Jim Belushi is sitting with his son Robert and mulling the matter of genetics.
“I don’t know if there is a gene for comedy, but my dad was a very funny man,” he says. “He just didn’t know it. He was a naturally funny character, and when my brother and I would laugh at things he said and did, he would say, ‘What do you think is so funny?'”
Robert says, “Genetics? I don’t know. But I am always going to my dad for advice. I admire him for so many reasons. I don’t know anyone who works harder.”
The elder Belushi, who lives in California, is still tied to his hometown (he grew up in Wheaton) and ever has been. Whenever he would return — a few times a year — he was a conspicuous presence at various sporting events and would visit such local haunts as a Wells Street cigar store, just south of The Second City, the place where he and his brother, John, cut their theatrical/comedic teeth.
You remember John Belushi, don’t you?
“He is always present. He’s the legacy,” says Jim about his brother, who died in 1982 at 33. “People are always coming up to me and saying, ‘I love you, love your work.’ And then the next sentence is, ‘I loved your brother.’ John made people laugh, and laughter is a powerful thing.”
“Know John? No, not really,” says Robert. “But I do have two pictures of him holding me when I was a baby, and he’s always a presence in my life. I’ve got the name.”
Father and son have teamed up, with Robert’s best friend Kyle Lane, to begin a new adventure in show business. The three are the principals in The Comedy Bar, which opened last weekend, a handsome and intimate 150-seat club at 157 W. Ontario St. (comedybarchicago.com).
It is a space in which Lane, a polished stand-up comic, had for a couple of years been performing in and producing comedy shows.
It is a potentially crafty concoction, combining stand-up comedy, improv, music and anything else that strikes the trio’s fancy.
“I like to think of it as kind of an incubator,” says Jim. “Sure, we will have big headliners, but also this will serve as a home for new talent and … in January we are doing burlesque.”
The Comedy Bar concept has already intrigued others in the business.
“Pretty amazing, huh?” says Jim. “We’re just opening, and there are people calling to talk to us about opening similar clubs in Vegas, Minneapolis.”
As he talked about the future, I was drawn to the past, back nearly 20 years, when I sat with Belushi in a bar/restaurant. He had just returned from a canoeing trip to Wisconsin with then-12-year-old Robert, who was living with Belushi’s ex-wife.
“It was great, just the two of us,” Jim says. “I had never been camping before. Or canoeing. Robert had to teach me how to put up the tent. But it was amazing, just the two of us, talking and stuff.”
There is a palpable affection between father and son. They have for a few years been performing together as part of the Chicago Board of Comedy, an improv group.
“Robert is a charismatic and funny guy,” says Jim. “He’s also a great actor.”
He laughs and adds, “Maybe I should have a DNA test to make sure he’s my son.”
Not to get back to genetics, but rather coincidence: Jim has been writing an occasional column for the Splash page of the Sun-Times that echoes his brother’s starring role as a Mike Royko-esque Chicago newspaper columnist in the 1981 film “Continental Divide.”
“Royko was a good friend of my family, so this is pretty weird,” says Jim. “But I am really having fun with the column. They tell me I can write whatever I want to write, and I’ll just start dictating to my secretary. I realize I do have a lot of things to talk about.”
The fate of The Comedy Bar is unlikely to affect the father’s or son’s careers.
Jim’s previous credits are too lengthy to list and familiar to most. Now, the 58-year-old says, “I am dealing with a lot of offers. You know Hollywood. It’s development hell. But I’m talking about three film projects and three projects for TV too.”
Robert, who just turned 32, has performed with The Second City and on other local stages, and been in a number of films and TV shows. He will star in an upcoming film titled “Heebie Jeebies,” and says he has a couple of meaty TV roles on the horizon.
Robert is the son of Jim’s first wife, Sandra. Jim and his third wife, Jennifer, have two children, both on the tender side of 14.
Think they’ll get into show business?
“You just never know,” says Jim.
“You can say that again,” says Robert.
Rick Kogan discusses politics, the American Dream, literature, music and more as host of The Afternoon Shift, 2-4 p.m. weekdays on WBEZ-FM 91.5.