Heeb’s Brian Abrams talks to Rick Moranis about his new comedy album, the search for both Spaceballs 2 and Ghostbusters 3 and the raunchiness of airports.
Saturday, June 22, 2013, 12:02 p.m. Rick Moranis’s kitchen table on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Two filtered glasses of water, no ice.
BRIAN ABRAMS: You got the album out. I saw your interview in the Times, and yet, part of me felt hesitant to bother you.
RICK MORANIS: But if you’re doing this for Heeb Magazine, you should have. Glad you did.
BA: I was wondering how much of this is foreign territory for you – putting out a Jewish album, selling CDs online …
RM: Well, the other album [Agoraphobic Cowboy, 2006] started on a website. What it proved to me was, not only had I enjoyed songwriting and music production as much as I always had, but that, if I was going to make the records myself, I could do whatever I wanted. So I just kept writing these songs and decided to record them. So, around December, I called the attorney at Warner Music Group, a Jewish guy from New Jersey, to make sure that the secondary distribution side of the cowboy album was free and clear, [that] I had no obligations to him and could get it back when I put this one online. He said, “What are you doing now?” And I said, “Uh, this isn’t for you. I made this record for eight people. I’m just gonna put it out there. I don’t care what happens to it.”
BA: Is that the truth? You really don’t care one way or the other?
RM: What’s there to care about? I would never do this to make money. I would do a sitcom to make money. I did this for the sheer joy of doing it. Same with the other album, which ended up a success financially and got critically acclaimed and nominated for a Grammy. That was all gravy to me. So I decided to do this. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work, it’s not going to change my life at all. So, he said “Well lemme hear what you got because the record business is so different now.” And I said, “All right, well, come on over.” He came over, and he sat right here. I played him a very crude demo. He took off the headphones and said, “You’re crazy. There’re Jews all over the world. Put this out!” So we made a deal, and here I am. And the label is based in Nashville, [where] I sat in a marketing meeting, explaining what a minyan is, and what the number 18 chai is.
BA: And kinehora.
RM: Well, I didn’t have to explain every word in every song, but they went crazy over the idea of doing a yarmulke as a bonus add-on. So far, the response has just been hilarious. I don’t know if it will translate to sales or not. We’ll see.
BA: You mentioned on a recent podcast how, when writing, the “too Jewish” thing dates back to [your SCTV days on] CBC. You guys would spitball in a room …
RM: Still goes on, I’m sure. “Can’t do it. Too Jewish.”
BA: You brought up the idea of it being too insider-y or that the censors won’t go for it. But what about when that gag reflex kicks in for your own personal taste? When you’re just submerging yourself in a Jacuzzi of schmaltz.
RM: Jacuzzi of schmaltz. That is fantastic.
BA: But My Mother’s Brisket? You just went for it, and I wonder … did you get it all out of your system?
RM: It’s funny you say that because I have two kids who are now in their 20s. My daughter has an ear for this kind of thing, and I used her as a bit of a filter. I figured that the Orthodox who might be offended are not the consumers for it, won’t hear about it, won’t buy it. But I thought there was a gray area between conservative and Orthodox people for whom you don’t screw around with the mezuzah, you don’t do liner notes with the Dead Sea Scrolls. My daughter said “No, it’s fine. They’re gonna love it.” I played my son the whole thing, and he sort of winced. He said, “Boy you really needed to get this out, didn’t ya?” I don’t know if I’ll do another album remotely like this, but I really wanted to do this. [That] my daughter was right that the whole gray area loved it, that they’re not finding it the least bit offensive, is relieving. I am glad I still have that compass on me, because I think it’s what separates me from being perhaps someone who would think it appropriate to go further, which I don’t have the inclination for.
BA: That’s not who you are.
RM: It’s not who I am. What people are hearing is the warmth and the joy. They’re not hearing meanness. They’re not hearing malice. None of that is intended.
BA: Other talented people out there are able to go for the shock or snark, and they’re good at it.
RM: That’s not what we grew up consuming. For those of us who went into the business of writing and performing, we always felt that those were easy choices. It’s really easy to be dirty, to provoke. It’s much harder to not use that stuff. That’s why I so admire Seinfeld’s commitment to working clean. He knows you can get a laugh without a joke if you spin it properly with a four-letter word. That’s not comedy. That’s just a four-letter word. He doesn’t work like that. We couldn’t [at SCTV] because we had censors, but it also was never our taste.
BA: SCTV was clean, and yet, so weird and dark. The layers of references on that show, you guys went down so many rabbit holes.
RM: Yeah. There was nobody there to tell you not to do it. I remember, [Dave Thomas and I] on the first day of shooting Strange Brew in Toronto. They had an executive from MGM on the set, and then we got rid of that person as quickly as possible. There was a line where we’d brought some beer for our father, and we said “We’re in his good books now, ey?” Now, where we grew up, that was a line you’d say. “Geez, I’m in his good books now.” She said, “No one’s gonna understand this. You have to change the line.” I said, “I don’t think we have to come up with something else. This is the line you bought that’s in the script.”
BA: Could you imagine if she had changed “They horked our clothes“?
RM: Exactly. That’s the point. You can’t tell us 20 years from now what the audience might have embraced as being quintessentially the most important lingo of the movie. That’s why she’s an executive and not a writer.
BA: Before I read up about why you peaced-out from making movies [raising kids after his wife's passing in 1991], I assumed it was in part because of bitterness and exhaustion from dealing with that sort of thing.
RM: Well, that didn’t help. At that particular period I had started to do films because they fit into life, because it was lucrative. Films where they basically were renting my face and my name, and I was a quote-unquote actor. That’s a completely different skill set, which I really don’t have. It yields a different experience than the gratification that comes from the home cooking of a creative project – being in Mel Brooks’s movie or Ghostbusters. That’s a very different thing than “Come in at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, here’s the script, hit the marks, now we need a close-up, thank you.” That wasn’t for me.
BA: Versus being in a room with Mel.
RM: That’s like summer camp.
BA: You didn’t get to keep the helmet or the tie, I’m guessing.
RM: No, no, no. I don’t know where the helmet is. I hope it’s still alive, although you could always knock off another one.
BA: I just think it belongs in –
RM: – the Smithsonian. Or Lucas’s ranch or something.
BA: You go to L.A. much?
RM: I haven’t been there in years. I cannot remember the last time. Out of the Toronto guys and all the Second City people, I mean, everybody’s out there. And I’m one of the few who didn’t. I’ve lost track with all those guys.
BA: You don’t miss it.
RM: I never unpacked when I was out there. I had the suitcase at the foot of the bed, and I could be at the airport in an hour and a half. It was the wrong latitude for me. I gotta wear hats and scarves and gloves.
BA: You’re a homebody?
RM: Oh, yeah. Post-9/11, I’ll do anything to stay out of an airport. I drive to Toronto two or three times a year to visit everybody. I don’t particularly like travel, and I do like home. I like to consume music alone and films alone. I read books alone. Why wouldn’t I consume other art alone? I always eat earlier than everyone, and I don’t like restaurants. By the time I take everything out of the food they serve, primarily the butter and the salt, it’s not very tasty. But I wasn’t always like this. I don’t recommend this as a lifestyle to a young person.
BA: Someone once wrote that you’re the J.D. Salinger of Canadian comedy.
RM: That’s a reach.
BA: Because he stopped working, all of a sudden he’s the reclusive artist.
RM: The need to do publicity and everything other than the work is not something that I set out to do. For some people it is. They want that. They want the connection to the audience. They want their name in the paper. For me, that was just a by-product of the work’s success. I didn’t really seek out any of that stuff.
BA: But I bet it feels good when you get a good review.
RM: Initially it feels good. Then the longer you do it, the smaller the pool of what you need. I’ve become a much more efficient editor of my material than I used to be, but I always run things by a handful of people that I completely trust. If I like it and they like it, then after that I don’t care if anybody else likes it.
BA: Who are your people? You said you don’t stay in touch with “those guys.” I don’t know who that means, SCTV people or Steve [Martin] …
RM: I haven’t been in touch with anyone I’ve worked with for over 20 years.
BA: The scripts that have been thrown your way over the years. More times than not, they’re hitting you up for sequels and threequels?
RM: Not anymore. I think the sequels exhausted themselves from the old franchises. So I hadn’t heard any of that stuff for many years now.
BA: Spaceballs II: The Search for More Money was a conversation?
RM: Mel wanted to do a sequel after it became a cult video hit. It wasn’t a box office hit. It was a cult video hit, and MGM wanted to do a sequel. And my idea for it was Spaceballs III: The Search for Spaceballs II. And I was unable to make a deal with Mel. I couldn’t make a deal.
BA: In terms of just getting enough money?
RM: I wasn’t privy to what the budget was or anything, but the deal he presented me, what he wanted me to do, was not workable. It was two or three years later. He wanted me to … it’s better if I don’t get into the particulars of it. Because it is so specific, it’s counter-productive to talk about it. But I was unable to make a deal, and it would have been something I would have wanted to do. But that ship has sailed. Then, there’s the perennial talk of another Ghostbusters, but that’s all talk and speculation.
BA: Have you been approached about it?
RM: I got a call three or four years ago from an associate of Aykroyd’s. Some sort of producer. And he said, “Listen, I gotta ask you something, because the Internet says you’re retired”—which is one of my favorites, by the way.
BA: When the Internet says you’re retired?
RM: I just love when the Internet is wrong. It’s the only thing that will save journalism. So he says, “I gotta ask, would you do it?” I said, “I don’t say no to anything until everything is presented to me.” What is it? Is it happening? Is there a script? What’s the part? Who else is in it? Where is it? How long is it gonna take? You know, I need a little bit more information. “But it’s something you would do?” he asks. Do I have to answer that?
BA: He needs that confirmation, so he can go back to people and make his deal.
RM: Yeah. That’s called “producing.” I got this, and I got this. Gimme some money.
BA: You mentioned how after 9/11 you avoid airplanes at all costs.
RM: It had already reached a point where it was getting raunchier. Then, the introduction of getting there two hours before and then the software systems where the airlines just lie to you? We started to hear the stories of people stuck on the tarmac for six hours. If that happens to me, I’ll be on the front page of the New York Post the next day. I’ll fake a heart attack or melt down. So it’s better for me to stay away from airports.
BA: Because of being processed like a farm animal, not for security reasons.
RM: Not the least bit afraid of flying! It all has to do with the process. A plane taxis away from the gate and sits for six hours, [yet] it takes eight and a half hours to drive to Toronto. And I’m alone. [On a plane] I always end up sitting next to the guy who will see a pulmonary specialist the next day. That happens to me at the theater, too. I always sit beside somebody with a horrendous cough. So, now I don’t go to the theater.
BA: So what do you do?
RM: I keep really busy doing the things I like to do. I do a lot of walking. I see friends. I read. I listen to my music.
BA: Curb Your Enthusiasm?
RM: I got rid of HBO after The Sopranos. I don’t put the TV on except to see the weather or put on a ballgame. And I watch golf. Not every weekend, but the more important tournaments I’ll watch for sure every Sunday afternoon. I didn’t start watching Seinfeld until it replaced the 11 o’ clock news. I guess it was the first year of syndication, and I got hooked. I’m way behind the curve on TV.
BA: There’s too much stuff out there as it is. Reading is good for you.
RM: The other thing I’m finding is that there are worlds I just do not wanna be in. For example, I was listening to WBGO Jazz in Newark, which is on 24 hours a day. After 9/11, I switched to classical. And I’m still on classical. I couldn’t listen to jazz after 9/11. I guess it was just too upbeat. Right after 9/11, bad dat dat dah doop daaah dap bah dah dah doop!? I don’t think so. I needed dirges.
BA: And you don’t travel.
RM: I’m single, and traveling alone is no picnic. I think if I had a companion, if I was involved with a woman seriously enough, then I would probably travel with her.
BA: Is that an option for you? Are you open to dating?
RM: I’ve dated through the years—
BA: No dating websites, I’m assuming.
RM: What picture would I use? The guy from Ghostbusters? I don’t think dating sites work for people with famous punims.
BA: Well, how do you meet people?
RM: You have to want to meet somebody, you can’t be shy and you have to put work into it. You have to say to people, fix me up! Do you know anybody? If you’re not going to wind up with your childhood sweetheart or the person you went to med school with or whatever, then you either have to get really lucky bumping into somebody. Or you have to be doing the things you love and encounter someone who also enjoys those things. And you can begin to build some history together. The older you get, I think the harder it gets.
BA: Would she need to be Jewish for you?
RM: It’s not a prerequisite. It just invariably turns out that the people I wind up getting most involved with, I have the most in common with. That’s usually one of the factors leading to that.
BA: Do you observe? Do you go to services?
RM: No. No. No.
BA: When, if ever, was there a point in your career when you recognized, for sake of finance alone, that you don’t have to make movies anymore?
RM: Now, in terms of a sequel, the decision to not do the sequel to Spaceballs sounds like a money decision. That’s a different thing. Would you take a promotion for less money? That wouldn’t be a good business move, would it? So there’re those kinds of decisions. Then, there’s the kind of decision that you’re asking about, which I never thought about once. I always lived below my means. I knew it was a jackpot business, and I didn’t have the tastes for collecting cars or multiple homes. But the decision to raise kids in New York City, which is not an inexpensive proposition, it wasn’t going to be a struggle for me. But, in order to prioritize what I wanted and [still] be able to do that, I needed to continue to work. So I did voiceovers and commercials. I did things that didn’t involve travel. But at no point did I ever say, “I don’t need another paycheck, I’m walking away.”
BA: How old are your kids now?
RM: My daughter’s 26, and my son’s 24. They’re independent. But, you know, towards the end, I did a couple movies for the money. I knew that I was going to stop, and it wasn’t an overnight decision. It was, you know, I’m gonna say no to that and I’m gonna say no to that. Then I just kinda faded away. But it wasn’t an overnight “That’s it!” declaration.
BA: I can’t really think of a movie you’ve done in your career that’s tainted you. I don’t think you have anything like that looming over you.
RM: I don’t know. That’s not for me to be able to observe or decide.
BA: How about a tour?
RM: I’m intrigued by the idea of playing this music live. I’ve never done that. To do a stage performance in a theater with this music, it might be enjoyable. I have no idea. I’ll see what happens. I’m not saying no to anything at this point, including all of the above.