I’m not going to tell you that Meatballs is a great movie. I am a writer, not a liar. the case to commemorate and celebrate its 40th anniversary —it premiered on June 29, 1979— is made for non-cinematic cultural importance. “rock around the clock” wasn’t a great song, but it inspired john lennon and created a pattern that was followed by better songs and, more importantly, paved the way for the beatles. It’s like that with meatballs, only instead of riots it’s parties and instead of the beatles it’s bill murray. why meatballs? because without meatballs, many of us would have had a much harder time getting through the first two years of high school.
The plot follows the basic contours of summer: what begins with the buses ends with the same, as hundreds of campers arrive and depart from the bucolic grounds of Camp North Star, the best deal in the Twin Pines region. there are cabins, counselors, a dining room, a director, and contests, in tricks and sports, with the rich kids in camp across the lake, the bastards in mohawks. there are teen hangouts, pranks, and other summer stuff; All in all, a pretty accurate description of the camp. i was at camp menominee, eagle river, wisconsin, in 1979. my father to my mother: “do you think indian parents send their children to camp goldberg?”
much of the action centers on a boy named rudy, played by chris makepeace (my bodyguard). Rudy, who spent his first summer away from home, is described early on as “the short, depressed kid we asked for,” and that’s his role, going from short, depressed, and ostracized to short, happy, and loved, another satisfied customer you can. t wait to return, giving the film its narrative arc. Rudy is saved by Tripper Harrison, a messianic-type counselor (we all had one) played by Murray, then 29 and appearing in his first movie role. And this, of course, is the true significance of meatballs: that it is the birthplace of Bill Murray, whose personality has played such a prominent role in pop culture. meatballs not only marked the birth of his success on the big screen (the film, which cost about a million dollars to produce, grossed more than $40 million that summer), but also the character he would play again and again. No matter what name he goes by, Murray is always the best counselor in camp.
although murray has been the clown, literally and figuratively, his character is never really comic nor is it really tragic. he is sarcastic. he takes a philosophical position. he is less john belushi than albert camus. the way he carries himself is a lesson in how to face life, with fun, at a distance. yes, he is a know-it-all, but he is a know-it-all to the core; he disrupts the system because he cannot be fruitful. This attitude is what has made Murray, albeit a baby boomer, such a powerful avatar for Generation X. his pose is our view of the world, which philosophically brings us closer to humphrey bogart than to boomers or millennials. it is about cynicism and exhaustion, avoiding the causes. we are the little brother who has seen our older brother and older sister pass by. we know it’s fixed: who gets into which team, who gets into which college. the biggest trick is convincing yourself that you really have a chance.
boomers believe in merit, but gen-x know that meritocracy is worse than the old aristocratic order. at least the aristocracy knew it was an aristocracy. he knew that he did not deserve what he had, hence the concept of noblesse oblige. meritocracy has no idea what it is. he believes he is where he is because he works hard and is smart, due to merit. the rich kids in camp mohawk believe they deserve to win not because they are richer but because they are better, that’s why they are richer. tripper does not call to dump this system. he knows that overriding it would simply replace it with another version of the same system. knowing that, feeling that endless cycle of rise and fall, is what creates burnout. instead, he asks to identify the system and then mock it: separate yourself so you can’t be judged. Mohawk can’t win if the North Star doesn’t lose.
The view is perfectly captured in the movie’s historic battle eve scene. the campers, in the middle of a Mohawk-clad Olympiad, having been humiliated all day, have gathered for a pep rally. Tripper stands before a crowd of children in need of guidance. it’s a famous speech among murray fans, as it set the tone for his entire career. it is important to note that this speech was not in the script. the writers knew where it would go but they didn’t write it. Murray met with director Ivan Reitman before shooting Spitball. Reitman, who had worked at Animal House, wanted something like Belushi’s Bluto speech: “Did it end when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? hell no! And it’s not over now, because when the going gets tough…the tough stuff gets going!”
bluto might have been an idiot, but he was still messing with western tradition. he was king henry in the funhouse mirror. murray’s meatball speech sounds like that, but it’s not. in reality it is that tradition inverted, undermined. “even if we win,” he says, “even if we play so high above our heads that we get bloody noses for a week to 10 days, even if god in heaven comes down and points his hand at our side of the field, even if everyone the men, women and children hold hands and pray that we win, it just wouldn’t matter, because all the really pretty girls would date the mohawk boys because they have all the money. ! it just doesn’t matter if we win or lose.”
In other words, it’s all bullshit.
For many, the movie’s appeal is neither the plot nor the message, it’s just the chance memory of a teenage summer, which made it nearly impossible for conventional critics to cover. how do you review a really good and bad movie? you can’t use the same rule that you would use in, say, apocalypse now. it is a challenge. here’s the new york times: “there’s a dumb fat kid [in meatballs], a girl who wears glasses, and as a result she’s supposed to be ugly, and a kid who walks by not realizing her fly is open . there’s a gag that ends with one person pouring a malted milkshake over another’s head, and a gag in which the fat kid’s pants are hoisted up the camp flagpole.”
Common sense media do a better job. they may disapprove, but at least they understand what the hell is going on. “Parents should know that Meatballs is a sexually innuendo-filled summer camp comedy from 1979,” the report says. “The male characters ogle the women in bikinis, thinking and talking about sex almost constantly.”
This was the directorial debut for Reitman, who would go on to direct two other canonical Murray films: Stripes and Ghostbusters. Reitman had worked on a play with future Saturday Night Live cast members Belushi, Murray and Gilda Radner. Determined to put them into a movie, he spent two years developing Animal House, only to be told that he was too inexperienced to direct. meatballs was plan b. reitman used summer camp as the theme because he had been to summer camp. He turned to old friends from camp, Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, to write a script, which was later polished by Harold Ramis. The movie, starring mostly strangers, was shot at Camp White Pine in Haliburton, Ontario – those are real campers in the diner.
murray had been on snl for a while, but had yet to appear. He was still something of a secret, one of countless Murray brothers from Wilmette, Illinois, who had made a name for himself at the Second City nightclub. He was part of a group of brilliant comedians who came out of Chicago in the 1970s, where a generation far from shore learned to stand back and point. Murray didn’t agree to appear in Meatballs until the last minute. he arrived on set three days before shooting in the clothes he would wear in the film. Several scenes were shot the following winter as Reitman realized it was short on plot, including the scene where the depressed boy runs away and Tripper, using a classic camp counselor technique, pretends he’s running away too. he catches up with the boy at the bus station. The mood and look reminds me of the scene (mocking, if you will) where Veronica Lake buys Joel McCrae breakfast in Sullivan’s Travels. it’s murray, pockmarked and bulging-eyed but pockmarked in a blackhawks jacket, expressing a basic tenet of the summer-camp worldview, which is the flip side of all that philosophical exhaustion: “you make a good friend a summer”. he says, “and you’re doing pretty well.”
rich cohen co-created vinyl for hbo and is the author of new york’s last pirate: a ghost ship, a killer and the birth of a gangster nation.