Prior to the start of Saturday Night Live’s infamous late-’70s, early-’80s period that didn’t involve creator Lorne Michaels, the show was already in something of a downward spiral. Breakout star Chevy Chase had left, replaced by another future comedy legend in Bill Murray. Still, arguably the biggest blow to the show’s foundation came when John Belushi departed.
Belushi, today an iconic figure in comedy and the SNL history books, saw his star rise significantly with the release of 1978’s Animal House. The movie was a massive hit, prompting the comedian to begin considering an exit from the sketch show. By season four in 1979, the wheels for a departure were in motion.
Things on set weren’t exactly friendly for Belushi by this time. He’d been fired and rehired by Michaels on several occasions due to drug use, even going so far as to snort cocaine during a live sketch.
“He had a big fat line, and there was that tight shot of him doing it. Lorne was very permissive for the most part and by that time, the network was staying away,” former writer Michael O’Donaghue later revealed. “Everyone thought it was white powder, but what kind of white powder can you snort like that?”
SNL wasn’t always a comfortable environment for Belushi either, as the comedian’s late wife Judith Belushi Pisano later revealed in the biography Belushi. Early on in his tenure, some of the other cast members targeted him for personal amusement.
“They had a private school, put-down kind of humour, and John was an easy mark. He was from the midwest, he was overweight, he hadn’t graduated from college, he was ethnic – no, even better, he was Albanian. This was all good fodder,” Pisano said.
With the success of Animal House, Belushi found himself switching between projects at a rapid pace, which began—along with his increased substance abuse—to impact his focus and performance on the show. There was some resentment on the part of the cast and crew, who would ultimately get used to Belushi being a no-show at rehearsals.
“I do remember that the phrase ‘Where’s John?’ was said as frequently in rehearsals as ‘Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night,'” writer Anne Beatts recalled. “But that was really in rehearsal. He would be late. He would be erratic, but at eleven thirty he was on, no matter what.”
Belushi and his SNL and Blues Brothers cohort Dan Akroyd left the show at the same time, which some close to the situation perceived as a strategic move on Belushi’s part. The overall reaction, according to writer Jim Downey, was one of outrage.
“We knew John was leaving, but the real shock was Danny. We didn’t find out until the last minute that he was going, and people were a little angry with Belushi for luring him away,” Downey said in Belushi.
One person who wasn’t as personally affected by Belushi leaving was Michaels, who Henry said seemed unfazed by the two major cast departures.
“He was very even-tempered in a way that I didn’t quite understand, and still don’t. Not in terms of the professional, but more in terms of the personal,” Henry recalled. “These guys made the show what it is, but Lorne put them in a place to make them world famous, rich and successful.”
Writer Alan Zweiebel attributed Belushi’s exodus to an increasing pattern of the show’s cast members getting lucrative movie offers that would ultimately lure them from their day jobs.
“John was on the cover of Newsweek by himself when Animal House came out, and there wasn’t anyone from the rest of the cast there with him. I think if there was a demarcation point, as far as I was concerned, that may have been it,” Zweibel asserted in the SNL book Live From New York. “Things changed. All of a sudden there was a world that was dangling temptations. John’s a star now by himself, John’s getting a million dollars or whatever it was, by himself.”
The fifth season of SNL premiered just five months after Belushi left the show, and the hole created by his absence started a ripple effect that many believe contributed to the show’s slump. There were already ratings drops when the star left, and behind-the-scenes drama was frequent.
To compensate for the lack of Belushi and Akroyd specifically, Michaels decided to promote some of the show’s writers—including Bill Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray and Akroyd’s brother Peter—to featured cast member status. Comedian Harry Shearer also started in season five, lasting for a short period of time in the cast.
The shakeup didn’t pan out, and Michaels started to become fatigued by the pressure of running such a high-stakes show that the network saw as a comedic flagship. Without heavy hitters like Belushi, SNL started to plummet in quality, and Michaels ultimately stepped away.
The writing was already on the wall by the end of season five, when the entire cast left the show along with their leader. The show floundered through its next two seasons, with Eddie Murphy the only new star helping keep SNL afloat.
Following his exit from Saturday Night Live, Belushi enjoyed a mostly-lucrative film career thanks to the success of movies like Blues Brothers. His hard-partying ways would be his demise, however, when he was found dead on March 5, 1982 from a drug overdose. He was 33 years old.
John Belushi’s impact on SNL is immeasurable, as evidenced by the rapid downfall of the show’s quality, ratings and morale following his departure. His death sent shockwaves through the comedy community, but the damage was already done at SNL. Years later, his importance to the Saturday Night Live legacy is acknowledged by fans, friends, and castmates alike.
“John never gets enough credit from the world,” Murray declared in the book Belushi. “John made that show possible in a way, because he brought all the people out from Chicago to do the National Lampoon Show and then the Radio Hour. I got the job from him on the Radio Hour. He brought all these people out. He was responsible for bringing a lot of those people to the party.”