From: Star Tribune*
Date: August 6, 1989
Photo(s): [Joel plays guitar while original Crow peers on.]
Author: Kaplan, Steven
Page(s): Sunday Magazine 4-6
Many people have found that success and wealth do not always mean happiness. But not all are willing to give it all up for less lucrative work. Here are three people who did. Today's bookstores groan under the weight of books that advise us how to be rich and successful. Where, though, are the books that tell us what to do if getting rich and successful fails to make us happy? More and more people are discovering that it takes a lot more than money and success to find happiness. Few successful people, though, ever suspect that their very success may be the cause of their unhappiness. Below we examine the lives of three very accomplished people who dared to question their own success. Their investigations led to the ironic discovery that quitting their successful endeavors would ultimately become their most daring success.
Most show-business people would jump at the opportunity to have their own nationally televised situation comedy. Joel Hodgson, though, not only turned down such an offer, but quit show business because of it.
In 1983, at age 24, Hodgson had moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in search of furthering his career as a stand-up comic. He was immediately and spectacularly successful. Within two months of arriving in California he had appeared on the "Late Night With David Letterman" show, was a featured comedian on the "HBO Young Comedians Special" and appeared on "Saturday Night Live" two weeks in a row.
Hodgson was obviously a hot property, and the network honchos took proper notice. No less a personage than NBC president Brandon Tartikoff chose Hodgson to star in a sitcom that he was personally backing. That meant the show would have a guaranteed run, and, of course, it meant an offer of big bucks to Hodgson: $10,000 a show to start. Hodgson turned the offer down.
"All I knew is that I didn't want to do that show," Hodgson says. "It was called 'High School U.S.A.' and was a really dumb 'Animal House' type of show where the ragtag group of losers band together and beat the big fraternity guys. When I turned them down I thought that would end it, but all they did was double the amount of money they offered me. They were already going to pay me a stupidly large amount of money, and they doubled it because I was this dumb kid comedian telling them their show wasn't funny.
"Hollywood needs a lot of confidence going into these projects because so much money is involved, so they were basically trying to buy me because I didn't agree with what they were doing. But to me it just seemed, 'Why try to make high school kids think that's what high school is, in the name of being funny?' I felt a lot of responsibility and didn't want to sell away all those kids' perceptions."
Hodgson was plagued by responsibility, a rarely seen commodity in the television industry. He had made a meteoric rise in his profession, leaping in three years from the stages of mother-daughter church banquets in his native Green Bay, Wis., through the Twin Cities comedy-club scene and onto the national television scene. He had barely arrived in Los Angeles before he found himself a star, and, unlike most performers, he didn't like it. He suspected the sincerity of the people around him, refused to participate in unwholesome ventures and found fame an onerous obligation.
"When I left for L.A.," he says, "all I really wanted was to be on the Letterman show. That was really my only goal. I didn't want to be a nutty neighbor on a sitcom, I didn't want to be in a movie. But then came the 'Saturday Night Live' bit, and that was seen by 20 million people. It was a big responsibility to have so many people watching you, and I felt responsible to those people. I had to be funny, but I wanted to do something that was nutritious and enriching. I didn't want to give them junk, but to give them good solid jokes and solid ideas.
"The most frustrating thing about show business is the myths it creates about people. People seem to need heroes, and they like to imagine that, say, Robert Goulet has a cool life. And I think that's kind of an unhealthy thing. Robert Goulet just happens to like to sing, and he'd rather sing to make a living than do something he's not good at.
"As I began to get famous, the same need-for-heroes thing happened to me, and I was really too young to handle it. It wasn't making me happy to be known. It was upsetting me because people didn't seem to understand that I still had to get up in the morning and look in the mirror, and I could still be unhappy. But when you're making it people assume that you're always happy. They write you off as a whole human being and assume they can't talk to you as they would to other people. It's like the story of King Midas, where you're so successful you're alienated from everything around you. You have to have a certain type of mental toughness to say to yourself, 'This is just what I do, and people are responsible for how they interpret what I do.'
"The show-business community began watching me and wondering what I was going to do. I was actually growing up in public, and I really hated that. When you're just a normal person and make mistakes, the people around you know it, and you acknowledge it and everything is OK. But the press and the media are one-dimensional things and can't handle the real complexities of people. So as far as I was concerned, I had to get away from being known and having so many people interested in what I was doing. It made me very self-conscious."
The unrealistic society that surrounds show-business people was less than healthy for him as well. He hated the sycophants and hangers-on who inevitably accompany celebrity. "In Hollywood people cluster about you and tell you that you're a genius after every show, whether the show was good or bad. There's always this group of people around you patting you on the back. It works on your ego. They make you think you're bigger, better, stronger and happier than the average person. They wanted to make my accomplishments seem huge and everyone's seem small. But I knew that wasn't true."
In the end it was the offer of the sitcom that convinced Hodgson he had to leave show business. He was depressed by the shallowness around him, and he had no friends his age who could understand what he was feeling. Most importantly, his responsibility to his managers left him feeling undependable and guilty.
"You don't make money from doing TV shows," he says. "You get $300 for doing Letterman and $700 for 'Saturday Night Live.' The only way to make money in this business is to go do the clubs after people have seen you on those shows. But I hated traveling; I just like doing the TV shows, so that year I only made about $12,000. When I turned down the sitcom, and all the money they were offering, I started to feel bad about my management and my agency, because they couldn't make money if I wasn't making any. I felt like I was jerking them around and wasting their time. The usual program is you do anything that's going to move you ahead, and I just couldn't do that."
Hodgson decided he had to quit show business. He is a prop comedian, and in a final show he sold all his props and retired to his small Minneapolis apartment. "I can't wait to be normal," he told the local press. "I hope I'm forgotten real quickly. I want to be 'Joel Who?' real quick."
Back in the Twin Cities, Hodgson tried to make a living in a variety of ways. He built and sold sculptures, he tried working at a T-shirt factory, he designed toys and, eventually, he began designing and building props for other comedians. For four years he never set foot on a stage. Last year, though, he began performing again, only this time under hs own conditions. He still doesn't travel to clubs, and he has no plans to be a nutty neighbor in a sitcom.
"After I quit, it took me several years until I finally realized that not doing comedy for me was like living my life with my arm and my leg tied behind my back," Hodgson says. "Quitting was not a waste of time; I definitely needed to do that, but now I think I can go back to comedy and do it on my own terms. Not being on the road means I have to do things like local shows, corporate shows and writing for other people, if it's a fun project. But I like what I'm doing, and I really enjoy meeting other comedians and having them like what I do. I'm older and more relaxed about everything.
"And comedy itself had kind of grown up. The whole scene is more mature. There are guys doing it who want to be lifers--they don't want to burn out or die young in a car crash."