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Dan Aykroyd -- Big, Fat Fraud

I was once over at the apartment of a friend of mine -- no names -- and we were sitting around drinking rum out of a priceless vase. And as often happens when two men get stinking drunk while quaffing liquor from whatever container is handy at the time, we began telling tales out of school... sharing deep, personal secrets we'd never reveal to another soul.

Unless we're using them to underscore an important point for introductory purposes, that is...

"Phil," my nameless friend said to me. "I've never told another person this, and I'm even embarrassed to admit it now to you. But I've always found Grace Jones oddly attractive."

The point here is not that my friend is a sick bastard... though he is. The point is that deep down inside all of us, down where the darkened demons dwell, we all have secrets that if they ever saw the light of day, we'd probably wind up killing ourselves and a dozen others in a vain attempt to quash our humiliation.

Which, I think, explains my bygone admiration for Dan Aykroyd.

Long ago -- before a weary world had even heard the words "Caddyshack 2," "Nothing But Trouble," or "My Stepmother is an Alien" -- Dan Aykroyd was a fairly funny fellow. This was during the first couple of seasons of Saturday Night Live, back when the cast featured the likes of John Belushi, a talented fat man, as opposed to the likes of Chris Farley, a man who is merely fat.

I remember growing up as a young lad in Danville, California watching reruns of Saturday Night Live when my parents thought I was fast asleep. And to me, Dan Aykroyd was nothing short of a comic genius. Here was a man who could create a myriad of characters, each one more bizarre than the last. He had the definitive Richard Nixon impersonation -- portraying the Trickster as a hunched-over, sweaty-lipped, foul-mouthed madman decades before Anthony Hopkins thought to do the same thing in an Oliver Stone movie, albeit with greater comic effect. And Dan Aykroyd is the man who conceived, wrote and performed the "Bass-o-matic" sketch, a parody of those late-night TV commercials in which a smiling, hyperventilating Aykroyd used a blender to grind a whole mess of fish into a gooey pulp on live TV.

That's comedy.

I admired Dan Aykroyd because he was a performer who could write his own material and write it well. He described himself as "a Class-A humor mechanic" -- a philosophy that somehow struck a chord with me. And when some bonehead NBC executive named Rick Traum sent Aykroyd a form letter complaining about unauthorized expenses, the quirky Canadian reacted in a way that spoke to my youthful sense of alienation. Or as Doug Hill and Jeff Weingard describe the scene in their book Saturday Night:

"In an artistic burst of rage, Danny filled a wall near the elevators on (the 17th floor) with venomous graffiti... Using spray paints, a variety of felt-tipped and ball-point pens and some sort of chiseling tool, Danny scrawled evil-sounding satanic incantations, among them 'I am Beelzebub, I am the Devil.' There were also more conventional threats and profanities, including 'I will kill you Rick' and, hacked into the wall, in letters four feet high, 'Fuck You.'"

And a man who does that is a man to be reckoned with, I say.

My point -- and it's not just to relate an amusing anecdote featuring a famous person carving the words "Fuck You" into the walls at NBC -- is that Dan Aykroyd was a major influence on my early comic sensibilities. I based my life on his teachings. I dreamed of following in his footsteps. I even allowed myself to become portly just like Dan, and I swear it's not because I never exercise.

But heroes fall hard. And none have fallen hard than Dan Aykroyd.

His post-Saturday Night Live career can only charitably be described as spotty -- one step forward for every two leaps backward. Oh sure, he gave us the "Blues Brothers" and "Ghostbusters" and an amusing enough cameo in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," but at the tragic human cost of inflicting "Doctor Detroit," "Couch Trip," "Loose Cannons" and "The Great Outdoors" upon innocent bystanders who had done nothing to earn his wrath. He gave the world the insipid banality of "Spies Like Us," topped with the banal insipidness of "Dragnet." Of the 30 or so motion pictures Dan Aykroyd has written, directed or starred in, only a half-dozen can be considered entertaining -- and that's granting special dispensation to the likes of "Neighbors." For those of you scoring at home, Aykroyd is batting .200, which is OK if you're an all-glove, no-hit back-up shortstop for the Seattle Mariners, but kind of lousy if you're a Hollywood funnyman.

I knew that Aykroyd was not half the man he once was after seeing an interview with him that he did during the release of "Ghostbusters 2." In said interview, Aykroyd -- who in his SNL days railed against the bland predictability of formulaic, cookie-cutter comedy -- evinced a desire for the "Ghostbusters" franchise to continue on in perpetuity.

"I'd love to do a 'Ghostbusters 3,' a 'Ghostbusters 4,'" Aykroyd enthused. "I'd love to see a Ghostbusters TV series. Every Thursday at 9... it's Ghostbusters!"

And I remember thinking: Oh, you big, fat fraud.

Still, you have to stick up for your boyhood heroes. Willie Mays fans may have cringed to see their hero staggering around the outfield as a New York Met long past his prime. Bobby Orr fans no doubt averted their eyes to see the hobbled hockey great just going through the motions as a Chicago Blackhawk. And Gallagher fans no doubt wished he would have quit after his definitive work, Melon Crazy, leaving only the happy, happy memories.

But does the fact that a legend hangs around long after his glory days negate his earlier brilliance? In the case of Gallagher, yes. But I think you see my overall point.

So when others spoke ill of Dan Aykroyd, I continued to defend his honor, although not as lustily as I once might have. When friend or foe derided him as a washed-up Canadian hack, I would retort "He is not" or "Canadians have made many valuable contributions to the entertainment world." And of course, Dan Aykroyd and Robert Downey, Jr. remain the only Saturday Night Live alumni to be nominated for an Academy Award... and you won't find Dan Aykroyd passing out as the result of some drug-induced stupor in a stranger's bedroom.

But after what I witnessed Tuesday night, I can no longer defend Dan Aykroyd, not even for old times' sake.

Last Tuesday marked the premiere episode of Soul Man, a comedy starring Dan Aykroyd as a hip, swinging widowed preacher who rides a Harley, butts heads with a stuffy bishop and raises four children, each more precocious than the last.

In short, Dan Aykroyd was starring in a bad family sitcom, reaching depths previously explored by Bob Saget, Patrick Duffy and that confounded Urkel kid. Hacks, every last one, and now Dan Aykroyd has joined their legion.

This offends me on so many levels, and not just because of the questionable casting of a man who once carved "Fuck You" into the walls of NBC as the conduit through which God speaks to his earthly flock. It offends me because this is the sort of sitcom that Dan Aykroyd and his SNL cohorts used to viciously taunt. It offends me because a man I once idolized is now helping precocious children learn important life's lessons in neat, 26-minute installments.

But this is hardly surprising. Mick Jagger is still singing "Satisfaction" and he's, what, pushing 80 now? Any time John Entwhistle or Roger Daltrey need a little walking around cash, they just call their good buddy Pete Townsend for another Who "farewell" tour. Even the Monkees are looking to cash in long after the Bank of Fame should have closed out their account. Why shouldn't Dan Aykroyd get in line as well?

Because I admired him, that's why. He fanned my interest in comedy with the promise that you could remain daring and original and true to your muse. And as it turns out, that promise is as believable as the plots of one Aykroyd's crap-ass little movies.

Neil Young was right -- it is better to burn out than fade away, and Dan Aykroyd is fading faster than colored laundry being washed in hot water.

And that's just about what it takes to make a man depressed enough to seek comfort in the arms of the likes of Grace Jones.


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