Jonathan Richman: The man behind "There's Something About Mary" tunes
There’s something about Jonathan, the poor little Richman who helped invent punk with the Modern Lovers in the early ’70s before settling in as a retro-rock folkie cult figure. A boyish 47, he might’ve seemed a questionable bet for sudden movie stardom, yet that’s him warbling right into the camera—five (count ’em!) times—in There’s Something About Mary. Surely this plum geek-chorus role is without recent precedent, right?
“You’re familiar, of course, with Cat Ballou,” Richman presumes. I confess: Never seen the 1965 Western spoof. “Ah! Then, my friend, perhaps it’s time you did! Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye narrated. The camera would pan to them just when you’d least expect it….” The offer to follow in Stubby’s footsteps came when the Farrelly brothers invited Richman to “one of them Italian restaurants in Hollywood, the kind where not only do you taste the wine, they have you taste the olive oil to make sure that’s acceptable too. They asked if I’d seen [Ballou]; I said, ‘Oh, you bet!'”
There was a caveat with the calamari. Bobby Farrelly recalls: “We said, ‘Jonathan, there’s a 50-50 chance you’re gonna do all this work and never get in the movie.’ We didn’t know if what he was doing was going to work for the audience.” Every scene involving Richman was shot with and without him, just in case. “When we sent it to the studio, they said, ‘Don’t shoot any more! This is not working! Is he kidding?’ But when we showed it to an audience, they loved him.”
Richman’s worldly-naifish, wildly romantic, seriocomic sensibility might be described as Springsteen meets Chevalier meets (Mister) Rogers. To Peter Farrelly, “he’s the Andy Griffith of musicians, because every time I see him, I laugh, and yet I always get a little misty, too. I really believe he’s one of the great artists of the last half of the century.”
Next album: this fall’s Ric Ocasek-produced I’m So Confused. Any song titles to share, Jonathan? “No, it’s gonna be a surprise! Hell, I told ya the title!”