The Philosophy of Bill Murray
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on Bill Murray. We’re exploring Murray’s unique kind of comedy and his evolution from just another goofy guy to a comedy legend.
Written by: Douglas Lain
Research by: Tom Head
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Co-directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Bill Murray
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here, and today we’re unpacking the truly singular persona of Bill Murray. Since replacing Chevy Chase on SNL in 1977 Bill Murray has embodied a very particular kind of comedy that can best be described as “ironic and cooly distant.” Over the years, Murray has curiously transcended the label of “that goofy dude in movies” to essentially that of a comedy legend. Last year the New York Times ran a piece exploring Murray’s “Peculiar Ascent” from the status of comedian to the level of a “secular saint.” Apparently, the amount of pop culture paraphernalia dedicated to Murray rivals that of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Albert Einstein.
There’s a truly particular irony to Murray’s existence. He has a cameo in Parks and Rec where he plays a corpse, which is ONLY funny BECAUSE it’s Bill Murray. The entire plot of Osmosis Jones takes place inside Bill Murray’s body, which seems like the producers telling us: Hey, isn’t this funny how they’re inside Bill Murray? And for some reason, he has a cameo in Space Jam where he plays… himself.
So… what’s the deal with this guy? Is this just cult of personality run amok? Or is there something more going on here? Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of Bill Murray. Have you ever noticed how, in many Bill Murray movies, he doesn’t seem to be taking the plot seriously? He stands slightly at a distance from everything, enabling him to maintain a dryly humorous commentary about what’s going on around him. Murray is perpetually sarcastic, even during otherwise dramatic moments, so much so that he often verges on or outright breaks the reality of the scene. Murray just don’t give a fuck. It’s his thing.
It’s as if his very presence is license to deflate the stakes of an otherwise dramatic moment. When his ship is boarded by bloodthirsty pirates in The Life Aquatic, Murray inexplicably goes Rambo and takes back the boat despite the fact his character is not a badass. At all. The entire premise of The Man Who Knew Too Little is essentially Murray playing a man who has no personal stake in the plot surrounding him, because he literally believes it is the world’s most convincing game of improv.
This kind of detatched comedic irony isn’t new nor is it unique to Murray. For one thing, it’s a staple of American comedy dating back at least to vaudeville days. In Marx Brothers movies, for instance, the stories were merely there to provide some sort of skeletal structure for the jokes, and Groucho would frequently break the fourth wall.
In fact, this ironic, detatched kind of comedy goes back to 500 years before the Marx Brothers. At the turn of the 15th century, Japanese playwright and philosopher Zeami Motokiyo trained actors to conceal their intentions as they acted, even from themselves. Much later German poet/playwrite Bertolt Brecht, influenced by Japanese theater, trained his actors to develop a style where everything on stage was acted out in quotation marks, so that every line is divorced from it’s intended dramatic weight. He wanted to make sure that neither his actors nor the audience fully identified with the characters on stage. The purpose of this was to inspire the audience to break free of conventional thinking and bring them a new experience- to make them think again.
Over the last few years Bill Murray has been making headlines for crashing parties, photobombing, and randomly popping up in people’s lives. In June of 2014 he turned up at the pre-wedding photoshoot for a couple he’d never even met, In 2011 he turned up at Karaoke One 7 in NYC and joined the party of some rando. He served as a Bartender at SXSW 2010 for no apparent reason. And, perhaps best of all, in 2009 he turned up at the construction site for New York City’s new Poets House to read a poem and dole out some advice.
Just what is Murray up to? Why does he spend his time doing stunts like this instead of filling yachts with models and absconding to Eurpoean villas like other celebrities? One explanation might be Murray’s relationship to Sufi mystic GI Gurdjieff. According to the late Harold Ramis, Murray was a student of Gurdjieff, a kind of guru who “used to act really irrationally to his students almost as if trying to teach them object lessons.” Gurdjieff, like most mystics, aimed at freeing the minds of men from illusion, or waking people up to the reality of their own freedom. He was a teacher of something he called the fourth way to enlightenment or, alternatively, the way of the sly man. The sly man doesn’t have to hide himself away in a monastery or practice abstinence or asceticism, but can find the truth in everyday life.
The first step in Gurdjieff’s method is to divide your attention. You have to become aware of both the external world and your own inner state and then you have to refuse to get caught up in either world. The purpose of this separation is to take control over your own behavior and reactions. The sly man creates distance between the world, the self, and the self that is observing everything. Is it possible that these stunts are an extension of Gurdjieff’s mission?
What makes Murray unique is that he turns the usual American style of comedic irony against itself, or against himself. The result is a bit mystifying.
Irony traditionally means that the character’s words or actions are clear to the audience but unknown to the character. Murray takes this a step further. He gives us ironic performances wherein his characters are unaware of the meaning of their own activity, but we know that Bill Murray knows. In Ghostbusters, for instance, when the woman he loves transforms in to a demon, his reaction is not what one would expect. The fact that it seems outlandish for his character to react with such nonchalance is exactly the point. The audience identifies not with Bill Murray’s character, but with Bill Murray, who distances himself from the stakes of the narrative.
In 1993’s Groundhog Day this ironic distance and self-awareness becomes his whole character arc. Through each repetition Murray’s character becomes more aware. He starts by noticing the outside world and the people in it, then comes to know himself, and then, as he starts to truly understand both, he becomes free from reaction.
So what do you think: Is a sarcastic approach to daily life the way to go? Is Bill Murray’s whole career an intervention, an attempt to wake people up to some kind of enlightenment? Or is it all just a joke?