Rick Moranis: From ‘Spaceballs’ to country ‘Cowboy’
From about 1983 to 1994, you couldn’t go to the movies without catching a glimpse of Rick Moranis.
First came the cult comedy Strange Brew with Dave Thomas, his cast mate on Canadian sketch-comedy show SCTV. A supporting role in Ghostbusters led to bigger parts in Little Shop of Horrors, Spaceballs, The Flintstones and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
But it’s been almost 10 years since we’ve seen the comedian onscreen. Where’s he been?
Answer: Writing country songs. Last week, Moranis released his first album, The Agoraphobic Cowboy, through ArtistShare, an online music service.
The actor and musician recently spoke to USATODAY.com’s Whitney Matheson about his new project:
Matheson: It’s great to talk to you, though I never would’ve guessed we’d be discussing your new country CD. Is it OK to call it country? Or is it more of a comedy album?
Moranis: Well, (the songs are) all a little bit different, but they all have some sort of comic or witty premise to them. It’s not a conventional comedy album, in the sense that it’s a compilation of sketches or stand-up material. It’s all music.
There’s a long tradition √≥ certainly with country, but in all kinds of genres of music √≥ to have humorous lyrics. Certainly with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and, if you look at country, Roger Miller and Jim Stafford.
So how long did it take to make?
Well, the album is homegrown. The reason it wound up taking a little bit longer on the production side was because it wasn’t like a record company, with a very large budget, going into a studio for three weeks and getting all the tracks down. I was working with one guy in particular, Tony Scherr, who is a musician and tours and plays with his own band and various bands and juggles a lot of different projects. So it took as long as it took him to make room for me to do this.
The production of the songs took place between last January and May, and then we had to mix and master and manufacture, and then the artwork had to get done. The actual writing of the songs, I think, took place over about six months before that.
You could’ve taken this to a record label, but you decided to distribute it online. How come?
Well, that’s a really good question √≥ there’s a number of answers to that. First of all, I think the music business itself is at a very difficult time, in terms of music being purchased more over the Web than in stores than ever before. Record companies (are) being really challenged by how to select acts and promote acts.
The early fishing around that I did for potential partnership in this √≥ and I mean it was very limited and very superficial √≥ it told me what I had suspected. Their initial response was, “Well, where is the movie this comes from?” In other words, “Why would a guy like you do an album that wasn’t the soundtrack to a movie, and why would we want to spend all that money on it?”
And that, combined with the fact that I wanted to do it low-budget, and I didn’t want to be at the whim of a large company’s promotion ideas, production ideas and certainly their suspicious accounting practices (was why) I decided to do it on my own.
There was no, and is no, and probably will be no movie that this comes from. I just started writing these tunes … primarily because my kids were listening to a lot of traditional and jam bands and bluegrass in the house. It just got into my head.
So now what do your kids think about the album now?
My son who’s 17 really loves it. I’m lucky about that. And my daughter likes it a lot; she’s a little more guarded with her praise. But the main thing is, I didn’t embarrass them. So I consider it a triumph in that regard.
One song in particular (I Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere) seems inspired by Johnny Cash. Are you a big fan?
Actually, I wrote that before I even knew that Johnny Cash had redone that song (I’ve Been Everywhere). I knew it from the Hank Snow version, because Hank Snow, although he was Nashville-based, was Canadian. So early on in my radio career, that song qualified as Canadian content and used to get played on Canadian radio all the time.
Now, it’s all over television, because I think they licensed it for commercial use for … what is it, a motel or something?
Yeah, it’s for a motel or a car or something.
Yeah, it’s on TV now. But to answer your question, I love Johnny Cash and always have. Nobody’s better.
A lot of people don’t know you were a DJ before SCTV came along. Was music your first love?
Yeah, I think so many of my friends that grew up in the ’60s kind of put down our hockey sticks and picked up electric guitars. I don’t know if it was like that in the States for kids, but we were so profoundly affected by the rock revolution in the ’60s. … It got really under our skins and into our heads and hearts.
It’s always been a big passion of mine. I was able to do a lot of music on SCTV, and I was really lucky to do a musical; I got to sing the part of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. But this is something I’ve pretty much always either wanted to do or knew that eventually I would get around to doing. So it comes really naturally to me.
Do you have any favorite lyrics on the album?
Well, they’re all my children, as they say. (Laughs.) … The one called Four More Beers, which has a little bit to do about the electoral process in this country, has a bridge in it which is, “I wanna live in a swing state/A perpetual state of swing.” I like the idea of that. But the song that I’m getting surprisingly the most positive feedback on is the SOS song, which is made up all of acronyms.
Wow. You just mentioned Little Shop of Horrors√≥ I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen you in a movie. So, uh, where have you been? Did you quit acting altogether?
I pulled out of making movies in about ’96 or ’97. I’m a single parent, and I just found that it was too difficult to manage raising my kids and doing the traveling involved in making movies. So I took a little bit of a break. And the little bit of a break turned into a longer break, and then I found that I really didn’t miss it.
In the last few years I’ve been offered a number of parts in movies, and I’ve just turned them down. I don’t know whether I’ll go back to it or not. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and a lot of parenting, and now I’m doing this.
I bet you still get recognized on the street, though. What role do most people know you from?
Well, I’m recognized less so than I used to be, just because I’m not out there like I was 10 years ago. And also, being the agoraphobic cowboy, I really don’t leave my neighborhood all that much. (Laughs.)
It really depends. There are fans of some of the old movies that’ll mention those, and there’s people that have little kids that’ll look at me and say, “Wow, I just watched Honey, I Shrunk the Kids 35,000 times, and here you are!”
What kind of stuff are you listening to now?
Either WQXR, which is the classical radio station in New York, or WBGO, the jazz station out of Newark √≥ one of those is on in the house all the time. And then there’s what comes out of the kids’ computers and what comes out of their rooms, which these days, more and more, has been jam bands: Yonder Mountain String Band and Widespread Panic and String Cheese Incident and bands like that.
So you haven’t decided whether you’re going to take this thing on the road.
(Laughs.) Well, I don’t have a record company that’s forcing me to. And the album only came out last week … so it’s a little bit early. We’ll see.
Rick Moranis: From ‘Spaceballs’ to country ‘Cowboy’