Who’s Afraid of Chris Elliott?
What follows is perhaps the most controversial stance I’ve ever taken. To be sure, I’ve already defended Roman Polanski and the reviled British publisher Creation Books on this site, which got me a fair amount of flack, but the following almost certainly promises to take reader outrage to an entirely new level.
It’s a fact that some performers can be said to inspire heated reactions, but none more so, it seems, than comedian Chris Elliott. He was the headliner of GET A LIFE, the groundbreaking anti-sitcom that ran on Fox during 1990-92. It’s my sincere belief that Mr. Elliott is a comic genius, and GET A LIFE one of the finest TV programs of the 1990s.
Over the years I’ve gotten an enormous amount of grief for praising GET A LIFE (don’t even get me started on all the online insults I’ve had to endure), and I’m hardly alone. Critic Tom Shales was actually threatened on the message board of a popular movie-related website following a 1999 appearance on SISKEL AND EBERT AND THE MOVIES, during which he dissed THE PHANTOM MENACE and recommended the initial DVD version of GET A LIFE--two apparently death-penalty worthy offences in the geek-verse. Well guess what? I abhor THE PHANTOM MENACE and love GET A LIFE. Looks like I’m advancing into dangerous waters…
GET A LIFE can’t actually be said to be a love it or hate it program. Rather, it’s a love it or really-really-really hate it program. But come on: GET A LIFE simply isn’t that terrible. It’s certainly no worse than THE CHEVY CHASE SHOW, COP ROCK, FISH POLICE, HERE AND NOW or BAYWATCH NIGHTS, to name but a few failed nineties programs that don’t receive nearly the same amount of ire. Clearly peoples’ hatred for GET A LIFE goes much deeper than a simple difference of taste.
Truly, the show is a freaky affair, with a Chris Elliott essayed protagonist who happens to be a delusional, socially inept and borderline psychotic moron. He annoys the shit out of everyone around him, particularly his buttoned-up neighbor and the latter’s bitchy wife (Robin Riker), and dies horribly at the end of several episodes.
Highlights of the first season include Chris and his neighbor pal getting stuck on the upside-down portion of a rollercoaster, a motorized paper delivery service that threatens to usurp Chris’ source of employment, and a miniature submarine built by Chris and his father which they stupidly place in their shower. Things grow increasingly bizarre in the second (and final) season, which sees Chris move out of his parents’ house and into the garage of a crusty ex-cop (Brian Doyle-Murray). The sublime oddness on display includes Chris falling in love with a violent escaped con (Nora Dunn), befriending a puking alien he names “Spewey,” and traveling back in time in a supremely bizarre Charlie Kaufman penned episode. I know I’ll always hold a special place for “Bad Fish,” in which Chris feeds Riker and Murray tainted seafood that puts them under his malevolent influence, at least until the spell wears off, inspiring Chris’ “friends” to rip off his head and kick it around in Murray’s front yard. I should add that in the course of the series Chris is also shot, run over and blown up.
With its cynical attitude, twisted happenings and cheerfully subversive bent, GET A LIFE can be classified as one of the craziest programs ever to show on American television, at once a spot-on parody of traditional sitcom ethos and an altogether unique, never-to-be-repeated phenomenon in its own right. It’s Mr. Elliott who anchors the proceedings with his mind-boggling range of nerdy attitudes, and a cheerful willingness to make an ass of himself.
It was that last attribute, I feel, that made GET A LIFE so subversive in its day. The nerd chic of today was unheard of during the mid-eighties through the early nineties, when comedians were expected to maintain a tough-guy facade. Think back to the once-funny SNL alum Joe Piscopo, who by the early nineties had transformed himself into a muscle-bound lunkhead--and so made for a good fit with the hyper-macho comedy of Andrew Dice Clay, who not incidentally was among the most successful funnymen of the period. Even Mr. No-Respect himself, Rodney Dangerfield, was transformed (in 1986’s BACK TO SCHOOL) into a wealthy pussy magnet, while in 1988 Dangerfield’s ex-preacher protégée Sam Kinison was seen performing “Wild Thing” on MTV with his scantily clad GF Jessica Hahn.
Back then comedians wishing to initiate or sustain movie careers tended to follow Eddie Murphy’s lead by headlining the macho shoot-‘em-ups so popular at the time. See Billy Crystal in RUNNING SCARED, Whoopi Goldberg in FATAL BEAUTY, Jim Belushi in RED HEAT, Bruce Willis (who, let’s not forget, began his career as a funnyman) in DIE HARD, Andrew Dice Clay in THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, Keanu Reeves in POINT BREAK and Damon Wayans in THE LAST BOY SCOUT, to name but a few examples.
In this atmosphere GET A LIFE and its fearlessly nerdy headliner were, needless to say, not a good fit. By debasing the traditional sitcom format, at the time one of America’s most cherished forms of entertainment (president Ronald Reagan made no secret of the fact that he loved FAMILY TIES, and reportedly tried to land a guest spot on the show), GET A LIFE’S creators made a not-inconsiderable stink that resonated through the nineties, and is primarily responsible, I believe, for the extreme hatred so many people feel toward the show. GET A LIFE certainly didn’t end the eighties testosterone party, but it did, along with nearly-as-threatening forces like Kurt Cobain and THE SIMPSONS, contribute to a sizeable cultural shift.
Chris Elliott followed GET A LIFE with a movie career that included roles in the hit comedies GROUNDHOG DAY and THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY. He played goofy loser characters in both, not unlike his part in GET A LIFE. In the films, however, he played supporting roles that proved more palatable to audiences than the lead he essayed on TV. There was also 1993’s CABIN BOY, which Elliott headlined; a film that, like GET A LIFE before it, inspired a hellacious amount of upset. For years CABIN BOY was widely hailed as the “worst movie ever made,” although in truth it wasn’t that bad. Odd and only sporadically funny, certainly, but again: not that bad.
In the years since, thankfully, the furor surrounding CABIN BOY has subsided, as has that of GET A LIFE and Chris Elliott in general. Yet the ire hasn’t completely gone away. Just check out Chris Elliott’s imdb message board, which contains entries like “Ickiest Guy in the Movie Industry,” “I hate this *beep* idiot” and “He sucks.” Obviously I disagree with such sentiments, and will not be revising my opinion about Chris Elliott and GET A LIFE any time soon. So please hold off the negative emails about how much the show sucks, what an a-hole Chris Elliott is and so forth. I’ve heard it all before, and it hasn’t grown any less moronic in the interim.