The Philosophy of Bill Murray: The Intellectual Foundations of His Comedic Persona

“Bill Mur­ray is a nation­al, no, an inter­na­tion­al, no an inter­galac­tic trea­sure,” said Jim Jar­musch, who direct­ed him in Cof­fee and Cig­a­rettes and Bro­ken Flow­ers, when the actor won this year’s Mark Twain Prize for Amer­i­can Humor. But what, exact­ly, do we find so com­pelling about the guy? I launched into my own quest to find out after see­ing his per­for­mance in Rush­more (regard­ed by most Mur­ray schol­ars as a rev­e­la­tion of depth at which he’d only hint­ed between wise­cracks before), watch­ing every movie he ever appeared in. Sim­i­lar­ly rig­or­ous research must have gone into this new video on the phi­los­o­phy of Bill Mur­ray.

“Since replac­ing Chevy Chase on Sat­ur­day Night Live in 1977,” says nar­ra­tor Jared Bauer, “Bill Mur­ray has embod­ied a very par­tic­u­lar type of com­e­dy that can best be described as ‘iron­ic and cooly dis­tant.’ ” Bauer ref­er­ences a New York Times arti­cle on Mur­ray’s ascen­dance to “sec­u­lar saint­hood” which describes him as hav­ing had “such a long film career that, in the pub­lic mind, there are mul­ti­ple Bill Mur­rays. The Bill Mur­ray of Stripes and Ghost­busters is an anti-author­i­tar­i­an goof­ball: the kind of smart-aleck who leads a com­pa­ny of sol­diers in a coor­di­nat­ed dance rou­tine before a vis­it­ing gen­er­al, or responds to the pos­si­ble destruc­tion of New York City by say­ing, ‘Human sac­ri­fice, dogs and cats liv­ing togeth­er, mass hys­te­ria!’ ”

That mem­o­rable line makes it into “The Phi­los­o­phy of Bill Mur­ray,” as do many oth­ers, all of which spring from the actor’s sig­na­ture per­sona, which “stands slight­ly at a dis­tance from every­thing, enabling him to main­tain a dry­ly humor­ous com­men­tary about what’s going on around him.” Bauer places this in a tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can com­e­dy “dat­ing back at least to the vaude­ville days” and con­tin­u­ing through to Grou­cho Marx’s habit­u­al break­age of the fourth wall. He even con­nects it to 15th-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese play­wright-philoso­pher Zea­mi Motokiyo and, in some sense his 20th-cen­tu­ry con­tin­u­a­tion, Bertolt Brecht.

But what influ­ence best explains Mur­ray’s dis­tinc­tive onscreen and increas­ing­ly per­for­mance art-like off­screen behav­ior today? Maybe that of his one­time teacher, the Gre­co-Armen­ian Sufi mys­tic G.I. Gur­d­ji­eff, who, as Mur­ray’s Ghost­busters co-star Harold Ramis put it, “used to act real­ly irra­tional­ly to his stu­dents, almost as if try­ing to teach them object lessons.” He taught what he called “the fourth way of enlight­en­ment,” or — more fit­ting­ly in Mur­ray’s case — “the way of the sly man,” who can “find the truth in every­day life” by remain­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly aware of both the out­side world and his inner one while not get­ting caught up in either. The sly man thus exists between, and uses, “the world, the self, and the self that is observ­ing every­thing.”

Bauer sums up Mur­ray’s unique­ness thus: “He turns the usu­al style of Amer­i­can comedic irony against itself, or against him­self,” lead­ing us to “iden­ti­fy not with Bill Mur­ray’s char­ac­ter, but with Bill Mur­ray, who dis­tances him­self from the stakes of the nar­ra­tive.” But whether play­ing a char­ac­ter, play­ing him­self, or some­thing between the two, Mur­ray seems as if he knows some­thing we don’t about the stakes of life itself. “I’d like to be more con­sis­tent­ly here,” he once said to Char­lie Rose, who’d asked what he wants that he does­n’t already have. “Real­ly in it, real­ly alive. I’d like to just be more here all the time, and I’d like to see what I could get done, what I could do, if I was able to not get dis­tract­ed, to not change chan­nels in my mind and body.” A uni­ver­sal human long­ing, per­haps, but one Mur­ray, the ulti­mate sly man, has come to tap more deeply into than any per­former around.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Bill Mur­ray Lead a Guid­ed Medi­a­tion on How It Feels to Be Bill Mur­ray

An Ani­mat­ed Bill Mur­ray on the Advan­tages & Dis­ad­van­tages of Fame

Bill Mur­ray Reads Poet­ry at a Con­struc­tion Site

Bill Mur­ray Reads Great Poet­ry by Bil­ly Collins, Cole Porter, and Sarah Man­gu­so

Bill Mur­ray Gives a Delight­ful Dra­mat­ic Read­ing of Twain’s Huck­le­ber­ry Finn (1996)

Bill Mur­ray Sings the Poet­ry of Bob Dylan: Shel­ter From the Storm

Watch Bill Mur­ray Per­form a Satir­i­cal Anti-Tech­nol­o­gy Rant (1982)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Tom Martin says:

    It is both a joke and it’s not. We don’t know, but Bill Mur­ray does.

  • Sue Hutchings says:

    Dan Aykroyd & Don­na Dixon used to fre­quent a restau­rant where I was a cook. One day they brought Bill Mur­ray with them. I men­tioned to the oth­er cook (who only worked on week­ends and did the Chi­nese cui­sine) that I had seen Bill Mur­ray out front when I was on an errand. He did­n’t believe me until the wait­ress came scream­ing through the swing­ing kitchen doors that “Oh my God, Bill Mur­ray is out there … with Dan and Don­na.”

    I prac­ti­cal­ly dragged the oth­er cook to the swing­ing doors and point­ed out Mr. Mur­ray.
    “Look,” I said. “Look at his eyes. No one has eyes like Bill Mur­ray.”
    So, he was­n’t a naysay­er when Dan and Don­na showed up with John Can­dy a few months lat­er.

  • Antonia Martinelli says:

    When I was a child I met Bill Mur­ray at “The Work’s” year­ly hol­i­day craft fair in Armonk. This is how mem­bers of the Gur­d­ji­eff Foun­da­tion referred to them­selves. My moth­er was involved in The Work. I was in the children’s area and Bill came back and briefly played with us. Every time I saw a Bill Mur­ray movie grow­ing up my moth­er would point out the sub­tle ref­er­ences to Gur­d­ji­eff, espe­cial­ly Ground­hog Day. Mur­ray is liv­ing The Work.

  • Janie Massry says:

    Inter­est­ing clip and very descrip­tive.
    Bill Mur­ray has the abil­i­ty to make you won­der what he says or feels !

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