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And while he’s thrilled to be involved in the new baton-passing franchise chapter — directed by Jason Reitman and produced by Ivan Reitman, who helmed the first two Ghostbusters and is Jason’s father — the 69-year-old icon also has plenty of thoughts about the state of comedy; the new Saturday Night Live cast; his friend, the late John Candy; and his most notorious bomb, 1991’s Nothing But Trouble, among other topics.
What is your impression of comedy today and cancel culture?
There is enough range in humor where you don’t have to go scatological and you don’t have to go pulling any divisive cards to get a laugh. There is so much in the world to comment on that is outside the realm of offensiveness. As a writer, you can go to other areas and have successful creative endeavors. Scatological humor is fun. It’s easy laughs. But there is more intelligent writing that can happen if you stay away from the offensive material that should be rightly canceled for its hurtfulness. Who can be the subject of an impression today? That’s an area of discussion. Can I do my James Brown imitation? He was one of my best friends. I do his voice pretty good. But maybe I shouldn’t anymore.
How often do you catch Saturday Night Live these days?
I try to stay up and watch every week. [New castmember] James Austin Johnson is outstanding. That’s the best [President] Biden I’ve seen. I watch to see where the trends are going in writing and performing.
How was the experience of reprising Ray Stantz in Ghostbusters: Afterlife?
It was full joy, wall to wall. What a privilege to be asked back to do that. It was creative satisfaction working again with Ernie [Hudson], Bill [Murray] and Sigourney [Weaver]. If it weren’t for Jason and Ivan, I don’t know if we would have had the magnificent cast. To hang with brothers like that, family, it’s always fun — memories of good and maybe bad. Some [previous] friction came from how long we had to wear those proton packs and the level of complaint we issued.
John Candy would have turned 71 on Oct. 31. What pops into your head upon hearing that?
I remember this one night in Second City Toronto, we were doing this sketch where Dave [Thomas] and I were these two cops, and we were trying to arrest Candy, who was being disorderly. And he scooped me up and put me on one shoulder and whipped around and put Dave on the other shoulder and he whirled us around the room. (Laughs.) He was very strong.
How was making The Great Outdoors with John?
Howie Deutch was a really fun director on the picture. He loved handling Candy and me. Howie and I are working on the sequel, called The Great Outlaws. I am looking for the Candy figure. There are some really interesting names, but I can’t say who. Howie and I are tickled to bring back Roman as a Ponzi scheme guy who victimizes a federal agent. Who knows? If I find the right partner …
I think Sneakers is criminally underrated. How was working on that film with the likes of Redford, Kingsley, Poitier and, of course, River Phoenix?
I was cast in the role of Mother, but Universal decided they could not afford me in the movie. So they wrote the part out until [agent and CAA co-founder] Michael Ovitz found out about it. He called Universal — and all of a sudden I was back in Sneakers with my full pay. Michael Ovitz was another era. In one phone call that was straightened out. River became one of my best friends.
This year we sadly lost Gregory Jacobs, aka Shock G, who was a part of that great musical scene in Nothing But Trouble. So, I have to ask, was that movie actually an abomination or a misunderstood punching bag?
There was a darkness about the movie. There was definitely an eccentricity about the movie, which may have made some say, “It’s not my cup of tea.” But we had a good time making it. It came in under budget. That was my first effort as a director and my last — by my choice and mutual choice of the industry. The screenings went well. There are some great jokes and funny stuff in there. There was no way we could beat the other two pictures in the marketplace that weekend: Silence of the Lambs with Jodie Foster and Sleeping With the Enemy with Julia Roberts. Every date went to those movies, those two very strong female stars in two great movies. I think it is a good, serviceable comedy. I’ll say that much about it.
I hear from a lot of people that there was stuff in there they liked. I thought Chevy was great and Candy was great. I had Steven Spielberg’s and Robert Zemeckis’ Rolls-Royce of a crew on that. They came on board. They saw something and liked the story. And I hope today they’re vindicated. The picture looked good and cut well and was handled by the studio the best way they could. But come on! Jodie! Julia!
And finally, I would love to hear your thoughts on the intelligence report released over the summer that determined no alien technology in aerial phenomena witnessed by Navy pilots — but didn’t rule it out either.
These pilots are professionals, and they know what they saw. And their cameras and equipment picked it up. That’s a reality. You can have all kinds of opinions, but the reality is these objects are coming and going and are now captured on more sophisticated equipment. They have been coming and going like taxies for years.
I don’t think [the government is] even denying it anymore. That was an old Brookings Institution study in 1958: Don’t tell the public, they’ll panic. They won’t respect the cop on the beat, the priest, the president, the government. They’ll say, “Let me talk to the alien because they have a higher power.”
It’s a spectacular field for entertainment, for writers and creators to really explore some of these issues and maybe stimulate more scientific inquiry.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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