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Friday, January 14, 2011

Meetings with Unusual Men

The Story of Ferris Butler, Part 2


I have just begun to review four huge emails with numerous attachments sent to me last night from Ferris Butler, including chapters of his upcoming memoir, biographical notes, outlines of his comedy writing and stories of just the most extraordinary melange of life encounters I have ever read. Perhaps you are thinking, if he is that interesting, why haven't they written a book or made a movie about him?

Oh, did they forget to tell you? They already did. Kind of. But no one knows for sure. Are you familiar with the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Then meet Ferris Butler, who is believed to have inspired the film character and the name and someone much more interesting than Ferris Bueller. Most of what I am about to tell you is as much a surprise to me as it will be to you. Ferris was extremely generous to give me the entire texts of chapters he has worked on for future publication in his memoirs.

In the interview I conducted with Ferris in the corridor's of MNN (see Part 1 here), my nagging question was that of the relationship between Ferris Bueller and Ferris Butler. I was told by Ferris that he knew comedy legend Del Close, who not only found Ferris intriguing, but once remarked to him that he would like to do a screenplay based on the character of Ferris Butler. Later, Del was not only in association with John Hughes, writer and director of the film, but appeared in the film as an actor. Paramount Pictures denies any such connection of course, saying the film was a creative work of fiction. Both Hughes and Close have passed away, so each of us will have to solve our own equation on this one. Personally, I believe Bueller = Butler.

When I met Ferris in 1970, he was an NYU senior in the film school and a frequent visitor to our dorm room. In the event we were eating anything, we were ALWAYS greeted with "What are you guys eating?" Regardless of our response, he would invariably reply "mm mm, my favorite." Because FREE was really his favorite food and mooching his favorite currency, to be expected from a man who was always broke.

Sifting through the enormous amount of data Ferris supplied me with today reminded me of an occasion when he entered our dorm room and said he loved the Led Zeppelin song we were listening to - Dazed and Confused. So appropriate. After graduation from NYU, Ferris worked at Vita Herring in the consumer complaint department. Proud of his position of power, he told us how we could frame a letter to him at his new post and obtain free herring. What college student gets excited about free herring?

Welcome to the world of Ferris Butler. A man who is not easily forgotten and still remembered by Martin Scorsese, one of his teachers at NYU film school and where Billy Crystal was also a classmate.

Ferris' greatest solo creative endeavor was Waste Meat News, a half-hour satiric revue series, featured on local access cable TV from 1976-1980, which he wrote, directed and produced. The inspiration came from his part-time office position at Channel 7's Eyewitness News, where he came to the conclusion that "TV news is nothing but throwaway scraps, like sausages or hot dogs. Very little protein, like waste meat." One of his signature pieces was the Leather Weather, later to be used by Saturday Night Live. Waste Meat News rose to the number one spot on cable at that time. Some of his material, like the Trough Restaurant appears to have been appropriated by others, such as Saturday Night Live. After failed attempts Ferris was hired in 1980 as a comedy writer by Saturday Night Live (where he rewrote his classic Leather Weather skit) in its historic sixth season. A major moment in the life of any comedy writer.

But Ferris Butler, unlike the film character, has had more of a Life Off than a Day Off. Born in New York City in 1949, his life includes an extraordinary cast of characters, travels, residences, women, sexcapades, experiences and jobs - taxi driver, office boy at ABC, work at the Metropolitan Opera, photographer, PR man for a chain of discos, press release writer/coordinator for Columbia Artists Management in 1986, comedy writer for SNL and the Playboy Channel, his own TV cable series. He has lived in a number of cities - Las Vegas, New Mexico, London, San Francisco, New York. In skimming over his accounts, I am honestly overwhelmed with his tales, like that of his meeting a woman named Roach (who he introduced us to in college) who was living in the East Village with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, whom Ferris also met.

In 1974, Ferris married Beverly Ross, a "voluptuous, intense brilliant artist, one of rock's founding females." Best known for her big hit song from the 1950s, Lollipop, Beverly has been a prolific songwriter and stage writer (they were later divorced and are now living together again in Manhattan).

In 1987, Ferris received a family inheritance of $500,000. A life of indulgence and gambling quickly disposed of this booty, leaving Ferris in a position he knew best - penniless and on the brink of disaster. Ferris would file for personal bankruptcy more than once.

Since December 2003, the Ferris Butler Program has been running on Manhattan Time Warner Cable Television, Channel 57 at 11:30 PM on Sundays. This program originally consisted of Ferris doing monologue comedy and satire on various news and cultural subjects, and several songs of a Sinatra style. It now has a cast that consists of Ferris, co-host, standup comedian Mike Fine and a variety of other guest characters.

In interviewing Ferris, I was astounded at the people he has met, known or worked with. A veritable who's who in entertainment, comedy and public life - Bella Abzug, Philip Roth, Larry David, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, David Frost, Milton Berle, James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick (who played Ferris Bueller), John Lennon, Rosie O'Donnell, Howard Stern, Quentin Tarantino, Gloria Steinem, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Gov. Elliot Spitzer, the Pointer Sisters, Gloria Gaynor, and Jerry Garcia, to name a few.

This story could just as easily fallen under the umbrella of my story series "Abandon All Preconceived Notions Ye Who Enter Here" or "Meetings with Remarkable Men" - as long as multiple bankruptcy or near hits and misses do not preclude remarkableness. You are not going to find Ferris under any single umbrella and he is not going to fit in any box very well. This story has only been a rough sketch, an outline. I'm waiting for the book and the movie, Ferris Butler's Life Off. You saw the trailer here. I'll meet you in line :)

Related Abandon All Preconceived Notions stories: Gaby Lampkey, Jenn Kabacinski, Driss Aqil

12 comments:

Brian Dubé said...

Stunned? Bored? Too Long? Didn't come here to start reading novelettes?

Anonymous said...

What an interesting person! Thanks so much for this, Brian. I feel I'm learning something every day from your blog!

Vivien said...

I have been your blog- lover.The people you have met are something, but I love the way you make them all stories stunned :).

Alejandro said...

You always feature the most interesting people on this blog and that is what keeps me coming back. Great Post!

Mary P. said...

How characteristic of Ferris Butler's life! People are stunned!Too fantastic to be believed! So what can one say, except you?
(Away all day for me!)

Beth in NYC said...

How funny! I worked at Columbia Artists Management in the Conductors' Division for about 3 years, starting in 1988. I don't recall Mr. Butler, though. A real NY character.

Anonymous said...

Adoro suas histórias!!!

I love your storys, I can't wait to visit NY and see this city that you talk about.

Thank you for writing!!!

(from Brazil)

Sue said...

So what happened to his big toe?

Brian Dubé said...

Sue - Ferris had a mishap and lost it to an infection recently, but he is generally in good health.

Beth - From Ferris: "I was a staffer in 1986, she was there in 1988, she worked in the department managing symphony orchestras like the NY Philharmonic ( a high class division, very WASPy, very Greenwich, CT staff) I worked in the publicity dept. downstairs."

Kenon Thompson said...

Awesome post Brian! Like some of the others, I love the way you depict their lives on this blog through writing and photos which is why I continually read your blog. (

(Hopefully I can find about 3-5 days during the upcoming spring break to just solely start at the beginning of your blog and work my way back to the present time.)

Leslie said...

Brian-this post of Ferris is delightful! Your warmth and admiration, as well as your wonderment, shines through.

Your inquisitive mind and sweetness of heart are a gift to all of us.

Bless you Ferris for your creativity and ability to find humor in this challenging experiment we call life.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what aligning of the stars had me bump into Ferris on a crowded C train on Saturdy-I had not seen him since the eighties! We met in the early 70's-and yes I got a case of free herring. I hired him to make some videos later in the eighties which are priceless.
Truly unique
mmr