Sometime in late June 1979, my dad dropped me and a friend off at the Spectrum Twin movie theater in south Tulsa for a weekday matinee showing of Meatballs.
The summer camp romp is notable as Bill Murray’s first movie. It was also the first time I remember being allowed to see a movie in a theater without adult supervision.
In 2019, leaving two 8-year old kids to their own devices in public might be a recipe for a DHS referral, but it wasn’t unusual in those days. The following summer, I saw Empire Strikes Back with a few friends and don’t remember an adult in the audience.
With my ticket money in one pocket and the concession stand funds in the other, we stepped into the theater for Meatballs. It wasn’t Neil Armstrong, but it was heady stuff for a kid that age.
As movies go, Meatballs is at the bottom end of Murray’s IMDB profile. It’s low budget, features a cast that faded into obscurity, and its plot isn’t exactly Lost in Translation. But in every person’s life there comes a time when they begin to develop their own sense of humor, whether that’s at 5 or 25. Or, in this case, at 8 watching Bill Murray’s campers de-pants their opponents in a basketball game to lose with some self-respect.
As Bill Murray took his first steps toward stardom by acting and largely improvising his way through a summer camp comedy, I was taking my first steps toward understanding what really made me laugh.
Sure, I had chuckled along with family members during episodes of Hee Haw or the Carol Burnett Show, but I took my cues from them. Even staying up late to catch episodes of Saturday Night Live, the audience told me when to laugh. Only Mr. Bill getting squished on Saturday Night Live registered before Meatballs.
‘It just doesn’t matter’
Meatballs isn’t high art, but it has its moments. Murray’s Tripper character is Camp North Star’s lovable camp fuck up. In the film’s early moments, he hijacks a local TV interview posing as a staffer from upscale rival Camp Mohawk. The humor is adult, if not dated.
Murray talks about Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger coming out for a weekend to “rap with the kids” before finishing off with a bit about sexual awareness week featuring imported prostitutes from around the world.
Interviewer: That’s incredible.
Murray: Well, what’d you expect for $1,000 a week? Hey, you have a good summer too, huh.
Murray constantly harassed the camp director with gags, took a bullied camper under his wing for late-night poker sessions and coached Camp North Star’s basketball team in sunglasses, a blazer, shorts and cowboy boots during the Olympics with rival camp Mohawk before finishing off the film with a righteous rant about how the competition didn’t matter because the guy’s at Mohawk would still get all the girls because they had all the money.
It just doesn’t matter. Words to live by.
Meatballs may not matter much in Murray’s career arc. But to a kid beginning to understand the kind of things that would make him laugh in the years to come, it was monumental.
Meatballs turns 40 this summer, along with my sense of humor. I recently watched it again on YouTube. All these years later, it still holds up.