Of all of the acutely memorable bits assembled in SNL’s The Best of Will Ferrell DVD, none seemed to permeate my circle of friends than Ferrell’s portrayal of Robert Goulet, the ‘darkly handsome’ actor, lounge singer and generally exaggerated and anachronistic individual.
Goulet died yesterday at the age of 73, toppled by interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, a rapidly deteriorating lung condition that offed him while he waited for a lung transplant. His death, not necessarily an early one (although in this era, most could be considered so), has some truly astounding properties to it. The Times’ obituary (a must-read) cast him as a man larger than his work, a figure, a presence. He left life as a relic from an obsolete time, in a death that should rightfully have as much effect on our generation as Laurence Welk’s did.
But Goulet’s death is of the curious sort. I’ve never gotten calls, IMs, e-mails or anything when an ex-president or political figure died. Not when Hunter Thompson unloaded a 12-gauge into himself. Not when any athlete’s passed. But within an hour of the Times’ posting of the obit, I’d received half a dozen notices.
Goulet’s a perfect version of pop simulacra, alive more in the reproductions and parodies of his work than he is in his originals. Simulacra, in its modern definition by Jean Baudrillard, refers to a copy of a copy so detached from the original that it assumes its own life. It’s the same principal as Betty Boop, who was originally based on Helen Kane, who based her style on Annette Hershaw. Both Kane and Hershaw have faded into obscurity while Boop remains “an icon of the flapper.”
Ferrell’s performance had no malice. Goulet was treated as he was — an over-the-top performer out of context in an age of self-awareness and irony. So, he was dealt with ironically, covering Sisqo and Biggie. And thus, Bob Goulet found a second life in people who otherwise would have given his death a passing glance.
As a lot of you know, a significant portion of my humor from freshman through sophomore years in college is indebted to Mr. Ferrell’s take on Goulet. You could say anything in that voice and people fell apart. From “my, it looks windy today” to “you see that dame over there, she looks like she could sizzle like a ham,” everything worked. It was cheap, yes. But difficulty aside, the voice was everywhere.
My buddy Bob used the Goulet voice for his voicemail for most of junior year. I used the Goulet voice when guesting on radio shows both at BU and when I had a cameo during my buddy Matt’s radio show at Muhlenberg — an appearance that got Matt suspended for a month because DJ Goulet said ‘shit.’ Todd Southard went as Goulet for his final Halloween in college, wearing a sport coat over a burgundy turtleneck and carrying around a snifter of brandy all night.
Over time, Goulet, who had faded out of pop culture, re-appeared in that scene in a different incarnation. Suddenly he wasn’t a lounge singer, nor was he an actor. But neither was he really a parody of himself. He was a buzz word, a man still having a good time performing. Emerald Nuts, if you recall, used him in a commercial that warned that if your blood sugar drops, Robert Goulet will come in and mess the office up.
Goulet fever, in short, burned as hot as cowbell fever.
Still, nobody seemed to have any experience with Goulet himself. Everything came through Ferrell’s medium, which at once stole some credibility from Goulet’s work itself but also elevated the man to relevance, and, according to Dominick Reuter, reverence among our peer group.
There is, however, one final story about a deeply personal experience with the man.
I have a friend, Vanessa, whose family chose Goulet’s Christmas album as the yearly holiday ritual to play when the extended family comes over — most families I know have one (ours, despite the protests of my father and myself, remains Kenny G’s — my mom’s eternal victory). They’ve been playing it since she was young, real young.
So, Vanessa said, because she was too young to be able to draw the line between deity and performer (is there one in modern society?) she was convinced that the voice belting out ‘hear those sleighbells jingling, ring-ding-dingling too’ was the voice of God.