Humor of the Beast: Jim Breuer on the Healing Power of Metallica and Comedy
Welcome to “Humor of the Beast,” a recurring series where we interview the funniest people about their favorite band, as well as the impact heavy music has had on their lives and in comedy.
Quick – name a comedian NOT Jim Breuer who’s toured as Metallica’s opener, performed at Wacken Open Air, AND recorded songs with AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. Give up? That alone makes the former Saturday Night Live castmate and co-star of Half Baked, who’s about to hit 36+ cities on his “Live and Let Laugh” standup tour, a perfect person to launch a series about metal and comedy. It also helps that hard rock and metal has played a crucial role in Breuer’s 30+ year comedy career … seriously, you’ll never hear “Hokey Pokey” and classic children songs the same way thanks to him.
As you can imagine, Breuer was more than happy to chat with Metal Injection about his favorite band of all time – Metallica. Within seconds of talking about how their music helped him through the darkest of times, it’s clear that despite going on to become close friends with his idols, deep down he’s still the same teenage metalhead who became instantly hooked upon hearing the first note of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
Read highlights from our conversation with Breuer – including how he first met Lars Ulrich while roaming around SNL’s studios, plus how he coaxed Rob Halford into singing a Judas Priest deep cut on satellite radio – below, and head over to Breuer’s website to find dates for his “Live and Let Laugh” tour.
When did you first discover Metallica?
I want to say sometime around 1984. I was already listening to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Then my friend said, “You’ve gotta listen to this!” It was “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” He said, “Listen… it might sound a little scary at first but trust me! Just ride it all out, you’ll never turn back!” He was right!
My dad was a war veteran. I didn’t really understand that world or anything about it, so as time moved on, that song really made me think [about what my father might have gone through]. That’s why I love metal – it made me think about so many things, like faith, war, the government. It opened my eyes and made me question everything.
Then I saw them open up for Ozzy in 1986 at the Nassau Coliseum in New York. To this day say I personally saw a revolution in music. Forget that they were opening – It was just so powerful, and I’ll never forget watching the way people around me were reacting. Part of me was scared, and part of me knew I was a part of something revolutionary. And that was the beginning of my marriage with Metallica.
I won’t use the word religion, but they are a way of life for me. I joke with my friends that when I’m going through certain things, “I used the Book of James to get me through…” because he really has healed and helped my life in ways that he probably would never know, even though [now] we’re the best of friends.
It’s interesting how “For Whom The Bell Tolls” [inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the same name about the process of death in modern warfare] was the first Metallica song you heard given your father being a war veteran. In a way, it’s a great example of how music can make you gain insight into something otherwise unimaginable.
Yeah, that’s why I’m so attracted to them and their music. To me, metal was always about awareness. People try to say “Oh, it’s satanic, aggressive, violent!” I think quite the opposite; if anything, they’re exploiting the real violence and ugliness behind the scenes of what’s sold to the general public 24/7.
You mention how metal constantly makes you “think” and enhances your “awareness.” Would you say comedy has a similar impact on people?
A hundred percent! [As a comedian] I’m more in the healing world. I want to heal you of certain pains that we share together… [Comedy] is a great healer, or at least a great beginning of healing for something that could be tragic in your life.
You could argue that music heals in the same way. Although I guess there’s more yelling than laughing in metal.
[Laughs] Yes, exactly! And music [especially Metallica] has helped or allowed me to tap into my anger, vent the anger and get it out of me. People really underestimate that…
Did performing metal concerts with a backing band provide a similar feeling to performing standup?
It’s a little more of a higher adrenaline. The energy is more intensified. Don’t get me wrong… it’s a different energy. When you have people bouncing, pumping their fists and getting into a mosh pit because they’re going nuts on the energy and music you’re creating, that’s pretty intense.
Even more intense to seeing people react to your jokes?
I don’t see it as intense. I see it more as relief, and I love that! It’s like a doctor giving medicine and watching the people get better. That makes me happier. Whereas performing metal, which I didn’t get to do a whole lot of, is more of a deeper, tribal energy.
I know the “Live and Let Laugh” tour will keep you on the road performing standup for a few months, but do you see yourself performing with a band again in the near future?
No. I loved what I did, I just don’t think there’s a market for it – for “Jim Breuer fronting a band.” If it was a little sillier [of a project], maybe, but I just don’t have the time and energy. I did it and sacrificed performing other things. It takes a lot of energy and input.
Were you ever concerned of being typecast as a “metal comedian”?
No. As a matter of fact – I was up for it, for a while. I don’t mind if people say that, however I appeal to everybody. I love that when you look into my crowd, you’ll see some Iron Maiden and Judas Priest shirts. Then to the left is some wholesome looking family from Pleasantville. And then to the right are stoners who still watch Half Baked every day, and in front of them are people who only know me from Saturday Night Live. I love my following. I hang out with everyone, and it’ll always be that way.
So, after many years of following Metallica as a fan, when did you first meet them?
I was at Saturday Night Live, walking around [the studio] before we went to air. Lars Ulrich is walking up and down a staircase looking confused. I went, “Do you need something?” He goes “Hi, I’m Lars.” “I know who you are! But … what are you doing here?!” I said. He wanted to see the musical guest that was playing the show that night… so I invited him to stay in my dressing room to watch from there.
I was so excited, I called my wife and made her bring my Metallica hockey jersey, and I did the “goodnight” closing credits while wearing it. I still remember Lorne Michaels [creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live] coming up to me the following week going [impersonating Lorne’s voice] “Jim… what was up with that Metallica jersey?” I told him how I love Metallica and that Lars was there! [impersonating Lorne’s voice] “Just don’t nerd out on me,” he said. [laughs]
So that was the beginning of us starting to hang out. Then he introduced me to James, and we’d all see each other once in a blue moon. And then they played Saturday Night Live because I would always say [to the producers] “You gotta get Metallica! Why aren’t you getting Metallica?!,” until they finally did. And James’ wife and mine started to hang out, and [eventually] we became best friends.
Our kids grew up together and I see him as a totally different person… I’ve seen him in very amazing situations where I learned from him – where I would’ve probably found myself lash out, but he took a complete opposite way that left me saying “Wow!” It’s amazing, and he inspires me.
I loved watching you perform “Happy And You Know It” as James during Metallica’s MTV Icon special in 2003. What was going through your head when you first performed that in front of Metallica?
[Laughs] Well – before that, I was traveling with a band where we would do the “Hokey Pokey” as AC/DC routine and other stuff. And we also did Metallica doing the Gilligan’s Island theme. So, it was like [in the style of Hetfield singing “One”], “Sit right back, and hear a taaAAaallle…. AND THE WEATHER STARTEEEDDD!” I remember doing that in San Francisco at the Filmore, and from the top right balcony I hear “haa haa haa!” And everyone looked up, and there was Hetfield! I felt a little goofy, like “Oh my God, I didn’t know he was going to be watching!”
The cool thing is that MTV wanted someone else [for the MTV Icon special]. MTV was like, “We want an ‘MTV’ person.” And the band went back, “No, we want Breuer. He gets Metallica!”
It’s incredible how Metallica went to bat for you like that. To have Metallica say “He gets us” to anyone, let alone to MTV, must’ve been a career defining moment for you.
It’s funny you say that because whenever people ask me, “What’s the highlight of your career?”, in their minds they’re thinking movies, television, blah blah blah. And I always tell them touring with Metallica, hosting their 30th anniversary shows, and singing with both Rob Halford and Brian Johnson – those are the highlights of my career! And people look at me and go, “huh?!” But they are!
Since you mentioned it – is there a moment from singing with Rob Halford or Brian Johnson that stands out the most?
Oh God yeah! Judas Priest was my gateway into everything. They were my first concert [at the Nassau Colliseum in ’82 with Iron Maiden], they’ll always be my first “girlfriend” …
So, I had a show on satellite radio and Halford was coming to promote his solo stuff – he had not returned to Priest yet. I had my band [in the radio studio] practicing “Devil’s Child” [one of my all-time favorite songs by Priest]. I knew that it was such an obscure song that he would be impressed by it… at least that’s what I was hoping. [laughs] Well, he comes in and says “I haven’t sung that in years, so that’s the last thing I plan on doing.” So I’m like, “Alright… it’s all good!”
Then, as he said, [in Halford’s voice] “I’m gonna go smoke a fag.” So, he went down to smoke his cigarette, and I made someone wait downstairs and walkie-talkie me when he got back in the elevator to head back up. And the minute he did, I had my band start playing “Devil’s Child” and I got on the microphone to start singing. I turned around and there’s Halford. I handed him the lyrics and then we went toe-to-toe singing “Devil’s Child.”
Similarly, on the last tour with Metallica – we were in Nashville and they were rehearsing. At one point, James was about to walk off the stage. Then Lars goes, “Can’t we just do one more?” And James goes, “Only if Jim comes up and does it with me.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?!” Little did he know that I know EVERY Metallica song and do my own little Metallica concert in front of my fireplace when no one is home. So, I went up onstage and got to sing “Wherever I May Roam” with the band. It was a lot of fun!
I can’t even imagine getting to be on the same stage as Metallica, let alone sing with them.
They’re very serious about their music, but they’re goofballs! They are just great people! Lars is so in tune and goes out of his way to keep the fans involved. Even with hiring me to tour with them …
I didn’t really know what they wanted me to do. I was really stressed out… So, I met with Lars personally, and he goes, “Jim, the reason we’re hiring you is because you know how to read a room, you know the band, and you know our audience… So just tell the stories of how you know us, tell them why you like the music, do whatever you want! We just want to give some type of [unique] experience when the fans walk into the arena.”
I took that very seriously, and the fact that they trusted me to do that was such a great honor. I put my 1,000% in to do just that… I love everything that I do but being on tour with Metallica was the greatest gig of my life.
Is there one particular song of Metallica’s that as soon as you hear it brings back a specific (good or bad) memory?
There’s a lot… but “King Nothing” brings back so much of a [certain] time period – a lot of memories toward people in the industry who were … let’s just say they were out to get me, and during that time I would watch them rise. It would get frustrating to see a bad person rising to the top with people not knowing what a bad person they really were.
But that song was so healing for me on so many levels. I mean, “Careful what you wish, you may regret it / Careful what you wish, you just might get it / Then it all crashes down / And you break your crown / And you point your finger / But there's no one around.” I still love that song.
It brings our conversation full circle and highlights how healing music and comedy can be.
So healing! I went through such a rough period… but my wife and those Metallica songs were the most healing things in my life and helped me not go crazy at those times. It was a tough time for me … but that song helped my life.