When Bill Murray’s Lounge Singer Added Lyrics to Star Wars Theme
Show business parodies are a Saturday Night Live staple. The late-night comedy institution was born as much out of a desire to take the air out of overstuffed television cliches as it was a vehicle for post-Watergate political cynicism. But nowhere was SNL’s penchant for showbiz mockery more potently funny than in the figure of Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer.
A toiler in the lowest reaches of the industry, Nick (whose surname changes to suit every venue) plies his trade in schmoozing and self-satisfied renditions of pop standards at vacation resorts, low-rent casinos, bar mitzvahs and, at one point, an isolated Arctic research post. Gold medallion swinging under an invariably unbuttoned shirt, Nick works every crowd of half-listening, exhausted holidaymakers like he’s playing a command performance for the queen, his ready stock of semi-relevant lyrics trotted out in response to each grudging scrap of audience response.
For Murray, Nick became the lifeline in an early Saturday Night Live run marked by on-air blunders and fading self-confidence. By the time of the Jan. 28, 1978, episode, and in just Nick’s second appearance, Murray had found his groove on the show. Nick Summers’ first appearance the year before saw the crooner breaking out with TV audiences as he serenaded the sunburned and bug-bit guests of Breezy Point Lodge. Now, as Nick Winters, Murray brought Nick’s unctuous smarm to the icy reaches of the Powder Room, the desultory ski lodge lounge of frigid Meatloaf Mountain.
As with most recurring SNL sketches, the formula dictates Nick’s act. There’s invariably an unhappy couple disillusioned with their dream vacation. Here, it’s Gilda Radner on crutches, her faulty bindings having broken her leg walking to the chair lift. (“Bummer-ski,” Nick faux-empathizes, before attempting to absolve the resort of any wrongdoing.) There’s always an adulterous couple to be accidentally outed, here played by a shamefaced and pissed Laraine Newman and host Robert Klein as the resort’s wolfish German ski instructor, Heinz. (Tired of Nick’s banter, he calls the singer “a pimp” before threatening to strike him.)
What makes Murray as Nick work so well (the character appeared a whopping nine times in three seasons) is chutzpah. “My seventh winter up here!” the mustachioed Nick belts out after his epic final number, Murray walking the tightrope between performer’s pride and any glimmer of self-awareness that that statement might not be as triumphant as Nick makes it seem. Murray’s trouper’s armor as Nick is impenetrable, never allowing us a glimpse of just what this lounge lizard thinks about his place in the lowest depths of the entertainment industry. There’s a baffling integrity to Nick’s apparent lack of self-awareness and his seemingly bulletproof ability to soldier on with a cheesy song in his heart.
That’s never more evident than in Nick’s big finish here. With SNL bandleader and sketch co-writer Paul Shaffer gamely tinkling the lounge piano behind him, Nick Winters sends out a salute to “a big hit out of ’77” before launching into his version of John Williams’ Star Wars main theme. You know - the one without lyrics. Nothing stops Nick from a would-be slam-dunk showstopper, however, as Murray belts out Nick’s self-penned addition to the bombastic instrumental.
“Oh, Star Wars / Nothing but Star Wars / Give me those Star Wars / Don’t let them end,” Nick begins, his ode to the blockbuster film somehow missing the point that war is a bad thing. But it’s in his follow-up verse that Murray takes the bit into the stratosphere: “Oh, Star Wars,” Nick begins, “If they should bar wars / Please let these Star Wars / Stay.”
Watch Nick the Lounge Singer Perform the Star Wars Theme on 'SNL'
The earnestness of Nick’s plea and the portentous pause before that “stay” are Nick Winters in a nutshell — pulling an innocent piece of music into his smarmy orbit and then making it all about himself with a self-satisfied flourish that would make Robert Goulet blush. When the song hits the bridge, Nick goes right with it, riffing about all those “crazy creatures” in the cantina scene and gamely feigning a fright when Shaffer pops on some ski goggles right as Nick extols the spookiness of Darth Vader.
That Nick’s set began with another misappropriated sci-fi anthem often gets overlooked, but the sheer cojones of Nick Winters to belt out a scatted version of the similarly wordless 2001: A Space Odyssey theme is just as jaw-dropping. Especially since Nick closes out the spectacle by greeting the scattered applause with, “Thank you very much. I always open with a little something by a guy named Ricard Strauss called Twenty-oh-one.”
That Nick’s act (far-flung locales aside) never changed much over his nine appearances (and two more at SNL’s 25th- and 40th-anniversary specials) is both part of the bit and testament to Murray’s electric, anti-comic charisma. Nick became something of a battleground between Murray and producer Lorne Michaels over the years, with the ascendant Murray demanding yet another Nick sketch in recompense for playing roles he was less excited about. (After John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd left SNL after the fourth season, Murray was slotted into almost every white male role.) Still, in the annals of Saturday Night Live recurring sketches, it’s Murray’s tenaciously cheesy depiction of showbiz bottom feeders that kept audiences wanting more Nick.