How Watching ‘Caddyshack’ Helps Me Stave Off Depression
The ritual of watching (and quoting) my favorite comedy
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I stare into a dark, star-filled screen. A white, illuminated “O” appears, and spins out the words “An Orion Pictures Release.” Outside, the sky is blue. Birds fly across my window. I lie on the couch as a choir of Kenny Loggins fades in from the speakers.
I have watched Caddyshack, the 1980 film directed by Harold Ramis and starring Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, more than 100 times. This is a conservative estimate; it does not include partial viewings, clips online, or the times it’s been played with the sound turned off.
Not once during any of these screenings have I smiled or laughed.
I don’t hate Caddyshack. I adore it. I can’t get enough of Caddyshack’s “snobs against the slobs” tale, set inside the members-only Bushwood Country Club. I relish the scenes with Al Czervik (played in a star turn by Rodney Dangerfield), a nouveaux riche condo magnate, who humiliates Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight), Bushwood’s slow-burn villain. I still find myself imitating the cadences of Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb, the golf prodigy playboy who speaks in clipped Zen koans. I adore all of it: the weak main storyline of working-class caddie Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe); the set pieces included for no reason other than to feature Smails’ lusty niece from Philadelphia, Lacey Underall (Cindy Morgan), in various stages of undress; Bill Murray’s unscripted performance as Carl Spackler, the louche and unhinged assistant greenskeeper, chasing an elusive gopher with firearms and explosives.
I don’t appreciate Caddyshack as a golf comedy. I’ve never golfed. I’ve never seen anyone tee off, never been to a driving range. I might not even classify Caddyshack as a comedy. Over the past decades, I have screened Caddyshack not as comic relief, but as something else. Spiritual comfort food comes close. It’s more like meditation or saying the rosary, a nourishing ritual. I experience Caddyshack to stitch my mind back together again, to receive what we might call “total consciousness.”
I watch Caddyshack alone. Always. These Caddyshack screenings typically occur in late spring, when my mood turns gloomy, inconsolably sad. I’ve called these periods a number of things over the years: ennui, melancholy, malaise, doldrums, afternoon stupor, feeling down-in-the-dumps. I know now this is depression, with dollops of generalized anxiety and an allergy to pollen. I watch Caddyshack as a rite of spring, to be return to a world where the biggest concerns include whether or not Judge Smails’ nephew, Spaulding, will pick his nose and then eat his own boogers. Watching Caddyshack’s mechanical gopher dance to Kenny Loggins has proven to have as much efficacy as my prescribed medications.
Humor, Simon Critchley writes, “exploits the gap between being a body and having a body.” When I’m depressed, that gap is exploited further. I enter an animal-like, non-intentional state. My own story ends or is paused. The restorative power of watching a familiar comedy like Caddyshack, over and over again over several decades, is that it replaces in the depressed person’s mind the real source of their sadness, whatever it might be. It narrows the gap, however temporarily. It allows you to imagine a body and mind restored to health.
I was too young to see the R-rated Caddyshack in the movie theater. I saw it a few years later, at the dawn of cable TV. It aired constantly. I’m part of the first generation that got to re-watch movies at home on cable and VCRs, over and over again, committing scenes to memory. How many others have Caddyshack imprinted into the minds? Thousands? Millions? Sure, Caddyshack is funny, but what is it about this movie, a modest success when it came out, that merits these re-watchings? Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story, Entertainment Weekly film critic Chris Nashawaty’s new book-length study just out this month, burnishes the film’s reputation as one of the “most beloved comedies of all time.” How did a movie written off by critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times as “immediately forgettable” trash become part of the comedy canon?
In the most famous monologue from Caddyshack, Carl Spackler recounts to a young caddy an obviously bullshit tale of jocking for the “Dalai Lama himself” in the Himalayas. Pitchfork in hand, poking prongs in the caddy’s neck, Bill Murray’s character tells the story of how “the Lama” utters the mysterious phrase “gunga lagunga”:
So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.
Did somebody step on a duck?
Here’s the part where I admit to being one of those annoying people who rattles off Caddyshack lines in social situations. Most times I trade Caddyshack lines with another person, I do sense a connection, even a deep one.
We have a pool and a pond…pond’d be good for you.
These quote-sharing moments mark the only times I have laughed or smiled in relation to Caddyshack. I also feel myself on the edge of crying. My eyes well up. My lips quiver. My brain feels lighter.
I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber.
Didn’t wanna do it, but felt I owed it to them.
In these moments, I don’t need to worry about connecting with another person, or think about what to say next. Time moves forward, onto the next object of attention.
Thank you, home video. Thank you, collective narrative. Thank you, total consciousness.
There’s a good chance that Ty Webb suffers from depression. Chevy Chase’s character is WASPy, his demeanor understated, sure. He is also withdrawn, disengaged. He stares into space, and avoids eye contact. When Lacy Underalls, the movie’s femme fatale, visits him unannounced, we see his bachelor bungalow littered with leftover pizza, samurai swords, and newspapers.
“Here’s an uncashed check for seventy thousand dollars,” Lacy says.
“Keep it,” Ty answers.
Throughout their scene together, Ty never looks into Lacy’s face, never cracks a smile.
Words associated with comedy: masochism, narcissism, trivia, hysteria.
Words associated with melancholy: masochism, narcissism, trivia, hysteria.
On my desk: a Hallmark Caddyshack Christmas ornament of Ty Webb, dressed in his golf shirt and khakis. He’s barefoot. From the packaging: “Whenever he took to the links with Danny Noonan, Ty offered the caddy not only lessons in honing his golfing abilities but also zen-inspired insights on the game…and the nature of life itself.”
Press the button on the ornament’s base and you hear a recording of Caddyshack’s second most famous monologue, in which Ty holds forth about a “force in the universe that makes things happen”:
Webb then chants some mantra-type sounds as he makes trick shot after trick shot on the putting green. All of this is on the recording. Other than taking out the battery, there’s no way to stop Ty Webb from talking. Once you press the button, it just continues its monologue until the end.
In 2007, psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh studied the facial expressions of 116 people. Subjects were shown “neutral footage” of a train moving down a track, followed by “robust positive stimulus”: a four-minute clip from Chris Rock’s 1996 comedy special Bring the Pain, selected “to reliably elicit positive emotion.” Using something called a Facial Action Coding System (FACS), the researchers confirmed their hypothesis: that depressives are more likely to “control their smiles.”
Depressed individuals, in other words, keep thinking about depressing things. Even when Al Czervik tees off and nails Judge Smails in the crotch with a golf ball.
I can’t really look at Caddyshack in the same way I did when I was young. Bill Murray, now a kind of living meme, has hard flirtations with right-wing politics. Chevy Chase regularly appears in the news after beating up a motorist or uttering some racist comment. I can no longer look up to these men, if I ever did, as models of some masculine ideal.
The last couple of times I have watched Caddyshack, I have found myself focusing on the more ancillary characters. Like Spaulding Smails, the judge’s spoiled nephew. Or Motormouth, the smart-alecky caddie. Or maybe Lou Loomis, the head caddy played by Billy Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, who co-wrote the script with Ramis and Doug Kenney.
I now look at Caddyshack as a version of pastoral, in the way English critic William Empson defines the term, an offshoot of proletarian literature in which all the classes exist on the same plane. To put a finer point on it: Empson’s description of Alice in Wonderland and its “blend of child-cult and snobbery” reminds me of Caddyshack’s class warfare angle, the movie’s “snobs versus the slobs” tagline. I know that, by the movie’s end, the slobs will triumph, and that Danny, the main character, will not yet be put down by civilization in the way its star characters have suffered, in both the movie and in real life.
To escape the world into a Caddyshack screening while I’m depressed means suspending time and entering another world. In this world, body and mind, self and soul, coexist side-by-side, not naturally, but as conjoined twins. In this world, I need beginnings, middles, and endings. Inside this world, I need Kenny Loggins overtures, bromances, cliffhangers, sight-gags, dumb homunculi and military-grade explosions. In this world I need Caddyshack.
Caddyshack draws from several Shakespeare plays. I realized back this in college, stoned and watching Caddyshack to put off writing papers on Shakespeare. Ty Webb’s spliff-smoke man-to-man with Spackler mirrors Henry V’s “gentlemen of the company” walk-around before the Battle of Agincourt. The scenes on the links — Maggie O’Hooligan’s frolic on the 18th hole after a pregnancy scare, the caddy tournament in the last act — recall Northrop Frye’s idea of Shakespeare’s “Green World,” a forest or meadow outside the main action that “charges comedies with the symbolism of the victory of summer over winter.” In a final scene, when Al Czervik summons his henchmen, Moose and Rocco, to shake down Judge Smails after he loses the $40,000 tournament bet (“help the judge find his checkbook, will ya?”), I can’t help but think of the cruel punishment meted out to Shylock at the end of The Merchant of Venice.
I could be wrong about this. If you stare at an object long enough, it changes into something else.
I met Bill Murray once, at a 1998 screening of Rushmore at NYU, where I worked as an administrative secretary. I scored tickets easily. Wes Anderson wasn’t a famous director yet, and Bill Murray was a star, but this was Space Jam–era Bill Murray, before his renaissance as a wedding-crashing Buddha-trickster. At the Q&A, an acting student talked about voice projection, and asked if Murray could do a reprise of his lounge singer character from Saturday Night Live. The audience clapped, egging him on.
But Murray offered a serious answer instead. Your body is an instrument, he said, like a clarinet or saxophone. As air moves through your body, it’s important to be open and in the moment. If you can do that, he said, your body will open up, and whatever you’re trying to say or sing will come out clearly, loudly, in that moment. There was a moment of silence right there, a beat before he finished his answer.
“The rest,” he said, “is bullshit.”
I watch Caddyshack whenever I experience, in the words of those Pittsburgh psychologists, “difficulty disengaging from negative stimuli.” Examples: breakups, fallings out, failures, deaths, losses, stressful days at work, public scolding, bad reviews, negative evaluations. I might marathon a day’s worth of multiple Caddyshacks, order in a pizza, close all the blinds to shut off and disengage.
My Caddyshack viewings started before the days I turned to beer, wine, and pot; before mushrooms and LSD; and well before Celexa and Wellbutrin and the occasional codeine, all to dull an anxiety over dealing with people, anger at the world, being a body and having a body.
In blue fogs, I struggle to get back my mind. Melancholy, more than happiness or anger or calm, needs plot. Melancholy moves through time. The melancholic is analytic, detail-oriented, a perfectionist insofar as it means fine-tuning what will or will not lead down paths of worry or despair. Lately, trying to sleep, I imagine one of my daughters injured by any number of large forms: a rusty swing, metal breaking off a bridge, boxcutter knives. I will shake my head and curse myself to sleep. To drive horrific visions away, I imagine myself in a room, alphabetizing hundreds of records, from Alpha Blondie to Zebra. Melancholy is measured by objects of attention: clouds across a window, Joni Mitchell albums from her folk to jazz periods, a mechanical gopher that tears up a golf course.
I’m not sure if I need narrative as much as one particular story. Caddyshack-watching, for me, is a component prayer of burlesque; it deepens each time Carl Spackler sight-gags a garden hose between his legs like a big schlong, each time Ty Webb calls Judge Smails a “tremendous slouch,” each time Spaulding Smails eats his own boogers.
Caddyshack allows me to dream outside my body, one that is restored to health. When I watch Caddyshack, the story pauses; it starts up again inside another story. It’s total consciousness. The rest is bullshit.