Interviewing Beverly Ross and Ferris Butler: Skits, films and rock ’n’ roll

Beverly Ross Ferris Butler

Beverly Ross

To me, they’ve always been Uncle Ferris and Aunt Beverly, yet Ferris Butler and Beverly Ross have much more to them than merely a personal relationship. Ferris, a former film-school student of Martin Scorsese’s at New York University who went on to create the cult cable show Waste Meat News before writing for Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s, and Beverly, an iconic rock ‘n’ roll songwriter who has penned Top 10 hits such as “Lollipop” and “It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry,” certainly made a deep impact on the world — particularly in the realm of pop culture, where their effects have extended to the cinema as well. The latter tie-in has always interested me, especially considering the prevalence of a family story pointing to Ferris as the inspiration for the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and the opportunity to talk to them about their opinions on movies was a too-good-to-pass-up chance. In the following interview, the duo discuss their feelings about film, their successes in the entertainment industry and Beverly’s new memoir, I Was the First Woman Phil Spector Killed! (available on Amazon), as well as provide some in-character advice for those considering such a career. Read on for more.

Rock ‘n’ roll and television are inextricably linked with the movies, and they often overlap with each other. How has film affected you as artists, and what kind of impact have you had on the cinema?

BR: My song “Lollipop” was in Stand by Me (1986), “Dim, Dim the Lights” was in Liberty Heights (1999) starring Adrien Brody, and “Remember Then” was in The Best of Times (1986) with Robin Williams, though there were 30 to 40 other usages of different songs in TV series and films. [Still,] those three were terribly powerful because the lyrics matched the paradigm of the scripts. They weren’t just background music as they were in other usages.

FB: Much of my comedy writing is satirising the dumb-ass crap they call cinema — not in all cases, but all too often. I use sketch comedy to lampoon stupid hack cinema that makes mucho bucks. This includes made-for-television movies. Great movies like Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and others have definitely, from the time [when I was an] adolescent kid in the early 1960s, [inspired] me to be dark and outrageous when i have to.

Ferris, you were apparently the inspiration for the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What happened, exactly, that started it all?

Ferris Butler Beverly Ross

Ferris Butler (Photo Credit: Noah Kalina, 2006)

FB: During season six (1980-’81) of Saturday Night Live, there was a staff member added mid-year named Del Close. Del was the guru of Second City, and brought on to coach and advise on improvisational comedy. He got along with me very much, drank beer in the office. Del was the mentor to the Belushis, the Tina Feys, the Bill Murrays, etc.

The Second City comedy troupe was a Chicago-based entity, and Ferris Bueller auteur John Hughes was Chicago-based, as were his film plots. Close and Hughes were definitely two creative Chicago friends. Del also was given a bit part in Ferris Bueller as a high school teacher. One day in the SNL offices, Del comes up to me while I’m standing next to Gilbert Gottfried and says, “Ya know, I’d like to write a film script based on your personality.”

And though he didn’t write it, word must’ve gotten round, as the idea later became a reality. Yet that wasn’t your first foray into film. Tell us what it was like having Martin Scorsese as a professor at New York University, and what was the most memorable thing you learned from him? Did it inspire you to start your own cable show?

Ferris Butler Beverly Ross

Martin Scorsese

FB: Having Marty teaching my Filmmaking 101 class was really cool and different, because at that time most college instructors were not as frank. He loved stark and brash qualities in the cinema; he loved John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), horror films, brilliant reds. He said the way he learned to make movies was by going to them. A simple, three-minute, non-lip-sync film I made in his class of a boy and a girl at a bus stop cruising each other and eventually f##king garnered a big compliment from him, and I was encouraged by that. I didn’t exactly get inspired to start my own cable satire show from Marty Scorsese; that was more from Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python and the fact I reviled the established media, including public relations agents. But Scorsese certainly did [spur] me to be brash and vivid, even with my low-budget Sony portable video tape recorder outfit I had in the late 1970s. I saw Mean Streets (1973) six times.

Beverly, what role do your songs play in the musical lexicon, and when did filmmakers first start realising that your works were the perfect accompaniment for their motion pictures?

BR: They started using them in the 1960s. Acknowledgement of their inclusion by the international and domestic cinema industry was tremendously inspiring to me. It pumped up my motivation to start being fearless lyrically, because songs that films use reflect the political, religious and entertainment values of our society. As a developing writer, I wanted my songs to appear even more relevant for usability in TV commercials, series and cinema. Also three video games in the twenty-first century — Destroy All Humans!, Stubbs the Zombie and, last but not least, the Japanese designed smash Lollipop Chainsaw — have used my songs. Ad agencies also aware of the use of my songs were inspired to hire me for 10 to 30 and 60-second commercial spots, including Dr Pepper, Vitalis, Gaines Dog Food and Borax.

Beverly Ross Ferris ButlerA number of Beverly’s songs were featured in Ferris’ cable comedy show in the 1970s, Waste Meat News. Tell us how that came about and why you decided to use them.

FB: I decided to use Beverly’s 1976 indie record “Art Deco,” a phenomenal disco record, by a group called The New York City Rhythm Orchestra (who were a bunch of the top studio players of the era), as the theme song for my comedy sketch series Waste Meat News. It didn’t get big distribution in the music industry but people loved it on the cable show. Randy Brecker was playing the trumpet and [there also was] a whole bunch of other fabulous players. Another song of hers was perfect for my satire on Waste Meat News of the movie Grease (1978). Her 1950s #1 hit in Sweden, “Frankenstein Rock” (sung by Brita Borg) was the music track for the skit, “Swedish Grease” (in Swedish). It also came out in English in 1958 (sung by Eddie Thomas) in America but didn’t chart much, although it is on compilations of Halloween rock songs and is still played on radio stations around Halloween. Also, I used one of Beverly’s songs, “Tears Of Misery” on my current Manhattan Neighborhood Network comedy series The Ferris Butler Program. The reason was that it’s a good, lively song — great for the opening and closing credits. I was tired of using ’40s jazz.

BR: Ferris loved the hot Latin rhythms of the instrumental disco record I wrote, “Art Deco.” And “Frankenstein Rock” was a real hoot.

Beverly, your songwriting career basically started when you, as a teenager, waited outside Manhattan’s Brill Building for a writer to talk to you and listen to your songs. And Ferris, with Waste Meat News influencing shows such as Saturday Night Live, you were a natural fit for that program … which you were ultimately hired to write for. How have things changed in the industry in terms of getting started?

Beverly Ross Ferris ButlerFB: The Internet gives everyone a chance to show his or her comedy video talent with high-tech [productions] at a cheap price. There’s an avalanche of competition. Even 34 years ago it was horrible, though when Carl Reiner and Woody Allen were starting out in 1950s television, it wasn’t so bad, I assume.

TV Guide in June 1980 asserted that “if you want to preview SNL sketches, watch Waste Meat News.” For example, the November 1977 sketch about the Trough ‘n’ Brew Restaurant on SNL came right after a sketch titled “The Trough Restaurant” on Waste Meat News, where people ate like animals from a buffet table with only their mouths. All my friends called me and asserted this, too (many more watched SNL in those days before the advent of the Internet, Facebook and 1000 cable channels).

BR: The Brill Building at 49th Street and Broadway and 1650 Broadway at 51st Street were, at that time, fortresses of publishing and record-industry offices. Today, it’s very scattered; in fact, locations all over New York have publishing houses, so it’s not so centralised. Today, you have to have a connection or a recommendation from an industry member, and excellently mixed and produced demos, to enable you to have a successful meeting with any music publisher label. At the beginning for me I had primitively, self-written lead sheets, and I was called to sit at the piano and sing the song to whoever would listen to me. That’s what we did. Now, finished demos are needed.

In terms of working on SNL, Ferris, who was your favourite writing partner … and why? How competitive was the process?

Ferris Butler Beverly Ross

Ferris Butler’s SNL “Reaganco” skit

FB: It is like being a gladiator: very competitive. I liked working with Gilbert Gottfried, who also contributed to the writing on a few of my sketches he performed in. He was somewhat of an outcast, like me, weird — sort of — and we got along in that manner.

In your book I Was the First Woman Phil Spector Killed!, Beverly, you describe how you came up with the idea for the famous song “Lollipop.” What exactly happened that incited this work?

BR: The cowriter that I was working with on several songs arrived late to the appointment. I was very angry because the time in that particular studio was almost over, and I said, “I have to go home to New Jersey, we have so many songs to finish, and you’re so late.” He said he was sorry, and that his 3-year-old daughter got a lollipop stuck in her hair, and his wife was chasing the kid with a scissor in her hand because she was unable to remove the lollipop manually, and the kid was screaming that she didn’t want her hair cut. An inspiration shot through my mind and I said, “The hell with all those other songs — let’s write a song called ‘Lollipop.’” I sat down at the studio piano and played the whole chorus, words and music.

Beverly Ross Ferris Butler

Beverly Ross image from the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame”

Also In your book, you write that when you were learning to play the piano as a child, you performed the music back to your teacher by ear. Just how good is your pitch and how did you hone it?

BR: I have relative pitch, but at the age of eight I could imitate anything I heard, and I don’t know why and how I can do that. You don’t hone your pitch; you’re either born with it or not, and sometimes it’s a terrible nuisance.

You’re a prolific songwriter. How many Top 10 hits have you penned, and what percentage of your overall oeuvre does that make up?

BR: I’ve had 10 Top 10-charting songs, which includes the US and the UK, and many that charted in the Top 30s and 40s. I’ve never figured out the percentage, but frankly the percentage is not enough!

Which moments would you point to as the highlights of your career?

BR: The most supreme highlights of my career:

Bonnie Raitt singing my Roy Orbison-recorded song, “Candy Man,” as her favourite Orbison song on the national TV memorial for him;

Being honoured by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland in 2013 with a webcast interview to a live theatre audience, followed by a book signing. (Dr. Jason Hanley, Director of Education for the Hall of Fame, hosted and interviewed.)

Can you describe any interesting projects you’re working on today?

Beverly Ross Ferris Butler

“Lollipop” was originally recorded by “Ronald and Ruby”. Ruby was, in fact, Beverly Ross.

FB: I’m still trying to sell more sketch comedy to the TV business. I’m working with some younger, funny comics and will continue to do my MNN cable satire series, which has a cult audience and serves as a showcase to get my stuff out there.

BR: After being accepted into the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop circa-1995, I’ve worked on several works, none of which have yet been produced. But I’m now working on a major theatre project that has some fire and fiscal support behind it, and I believe this one will fly.

What have you both learned from the entertainment business?

FB: It’s not what you know; it’s who will take a meeting with you and not take seven phone calls!

BR: It doubles for a badly run insane asylum, but I love it!

What advice would you give to an artist starting out in the film, TV or music business today?

BR: Stay out of it, since innocent newcomers can’t begin to envision the grief, anxiety and rejection you’ll be facing. I advise you to marry a wealthy investor, male or female, and prepare to work 30 hours a day for the next decade.

FB: Plenty of blowjobs.

 

Scene from Stand by Me featuring Beverly Ross’ “Lollipop” 

Ferris Butler’s Saturday Night Live “Leather Weather” skit

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

16 thoughts on “Interviewing Beverly Ross and Ferris Butler: Skits, films and rock ’n’ roll

  1. Pingback: From Skip and Setter’s Creator: My Interview Hits Town | Skip and Setter's Cinema Blogishkeit

  2. Here’s some more from Ferris on Season 6 of Saturday Night Live: “Seasons 1-5 of SNL produced a phenomenon, a network TV show which was such a huge success that each writer had a secretary and the afterparty had a free open bar and food. A superstar atmosphere permeated the whole show. By season 6, when I joined under the management of producer Jean Doumanian, there was a great hope and expectation, but tension and pressure to duplicate a bonanza for the NBC network abounded. Lorne Michaels had gone to open up a post-production company for an indefinite vacation from SNL.”

    “I remember once meeting a man who was a sales representative for NBC, in the hallway, and he anxiously questioned me, a month before the debut episode. ‘Are these new guys good?’ (Gottfried, Charles Rocket.) ‘We’ve already sold the show at $35,000 a spot.’ ‘Sure, they’re terrific,’ I replied, in an effort to be positive. But I could already sense from this query by the business end of NBC that there would be trouble in paradise. Soon we found we did not get the free bar or food at the afterparties; you had to pay at the restaurant they chose each week.”

    “Yes, there was a lot of good material and talent there, and SNL season 6 is excessively criticized. Eddie Murphy was this kid right out of the local comedy clubs who, only because of an astute talent coordinator from the original show, beckoned the producer, Jean, to put him on the cast as the African-American member rather than another fellow who they almost hired. Eddie was an enthusiastic 19-year-old walking up and down the halls being real positive even when they didn’t give him heavy attention the first couple of shows. Then when he filled in as a live monologue when the show was short five minutes and the audience liked his last-minute rescue, they made him a full-time cast member and used him a lot. Sure it was very competitive and that was the case heavily in the first five years and the 30-plus years since, but it was a lot of fun having Gilbert Gottfried come into my office talking totally gross bathroom humor and making me laugh so hard I almost suffocated.”

    “Joe Piscopo was already a somewhat experienced comedian with a few credits, real congenial and professional. One female writer was right out of Harvard (The Harvard Lampoon), Pam Norris – very brilliant and later went on to a lot of success. She was cool to talk to along with the rest of the new-to-television acting and writing crew.”

    “When my formerly video/cable sketch ‘The Leather Weather’ was being considered to be put in production, I loved how the director and producer both were embarrassed to indicate that they might know about bondage. ‘You tell me how to stage the “Leather Weather”; I don’t know anything about S&M/bondage,’ said Jean. ‘No, YOU, tell me how to produce it; I sure know nothing about this stuff,’ retorted Dave Wilson, director.”

    “Eventually, they had to prevail upon me to extract my videotape of my demo reel of my cable comedy show Waste Meat News, where the ‘Leather Weather’ was originally filmed and cablecast in 1978 in black and white Sony on a portapak shot in my apartment in Manhattan. Then they figured out, after also having a written script, how to film it. No one could say they were perverts; I was the degenerate! They made sure a guy was tied up with a female abusing him rather than vice versa on the original ‘Leather Weather.’ NBC couldn’t have a woman being abused by a male – it would create a feminist outrage!”

    “Actually, even though Charlie Rocket was cast as the submissive leather person tied to the weather map on the ‘Leather Weather,’ originally they designated Joe Piscopo, who did it in the Friday rehearsal but complained to the producer and they put in Charles. Denny Dillon was all too happy to be the dominant whipper. Actually Malcolm McDowell was the original choice [and] was first cast as the submissive guy tied up, but somehow it was changed. When he stopped into my office for the customary look-see with the creative staff, I had a photo of the ominous black and white cable version of ‘Leather Weather’ in 8 x 10 on the bookcase in my office. Though often looked at as scary and dangerous, Malcolm sure seemed out of character with the shocked look on his face after seeing the ‘Leather Weather.’”

    • Thank you Ferris and thank you Pete. Having read several books on the subject by various third parties, it’s really great to hear about the “lost” year of SNL from someone who was actually there. While clearly Murphy and (back in the day) Piscopo, were the breakout stars, Rocket was also very talented and did some really funny work subsequently. His hilarious slow-burn obsession in “It’s Pat!” is the only real reason to see the movie. His ultimate fate was a real shame.

  3. I would love to hear more from Ferris regarding what was, by all accounts, a notorious year in the history of SNL. From what he describes, he was working for Jean Doumanian who briefly produced the show after Lorne Michaels and his original cast and crew left in 1980. That season was a well known nightmare for all concerned, of note only because it brought Eddie Murphy onto the show. With the exceptions of Gilbert Gotfried, Joe Piscopo and the late Charles Rocket- probably better known for being the first cast memeber to say “fuck” on the air than anything else- the show’s second incarnation didn’t create the cast of stars the previous five seasons had and was quickly scrapped. Would be neat to hear about this from an insider.

    • Yes, from what I understand, it was a pretty tumultuous time; I believe Ferris was among those who didn’t return to SNL. I’ll find out from Ferris if he can elaborate on this period. He definitely did some funny work with Gottfried, Murphy & Co.–in fact, I believe one of Ferris’ skits was among Murphy’s first on SNL … if not his first with the show. I actually liked Rocket as a performer; he was very funny in “Earth Girls Are Easy.” An interesting time.

  4. Great to have such talent in the family Simon, and it took me back, to see an article featuring ‘Lollipop’, a real Rock and Roll iconic song. I am not really that familiar with SNL, but I am aware of the string of comics who forged careers from being featured on it.
    Nice to read something very personal for a change, so thanks for posting.
    Regards from England, Pete.

Leave a Reply