Co-creator David Mirkin walks us through cult classic Get A Life (2 of 5)

Co-creator David Mirkin walks us through cult classic Get A Life (2 of 5)

In connection with the long-awaited release of Get A Life: The Complete Series on DVD, The A.V. Club spoke with the series’ showrunner, writer, co-creator, director, and executive producer, David Mirkin, about 16 of our favorite episodes. Following part one’s discussion of the pilot, this section includes season-one episodes “The Prettiest Week Of My Life,” "Driver’s License,” and “Bored Straight.”

“The Prettiest Week Of My Life” (September 30, 1990)
Chris decides to become a male model and enrolls in the Handsome Boy Modeling School, only to become disgusted with the sordid side of the business 

David Mirkin: “The Prettiest Week Of My Life” had everything a great comedy script should have. It has multiple setpieces in it that are funny. It’s written by the guy that’s starring in it [Chris Elliott], in a way that he knew based on characters and things that he would do in the room. We all found the Irene Cara scene from Fame to be kind of hilarious, where she takes off her top, and knowing that that was going to be a setpiece and knowing how funny Chris was going to do that. Actually, if you listen to the laugh track on that, even with the laugh track off you can hear that I’m just losing it when he has to take his shirt off.

The A.V. Club: Is that the scene where he says, “I’m a male model, not a male prostitute”?

DM: Yes. “I’m going home now… to vomit!” Just brilliant, brilliant. And he’s holding his shirt over himself as if seeing a man… He just doesn’t understand that seeing a guy without his shirt is not considered to be a problem in American society. It’s as good as it gets, and it’s such a fantastic showcase for Chris’ acting talent. I always say he’s incredibly underrated as an actor. It’s very difficult to do what he does, to have that level of commitment and just pull you into the believability of it. He goes through so many changes in this, he goes into enormous sarcasm, he goes into the great fights with Sapphire. Tuc [Watkins] played that part. Chris grew up with brothers, so he totally gets that “constantly annoying the person sitting next to you” energy. That finger thing I wanted to put into the script because that’s what he would do in the room. If you’d be sitting next to him in the room, he’d put his finger next to your eye and I’d go, “Stop doing that,” and he goes, “I’m not doing anything. I’m in my space. I’m doing what I want,” and then if you push his finger away he’d say, “That’s assault and I could sue you.” There would be funny things he’d do in the room and I’d say, “Okay, we absolutely have to put that in the script.” That’s where that came from.

AVC: The episode is a great showcase for Elliott’s gifts as a physical comedian.

DM: One of the big influences on my life has been Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner. I just saw Dick Van Dyke last night, actually. He’s like, 86 years old and still brilliant and funny and hilarious. In fact, he sings a capella songs with this group of his called The Vantastix. He sang “The Bare Necessities” and he changed the lyrics to senility and he did a version of a senile old man, and it’s so great, an old man doing a version of a senile old man. It was genius, and so edgy and so smart and so cool. But the thing about Dick Van Dyke, he’s one of the greatest physical comedians because his physicality was intelligent physicality, it wasn’t just slapstick idiocy. It was an intelligent man getting into weird physical situations that were totally motivated and believable. And he’s also one of the best verbal comedians that ever existed. And Chris Elliott is right in that same mold, in a different way because of the sarcasm and the edge to it, to an extent.

There’s a level to which he’s always winking at you as he’s doing it. That’s not saying that he’s not a terrific actor, but he can do that extra little thing with it. But he’s not only a great verbal comedian with so many funny attitudes when he gets sarcastic—he goes from being dominant to submissive to sarcastic to sweet, just everything in a very, very funny way that’s pure Chris Elliott. But he’s also, as you just pointed out, a fantastic physical comedian, and when he pulls off his shirt, it’s what he does with his body, because he’s trying to still smile while he’s sticking his neck out, and what he does on the runway when he’s trying to do the walk compared to everyone else, he’s just brilliant. The reason I wanted to work with him is because I wanted someone who was brilliant physically and brilliant verbally, and it’s very, very rare that it happens. You notice we’re kind of jumping between Dick Van Dyke and Chris Elliott. It’s a big jump. I mean, there’s been others, but it’s rare.

AVC: The episode features Brian Doyle-Murray playing a different character than the role he’d play in the second season. 

DM: That’s right. We were all huge fans of Brian. I love Bill Murray, but Brian is kind of like the special secret guy to love. If you’re really super-cool and into Second City and stuff, Brian was the master. He’s the one that everyone looked up to, because he was older than Bill and everything, and started the whole thing for that family in a way. And he’s just so funny in his own special way. So it was so exciting—in a way I couldn’t believe that he did it—and it was such a joy to work with him, from that moment on we were always looking for a way to work with him again.

AVC: He seems a little bit gruff to be running a male-modeling school. 

DM: It was perfect. The head of the male-modeling school and he’s overweight and he’s gruff and he’s got that voice and he should be working in a muffler place. He should not be working there. Yeah, it was perfect casting. He couldn’t have been better. He’s one of those actors that nails it every time. He’s such a great person to direct because he has so much of that stage experience that you’re never waiting on him. You’re never having to go back and get another one from Brian, because he’s just always so solid and right there. Only one or two times the whole time did anyone even see him come close to losing it and cracking up, because he’s just so focused and great. As I said, it never went out of our heads from that point to try and figure out a way to get him to be a regular on the series, and obviously that happened.

AVC: At what point did you realize that Get A Life had become a cult show? 

DM: Well, you know, it was always the goal to do exactly that. What I’ve always tried to do is repeat the experiences I had as a kid. Certainly The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were these big influences on me. Jim Brooks, obviously, I would even consider a spiritual father, because he kind of taught me how to write by remote control. But then early in the ’70s I saw Python for the first time, and that blew my brain apart, because suddenly you’re taking everything that you’ve learned about comedy—to really appreciate Python, you kind of have to have 30,000 hours of comedy under your belt to begin with, and then you understand the way they then twist on it, taking everything you could possibly understand about comedy and then turning it on its head. It’s actually comedy writing for comedy writers. And then anyone else who comes along is fine, but it’s really comedy for comedy connoisseurs. 

So I saw that, it really blew my mind, but I was also aware—actually, I became more aware of sizes of audience only once I really got into the business, because I was always about passion. And I realized that the passion I felt for Python because it was so specific, so weird, and so of itself, that I sort of knew it was a smaller audience, but a greater amount of passion. That became an interest. Which is like, “Okay, I’m going to get a smaller audience doing this, but they’re going to be more passionate than anything else.” 

So when we were doing that show we were saying, “Okay, our audience may be smaller.” And obviously now it’s kind of hilarious to talk about it, because the other misconception about Get A Life is that it struggled in it’s first year, and it was the highest-rated new show on Fox that year. It actually beat The Simpsons the first year. We had a great time slot and we had fans. By the way, it was an 11 rating and a 16 share, which is probably, these days, that’s the rating that The Big Bang Theory gets. By these numbers—I can’t remember which is true, but at least 10 million people. That’s a lot of people. But anyway, that group, or at least a portion of that group, had greater passion, and we were aware of that and we were hopeful of that, and that’s the kind of passion that lasts this long, so that 20 years from now you’re still talking about it. 

So it was a conscious goal. You don’t know if you’re going to pull it off, but the goal is, I’m trying to give people the same kind of excitement I got when I watched Python, because I remember it felt like nothing else. You write your own passion. You write your own point of view. And you hope that that will bring other people, bring enough people to you with the same passion, and we were lucky and it happened on that show. It’s a good thing. And that’s part of what attracted me to Chris Elliott. His humor and his style and his talent attract exactly that kind of passionate audience.

AVC: You mentioned Chris having a psychotic break on the runway in “The Prettiest Week Of My Life.” How did you determine how crazy, how oblivious, and how stupid Chris could be at any given point over the course of this show? He seems a little like Homer Simpson in that it’s very flexible. 

DM: That’s true, and even from moment to moment. Again, from what I grew up watching, I became a huge fan of Dada-esque comedy, which has a flexible reality. It’s so much fun to write that, because instead of writing one show, you’re writing eight, where every moment or every series of moments can have its own set of rules, so you can spend three minutes or two minutes or one minute in one universe that has this set of rules, this level of intelligence, this kind of physical laws, and then you’re suddenly out of that and you’re back into regular life for a few minutes, and then you’re back into another completely different universe where something’s happening like that. That’s incredibly stimulating to write like that. Having written both ways, this way is the most challenging and the most stimulating and the most fun. And it upset the most people, because even other writers can be very anal, “How can he go through a wall? How can he suddenly fly? How come he’s not dead?” [Laughs.] It’s kind of enjoyable to just create that reaction. If you’re not going to get a laugh from someone, the second most enjoyable thing is to just upset them. That’s actually maybe as enjoyable sometimes. 

It was fun to have a character like that. And also, again, it’s a difficult acting thing where Chris’ attitudes, not only was he great at his attitudes, but they would change on a dime, and it’s very similar to what Homer Simpson did. The intensity of a sketch or cartoon but in a long-form, live-action piece. Difficult to do. Enormous fun to do that. Obviously, from working with some of The Simpsons writers, we were all on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show together, we all remained good friends. So when I was writing Get A Life, the Simpsons writers were watching Get A Life and being influenced by it, and we were watching The Simpsons and being influenced by them, so there was some cross-pollination there, too.

AVC: Get A Life was unique in that Chris would die at the end of many of the episodes. 

DM: It really was a goal of mine going in, in terms of that same kind of flexible reality. I actually find it to be a funny negative message that’s ultimately very positive, because the character can come back next week. We’re actually trying to say, “Yeah, he died, but he’ll be back! How positive is that? It’s like a resurrection a week!” And so I was laying in wait to do it organically, and it happened first on the “Paperboy 2000” episode. I honestly can’t remember whether I did that in post or whether I put it in a script. Whether I did that whiteout in post. I certainly know that we had the Paperboy 2000 chasing Chris at the end, and I certainly filmed him doing a move as if he’s been blown up or dissolved or lasered or whatever. Might have come up with it on the set, might have been in the script. I wasn’t able to find one of those scripts to see if it had been written down, but that was the first one, and so it was fairly early. I had been waiting to do that and pounced on the opportunity as soon as it came and explored some of that same stuff in The Young Ones.

AVC: By doing stuff like having Chris die, you created a precedent where really anything could happen. It established the rule that there are no rules. 

DM: It did. Anything can happen at any time, but one of the ways that’s very important that some writers don’t understand about that kind of style is that when you have a flexible reality, each reality that you create in each moment has to be very consistent with that reality of that moment. Or else, that’s when things start to appear just ridiculous and stupid and silly instead of somewhat compelling. You have to feel like there’s intelligence behind the stupidity, so that when you moved into a new reality and a new universe that you understand that you’re in good hands with the person that’s created that momentary universe. That those rules are very consistent within that moment and they’re speaking to something specific in that moment. And they’re knowledgeable of that moment. 

One of the things that I’m proud of, in the later time-traveling episode “1977 2000,” was doing that whole opening, which was something I really wanted to do. When [Chris] says he’s going to go back in time to help Gus [Brian Doyle-Murray’s landlord character], Gus doesn’t say to him, “You can’t travel back in time,” which is what anyone in a normal universe would say. He says, “Don’t travel back in time and do that. That’ll really piss things off. It’ll mess things up.” [Laughs.] It was never a discussion about whether it was possible, it was just, “Please don’t.” I was very proud that we had a show that had that level of calm reality that time travel was an option. Then Chris calmly walks through his room, his garage, which is now filled with time-travel devices that we had never seen before. We see the time machine. We see the DeLorean parked outside. And then we reveal—and I was very proud of this—the first time we see the fourth wall of his garage that we’ve never seen before, because we shoot it like a sitcom, the fourth wall is actually the time tunnel. And he walks into and it’s been there the whole time, apparently, and he’s not going to use it because it never works right. 

It’s all insane, but all the information about the DeLorean, about the time tunnel, about the time machine—that was a failure on my part. I wanted to get the original time machine from the Rod Taylor Time Machine film. We were close to getting it, but it never came. They kept promising me. As the exec producer they’ll never say no to you directly. They go, “We’re working on it! We’re working on it!” Finally, I say, “Tell me the truth!” “It’s never going to happen.” [Laughs.] So we substituted something else. But all that information was accurate and informative and it showed a knowledge of all these other movies and shows. It was a crazy reality, but an intelligent crazy reality. But again, that’s what’s kind of keeping your audience, what I’m always hoping is a smart audience, coming along, because even if you’re doing something crazy and stupid, there’s a lot of history to it, there’s a lot of background to it. There’s meat to it. That’s very important. 

[pagebreak]

Just because you’ve asked for analysis, I’ll give you an important thing that occurred to me about “The Prettiest Week” and the psychotic break, one of the things that happened on the set that was an important evolution of the show. The most sitcom-y scene in that show is driving me crazy. It was when Chris did his nude photo shoot and he was completely bereft and traumatized, and he runs to Larry and Sharon’s house, and even the music is terrible. It’s this terrible sitcom cue you would hear in between scenes. And he runs into that room and he’s suddenly running into a really bad sitcom, because Sharon is painting, doing the family portrait, making them stand there, and the kids run out the first chance they get. It’s completely a normal sitcom, and a bad normal sitcom at that moment. And we weren’t intending for that, quite frankly. So I’m watching this scene as we’re rehearsing it and I’m directing it, and it’s a very typical—there’s a lot of typical structure in Get A Life, and then you figure out how to subvert it. You have to understand the regular structure in order to properly subvert it. This is a case where we had the regular structure, but we hadn’t properly subverted it yet. 

And he complains about what happens, talking to his friend kind of bucks him up, and of course Sharon un-bucks him up. That’s also a typical sitcom trait. He eventually says, as written in the script, “You know what? I’m not going to let anything stop me. One way or another, I’m going to be in a runway show.” That’s the way a normal sitcom would do it, where a character is being very positive and just saying this thing, and that’s all it was. I came up with the idea—and this was the advantage of not having an the audience, the advantage of directing the episode and being on the floor to constantly play with it—I said, “You know, I’ll do a psychotic push-in here, so as you tell this normal sitcom speech, let’s put a psychotic blend on it.” Chris reacted to that so he says it in a much darker way. I certainly shot takes where I didn’t push in on his face and where he said it not in that dark way, but then we did a take where he says it, [darkly] “I’m going to get into a runway show,” and I’m pushing all the way in and going way closer than we ever did at any time at that point. I do a very close shot at the beginning when he brings his head up to his father, but this was going to go up to an extreme close-up, eyebrows to bottom lip, and he even looks into the camera. Then behind it, I put the Psycho music, so it was a perfect precursor to explain the psychotic break that happens when he’s actually on the runway. So again, that’s the way the show would evolve even on the set. Any place we would see little leftover pieces of the sitcom that hadn’t been trampled on or kicked in the face, we’d sort of figure out a way to do that.

“Driver’s License” (November 11, 1990)
Chris attempts to get a driver’s license to impress a girl, but decides to drive illegally after he fails to pass the test. 

DM: I’m the head writer of the show, so the main job of the showrunner is writing. It’s what we do, and I, obviously, was directing a lot. Not as much in the beginning. Sometimes I would show up at 5 a.m. and we would direct all day until about 7. And then the writing day would start and I’d write with the room from 7 until 1. We never let any writing go on until I was there. I’m a control freak, and you have to be there to control the tone and everything. So the first script I wrote was the “Driver’s License” show. I’d co-written the pilot with them, but because I was running the room and everything, it was taking me some time to finish this idea. I knew what the network’s concerns were about. They were constantly always saying, “We’d like to see him with girls. We’d like to see that he’s strong and macho,” so that combined with the idea that Chris Elliott himself, being a Manhattanite, had only recently gotten his driver’s license when he came to California. So he’s 30 years old, he’s getting his driver’s license. I thought that was hilarious. It’s actually quite a normal thing in Manhattan. People don’t get a driver’s license for a long time, if ever. I thought, “That’s a funny idea. He’s a paperboy. He’s 30. He doesn’t have a driver’s license. To get this girl, the only way she’s going to go out with him is if he can drive.” He tries to take the test in one day, miserably fails the test, and takes the family car anyway without telling his dad. His dad assumes the car’s been stolen and it leads into a high-speed police chase where they go up on two wheels, which was incredibly exciting to shoot. 

But I wrote it with the idea that we’re getting close to our first pickup, where you’re getting picked up for your back nine, and we’re doing well, but at the same time we know the network was a little freaked out by the content of the show. [Laughs.] There are people who are really unthrilled with having this psychotic idiot running around in a flexible reality and the darkness and all that stuff. So I wanted to give a script that was like, “Hey, look! He’s with a girl! He’s going on a date! It’s not all that crazy. It’s got some bizarre things in it, but it’s fun.” So I’m going to be the big hero that gets us the pickup. 

I had never handed in a script on my own, and, you know, Chris and I love each other, but a lot of the ways that comes out in a comedy relationship is that you’re constantly teasing each other. So when I brought in the script he was like, “Oh finally. It’s here, it’s here,” teasing me and putting it on a pillow and says, [musically] “Dee de dee de dee,” and he goes off to read it. I’m actually a little nervous because I hadn’t written alone for the show yet, and I’m a huge Chris Elliott fan, obviously, and his opinion means an enormous amount to me. He comes out—and it’s very rare that Chris is completely honest with his feelings, he’s usually covering up with some kind of comedy—he’s being very sincere and he goes, “Wow, it’s the best one.” Which is the sweetest thing to say. Not true at all, but such a lovely—and he really believed it, incorrectly, for the moment. So I was feeling very good. I said, “Oh well, he likes it and now it’s going to help us get the pickup.” The network comes back: “You can’t do it.” And I’m going, “Why?” He goes, “Well, if he doesn’t have a driver’s license it makes him too much of a loser.” I said to the network, “You have to understand. This is based on the real Chris Elliott not having a driver’s license, so you’re saying the star of the show is a loser.” “Yes. That’s exactly what we mean.” [Laughs.] 

They found it to be too negative a point of view. This is the first time they shut us down, and I lose about two days of rehearsal when that happens. We’re not allowed to do anything. Instead, I’m on the phone with them explaining, first of all, we’re not changing it. Second of all, that they did approve the story. See, what would happen is, you have to tell the network the story early on. It’s just the way a bureaucratic corporation works all the time. People lower down will say okay, but then someone higher up in the chain who never heard about it before suddenly hears about it and decides it’s a bad idea and whatever. That’s when you have to stand up for yourself and you have to make your argument. 

They eventually let us shoot it and it was fine and they loved it and we had a great time, but it was a fight for that ridiculous reason. Not too long after that, the “Bored Straight” show came up, and that was the one where notes and notes and notes just kept coming down. As I said, we ignored most of them because you couldn’t do what they were asking us to do.

“Bored Straight” (December 2, 1990)
Chris becomes an unlikely mentor to a group of street toughs he encounters while delivering newspapers. 

DM: “Bored Straight” was probably the second time they shut us down. It might have been our biggest fight, because it was a huge political issue for the network. They read the script, or they came to the Monday reading, and they said, “You can’t do the story because it’s about a gang and gangs are a huge problem in America and we can’t make light of them.” As a matter of fact, in the commentary, I actually read network notes that I was able to find, and they’re brilliant. They’re just fascinatingly funny. Again, I want to say, it’s not the network’s fault to take this point of view, because when they read a script, it’s not really in a lot of their skill sets to truly picture it. That is a true skill. To read a script and be able to visualize what is being written is a true skill. They couldn’t visualize everything they were reading, and once they saw it, it was too much for them. In this case, they see a gang written down. They’re picturing a contemporary gang and of course the gang I’m doing…

AVC: They’re thinking Boyz N The Hood.

DM: They’re picturing Boyz N The Hood and I’m doing a Frankie Avalon movie.

AVC: You’re doing Blackboard Jungle.

DM: Not even! They weren’t even as scary as the people in Blackboard. But anyway, they couldn’t picture it, and I’m trying to tell them and they’re not listening and they shut us down for about two days. I had to go in there and have a meeting with them. They sent me a lot of official letters saying that Chris will rehabilitate the gang and we will see them on the road to happy, productive lives, and then at the end all I did, I had them in beards on bikes wearing the same stupid clothing that Chris wore. That was the amount of rehabilitation. [Laughs.] On the road to being idiots is basically was the most we could give them.

It was the same thing. Once they saw the episode and they saw how ridiculous it was, I think they felt a little bit more comfortable, but the entire week we were doing it until they actually got cut film on it, they were in dire straits, the network. They were as panicked as they ever had been about anything. 

The backlot of that was on 20th Century Fox, which is still what I drive through to get to The Simpsons. They have this great kind of ghetto backlot, and I had a fever of about 102, 103, and I was slightly delirious the entire time I was directing that. I was worried it wasn’t going to cut together, and it actually cut together better than most things that I shot. So I was going, “I really should be sick for most things I direct.” I get out of my own way. It sort of happens more by magic, I think. [Laughs.] 

Some of their notes were great. We had a censor on the show who was actually a really lovely woman who was a big fan of the show, and she would try and help us. I had Chris bobbing for apples in boiling water and they said, “Because this is replicable, that is a very big concern.” They said, “Please don’t have him bobbing for apples in boiling water. However, he could bob for apples in toxic waste.” And I actually said, “This is a much better idea,” so I just put a big toxic waste sticker on the pot of boiling water and we got, I thought, a much better joke. The other thing they were concerned about is it said in the script, “He is wrestling a leopard while on fire.” [Laughs.] And they said, “Well, that’s not acceptable,” but for some reason having him on fire separately and having him wrestling a leopard while not on fire separately, that was acceptable, so that’s what we did.

AVC: Well, that’s because children will not be tempted to set themselves on fire and then wrestle leopards because they saw their TV buddy Chris do it last week.

DM: Exactly. Though about seven kids did exactly that. Set themselves on fire while wrestling a—I think they accidentally caught on fire while wrestling the leopard. Which happens much more often than people realize. 

AVC: “Bored Straight” has one of the series’ many montage sequences. 

DM: That montage sequence is what had the toxic waste and the wrestling in it. It has the Mod Squad theme, which we were very, very proud to get. We found it to be one of the most cheesy themes, and really captured that feeling of that kind of cheesy television of that era. I love the organ solo in it. It was enormous fun to shoot that. A lot of it is stock footage. The wrestling is very obvious stock footage. The wrestling of the leopard and the being on fire, all terrible, cheap stock footage.

AVC: So you’re saying Chris Elliott didn’t really wrestle a leopard while on fire?

DM: Interesting thing: He was, but I didn’t bother to shoot it. I just made him do that for fun. And then for no reason he jumps off a building, and that was actually our writing-room building at Gower Gulch. It was also the It’s Garry Shandling offices. We took over the It’s Garry Shandling offices. Which was really weird. We were suddenly in the same space I was for a different show. The soundstage directly across the street from that—or across, not really a street, but the driveway—that was where we shot Get a Life, and that was actually the stage where they shot a lot of The Three Stooges, because that was the old Columbia studios. So we had a lot of that magical vibe going there. But when you see him fall off the building, those are the buildings right there. Also, very important is, that episode was written by a fantastic early contributor, probably the first outside staff member I hired for Get a Life, which was Marjorie Gross. I had worked with her on Newhart. Just a hilarious woman. She’s passed away, but she worked on Larry Sanders after that and also worked on Seinfeld. I think she worked on Seinfeld up to the end, really. Just really hilarious. She wrote “Bored Straight.” She wrote the “Houseboy 2000” episode. She wrote “The Big City.” She was a great early contributor to the show along, obviously, with Adam [Resnick] and Chris. 

Check back tomorrow for more with David Mirkin on five more episodes from season one.


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