Jim Breuer on God, weed and the death of Chris Farley
Known as a blitz-eyed giggler from Half Baked, or the animal-hybrid, nostalgia talk-show host Goat Boy from Saturday Night Live, Jim Breuer has been subtly shifting his comedy content over the last five years, relating stories of domestic life and spiritual yearning through his autobiography and documentary. While avoiding any kind of religious conversion salesmanship (unlike his Half Baked co-star, Stephen Baldwin), Breuer does not renounce his place as a stoner icon, or his years as a Joe Pesci impersonating superstar on SNL; instead, he uses those experiences to pass on some anecdotal, comedic wisdom to his audiences -- going beyond tag lines like "That's a fully, man."
When we spoke with him In advance of his five-show run at Comedy Works South, Breuer said he was excited to perform at the more suburban Comedy Works location, as much as he holds affection for the downtown club. Digging through his back catalogue of '90s comedy history, he talked with us about the glamor and illusions of high-profile comedy, and struggling to maintain a marriage and sanity while operating next to self-destructive yet brilliant icons like his late friend Chris Farley.
Westword: I recently read that you consider your show family-friendly, which is somewhat at odds with the way pop-culture views you.
Jim Breuer: Yeah, hands down, absolutely. There's no cursing, there's no dark subject. Would I bring a kid there? No. Because they're not going to understand what I'm talking to. They can't relate to shit with my wife or my father. But it's clean. Is it Disney? No. It's real life. It's Cosby with a Metallica jacket.
I've seen some of your specials where you'll relate anecdotes of getting high and dealing with odd situations. Would that be considered "clean"?
I don't talk about that stuff in my shows anymore. I haven't for about five years. I think in my special in 2008 was where I put it to rest, where I was talking about Half Baked.
So do you feel that a large portion of your fanbase have an image of you that is at odds with the real Jim Breuer?
Yeah. And that's fine, I love that they come out. I'll give you an example. This was about four years ago when I was playing Houston, Texas. A bunch of baseball players came out to the show, because the Astros were playing the Reds. I went up there and talked about the stuff I talk about, kids and my wife and all that. And one of the coolest things after a show was these three guys in their early twenties coming up to me and saying, "Hey, man, we came here to meet our hero from Half Baked. And we have way more respect for you now; you talking about your life the way that you did, it gives me motivation to have a family and look at things differently. Thanks for being so cool, man."
Does that ever make you feel like you're not in control of your own image? That you're ultimately defined by a fictional character you played as opposed to the autobiographical work you've done?
All the way up until 2008 I felt that way my whole life. When I started standup comedy, I just talked about the things that I knew: being young, relationships, drinking, whatever. But once SNL and Half Baked hit, I got a huge following from that crowd and I found myself trying to appeal to them. Because there was a lot of money to be made off of it. But after a while I decided that I couldn't live up to this individual that they think I am -- because I'm not that person.
This was in 2008, when I went back to my roots doing standup and became in control of my own destiny. And since then, I've put out my second special, a documentary, a book, and I'm about to do another special. It's pretty clear that I'm not going to be chained down. And this Jim Breuer has a lot more to offer than the Jim Breuer from the past.
Speaking of your book, the words "spiritual warrior" are in the subhead, and I noticed in a lot of interviews you did around that time that people were asking which religion you'd joined.
Yes. And I used that phrase to put out there where I am as a person. I don't like the word "religious." To me, that's an ugly word, because it puts you in a bad category. It's an uneducated word. Religious, what does that mean? He's a jerk? He's militant? Do I look up to something higher than me? Yes. But I'm not going to put that on anyone else. I highly believe we're moved by a greater force, if we tap into it. It's like a radio station. Am I a church guy? No. I need someone passionate talking about spirituality, not some guy with a bucket trying to collect money for it. I need a true-blue conversation.
"Am I Christian" is another one I get. If you label yourself as anything, that's fine, but you have to bear that responsibility. When you say "I'm Christian," I'm not sure what that means. My wife is Christian, and I support her, but we have long conversations about where we're at all the time. And I often go with "spiritual warrior." If I go and talk to God in my garage or in the woods, that's my thing.
You gave an interview to Today's Christian Music magazine, and in the introduction they discourage their readers from visiting any of your previous work, that you are on a better path now. Is any of the earlier SNL or Half Baked material you've done anything you're embarrassed about now?
No, no, no. Because that defines who you are. That's the silliest thing I've ever heard. I would never ever walk away from anything I've ever done. Have I ever cringed at certain things I've done? Of course. But so has everyone else. That's life.
But I'm sorry, I'm not a stoner. Did I play Bryan in Half Baked? Yes. Did I love that role? Yes. I loved that role. Did I use to smoke pot? Absolutely. And I loved it.
But you don't smoke pot anymore?
No, I don't smoke pot anymore. In those days...I was addicted to it. I don't care what anyone else says, whenever you start planning your day around something, I don't care what it is, you're addicted to it. And I found myself planning my day around my buzz, and that is not healthy. What's amazing is, when I stopped, I've never done so much work in all my life; really great work, work I am so proud of. That third special, the book I wrote, the documentary on my father. I can't believe how much work I've done.
I recently re-watched the cameo you and Dave Chappelle had on Tim Allen's Home Improvement, which nearly launched you two into a spinoff sitcom, Buddies. I imagine if that series had taken off, you two would have had entirely different careers.
Yes, absolutely. I talk about that in my book, and it relates back to the spiritual warrior thing. During that time, I broke down and prayed to God that my marriage would be protected; because I truly believed that my marriage was going to fail. Because when you get to Hollywood and you get on TV, it's like winning a lottery ticket. And not only did you win a lottery ticket for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you also have women that come out of the woodwork. I was on the cover of TV Guide and USA Today. It was the whole sex, drugs and rock-and-roll fame thing, and I knew I was going to doom my marriage.
I didn't expect to be fired from that show after I prayed that. But after I prayed to make my marriage stronger, the next day it was like, "Um, you're fired, Jim." I was devastated, but I was like, wow, I expected an answer but not that one.
But then you ended up being a star on SNL, which I imagine was an even more debaucherous world than landing on an ABC sitcom. That wasn't a strain on your marriage?
Oh, yeah ,it was. That was a huge strain! I don't know how we survived those years. Because my wife became a second-class citizen, and I truly thank God that she hung in all those years. Now was I out cheating on her? No. But to me fame was way more important, vanity was way more important than hanging out with her.
There were times when she would be over, and she'd get all dolled up and couldn't wait to see me after the show, and she'd be entertaining all of the friends that I invited over for the night. And I'd go to the green room and I'd zip right by her to embrace all of these yo-yos that I didn't even know, because they were in "the scene." But you have to go through all that, and thank God we made it through.
And while you eventually learned how to navigate the darker side of show business, a lot of people you worked with didn't. I just watched a clip of your friend Chris Farley on Leno in '97 shortly before he died, and I don't know when I've seen a celebrity fall apart in public like that. He was still funny, but looked awful.
That was devastating, to be honest with you. He had reached out to me at that time -- this is all in the book -- he had called me, and broke down on the phone asking me if he was really funny and can we party together. And I was like, we're not partying. "Ah, Jimmy am I funny? I'm just a fat stupid guy. Why do I have to pay for women? No one likes me."
So I talked him off the ledge and we got through that week. I'm serious, I never saw such pure evil infested around such a beautiful individual. The monsters sought him out because he was so beautiful. And I'll never forget, I swear on my kids' lives, I kept getting this overwhelming feeling that said, "You need to call Chris. You need to call Chris. Chris needs an honest friend right now."
So I told my wife this, and she said I should call him, but I'd tried and couldn't find him. So I started putting out the feelers at SNL, but we were off for the week. I tried my manager and he said he'd get Chris's number, but he didn't. And I kept telling him I needed to get ahold of Chris; and then the following day he was dead.
I'm not saying I could've stopped it, but I could've tried. And I apologized to God, because he kept telling me to reach out, he kept warning me. I'll listen harder next time and I'll act quicker.
I suppose a lot of people assumed that since he was such a big star and such a success, that they didn't need to worry about him. A kind of loneliness must be attached to fame when you feel so horrible about yourself and no one believes you.
Yes, but he also put himself there. And I don't put myself there anymore. If you go to my Facebook page, and see the videos I post, they're very human. It lets people know that I may have been here and there, but I've got the same issues as everyone else. I've got three kids, my father lives at home, I've been taking care of my mom. It's the same as anyone else, and I take a lot of pride in that.
You were hesitant to join SNL after the role was offered to you because you'd seen it had done to other people. Did eventually working there justify any of those apprehensions?
What happened was, NBC was a huge fan of mine, and they were trying to develop things for me. That lead to them asking me to audition for Saturday Night Live, but I didn't want to be on the show. I knew Jay Mohr and had seen people like Sarah Silverman and all the other people I knew from the comedy clubs come out of there looking just miserable, ugly human beings. They went in how they went in, but they came out just ugly individuals.
Was it the work hours? Or the drugs?
Who knows. All I knew was they went in that door, and they come out looking like they did, and I knew I didn't want that. No one came out saying, "That was the greatest place ever!" And then I heard they had a whole new cast, whole new writers, I met Darrell Hammond, I met Will Ferrell. I saw that it was different; so I auditioned, and I finally got it.
It was a phenomenal experience on many levels. Show business puts you on such a platform; it's a tattoo and I'm proud to wear it. Whoever's in that club, you recognize them -- whether it was an old cast member or a new cast member, you have an instant relationship with them. Because only you know what that experience is like. Sometimes it's amazing, sometimes it's hard.
I got a lot of life lessons out of it, like the Chris Farley thing. It blew me away how, at the end of the day, we're just a product. When I saw him walk in, I was like, "Can't anyone see what's going on? Why not cancel him for the week? He has a 24-hour nurse following him around. That's madness!" Chris Rock was hired to hang out just in case Chris couldn't handle doing the show. That just blew my mind, the emptiness of it. People being like, "Oh he's got it together." And I'm like, he's dying! He needs help!
To be honest with you, I enjoyed my decade after that. I enjoyed going home, starting a family. I took a radio show on satellite where I could be brutally honest, and I loved it. I loved it. But I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything in the world.
Jim Breuer will perform five shows at Comedy Works South starting Thursday, September 26, through September 28. Tickets are $30; for information, go to www.comedyworks.com.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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