'Meatballs' at 40: An Appreciation of the Good-Bad Movie That Launched Bill Murray's Big-Screen Career

Paramount Pictures/Photofest
'Meatballs' (1979)

Writer Rich Cohen celebrates a film less important for being great cinema (it wasn't) than for inaugurating the persona that would define Gen-X's most perfectly sarcastic star: "He does not overturn the system. He heckles it."

I'm not going to tell you that Meatballs is a great movie. I'm a writer, not a liar. The case to memorialize and celebrate its 40th anniversary — it premiered on June 29, 1979 — is made by cultural not cinematic importance. "Rock Around the Clock" was not a great song, but it did inspire John Lennon and create a template that better songs followed and, most importantly, it did pave 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 more difficult time navigating the first two years of high school.

The plot follows the basic contours of summer — what starts with buses ends with same, as hundreds of campers arrive and depart the bucolic grounds of Camp North Star, the best bargain in the Twin Pines region. There are cabins, counselors, a mess hall, a director and contests, in skullduggery and sport, with the rich kids at the camp across the lake — the bastards at Mohawk. There are teenage hookups, pranks and various summer whatnot — all in all, a pretty accurate depiction of camp. I was at Camp Menominee, in Eagle River, Wisconsin, in 1979. My father to my mother: "Do you think Indian parents send their kids to Camp Goldberg?"

Much of the action centers around a kid named Rudy, played by Chris Makepeace (My Bodyguard). Rudy, spending his first summer away from home, is described early on as "the short depressed kid we ordered," and that's his role, to go from short, depressed and ostracized to short, happy and loved, another satisfied customer who 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 feature film role. And this, of course, is the real importance of Meatballs — that it's the birthplace of Bill Murray, whose persona has played such a towering role in pop culture. Meatballs not only marked the birth of his big-screen success — the movie, which cost around a million dollars to make, grossed over $40 million that summer — but of the character he'd play again and again. No matter the name he's using, Murray is always the coolest counselor at camp.

Though Murray has been the clown — literally and figuratively — his character is never really comic, nor is it tragic. It's sarcastic. He takes a philosophical position. He's less John Belushi than Albert Camus. The way he carries himself is a lesson in how to confront life — with amusement, at a remove. Yes, he's a smart-ass, but he's a smart-ass of the deepest order; he heckles the system because it cannot be fruitfully engaged. This attitude is what's made Murray, though a Baby Boomer, such a powerful avatar for Generation X. His pose is our worldview, which puts us closer philosophically to Humphrey Bogart than to the Boomers or Millennials. It's all about cynicism and exhaustion, steering clear of causes. We are the little brother who has seen our big brother and big sister go through it. We know it's fixed — who gets onto what team, who gets into what college. The biggest trick is convincing you that you actually have a chance.

Boomers believe in merit, but Gen-Xers know the meritocracy is worse than the old aristocratic order. At least the aristocracy knew it was an aristocracy. It knew it did not deserve what it had, hence the concept of noblesse oblige. The meritocracy has no idea what it is. It believes it's where it is because it works hard and is smart — because of merit. The rich kids at Camp Mohawk think they deserve to win not because they are richer but because they are better, which is why they are richer. Tripper does not call to overturn this system. He knows that overturning it would just replace it with another version of the same system. Knowing that, sensing that endless cycle of rise and fall, is what creates the exhaustion. He instead calls to identify the system and then mock it — detach yourself so you cannot be judged. Mohawk can't win if North Star won't lose.

The view is perfectly captured in the movie's storied eve-of-battle scene. The campers, halfway though an inter-camp Olympiad with Mohawk, having been humiliated all day, have gathered for a pep rally. Tripper stands before a crowd of kids in need of guidance. It's a famous speech among Murray fans as it set the tone for his entire career. It's important to note that this speech was not in the script. The writers knew where it would go but did not write it. Murray met with director Ivan Reitman before shooting to spitball. Reitman, who had worked on Animal House, wanted something like Belushi's Bluto speech: "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no! And it ain't over now, 'cause when the goin' gets tough... the tough get goin'!"

Bluto might have been an idiot, but he was still playing off Western tradition. He was King Henry in the funhouse mirror. Murray's Meatballs speech sounds like that, but isn't. It's actually that tradition inverted, undermined. "Even if we win," he says, "even if we play so far over our heads that our noses bleed for a week to 10 days, even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field, even if every man, woman and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter, because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk 'cause they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose."

In other words, it's all bullshit.

For many, the movie's appeal is neither plot nor message — it's just the haphazard recollection of a teenage summer, which made it nearly impossible for conventional critics to cover. How do you review a really good bad movie? You can't use the same ruler you'd use on, say, Apocalypse Now. It's a challenge. Here's The New York Times: "There are a doltish fat boy [in Meatballs], a girl who wears glasses — and is supposed to be ugly as a result — and a boy who walks around unaware that his fly is open. There's a gag that ends with one person's pouring a malted milkshake over the head of another, and a gag in which the fat boy's trousers are hoisted on the camp flagpole."

Common Sense Media does a better job. They might disapprove, but at least they understand what the hell's going on. "Parents need to know that Meatballs is a sexual-innuendo-filled summer camp comedy from 1979," the report reads. "[M]ale characters ogle women in bikinis, and think and talk about sex almost constantly."

This was the directorial debut of Reitman, who would direct two other canonical Murray movies: Stripes and Ghostbusters. Reitman had worked on a stage play featuring future Saturday Night Live castmembers Belushi, Murray and Gilda Radner. Determined to put them in a movie, he spent two years developing Animal House, only to be told he was too inexperienced to direct. Meatballs was Plan B. Reitman used summer camp as a subject because he'd gone to summer camp. He tapped old camp friends — Len Blum and Dan Goldberg — to write a script, which was then polished by Harold Ramis. The film, featuring mostly unknowns, was shot at Camp White Pine, in Haliburton, Ontario — those are real campers in the mess hall.

Murray had been on SNL for one season, but had yet to break out. He was still a kind of secret, one of the innumerable Murray brothers from Wilmette, Illinois, who had made their name at Second City Nightclub. He was part of a cluster of brilliant comedians who came out of Chicago in the 1970s, where a generation, removed from the coasts, learned to stand back and point. Murray did not agree to appear in Meatballs until the last minute. He rolled up to the set three days before shooting in clothes he would wear in the movie. Several scenes were filmed the following winter when Reitman realized he was short on plot, including the scene in which the depressed kid runs away and Tripper, using a classic camp counselor technique, pretends he, too, is running away. He catches up with the kid at the bus station. The mood and look of it reminds me of the scene — mock if you will — in which Veronica Lake buys Joel McCrae breakfast in Sullivan's Travels. It's Murray, in a Blackhawks jacket, pock-faced and bug-eyed but filled with compassion, expressing a core tenet of the summer camp worldview, which is the flipside of all that philosophical exhaustion: "You make one good friend a summer," he says, "and you're doing pretty well."

Rich Cohen co-created HBO's Vinyl and is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, A Killer and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.