed birthday parties and engagement photos. He once drove a cab from Oakland to Sausalito so that the driver, who worked 14-hour days, could practice his saxophone, stopping for barbeque at two in the morning along the way. He doesn’t retreat from the world, he simply chooses his own entrances.

This healthy, almost admirable, approach to celebrity is part of what has fueled one of show business’ great third acts. Having enjoyed blockbuster movie stardom in the 1980s and 1990s with iconic films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, Murray is highly sought after in middle age by indie filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, who have used his sardonic, almost post-hip persona to help elevate their quirky imaginings of the modern world.

But before the film success, Bill Murray began his comedy career with the legendary Chicago-based improve group The Second City, and eventually achieved national fame on Saturday Night Live.

Murray created many memorable characters on SNL, the most beloved of which is Nick the Lounge Singer. He first began developing his Nick routine with The Second City, basing it off a real-life Chicago institution, lounge singer Jimmy Damon.

Nick could be found playing casinos, airport bars, prisons and even Bar Mitzvahs, always accompanied on piano by Paul Shaffer. There really isn’t that much to the bit. Nick sings the current hits of the day, including television and film themes, often adding his own lyrics, and engages in amusing banter with patrons in between songs. That’s essentially the whole set-up. Is Murray a good singer? Not really. Is he so-bad-he’s-good? Not exactly. Murray is an average singer, but a brilliant performer. When he sings a song, he does so with such shameless abandon it just works. Nick is not comically hostile ala Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton; he is merely mediocre, and therein lies the humor. Like Kaufman, Murray is a skillful enough comedian that he can create humor by pretending to be humorless.

Bill Murray simply loves to sing. He sang the Debbie Harry and Michael Kamen-penned “The Best Thing” in the 1981 John Waters film Polyester. In one of the more memorable scenes from 2003’s Lost In Translation, Murray, Scarlett Johansson and some Japanese friends go to a karaoke booth where Murray sings an animated version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” followed by a poignant, defeated version of “More Than This” by Roxy Music. Murray was the inaugural guest on the Late Show with David Letterman and appeared again in 2013 to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show. Dressed as Liberace, he belted out a musical tribute to Letterman with the Whitney Houston arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”

To this day Murray is continuously popping up somewhere unexpected, grabbing a microphone and randomly crooning a pop song. There is very little difference between the vocal approaches of Nick the Lounge Singer and the real Bill Murray, other than that one is square and one is hip. When the real-life Bill Murray sings it works partly because it is fun, but mostly because he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if he sings off key, just as he doesn’t care if he gets the next big movie roll. He doesn’t care if we like it or not, which is precisely why we do. He tackles a song full throttle and by the simple act of going for it, he succeeds.

Thanks to our ubiquitous smart phone culture, several of these moments, which were once reserved for the fortunate few who happened to be in the right place at the right time, are now preserved. Take the following clip from a few years ago in Pebble Beach, for example, where Murray turns out a dynamic, Nick-worthy rendition of the Looking Glass 1972 soft rock staple “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” accompanied by a gracious Clint Eastwood, who clearly is unfamiliar with the song but remains a good sport letting Murray have his moment.

All in all, Nick made 12 appearances on SNL. Perhaps the best, and certainly the most remembered, was from the January 28, 1978 sketch, Nick at the Powder Room, where he sang the theme to Star Wars, with lyrics.

Star Wars!
Nothing but Star Wars
Gimme those Star Wars, don’t let them end
Star Wars!
If they should bar wars
Please let these Star Wars stay
And, hey, how about that nutty Star Wars bar?
Can you forget all the creatures in there?
And, hey, Darth Vader in that black and evil mask
Did he scare you as much as he scared me?
Star Wars!
Those near and far wars
Star Wars!

You would have had to have been at the Powder Room or that nutty Star Wars bar back in the late 70’s to catch Nick the Lounge Singer perform, but next time you’re out somewhere in an Austin bar or an Oakland barbeque joint at 2:00am or your cousin’s karaoke party or a Wendy’s restaurant, pay attention to that guy who kinda looks like Bill Murray, and maybe he’ll sing you a song.

Click here to watch a clip of Nick singing the theme from Star Wars


(c) 2014, Matt Powell

One response

  1. In my opinion, Bill Murray is the most gifted comedian to spring from the loins of the SNL (one of the worst was Chevy Chase).

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