It may not seem like it, but Chris Elliott’s goofy, creepy humor has been gracing television and movie screens for almost 30 years. Elliott parlayed his oddball stints during the early days of Late Night With David Letterman—where he played roles like “The Guy Under The Seats” and “The Fugitive Guy”—into supporting roles in classic movies like Groundhog Day and guest roles on sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond. He also starred in two ahead-of-their-time cult hits: the 1990-92 Fox series Get A Life and the 1994 film Cabin Boy. Now Elliott can be seen by a new generation of fans on the Adult Swim series Eagleheart, in which he plays U.S. Marshal Chris Monsanto, who always manages to always get his man despite a penchant for spewing action-show catchphrases and shooting people without cause. The show, which airs on Thursdays at midnight ET, is midway through its first season. Elliott recently spoke to The A.V. Club about being an action star, how he perceives his career, and what he thinks of his daughter Abby following in his footsteps on Saturday Night Live.
The A.V. Club: How does it feel to be “Chris Elliott: Action Star” at this point in your career?
Chris Elliott: Well, I figure it’s time for me in my career to take this route. And initially, I didn’t want to do the show, because I thought I was too old and not right for it. And then I realized, “Oh, no, I’m actually the right age for this now and it would be kind of cool to pull off some stunts.” So I was kind of excited, right from the start, to try to do something a little different. I had lost a lot of weight when I went in and talked to those guys, and actually I was in shape, so I sort of looked like an action star.
AVC: Did the writers tell you that they had you in mind when they brought you in?
CE: No. The initial idea was not for me at all. I was actually brought to them, I think, by Adult Swim. And the concept, when I got involved, completely changed. Originally, the show was a little different. It was a half-hour, and it was more of a behind-the-scenes look at a show like Walker, Texas Ranger. So they were looking for a guy to play two roles, a guy to play the actor who plays this Chuck Norris character on TV. But then when I got involved in it, we changed all that. And I was kind of involved with the re-tooling of it. But initially the idea wasn’t for me at all. And you know, these guys knew my voice right away. So there was a certain amount of having to give up trust and understanding, and hand over the reins to these guys, in my mind. But it was kind of fun to do that, because they’re so good, and they knew what I do and they were fans of mine. So I was in good hands.
AVC: Two of the writers used to write for Late Night With Conan O’Brien, a show that was fascinated with Walker. What is it about that genre that they want to poke fun at so much?
CE: I think they wanted to explore it just a little bit more. And when we did the pilot, I think we realized that what I do is so specific that you can’t write me too far from my neighborhood, I guess is the way to say it. I think they’re happy with the fact that we had to move away a little bit from the Chuck Norris idea and bring it more toward me. But I don’t think any of us wanted to do a parody of cop shows the way they’ve been done before, at least not like Police Squad! or The Naked Gun, or even Sledge Hammer! We wanted to start with that as the backbone of what the show was going to be about. It was going to be this parody of a show like Walker, Texas Ranger, and then let it go wherever it goes and make it more surreal and odd. In a lot of ways, [it was] kind of like Get A Life was.
AVC: You said the writers were fans of yours. Which work were they fans of?
CE: I think they were just blowing smoke up my ass. I don’t think they were fans of anything. I don’t know; they seemed to know everything that I’ve done. Jason [Woliner] knew stuff back before I think he was born, stuff that I’d done and stuff that I’d forgotten I’d done on the [Letterman] show. So when I hear that from people and they bring up things and ask me questions about bits and stuff, I know that they’re real fans.
AVC: What’s an example of something they brought up that you forgot about?
CE: I guess I’ve forgotten about it now. But when you’ve worked on a show like Dave’s, where I was essentially doing a bit once a week, I’ve just forgotten a lot of what I did on that show. And you know, it was a long time ago. So they’ll bring up things and I’ll go, “That was me? I did that?” Obviously I can’t give you an example right now, but I know it’s happened.
AVC: Is it because you’ve been doing this for so long that you tend to forget things as you go along?
CE: Well, I’ve gotten older, so it could just be aging that’s making me forget. People will bring up stuff on Saturday Night Live that I did, and I have no memory of it. I think it’s that I don’t take any of the stuff that I do particularly seriously, so I kind of throw it away in my own mind and move on to the next thing. And oddly enough, I think it’s the things that don’t resonate with people, or that bomb, that I remember more than the things that are successful. And that’s just the cross I have to bear in my career.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
CE: Well, I think because as much as I say I don’t care about—and I did just say I don’t care about this stuff or take it seriously—I think I do care whether or not I’m entertaining. And when I’m not, I feel like I’ve let people down.
AVC: You mentioned in an interview with New York Magazine that you have a small body of work, but your IMDb profile says otherwise. What makes you think that you haven’t done as much as other actors?
CE: Well, you know, I first off feel really lucky that I’ve been able to do as much as I have been able to do. I think living on the East Coast, for one thing, has cut me off from being available to do certain things that you’re called to do at a moment’s notice out in L.A. I also know just how my day goes, and how my years go, that I’m not necessarily working steadily all the time, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m able to maintain my lifestyle and all that, but I’m not doing a pilot every season, or I’m not jumping on a series every year, and I’m certainly not doing a movie every year. And you know, yeah, I see other people, and people that I came up with doing that, and I go, “Well, yeah, at the end of their lives, they will have accumulated a lot more in terms of the body of their work than I ever will.” But that’s just sort of the way I think I’m the most comfortable in this business too, especially at this point in my career.
AVC: There were a lot of years when you were a guest actor on various shows. What is it about doing those guest roles that fit well with your career?
CE: Initially, they were kind of to parody myself. When I used to write for Dave, and I would get offered these little bits to do, either in a movie or a show, in my mind, they were always things that I would do so that I could then come on and do a segment on Late Night and talk about them and make fun of them. That just sort of evolved, especially after I left Late Night and did Get A Life, to people actually wanting me because they were fans of mine. When my career first began, I think Late Night became so popular that people were looking for anybody associated with that show for their projects. I think I got a lot of jobs early on because of that. And now, when people call me, it’s generally because they know me and know my work. So it’s fairly comfortable for me to go in, even with people I don’t know, and do a few days on a sitcom here and there. I’m always amazed that I can walk into these places and meet these people that are fans of mine and feel right at home and comfortable, because, in general, I’m not that kind of person.
AVC: You’re not comfortable in general?
CE: Yeah, with anybody.
AVC: In what way? How does that come out?
CE: Well, to a degree, I’m a bit of a shut-in and anti-social and all that, which is hard to be in this business for sure. I don’t really audition for much, because I sort of feel like, geez, if I have to go in and be competing with other bald, bearded guys for a role here, I’m sure there’s other guys that are better at it than I am. If somebody calls and specifically wants me, then I’ll go.
AVC: Because of the 15-minute format, did Eagleheart have a different feeling than shooting Get A Life or other half-hour shows?
CE: Actually, to be honest with you, it was one of the hardest shoots I’ve ever had to do, even though the end product is 11-and-a-half minutes, because we did shoot a lot of material. We shot almost a half-hour’s worth of material for just about every episode, and then when I mentioned [in the New York Magazine interview] that we had to lose jokes, yeah, you have to lose jokes to keep a story moving. Believe it or not, even in 11-and-a-half minutes, it can’t just be free-form. It does have to have this sort of beginning, middle, and end to tie everything together. And somehow I think the fact that it’s not as jokey as maybe it would be if it was in half-hour form works really well for this particular format. The stories are so bizarre to begin with that it picks up the slack for that. You’re laughing at the story as it goes along, and it’s going along so fast and wrapping up so fast that I don’t think you miss, necessarily, the rhythm of jokes that would be in a sitcom, for instance.
AVC: When you looked at the scripts, which one did you think was the most bizarre?
CE: Oh my God, they’re all incredibly bizarre. The one that [was on last week] was insane, where I punch someone and they blow up into pieces, and then I feel sorry for what I did and I go and adopt the criminal’s family and end up having a Harold And Maude affair with my mother-in-law. I love the fact that these things go all over the place, but still somehow come back and tie up at the end. These guys are kind of brilliant in the way that they can write this stuff and get it to this point.
AVC: Was Michael Gladis, who wears a fat suit to play the Chief, ever on the set saying, “I was in Mad Men a year ago… what happened?”
CE: I’ve never heard him say that out loud. I’m sure he thinks it every day that he has to put on the fat suit. But I think he was a good sport and he was really happy to do it. He had always sort of wanted to do an Orson Welles sort of character, or Orson Welles [himself]. And that’s what we wanted him to do. It’s sort of eerie. It’s fun to see him walking around on the set. It’s kind of like working with Orson Welles.
AVC: He had that vibe going on as Paul Kinsey on Mad Men, with the pipe and the sweaters...
CE: Right. He had the younger Orson Welles going on back then. He’s doing the Touch Of Evil Orson Welles with us.
AVC: You’ve been in the business now for almost 30 years. Do you contemplate that at all?
CE: It’s weird that you asked that now. Because there’s something about this particular show that’s made me contemplate that for the first time. I know not why. Maybe it’s because it is created by this younger generation of producers and writers that know my work and I’m not really having to show them what I’m comfortable doing and what I’m not comfortable doing. Which means I’ve been around long enough for them to sort of absorb what it was that I did. Yeah, I have thought about that a lot. You become an elder statesman fairly quickly in this business. I never thought I would. But apparently I’m reaching that point.
AVC: Does that surprise you? It’s not like the old Letterman stuff is that easy to find on TV these days.
CE: You can actually find a lot of my stuff online. So there is this comedy community now that didn’t exist when I was first starting out, where they all seem to sort of know each other and one person e-mails the next and tweets about this, that, or the other thing. Some of the people are looking this person up or that person up. People have found me there, to a degree, the younger people that seem to be fans of mine. But it’s surprising to me. To have a following on Adult Swim feels really good to me, actually, to be honest with you. My dad [Bob Elliott] was older when he did Get A Life than I am now, but that opened him up to a whole new audience as well. I think that he felt great about that in the same way I feel great about this.
AVC: When you look at the landscape of network TV now, do you think Get A Life would’ve had a longer run now than it did 20 years ago?
CE: I don’t know that it would nowadays. I think if it had premièred 10 years ago, it would’ve. We were part of a wave of that [was a] sort of silly, stupid comedy that crested after Get A Life. I don’t think we started it in any way. I think, if anybody, Dave sort of started the ball rolling for the sensibility that Get A Life had, and shows afterwards. But I think nowadays, people may not have—it may have been done too much already, if Get A Life was on now.
AVC: Until Arrested Development came around, it was thought of as the show that Fox should’ve never cancelled.
CE: Right, right. I mean, it was doomed from the start, because it was not the show that Fox had wanted to buy initially. So it was just a matter of time before they were finally fed up with what we were trying to do. I do feel slightly vindicated in that it has this cult following now and is considered a good show. And you’re mentioning it along with Arrested Development, which is a brilliant show, so yeah, that makes me feel good.
AVC: You mentioned in other interviews that they wanted a pure family show.
CE: Yeah, they did, and it was very odd, because it was so not who I am. I think they were hoping, at the time, to sort of change their image at Fox, and sort of be considered more respectable, or more like the other big three networks at the time. I don’t know why they thought I was the guy to do that, but what they had mentioned to me that they were looking for another Cosby kind of show. The way I pictured Get A Life, it was really kind of a Peter Pan story that has a 30-year-old guy with the mind of a little child. It’s sort of like Big with Tom Hanks. And it was anything but those things. It was just a show about a nut. In the back of my head, I wanted it to be a show about a character who would have been just a secondary character on another sitcom. He would have been the weird next-door neighbor who would’ve popped in, or the weird brother. But then build an entire show around that person.
AVC: Was there ever a phase in your career where you wanted to do dramatic acting?
CE: Believe it or not, that’s always there. It’s always been there with me. Even before I established myself as this persona, I think in the back of my head, I thought, “Well, one day I’ve gotta do some drama. That’s what I’ve really gotta do.” I honestly don’t think I have the chops for that. I don’t think I have the face for it. I’m just too silly. People see me, and you’re not going to believe me doing much [else]. I look at like, Bill Murray’s work like Lost In Translation, and then I go, “Okay, could I do something like that?” But I’ve sort of come around now thinking no; at best, I could play a psycho, like I have in the past. But I don’t think I’m believable as anything too real.
AVC: You can’t do angst?
CE: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t think I could play a troubled soul, or a drug addict, or somebody going through a mid-life crisis. I just think I’m too silly for that kind of stuff.
AVC: You told New York Magazine that you think you did SNL too late in your career. By the time you got there, had a lot of what we heard about all the drugs and staying up all night eased off?
CE: I think there was still some of that going on there for sure. I was there for Chris Farley’s last year on the show. I can’t even remember what year it was. But it was definitely toned down. It was not what it was, you know, in the early days.
AVC: What has Abby told you about what it’s like around there now, if anything?
CE: She doesn’t go into too much detail about what it’s like around there. I mean, I think she knew what the atmosphere was at that show before she went there. She knew how intense it can get, I guess from me telling her about it, and being sort of around it. So I don’t think she was too surprised at the environment that’s there. It’s more competitive, I think, than the general public realizes, and you’re dealing with that every day of the week, and even up until the show. Then once the show is over, everybody goes out to a party and blows off steam. So it’s a really intense kind of week.
AVC: Is it weird to think that you’re the first former SNL cast member to have one of your children in the cast?
CE: It’s an honor. It’s great. It’s something I’m proud of, something my father’s proud of, and when Abby’s kids are cast members on the show, Abby’ll be proud of them too.
AVC: Where does this comedy bent in your family come from?
CE: [Laughs.] My dad is a very subdued kind of guy, and I think I am also. But we’re fairly cynical people, and I think we are willing to make fun of ourselves as much as the people we’re watching on TV that we’re making fun of. So there’s a lot of laughing at just doing impersonations of other family members. I think all families are funny, and I think all families share a sense of humor, the ones that work and all that. There was sort of a sense with me that I could do nothing else, except follow in my dad’s footsteps. I don’t know if that’s the case with my daughters, if they felt that way or if they were just excited about other things that they were seeing and wanted to get in the business for other reasons.
AVC: What role would you want to play that you haven’t?
CE: Well, after I’ve said I don’t think I could do drama, it would be like a Lost In Translation sort of thing. Either that, or The Wrestler. [Actually] there really isn’t, because I feel, and I’m not being modest here, but I don’t know that I’m that versatile an actor that I can look out there and say, “Oh God, I gotta play Lear,” or I have to do some classic Shakespeare thing. I honestly just am happy doing this sort of persona that I’ve been doing for 30 years. And as long as a new audience is now watching it, I think it still has some longevity.