A Swan Song For Boomer Innocence: Reckoning With ‘Caddyshack’ At The Time Of Its 40th Anniversary

By the time I saw Caddyshack, I already knew dozens of Caddyshack quotes by heart. It’s just that kind of movie, one that lends itself easily to endless repetition. Bill Murray’s mushy, crooked-mouthed rendering of “It’s in the hole!” is to the 80s what “oh behave” or “my wife!” were to later generations.

As with any comedy deemed sacrosanct by earlier generations, it’s tempting to rewatch Caddyshack today, 40 years since the release, and categorize everything as either “still holds up” or “I guess you had to be there.” It’s silly to try to separate any work from its initial context, but especially so with comedy, relying heavily as it does on timing, where simply being the first to do a certain joke makes all the difference.

Caddyshack is very much the product of Boomers, directed by Harold Ramis (born 1944), written by Douglas Kenney (born 1946) and Brian Doyle-Murray (1945), with unforgettable contributions from Bill Murray (1950) and Chevy Chase (1943). From the perspective of someone who wasn’t around when it originally happened, it’s hard to tell whether a lot of this generation’s comedy classics were considered classic because they were actually funny, or if they were memorable and well-loved simply for representing the first time Boomers were allowed to joke about having sex and doing drugs. Just a few years before, comedy meant Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in suits doing race jokes about each other.

Certainly, drugs and sex are inseparable from Caddyshack. The film was shot in Florida in 1979 and virtually everyone involved agrees that it was the product of tremendous amounts of cocaine and pot. According to Chris Nashawaty’s seminal making-of book, the original rough cut of Caddyshack ran four and a half hours. It had an extended version of the Bill-Murray-masturbating-the-ball-plunger gag that ran for more than 30 minutes on its own.

Harold Ramis (then a first-time director) had thrown out the script and let the actors do, basically whatever they thought was funny at that particular time. The warty, unreleasably long initial cut was the result. As many have noted, Ted Knight, a well-known actor from the Mary Tyler Moore show who played Judge Elihu Smails, Chevy Chase (still the biggest star from Saturday Night Live), Michael O’Keefe (the young actor who played Danny Noonan, who was nominated for an Oscar in his previous performance), and Rodney Dangerfield’s acting styles are all so different as to feel like they were making different movies. In essence, they were. Usually, when I write these movie retrospectives, I include a few contemporary reviews to show how wrong the critics were, but with Caddyshack, most of the specific criticisms leveled were fairly accurate. Time has allowed us to overlook most of its biggest flaws.

Producer Jon Peters came up with the idea of the gopher (originally Carl Spackler’s unseen adversary) as a Hail Mary attempt to tie the movie together, and reportedly spent a quarter to half a million dollars on the animatronic puppet, built by an Oscar-winning puppet designer for Star Wars. Peters, incidentally, got his start in show business by being Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser (turned boyfriend). He’d later go on to try to convince Kevin Smith to have Superman fight a giant spider. Doug Kenney (and to a lesser extent Harold Ramis) apparently hated the gopher. Kenney was reportedly still depressed about how the film turned out when he died in a hiking accident (or possibly suicide) in Kauai just three months later. As Michael O’Keefe put it, paraphrasing David Crosby, “If you can remember the filming of Caddyshack you weren’t really there.”

Of course, we can celebrate the sexual and chemical liberation of the time without necessarily wanting to relive the products of it. Animal House (the 1978 smash hit precursor to Caddyshack, also co-written by Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney), to my Gen Y eyes, is only kind of so-so. And both of Bill Murray’s pre-Caddyshack starring efforts, Meatballs and Where The Buffalo Roam, are basically unwatchable. Blues Brothers, shot in parallel to Caddyshack with more or less the other halves of the Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon crews, has great music but is largely indecipherable to me as humor. I literally don’t understand what the joke is supposed to be.

It doesn’t help that my generation essentially had our own Caddyshack (Happy Gilmore), and even our own John Belushi (Chris Farley). Every time an older person told us that what we liked was a sad echo of what they liked we had to double down out of spite. Watch Caddyshack, you say? How about f*ck off?

It’s also weird to talk about Caddyshack being cool, because, to state the obvious, it’s about golf, the least cool, least iconoclastic sport ever devised, outside of maybe polo or lacrosse. As Chevy Chase himself told Nashawaty, “I’d never gone for golf: I was more of a tennis player. My father told me to stay away from Republicans on golf courses, because they just wasted the day so they could stay away from their families.”

When people talk this way, or suggest seizing golf course land to house the homeless or reclaiming it for public green space, I can’t entirely disagree. Yet my own experience was different, more like the Murrays’. Despite being solidly middle class, I grew up golfing. Mine was the rare father who took up golf in middle age, more as a way for the family to do something together rather than escape them. We played the crappy muni courses exclusively, unless I had a school match or a tournament at a country club (none of which I ever won).

I don’t think I saw golf specifically as a strategy for us non-Anglo whites to ingratiate ourselves to WASP society at the time (not much “old money” where I grew up, for one thing), though that theme was present if I’d been attuned enough to look for it. I do remember a country club that brought out rubber mats for my school team to hit off when we arrived to play a match (to keep from damaging the nice grass on the range that the members used), where the club pro had a heated argument with a 15-year-old about whether the kid’s twill pants counted as denim or not. I still wish those people nothing but the worst.

All of which is to say: golf, then and now, is fertile ground for a class struggle story, even beyond the autobiographical elements for the ex-caddy Murray boys, and Douglas Kenney, whose father was a tennis pro. Maybe that’s why, despite all the things working against it, generationally and technically, Caddyshack stands above its peers (excluding Airplane!, which Doug Kenney realized even then was funnier than Caddyshack, and probably still is).

As Nashawaty writes in his book, Caddyshack represented the coming together of the three dominant comedic forces of the era: Saturday Night Live (with the Murray brothers and Chevy Chase), the National Lampoon (Doug Kenney and Harold Ramis), and SCTV (Ramis and Doyle-Murray). The first time I saw it when I was younger, much of it surely didn’t translate, outside of the boobs and the catchphrases. Understanding the history of the National Lampoon does help you appreciate it on a different level — the goofy character names, like Lacey Underalls and Maggie O’Hooligan (or the more embarrassing “Smoke Porterhouse,” for the black shoe shiner), and the odd vignettes, like the synchronized swimming bit in the pool scene, especially feel like Lampoon cartoons.

It’s also refreshing for the way it preceded certain conventions. Modern comedies tend to stick star performers into stock situations; Caddyshack seems more willing to let a situation itself be funny. The whole candybar-in-the-pool scene doesn’t have any of the major players in it, but still stands out as one of the better scenes and clearly took a lot of work to shoot (the Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming parody in the middle). 70s comedies also had a great appreciation for the sight gag, like when Mrs. Smails attempts to christen the dinghy.

Orion Pictures

Mostly though, I appreciate some of the more subtly clever bits of Caddyshack that tend to get drowned out by the gopher, the boobs, Rodney’s one-liners, Bill Murray’s catchphrases, and the general loudness of it. Like Chevy Chase asking, “Do you do drugs, Danny?” “Every day, sir.”

It’s worth noting that the two worst parts of the movie (at least for me) — the gopher and the nonsensical, much-too-long scene between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase (where Chevy Chase has to play through Bill Murray’s greenskeeper hovel with his smokable grass) — were both Jon Peters’ ideas. Meanwhile, the entire drunk bishop exchange, ending with him slurring “there is no God,” is sublime in a way I never fully appreciated the first time around.

In jokes like that, and in Judge Smails casually telling Danny “I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. I didn’t want to do it. I felt I owed it to them,” you get a sense of Doug Kenney’s rebellious streak, so much discussed in all the later histories and biographies of him. Assuming, of course, that those jokes were even Kenney’s (at the very least, we know that “every day, sir” wasn’t the line in the script).

I think part of the reason Caddyshack persists as a cultural phenomenon is that it’s fundamentally unexplainable. There’s a disjointedness and mystery to the movie — even amidst a mostly broad, stupid comedy — that allows for multiple interpretations. Even Douglas Kenney’s death was up for interpretation (Drugs? Accident? Suicide?).

At least as it relates to Caddyshack, “I guess you had to be there” isn’t entirely a criticism. It’s also a decent summation of its appeal. The film represented both the culmination and the end of an entire artistic era. The Boomers had rebelled against the old rules long enough to discover their own. Never again could they be so confident that doing tons of cocaine was just harmless fun, or that throwing out the script would make for a better movie. Yet you can sense all the fun they were having even when you know it won’t all turn out great for them, and the freedom is contagious. It carries with it the nostalgic glow of a time before consequences. Who wouldn’t want to relive that?

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read his interviews with ‘Caddyshack’ author Chris Nashawaty here and his interview with Danny Noonan actor Michael O’Keefe here.