Everyone agrees the perfect dog has certain qualities that make him Man’s Best Friend: loyalty, strength, good temperament, intelligence, obedience. As a kid, I held Lassie up as the model for the perfect family dog: Trapped in the town’s abandoned coal mine? Never fear! Lassie will not only run for help, she will bring you a fresh set of clothing, a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat, and a glass of milk. Need help with your homework? Lassie won’t eat it! She will solve all those pesky word problems and write an essay on French Imperialism. WOW!
“Mom and Dad, can we pleeeeeeease get a dog?”
That’s right. You ask for Lassie and you end up with Shithead. Sure, he’s cute and scruffy. He even has moments of grand heroism fraught with danger. But most of the time, Shithead does what he wants when he wants. This includes following commands when it’s convenient, and still reaping the maximum reward. Shithead is far from perfect, but he’s real. He’s the dog we all know because there’s a little Shithead in all our lives.
1979 was a great year: The Village People taught us the ins and outs of staying at the Y.M.C.A.; Bill Murray proved to be the worst (or maybe the best?) summer camp counselor ever. But most importantly, Carl Reiner released his masterpiece (yes, you read that correctly: masterpiece) The Jerk. Starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, and co-written by Martin and Carl Gottlieb, The Jerk tells the story of Navin R. Johnson, the son of a poor black sharecropper. Patiently waiting for the day when his skin will change color to match that of his family, Navin finally learns the real truth: he is not their natural born son (Did we mention that he’s pretty damn stupid?). Although distraught over this revelation, Navin soon comes to terms with his racial identity. He sets out to find his own way in the world, his “special purpose”, and to prove to himself and his family that he is a man.
Soon into his wandering trek, Navin encounters a scruffy mutt barking at his motel room door. Navin must have always wanted a Lassie dog too, because he attempts to translate the dog’s frantic barking. Arriving at the conclusion the motel is on fire, Navin runs outside in his skivvies, banging on every single door, yelling “FIRE!” Of course there is no fire. This dog is no Lassie and is certainly no lifesaver. Navin’s dream of owning the perfect dog blinds him from the obvious truth. It takes an outside observer to see the dog for what he really is: a shithead. In that moment, a cultural icon was born.
For the first time, audiences see a realistic portrayal of the All-American pooch. Before The Jerk, dogs in film were represented by Hollywood’s canine elite: Skippy (Asta), Terry (Toto), Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Pete the Pup, even Benji. Sadly, Shithead’s bust is not in that Hall of Fame. A travesty, really. The furry actor who played this character could have stuck to the heroic canine archetype, yet he knew audiences of the 1970s would respond to a unique, fresh approach. This unnamed dog bravely made the choice to play against type. In this author’s humble opinion, his gamble paid off. One of the things that makes Shithead so special, is that despite lacking the talents of the more famous dogs, he is still more intelligent than his owner, Navin.
Shithead is a free-spirit who knows what he wants and is not afraid to get it. You can imagine him saying “Hey, man! I’m just here to have a good time.” He represents the era in which he lived. On the eve of the 1980s, he’s a dog poised to become a living legend. He defines the free, easy living of the 1970s, yet he is not afraid of embracing the excesses that lie ahead. Shithead is fully aware that nothing lasts forever. His motto is “Carpe Diem; Keep on Truckin’.”
Although he does what he wants, make no mistake: Shithead really tries to do what he thinks is in Navin’s best interest. For example, while Navin is taking a bubble bath, his girlfriend Marie decides to walk out, leaving a “Dear John” letter. Without Shithead drawing his attention to it, Navin would not have seen the note. Navin quickly hops out of the tub to chase after Marie, but he has no clothing. Shithead pipes up with a suggestive bark and we hear Navin say “good thinking!” His modesty saved by his faithful dog, Navin runs after the love of his life…but it’s too late.
From rags to riches, and quickly back to rags, Shithead is mostly there for Navin. Isn’t that what all dogs are? Mostly there? They love you as long as you feed them and there’s not something stinky to chew on. When the food is scarce and when you cut yourself shaving and nothing comes out but air, don’t expect them to stick around. If you’re drowning, remember there is always a steak, medium-rare, on higher ground. A real dog, just like Shithead, will be running toward it.
Celebrate 35 years of Shithead and Navin R. Johnson by taking the time to watch (or re-watch) the hilarious and clever The Jerk.