If you’re lucky enough to have a chat with Judy Belushi Pisano, you’ll revel in her delight, sophistication, wit, thoughtfulness and glee. You’ll also laugh, a lot — something funny comes out of her mouth every few minutes. Not that she’s trying.
Pisano is a thinker who appreciates the funny side of life. She is a beloved figure on Martha’s Vineyard, a place she discovered over 40 years ago, as a bolthole from the wild times of the 1970s, which were wild indeed. She has made the island her home base since 1987, raising a family there with her second husband, Victor Pisano.
Although she’s often working away in Los Angles, New York or points beyond, her Vineyard house is a congenial, come-one-come-all gathering place. During the summer, her door revolves, bringing in family, entertainment-industry friends, summer folks and year-around islanders. The social scene slows down in the winter, with people leading a typical small-town life. Judy is intimately involved in both.
Pisano’s penchant for laughter and comedy has always served her well, and, over the years, has brought her terrific success. She’s never been just along for the ride, which some might assume, given the stratospheric trajectory of her first husband, the late John Belushi — charmingly and romantically, her high-school sweetheart.
Upon landing in New York City from Chicago in the 1970s, Pisano scored a gig in the art department of the National Lampoon, where Belushi was an actor and co-writer of the Lampoon’s “Lemmings,” the hit that launched him.
During this time, the Belushis were at the heart of a theatrical revolution, producing deeply creative, groundbreaking work. After John’s passing, Judy took on co-ownership of the Blues Brothers brand, a highly successful enterprise that counts among its projects the creation The House of Blues music venues and a new Blues Brothers Organic Coffee, launching this year.
Judy continued her multi-faceted individual projects, and she’s still at it today.
Exhale: What were the challenges of your career, early on?
Judy Belushi Pisano:My interest in art and design led to my first job as an assistant in the art department of the National Lampoon. While there, I heard about an opening with the Lampoon’s “Radio Hour.” They needed an electrician, and I figured I could do that. After all, I was interested in computer graphics.
It turns out soldering and wiring wasn’t what I had in mind. I said to myself, “I have to figure out how to get out of this.” I worked my way out and up to become the associate producer.
While at Lampoon, I met Anne Beatts and Deanne Stillman, who asked me to art direct their book “Titters: The first collection of humor by women.” I joined them as an author for the second installment “Titters 101: An introduction to women’s literature.” It’s how I wormed my way into the writers’ closet.
At one point, after John had left Saturday Night Live, I was offered a 13-week contract there as a writer, which I decided to take. John, understanding the particular chaos and pressures of SNL’s live TV format said, “Why would you want to write for them?”
I wrote on one show, then the writers strike happened, our contracts became null and void, and I never went back.
What have been your challenges in managing a major brand?
I partner with Dan Aykroyd in the Blues Brothers brand. From the time John died, Dan has always treated me as an equal, something I very much appreciate.
I like to think I inherited the family farm. We’ve got a beautiful back 40. Some years, the crops don’t do so well, but when the weather’s good, everything is great. I don’t do the plowing, but I help Dan while he does. We both have multiple individual projects, plus many for the brand, and we work well together.
The biggest challenge is that the brand is spread out all over the world, in all different mediums, and it’s hard to wrangle all the details. Especially because there are times that someone needs to be hit over the head, given the infringement, trademark and copyright issues, which crop up with alarming regularity.
My daughter, Vanessa is now involved this part of the business, replacing my sister. They’re both attorneys. Social media can be a vibrant tool for any brand, and my son Luke is working with us as our social media manager and developing brand strategy. The brand’s biggest success so far is the House of Blues, which morphed from a private club John and I had in New York City. Dan was instrumental in initiating the House of Blues deal after meeting Isaac Tigrett, with whom we went on to open the clubs. It seemed like a good idea, and it was a good idea.
Have you experienced any gender-based bias, professionally?
Back when I was on “Radio Hour,” I worked long hours, managing thousands of details. At one point the CEO of the company came to our office to give us, all professionals, a list of things he wanted done. When finished, he turned to me, the only woman in the room and said, “And Judy, can you get some Windex and clean the windows.” It wasn’t a question.
Some progress certainly has been made. I look forward to a time when we find a balanced communication in the search for common ground. Right now, things seem disruptive. I’m looking for people who can bring us together. Come to think of it, we need to do this ourselves. Listen better. Think before we speak. Figure out why we are different from each other. Try and answer things that seem to have no answer.
Drawing on the high points of your career, what advice do you have for women entering the entertainment industry?
I’m thinking on it, which I don’t do very often as I wouldn’t want things to go to my head. I suppose the highlights of my career have been a few stunning compliments I’ve received by established professionals, whom I respect. I cannot think of a way to share them without feeling ridiculous, so we’ll just have to leave it that. As to advice, I’d say the same to both men and women: Enjoy! And, make sure you know where the exit is.
What’s on the horizon for you, professionally?
Our current project is a Broadway show, created in collaboration with a legendary producer. We are very close to finalizing the deal. The show is as yet untitled, but it’s based on the Blues Brothers movie. Dan will write the book and John Landis will direct. I’ll be a creative producer. The Blues Brothers are literally still recognized all over the world and we know people identify them with John and Dan. However, we think of them as characters, and we’re looking forward to what we can create with actors, live onstage.
I’m on a mission to continue to place the Blues Brothers in the world for people to enjoy. It’s music and humor, and both are imperative to good health.