05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
He was the ultimate kamikaze comic, a laugh bomb designed to blow up the world as we know it. DANGER was written all over him in big red letters. His face, said one reviewer, was "an angry pudding," and his 230-lb. body looked like the egg that hatched Godzilla. In four years (1975-79) as the main maniac on NBC's Saturday Night Live, John Belushi did things that had never been seen on television—jammed cigars up his nose, smashed beer cans against his forehead, took flying somersaults and landed ker-smack on his coccyx. As a homicidal samurai sandwich man, he whipped out his trusty sword and—HAI!—with terrifying celerity slaughtered a salami, a tomato, a loaf of bread, the customer's $20 bill and the service counter itself. As a bloated, bulimic Elizabeth Taylor, he wolfed down a sizable wad of chicken and then, choking and gasping, blew chunks in America's face. He was off the wall, over the moon, out of his gourd—but he was funny in a weird, wired way that answered to the bust-loose mood of the years that followed Vietnam and Watergate. He was a barbaric yawp of rebirth: as necessary as disgust, as contemporary as cocaine.
Belushi was the demented dean of the coked-up school of comedy, and Saturday Night Live was its snow-strewn campus. Conceived as a revival of Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar's legendary laugh circus, SNL was the first network comedy series (as critic Tom Shales noted) "produced by and for the television generation." It came on strange. In the first skit of the first show, as a Russian peasant laboriously learning English ("I would like...to feed your fingertips...to the wolverines"), Belushi established a hard-rock drive and whacked-out sensibility that had germinated in comedy troupes like Second City but never flowered on the tube.
A smash from week one, SNL rapidly amassed a higher percentage of big-spending 18-to 49-year-olds in its audience than any other show on TV—sweet music to a sponsor's ears. What's more, the program soon emerged as America's Ha-Ha Harvard, a university of the absurd that graduated wild-and-crazy guys and dolls: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, Jane Curtin, Joe Piscopo and frequent guest Steve Martin. Many matriculated to Hollywood, where, in movies like Beverly Hills Cop (Murphy), Ghostbusters (Aykroyd and Murray), Roxanne (Martin), Caddyshack (Chase and Murray) and Throw Momma from the Train (Crystal), they serviced the national addiction to flaked-out funnies. But it was Belushi who got the country hooked. In Animal House (1978), a rumbustiously hilarious gross-out that scarfed up $200 million at the box office, he distilled the zany essence of his most outrageous SNL characters into the grandest, grungiest meshuggener of the '80s.-Bluto Blutarsky.
In other hands Bluto might have been a hug-gable blend of Harpo Marx and the Cookie Monster, but in John's imagination he sphacelated into the ickiest, wackiest frat rat in the history of college humor. Tubby, grubby, violent and obsessively oral, he broke beer bottles over his head, dumped a bushel of marbles under an ROTC marching band and casually urinated on the shoes of perfect strangers. One day at lunch, having crammed his mouth with mashed potatoes, he slammed both palms against his cheeks, spewing gobs of half-eaten goo all over some very unhappy students. "I'm a zit!" he explained.
Audiences dug it—and dug Bluto. He was a pig, but a monstrously funny pig. As the messy essence of adolescence, he was incredibly true to life—certainly to Belushi's life. Son of an Albanian immigrant who owned a string of eateries, Belushi grew up in a Chicago suburb and at 22 became the youngest performer ever hired by Second City. Right from the start, onstage and off, he was a child of chaos, a poet of explosions. If a scene lagged, he might leap to the footlights and scream: "Eat a bowl of—-!" If table talk proved less than exhilarating, he might suddenly sneeze into a companion's soup. And when he saw a woman wearing tight jeans, he would dart up behind her and vigorously bite her butt.
Right from the start, too, he was on a death trip. He ate like a python, engulfing three and four meals at a single sitting, and in the early days he dosed himself frantically with LSD, peyote, mescaline and amphetamines. But cocaine soon became his drug of choice, and like many of his SNL buddies, he snorted it by the yard. He was sure that his peak performances, the deliciously simpering takeoff of Truman Capote and the bone-cracking, lung-shredding impersonation of Joe Cocker, owed as much to the drug as they did to his gift. Rationalizations aside, he loved the stuff and readily convinced himself he couldn't live without it. And the more money he made, the more coke he blew. In the last months of his life, he was spending about $2,500 a week on his habit. Toward the end he added heroin to the mania menu. He died on March 5, 1982, after a drug supplier injected him with a coke-and-heroin cocktail called a speedball. He was 33.
In an era of ensemble, Belushi was the supreme individual talent, the funniest man in television. He was the emperor of slobismo, the master of disaster, the Caliban of modern comedy. In Wired, biographer Bob Woodward wrote his epitaph: "He made us laugh, and now he can make us think." An admirer's hand-lettered sign beside his grave conveyed a similar sentiment: HE COULD HAVE GIVEN US A LOT MORE LAUGHS...BUT NOOOOOOO.