‘The Smell of SNL’: An oral history of the cannabis that changed comedy forever
Jim Belushi on his Oregon farm, where he grows the strain of weed that helped kickstart his brother John’s career on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975.
Saturday Night Live has offered plenty of marijuana humor in its 45-year history. But few modern fans know that the show’s groundbreaking original cast smoked pot in the offices regularly — in particular, an Afghani variety grown by a friend from Connecticut who goes by the name Captain Jack.
Now Jim Belushi — SNL veteran, Blues Brother, and younger brother to the late founding cast member John Belushi — has hired Jack to help grow his famous plant for his Belushi’s Farm operation near Medford, Oregon. The result can be seen in Growing Belushi, a three-part documentary that just premiered Wednesday on the Discovery Channel.
We talked to Belushi, his cousin Chris Karakosta, and Captain Jack himself, and delved into the show’s documented history, to find out the story behind a strain originally known as Gulzar Afghanica — or, according to Belushi’s branding, “the smell of SNL.” (Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
CAPTAIN JACK: I was born in the Bronx. My grandfather was a bootlegger for Dutch Schultz, the Bronx beer baron [and mobster]. And my dad was a New York City cop. So I grew up a little conflicted.
After I graduated high school, I went to a prestigious forestry school in upstate New York. I was always interested in being outdoors, fishing, hunting, all that stuff. You know, I thought I wanted to be Smokey the Bear. But I was also the social chairman of my national fraternity. [John Belushi’s first movie] Animal House was like a child’s nursery rhyme compared to the reality of it. Fraternities were crazy back then.
In 1964, when I started college, hardly anybody spoke of weed. It was a thing for beatniks. So the first two years was wild partying, beer swilling, binge-drinking madness. And then the second two years, ’66-’68, was like Electric Ladyland. A friend came to visit from the Bay Area [with cannabis and psychedelics], and the world changed.
JIM BELUSHI: I didn’t smoke with John. That wasn’t part of our relationship. My first time with cannabis — I was a freshman in high school in 1968. In Chicago, they rolled those joints real skinny like a toothpick. And you wouldn’t let any smoke escape the car or whatever. But it didn’t really get you high. Those strains back then had like 6, 7 percent THC.
Everybody would drive across the border [from Illinois to Indiana] and comb up and down these corn fields at night and look for marijuana growing wild. It was called Indiana ragweed. When I went, we just pulled all the weeds, because we didn’t even know what it looked like. We brought it home and dried it and smoked it and got sick. We didn’t even know about buds. We were cooking the leaves in water.
BOB WOODWARD [Belushi biographer]*: In the fall of 1969. John announced he hated alcohol and that anybody who drank was “straight.” He introduced [then college girlfriend, later wife] Judy to marijuana. They would put masking tape and wet towels around the door of the girl’s dormitory and smoke pot for hours, listening to rock groups like Led Zeppelin.
Once he convinced the girls to go exploring with him. Growing wild in the flat, wide-open farm fields of central Illinois, there was a huge patch of marijuana. It was called Rantoul Rag, named for the nearby town and for the harsh effect it had on the throat. it tasted horrible, and no matter how much they smoked, they didn’t really get high, only dizzy.
(*from Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi by Bob Woodward)
CHRIS KARAKOSTA [General Manager, Belushi’s Farm; Jim and John’s cousin]: We grew up as Albanians in this small community. You know, I remember when John was busking in downtown Chicago. He had really long hair. And his parents were horrified, right? A hippie! And then boom, boom, boom, you know, the job at Second City.
John Belushi joined the cast at Chicago’s legendary Second City improv theater in 1971. This led to a Broadway show, Lemmings, and various tours over the next few years. He met Dan Aykroyd at a Second City show in Toronto in 1974. The two became fast friends, and were recommended to Canadian producer Lorne Michaels when he was looking to start a new comedy show to replace Johnny Carson reruns on Saturday night on NBC.
John Belushi in his breakout film role: Bluto in “Animal House.”
Image: warner brothers / Getty Images
CAPTAIN JACK: It was John and Dan that I originally knew, and I met Dan through [soon-to-be-SNL writer] Tom Davis and Al Franken. We all partied hard together. We had mini-Woodstocks in the Catskill Mountains at my friend’s farm. We built stages. People would come and stay for a couple days. Everybody was friends with everybody. Dan came up, he played harmonica on stage a few times. I used to do a little of that, so I got to play with him, and I have one beat-up old cassette tape with our names on it together.
I liked to smoke, and I’d been to forestry school, so I had my little patch of plants for myself. It wasn’t a business at that point. But I had a real good education in the genetics of plants. I met some guys from Canada who’d been to Afghanistan, and said my genetics didn’t look anything like the genetics in that part of the world.
After school I was unemployed, so I basically went on the hippie trail, looking for a special Afghan plant that was responsible for producing the world’s finest hashish. It was the thinnest, bendiest, skunkiest — it was just the be-all and end-all of cannabis.
When I saw them in harvest season, as a botanist, I was amazed. They were bluish-purple. They just had the thickest bottle brush-like foxtails. Kids today would say they were really “stacking nugs, man”[Laughs]. The best stuff fell off when you looked at it cross-eyed. They dry it upright so the little trichomes can have their heads knocked off easily, not squished between closed-up leaves.
I just wanted to bring back the seeds, and I was rewarded in more ways, culturally speaking, than I could ever have dreamed.
DAN AYKROYD:* Captain Jack brought that original strain from Afghanistan, and it kept you up, you know. You could fly an F-16 on it, or judge a murder trial. It was just beautiful, stimulating Indica that he brought back. Sometimes the hallways would smell, the very pungent smell of it. It was just what we needed to stay at it through 3, 4, 5 in the morning.
(*from Belushi and Aykroyd’s LiveNation chat.)
JIM BELUSHI: Those hallways were filled with it. That’s why they called it “the smell of SNL.” I mean, where do you think the Coneheads and stuff like that came from?
Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, and Laraine Newman as Coneheads in a 1977 SNL sketch.
Image: NBCUniversal via Getty Images
DOUG HILL (SNL historian)*: The first Saturday Night staff meeting commenced about noon on Monday, July 7, 1975. the odor of marijuana smoke was already noticeable on the 17th floor [of 30 Rockefeller Center]. The first day they arrived, Al Franken and Tom Davis had slipped across the street to the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to get high, assuming one did not light a joint within a national television network’s headquarters. They soon learned differently.
From the beginning, grass was a staple of Saturday Night, used regularly and openly on 17 as, in [show writer and director] Tom Schiller’s words, “an inspirational tool.” At least one executive walked into a meeting on 17 and was casually offered the circulating joint. “Want a toke?” he was asked.
[NBC VP] Bob Kasmire, among others, says that only about one of every three drug jokes the show submitted got on the air. But in the end the network’s reservations were overridden by an even greater fear: that Lorne Michaels and his team might resign and the revenues from the show might cease.
(*From Saturday Night: A Backstage History, by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad.)
CAPTAIN JACK: I had free rein [at SNL] for the whole first five years. Lorne always tolerated my presence. Mr. [Bill] Murray is a good friend of mine. Laraine [Newman, founding cast member] was a buddy for sure. I got a little apartment on 73rd Street and Central Park for $500 a month. I could afford that for a few seasons of SNL, so I didn’t have to drive all the way back to the country.
The word “dealer” does not apply to this backstage situation. There was a lot of sharing, a lot of being welcomed. You come bearing gifts, you know. Anything went. There was no stigma. You know, [cannabis] doesn’t create talent, obviously, but it does alter your mood a little bit and loosen you up. I’m not gonna go any further with claims than that.
I was lucky enough to go to the read-throughs on Wednesday afternoon. They didn’t smoke then. But they went all night, they basically lived on the 17th floor, and I could go visit anytime. When you were hanging out with Dan, you could go wherever you want. He and his family remain my true extended family to this day. In those days, you could do no wrong backstage. You could pretty much get away with murder. That cast was too valuable to NBC.
There was a time plants were just sticking out people’s windows at 30 Rock. The whole building smelled like a skunk. My weed had no competition when it came to the smell. Some people didn’t want to grow it because it smelled too much.
Dan and John bought a building on Hudson Street that looked like Berlin after World War II. I mean, it was in a pile of rubble. It had boards on the windows. It had spray-painted on it, “warning, dangerous building.” And you’d never see anything going on there except late on a Saturday night, when you’d see the limos parked in this godforsaken neighborhood. That was the Blues Bar. That’s where the party happened.
The original SNL cast: Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtian, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi.
Image: NBC via Getty Images
DAN AYKROYD: We never performed high on the show. I mean, I didn’t. John, maybe a couple of times.
As his fame rose, John Belushi began to shun cannabis in favor of cocaine. His particularly vicious addiction brought him into conflict with almost every director he worked with, from Steven Spielberg to Blues Brothers director John Landis. Soon he began freebasing, and then mixing cocaine with heroin — the so-called speedball. It was a speedball injection that killed Belushi in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982. He was 33.
CHRIS KARAKOSTA: I think anybody in John’s position would probably need some some type of medicine to stabilize, because to rise from where we were to where he got in that short of a time is really difficult at that age, extremely difficult. He was searching for medications, something for him to be able to manage all this. And he rose to the top and, you know, a couple of the things that he was doing didn’t go so well. And it was difficult for him. He just couldn’t handle it.
JIM BELUSHI: I believe that if John was a pothead, he’d be alive today. If we knew then what we know now about marijuana, that it’s a medicine, a path off opiates. back in the ’70s it was just about getting high.
And then by the time I was on SNL [between 1983 and 1985], there was no weed at all.
Lorne Michaels left the show in 1980 and didn’t return until 1985. His successor Jean Doumanian clamped down on cannabis smoking in the office, reportedly intimidating one of the writers with her gun-toting bodyguard friend when he complained about it. Having cleaned the halls of the smell of SNL, NBC would not allow it to come back.
TOM DAVIS*: I returned to the show as a writer in January of ’88. As I took a seat in the writers’ meeting with Jim Downey, now head writer. I took a joint out of the breast pocket of my flannel shirt and lit it up. There was a collective gasp from all the young writers. Jim: “Uh, Tom—there’s no more smoking in the office.” I put it out.
*From 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL, by Tom Davis
JIM BELUSHI: A friend of mine in LA, his kids and my kids were the same age and in the same class. We all got along very well and he invited us to his 2,500 acre ranch in Oregon. It’s three miles of river fronts. Just beautiful. We went in the fall, then in the spring, and we just had the most joyous time with family. I dove in to the river one time naked, and I came out, and I was baptized.
So I got 13 acres on the river, first place I looked at. It was an Elks’ Lodge picnic ground. The Elks got old, and they never recruited, so it kind of fell apart. I built a home on it, refurbished the stage and the picnic grounds, and became friends with Becca and Charlie next door and just fell in love with them. They were just the best neighbors. We’d sit and they’d smoke their Winstons and drink their whiskey and talk into the night. Becca got ill and passed. She wanted me to have the property and give Charlie a life estate. So I got this 80 acre farm.
And that was the point of, well, now what do I do? Well, let’s grow something. I mean, it is the most perfect spot to grow in southern Oregon. Let’s take a look at what became legal here and grow that. I mean, they call it a cash crop.
CAPTAIN JACK: All these years, I never allowed hybridization [of the Afghan strain]. The original is still alive and well. It’s more of a full spectrum product, as opposed to [more recent] high THC strains.
Dan has remained my lifetime friend. His kids are like my proxy godchildren. He and I, we’ve traveled all around the U.S. in his Crystal Head mobile. And I’ve worked as a landscape architect and the captain of a tuna boat, which is where the alias comes from.
JIM BELUSHI: When I was doing Blues Brothers with Danny, we’d do gigs on the east coast, and Captain Jack was in Connecticut. So he would come see the show, we’d have cheeseburgers after, and I would talk to him kind of casually, you know, I didn’t really know his history. I just knew he was a friend of Danny’s. And then when I started the farm, he said, “you should get Captain Jack!” So we hired him.
CAPTAIN JACK: I came to work as a consultant. And, you know, a critic.
Belushi also brought on his cousin Chris, who managed a successful chain of restaurants in Florida, to manage the business.
CHRIS KARAKOSTA: Jim and I had Captain Jack’s strain for the first time about two years ago when Danny introduced us to it. We were on Jim’s patio in Brentwood. And we had so much fun. It was a creative high. It was different from anything I’ve ever experienced.
I mean, I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I felt like one that night. Jim was telling stories, I was telling stories and we laughed and cried with laughter for a good three hours. And then that’s when Jim mentioned to me: Now I understand, you know, how those writers came up with all this stuff on SNL.
It was so much fun. We laughed for hours, which was awesome. And I’m not really a smoker. I should be, because I’m very stressed. But for the most part I don’t really use cannabis. Jim has been helping me figure out a microdose. I just can’t overmedicate.
Belushi with his farm crew and product. Cousin Chris is standing at the right.
Image: belushi’s farm
Turning Captain Jack’s “smell of SNL” into a cash crop wasn’t all plain sailing for Belushi. In 2019, as seen in episode 1 of Growing Belushi, he sprays Jack’s cannabis plants with organic fertilizer, but forgets to turn the grow lights off as required during the spraying — and leaving them on afterwards, distracted by a phone call from his daughter. The next day, his crew discovers that the plants are burned and ruined. Belushi confesses on the spot.
JIM BELUSHI: That did happen, we just reconstructed it for the show.
CAPTAIN JACK: The language we used at the time was more salty than the language in the reconstruction.
CHRIS KARAKOSTA: Jim called me a fucking bitch, because I was screaming at him. And my comment back to him was, “No, I’m a smart bitch. You’re a dumb bitch because you left the lights on.” It was not pretty.
At the time he wouldn’t tell anybody he did it. He was way too embarrassed. He certainly didn’t ‘fess up to it. And now the whole world’s going to know. So it makes me feel better. Finally.
Captain Jack helped grow a new crop from seed. Testing revealed that his strain contained 18 percent THC, two percent CBD, and four percent terpenes. It registered unusually high levels of myrcene, a sedative terpene also found in mangos. The science of terpenes in cannabis is still in its infancy — but personally, as in other anecdotal reports, Belushi believes that myrcene helps create a richer experience known as the “entourage effect.“
JIM BELUSHI: If you smoke half a joint, eat a mango, wait 45 minutes, then smoke the rest of the joint, it’s like three times the elevation. And that’s what pulls the paranoia and anxiety down, you know, the edginess. The entourage effect of Captain Jack, that’s where the medicine really lies.
With so much riding on the September launch of the “Smell of SNL” strain, Belushi’s Farm has opted to press the flower into more expensive extract forms. It will be sold in Oregon dispensaries as Captain Jack vape cartridges and concentrate — to the delight of Jack himself, who loves his Puffco Peak. Still, he misses those old-school Afghan nugs.
CAPTAIN JACK: On Jim’s farm, they’ve turned the crop this year into extract. I only got one little chance to take a puff of that flower. I said, “Hey, don’t forget me! I had something to do with this!”
Jim Belushi is set to start selling the Afghan weed that helped kickstart "Saturday Night Live." Here's how "The Smell of SNL" made it to the writers' room.
Pete Davidson Jokes About Louis C.K.’s Death, Says C.K. Wanted Him Off ‘SNL’ for Smoking Pot
Davidson also joked about C.K dying while performing in Boston on New Year’s Eve.
Jan 2, 2019 12:12 pm
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Pete Davidson and Louis C.K.
Pete Davidson spent New Year’s Eve in Boston performing a stand-up set at the Chevalier Theatre that is making headlines for the “Saturday Night Live” star’s comments about Louis C.K. Davidson’s set took place shortly after C.K. stirred up controversy with jokes about gender pronouns and Parkland survivors. C.K.’s jokes were from a stand-up set that leaked online December 30. Davidson addressed C.K. by joking about the controversial comedian’s death.
As reported by US Weekly, Davidson told the crowd, “I got a ‘Harry Potter’ tattoo. Then the next day Alan Rickman, the guy who played Snape, died and I was like, ‘Oh, what a weird coincidence.’ Then I got a Willy Wonka tattoo. Next day — Gene Wilder dies. Now I’m like, all right, that’s a coincidence, that’s weird. So I’m thinking of getting a tattoo of Louis C.K., what do you guys think? That joke used to be about Aziz Ansari, but Aziz has been nice to me recently.”
Davidson went on to tell the audience that C.K. once tried to get him fired from his “Saturday Night Live” gig for smoking marijuana. C.K. hosted an episode in April 2017 and, according to Davidson, “told all the producers in front of me that all this kid does is smoke weed and he’s gonna smoke his career away.” Davidson added that C.K. also went to “SNL” creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels to complain about how he “smokes so much weed that it makes people uncomfortable.”
“Then five years later this motherfucker’s been locking doors and jerking off in front of people,” Davidson concluded.
Davidson’s stand-up set took place in the middle of his hiatus on “Saturday Night Live.” The show’s last new episode, hosted by Matt Damon, aired December 15. “SNL” returns later this month.
Davidson also joked about CK dying while performing in Boston on New Year's Eve.