Co-creator David Mirkin walks us through cult classic Get A Life (1 of 5)
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In the 20 years it’s taken for Get A Life to receive a complete home-video release, the show has become an influential and beloved—though hard-to-see—cult comedy. Co-created by star Chris Elliott, Elliott’s writing partner Adam Resnick, and David Mirkin (who would go on to be the showrunner on the fifth and sixth seasons of The Simpsons, which he still consults for), Get A Life broke the mold of the conventional sitcom. It centered on a delusional, sometimes-psychotic 30-year-old paperboy protagonist, and featured an absurdist sensibility and surreal plotlines involving time travel, disgusting space aliens, and male prostitution. Before South Park did it, Get A Life had a central character who died frequently yet had a strange, inexplicable habit of turning up in subsequent episodes unharmed, and before Community did it, Get A Life subverted sitcom conventions in a manner that was at once affectionate and scathing.
In connection with the long-awaited release of Get A Life: The Complete Series on DVD, The A.V. Club spoke to Mirkin about 16 of our favorite episodes. We begin with an in-depth look at the Anglophile origins of the series’ pilot, “Terror On The Hell Loop 2000.”
“Terror On The Hell Loop 2000” (September 23, 1990)
In the series’ pilot, Chris and best friend Larry get stuck upside-down on a rollercoaster.
The A.V. Club: How did Get A Life come about?
David Mirkin: I had been one of the showrunners of Newhart, and it was a traditional sitcom and I just loved doing that. It was a dream to work on an MTM show. But after about four years of doing that, doing stuff around a couch, doing stories around a dining-room table, the limitations of the three-camera format were wearing on me quite a bit. I was very influenced by [Monty] Python and I had a huge interest in doing a full half-hour show with the intensity of a sketch and a flexible reality. It was something I thought would be very popular and breakthrough. [Laughs.] I was an Anglophile and I was very interested in bringing a lot of what was going on with the British sensibility to America.
In keeping with that, there was sort of a spawn of Python in some ways, a TV show called The Young Ones, a BBC show, and I thought, “Well, this will be a great way to do something like this in America.” So I got the rights to The Young Ones and actually brought over Nigel Planer, who was probably the largest star from that at the time, and I cast Jackie Earle Haley as Adrian and the person I wanted for the Rik Mayall role was Chris Elliott. I was a huge, huge Chris Elliott fan from the very beginning days of [Late Night With David] Letterman. I thought he’d be perfect for this. The network [Fox] was actually already interested in Chris, to put him in something, but oddly enough they didn’t want us to meet because they knew I was doing a crazy show, they knew that Chris was a crazy guy, and it was like, “This crazy guy meeting this other crazy guy is going to be too intense. Let’s keep them apart.” We both worked against that and we got together and it was instant love. Just like we knew each other forever. They, as a network is prone to do, they were trying to get Chris to do a very normal-type sitcom and the kind of producers they were offering him had that kind of, almost My Two Dads history. [Laughs.] I have no idea why that’s lodged in my brain as an example, but it’s a typical network thing to take a cool edgy star and cut his balls off.
AVC: “Let’s take what’s special about you and strategically remove it.”
DM: Exactly. And of course, this is the first time Chris is being offered his own show and everything, and he was considering it to an extent, because there’s a part of you that figures, “Well, even if I do a traditional show I can still make it really good.” And Chris is a terrific actor. “And this show could make billions upon billions of dollars exploring this other side of myself.” It’s not like he was dismissing it. So I told him, “You’re crazy. You have to stay edgy and do something weird and interesting.”
AVC: Something that reflected his sensibility.
DM: Exactly. “We have to move TV forward. You can’t just fall back into this thing.” And he heard that and it really affected him, and his manager very quickly called me after that and said, “What’d you do to my client?” I mean, she was kidding, but it was kind of true. I had set him on this other course. But Chris being the very smart, wily individual that he is, knew that I was asking him to be in a show that starred three people, and he was getting offers to be in a show that was just about him, so he did turn me down. I went and I did The Young Ones, but Chris and I stayed friends, we stayed in contact. I said to him, “Look, I’m interested in helping you with whatever you want to do. You’re a good guy and I like you and I love your talent,” and whatever.
At some point in this process, to get really detailed, I started to develop another show with Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame. Obviously, I was a huge Python fan. About a year or so before that, during the [1988 Writers Guild strike], I discovered Graham Chapman was a fan of mine from Newhart and he was doing a show called Jake’s Journey, trying to get that started, he had done the pilot for it, which was awesome. It was all done in England and it had my favorite people in it. It had a lot of people from The Young Ones in it. It had just a lot of great English comedy actors in it and starred Graham. During the writers’ strike, CBS became incredibly interested in that because they could do it in England and not be beholden to the Writers Guild. And I met Graham and we loved each other and he asked me to come and write that show, be the head writer and direct it. I was desperate to do that and I asked the Writers Guild, I said, “Can I legally do this?” And they said, “Yeah, you can.” And I said, “But I won’t. Because it would hurt our writers’ strike.” In other words, if we were going to give programming to CBS in this underhanded way, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to do anything to prolong the strike, so I said, “We’ll do Jake’s Journey the instant the strike is over,” and sure enough, the strike is over, I say, “Let’s do Jake’s Journey,” and CBS says, “We’ve no intention of ever doing that insane show.” Because it was, again, quite a weird, surreal show.
AVC: What was the premise?
DM: The premise is that there’s a 16-year-old kid who moves to England with his family and he is kidnapped, basically, by a knight who can move through time, which is Graham Chapman, and the knight says, “You’re my squire,” and pulls him back into his own magical world and brings him on adventures with him, as his sort of servant/squire. So that was the idea. And a typical network thing is, “Where’s the time machine?” Because Graham just kind of appears and grabs the kid and we say, “Well, you don’t really need the time machine…” So it’s all the usual network things, but they were willing to forget all that if they were going to get the show during the strike. Once the strike was over, it’s, “This is a crazy, insane show that the guy’s traveling through time and there’s fairies in the woods and there’s trolls and stuff. This is freaking us out.” They didn’t want it when they had the choice of anything else.
Graham and I stayed in contact and I said to Graham, “Let’s do a show together,” and he said, “Great.” It was another premise, which I can’t tell you what it is. It was really terrific. We were just about to start on it [and], to make a long story short, Graham pulled a very Python-esque joke and he died. [Chuckles.] Right at the very beginning of things. And I must say that talking to Graham in the hospital, just days before he passed, he was still funnier and more brilliant than I will ever be. Even in that state. Such a classy guy, it was heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time.
Anyway, so this is all gone, and meanwhile I’m still talking to Chris and Chris is pitching. I’m not that familiar with it, but I do believe he pitched the idea that he’d be Marlon Brando, who ran away from Hollywood and moved in with a family and became their nanny.
AVC: Which is a show I would totally watch.
DM: Everybody would have! We actually worried that it would blow up the entire television network system with too many eyeballs. [Laughs.] That was a time where you could not get Chris to not do Marlon Brando. [Laughs.] He was just doing Marlon Brando all the time, on Letterman and everything. It was hilarious. The network had no interest in that, so he called me and he said, “How about if I’m Dennis The Menace, grown up, and he’s never left home?” And I said, “Are you actually saying you want to be Dennis The Menace?” And he goes, “Yeah.” I said, “I don’t think they’re going to sell us the rights to Dennis The Menace, to present him as having such a dark future. There’s no reason for it to be Dennis The Menace. The idea itself, of you still living at home with a paper route is hilarious and great.” So I encouraged him on this idea, talked about other things. I think originally he was thinking that someone like Mr. Wilson was still living next door. We realized we didn’t need that and sort of very sketchily worked out what it did [need].
Then, before I had a chance, he had a meeting with the network and pitched it to the president of the network at the time, Peter Chernin, and they passed on it. I think Chris told me that even in the meeting his own people turned on him and said, “Well, that’s not very good.” [Laughs.] So he called me up very down and said, “Well, they really hated that.” And I said, “Let me go in and have a conversation with them,” because it was Peter Chernin, who had picked up The Young Ones and we had had great time shooting that pilot. As I always say about that pilot, it tested through the floor. When you have crazy people trying to kill each other—that’s what happened in this particular episode, they get into a fight which escalates to guns, and eventually into nuclear weapons—traditional testing is not going to… The main question is always, “Do you like the main character?,” and if the main character is trying to kill somebody, even if they like them, they won’t say they like them. They’ll say, “No! I can’t say I like a murderer.” Regular testing doesn’t work with weird stuff.
Anyway, Peter liked that pilot, I liked that pilot, we still wanted to do something together and I said, “Peter, this is a great idea. It’s not dark and negative the way you think. This guy is living at home with his parents, but he’s really kind of beaten the system. He’s not doing the 9-to-5 thing. He’s gaming it all. He’s having a great time. He works in the morning, then he has all day to do what he wants. He doesn’t have to grow up. It’s a great Peter Pan scenario. It’s a positive thing.” Peter considered that to be a much more rounded approach and they bought the pilot at that point.
What was going to happen was—Chris and I were on opposite coasts—Chris was going to write things and send them to me, I was going to write and send things to him. We were just going to go back and forth on the script, and that’s when he said to me, “You know, on Letterman I work with this terrific writer, Adam Resnick. I’d like to write with Adam out here in New York while you’re writing there.” I said, “That’s great. If you’re a fan of Adam, I’m a fan of Adam,” because obviously I liked his work from Letterman. I didn’t know of him until that moment. So that’s what happened. Chris and Adam wrote together. I wrote out here. We went back and forth on the script. We got a certain amount of network notes as we were going along. Then we finished up a script that I thought was really, completely ready to go for “Terror On The Hell Loop” and sent that to the network and figured that this would get our green light. And they came back and said, “Well, you know, we really like it, but we’d like to see Chris with women to see that he’s good with a woman, and we’d like to see him be in charge of his paperboys.” I think early on there was a scene where he was in charge of the paperboys and we had cut that out.
So Chris actually flew out here for a week, and Adam was still busy on Letterman so he couldn’t come out, and I remember just Chris and I in my closed offices at New World [Television]. They were closed for the weekend, no assistants or anything. I was too stupid to ask the assistant to come in. And we’re typing a few pages up ourselves, I think we wrote about seven pages together, him meeting a girl and him talking to the paperboys and stuff like that. We added those two scenes then sent the whole thing off to the network, and the pilot got the green light at that point. Of course, those scenes that we wrote are actually included on the DVD. I shot them, I don’t have the footage, but I included the script pages. They were one of the first things I cut out of the pilot, because it’s something that the network could see on the page and they got the idea that it could happen, but it wasn’t necessary to show in the pilot. But it was the magic pages that finally got us picked up.
So we got picked up for the pilot. We got our offices at Universal City. That’s where his house is. It’s on the same backlot as Leave It To Beaver, so that was the sick energy that we were twisting around, being in that same thing and then trying to do something different. I wanted to do it kind of as a hybrid, with real stuff outside and stuff on the inside too, so that it would feel… It needed to feel much more like the sitcoms that went outside a lot in the ’60s, that really weren’t in front of an audience. That was my picture of it as a visual situation. So we get there. We have a script, which I really liked. We went through a very intense casting process.
The truth is—and there’s a bit of this on the DVD—I initially cast June Lockhart as the mom, and she was fantastic. And just in the weird way that networks are, they didn’t like her. I think, for some reason, they thought that she was too old. They were never clear with me why they didn’t like her, but they thought we could do better. That was after the pilot that we had to recast her. She was terrific, and obviously Bob Elliott playing Chris’ dad [Fred], there seems to be a family resemblance there. And that was a dream for me, because that was maybe the first comedy album I’d ever heard, was a Bob And Ray album, along with a Newhart album. So it was a dream to work with him. He couldn’t have been nicer. And then Robin Riker [Sharon] had that perfect kind of threatening, dangerous energy that I love, and didn’t overplay it, which was nice. Sam Robards [Larry], great guy, great foil for Chris. He was just always so supportive to everybody and anything we asked him to do. It was a terrific cast.
We had a run-through. I can’t remember whether I brought in a small audience for the run-through. Probably did, because the network was coming to watch it on a Wednesday, and obviously I was directing the pilot, too. We have a run-through and it goes very, very well. And then we get into the circle—you create a little circle on the stage and the network people sit there. There’s probably four or five people from the network, there’s myself, and what’s a little bit different about this was, Chris Elliott is in this circle because he’s a producer on the show. Usually you keep the actors out. The network says—and they’re all smiling, so I’m thinking, “This is good”—they say, “Yeah, we think you have a lot of problems.”
That’s literally what they said. “This show has a lot of problems.” They went on to completely dress down the entire thing. “We don’t think the relationship with Chris and Sharon and Larry works. We don’t really think Chris’ character tracks.” All this stuff. This is all the script they had approved, and I was stunned because we got great laughs at the run-through. I knew a little bit about scripts and structure, and I knew that was fine. It just all seemed to work, so I was stunned. But much more important than me being stunned, our star had just been destroyed. [Laughs.] It’s like, part of the thing that makes a great actor a great actor is their heart’s on their sleeve. They’re emotional people. They have to have a thick skin, but they can’t have too thick a skin that they can’t perform. And this is tough to hear. All this stuff is reflecting very negatively on Chris. I said to him, “Look, when you get a notes session like that, they don’t get anything,” and this is sort of my philosophy. “There’s no point in changing it because I know it’s good. I’ve done this for a while. We can’t take any of their notes because their notes are everything, and if we tried to write from scratch, all these months of work would be down the drain and we’d just be performing something we’d only put together in a night.” I said, “It doesn’t make any sense to do that. And I believe in what we’re doing, and all we have to do is have fun and just forget what they said.” And then to back that up I called Peter Chernin and said, “You know, the network just destroyed my star. I have to roll film on him and he’s been completely blown up from the inside.” So Peter did a clever thing and he called up Chris and he really bucked him up. And then Chris called me and told me he felt a lot better.
Then we went ahead and shot the pilot. I mean, I did the normal rewrite I do on anything. We fixed any joke that wasn’t as strong as we wanted, but we didn’t change the structure. We did the normal rewrite that you would do, which is constantly perfecting. It was not a big rewrite at all. It might have been even smaller than it would normally have been had we not gotten so many notes. [Laughs.]
We went ahead and shot it in front of an audience. Again, if you watch that pilot, you can hear the great response from the audience. About halfway to three quarters of the way through, there were so many special effects from that roller-coaster effect that I let the audience go and I shot for hours more that day without an audience. And then I shot a day or so of pick-ups without an audience. And obviously we had the external stuff: We did a big montage at Magic Mountain that was all outside. That was our first music montage, too. Without shooting it, without an audience, I was able to then cut it together and say to the network, “Look. There’s a lot with an audience, there’s a lot without an audience, you can’t tell the difference. And because you can’t tell the difference, please don’t make us have an audience. I can give you a much higher production quality, much closer to a single-camera-type show if I don’t have to worry about an audience.” They said yes to that. So that’s how we got away without having an audience. I was never going to win the argument of not having a laugh track, but what I’ve done on these DVDs, if you’ve noticed, most of the episodes you can turn the laugh track off.
AVC: At that stage in the development of the sitcom, it seemed like you had to have either a laugh track or live studio audiences. Were there any comedies before that that didn’t have either?
DM: The only one that comes to mind, I think, was The Wonder Years. I think that might have been around the only thing, but that was a much more heartfelt. What I always found interesting was, something without a laugh track, you really wouldn’t know if it was supposed to be funny. [Laughs.] If it was weird or disturbing or funny. That’s always what excited me if we wouldn’t have a laugh track. Obviously, what we did with the laugh track is, I tried to make the laugh track pervert the show, meaning it would laugh loud at things that were particularly inappropriate.
So we kind of pushed it that way. We sort of made the laugh track laugh at the fact that it’s a laugh track. Very meta. Very bizarre on several levels. Yeah, that was how we evolved into not having an audience. There’s a lot of things that evolved during the pilot. The opening sequence with the R.E.M. music [“Stand”] was not written as the opening title sequence, it was just written as a montage within the show. What happened is, when we decided to use the R.E.M. song, which we knew was going to be incredibly expensive—and one of the reasons it’s taken the DVDs this long. The main reason it’s taken the DVDs this long to come out is all music clearance. I never wanted to release the show without every note of every piece of weird music in there as we originally intended, however long that took. This is how long it took. [Laughs.] We were able to get eight episodes out in around the year 2000. We were going to put out a box set then, but Rhino kind of ceased to exist at that point, and you need a company like Rhino or Shout!, which is actually some of the same people from Rhino, to take the time and care about the artist. The artist-friendly company is what we call them. To go through and do all these music clearances and go through all the trouble and also be willing to take that financial stake and maybe make a little less on a DVD, but keep the quality much higher that way.
AVC: The show has a lot of instantly recognizable music that seems like it would be very difficult to clear and pay for.
DM: You would be tenacious about it. It was the same thing when R.E.M. said okay to use the music: They were expensive, but they weren’t as expensive as they could have been, because they were fans. They understood what we were going to do, and we talked to them about it, and so they gave us a break. And by the way, they’re big heroes in all our DVD releases because they, once again, had given us a break to be able to afford to put this out. You sort of are tenacious about it. “Pretty Woman” had never been cleared for anything, and we got in touch with Roy [Orbison]’s widow and really made the case with her, and I was really worried we weren’t going to get it, and I was kind of amazed that we did. And so it was a matter of being tenacious. It was a matter of me figuring out the budget with everyone so that we could do it and we could do it right. One of the goals early on was to have cool music and well-known music, even if it was music we were making fun of. “Afternoon Delight” or something, we wanted it to be the master and be the right thing. It annoyed us that that hadn’t happened much in TV.
But, like I said, it bit us in the ass, because for years and years, being unable to put the DVDs out because you’re not clearing it for anything else except those one or two plays on network television. It’s also the reason you haven’t seen it in syndication. It was on syndication for a very, very short time because Sony went ahead, without telling me, and replaced all the music, not knowing that they weren’t allowed to do that. [Laughs.] By the way, it’s not their fault. They’re not used to people having the creative control that I had over the show back then, so they hadn’t bothered to look at the contract. I very sweetly called them up and said, “You know, you can’t really do this...” and they go, [stammering] “We can’t?” And then they looked at the contract and said, “Oh yeah, we can’t.” So they pulled it off USA. But it’s a sad thing, because the show’s been out of the public eye in some ways because of that. But still, better late than never and better right than early. That’s the philosophy behind it.
AVC: Why make “Terror On The Hell Loop 2000” the pilot?
DM: What I said to Chris—and this was even before, again, I knew that Adam would be there—I said, “Let’s think of something visual.” I wanted the pilot to stand out visually. First of all, I was interested in directing something that would be fun and challenging to direct, and secondly, to make the pilot stand out when the network was looking at it with a big story that had some physicality and some visual impact. Again, I was really sick of stories around sofas, stories around dining tables. I really wanted to look like the anti-three-camera show again. This was the opposite of that. I do believe it was Adam Resnick that came up with the idea of being upside-down on the roller coaster, and I loved that immediately and said, “This is fantastic.”
AVC: Was the idea always to deconstruct the sitcom?
DM: Absolutely. You know, I love great sitcoms. I love the great old sitcoms. The Dick Van Dyke Show was enormously influential. I love Leave It To Beaver. Leave It To Beaver wrote kids in a cool, dark way. They were always talking about dead bodies. They were always talking about murdering each other or getting murdered by the parents. It was amazing how violent the language was on that show, and how there was a dark undertone to it. But the happy-go-lucky crap shows, the network always had a tendency to OD on those. The ones that always had hugs in them, the ones that always had happy, pat bullshit resolutions at the 22-minute mark. And again, there’s even a place for that, but not everywhere, and they were just everywhere. I hated them. They were just so cloying.
That was a lot of what The Young Ones was about, and bringing that same sensibility to this, which is to completely be the anti-sitcom. To turn that on its head. To make fun of it. To point out to people what happy horseshit all that other stuff was. And that’s one of the reasons this show was so threatening to certain network executives. Not all of them. Peter Chernin was a big hero in the sense that he was the president that picked up the show multiple times, took a chance. But there were certain people, both beneath him, who were very, very threatened by the fact that this thing was like a training ground to show, to give you the ability to tell which other sitcoms sucked. [Laughs.] That was the subversive idea that I was always trying to follow through on. It’s the way Chris naturally thought, Adam naturally thought, and I naturally thought, so it was kind of the perfect thing.
Now, because of my experience on The Young Ones and the difficult testing on that, my feeling about the tone of this pilot was to ease everyone into this sensibility. In The Young Ones, it was like throwing them into a vat of boiling acid and saying, “How’s this?” [Laughs.] This is a matter of easing someone into the vat of boiling acid over a longer period. So the pilot is the happiest, sunniest version of Chris. There are indications of his mental illness in it, but it’s the most lucid he is, it’s the quickest his mind works. You can absolutely track his deterioration through the series, so it makes sense that the pilot is sort of the pinnacle of what you’re going to see him operate at, his level of intelligence and lucidity. Yeah, it was consciously created to ease people into this instead of splash it all over them.
AVC: Did the pilot get focus-group tested?
DM: Actually, I think we saw something from it. I try not to look at that stuff too carefully. The nature of the way I write is always, I’m always trying to write a show that I find hysterically funny and really crazy, cool, and good, and just keep my fingers crossed that there are other people out there that want to see something like that. It’s not like I’m targeting an audience, because then I always feel like I might as well be making widgets for a living. This is more of something like I’m trying to share my passion with everybody. That’s what we’re trying to do. So I don’t look at a lot of that stuff if I can avoid it. All I know is that we went from being this troubled pilot from the network’s point of view when they gave us all those notes, when I sent them the cut version of the pilot, it became their favorite pilot, and the testing had to be part of that, because they don’t completely form their own opinions. They’re not really allowed to. It’s not their fault. A lot of their opinion has to be formed on their testing information, too. But it went from being their most troubled to their happiest, and never a talk about the changes or lack of them. They were very nice about that.
Again, I did things in that pilot—I put Chris and Sam in those colored balls that kids play in at Magic Mountain, I had them in there in slow motion, popping out from the colored balls and throwing them around—so there’s lots of calculated positive imagery that’s put into the thing. It’s a lot of bright colors. The Terror Of Hell Loop is red, it’s happy. There’s just lots of things that are trying to, and absolutely on purpose, trying to say, “This is okay, it’s going to be fine.” The very last image over the end credits is the slow motion of the two of them playing in the balls like two children. The arrested development—which, I think Chris might have had the title Arrested Development as one of the early possibilities for the show. We made it with an eye to get it picked up, unlike The Young Ones, which was an all-or-nothing proposition. [Laughs.]
AVC: Fox had enormous success with unconventional programming like Married With Children and The Simpsons, which had to help.
DM: It definitely helped. Again, Peter Chernin. That also helped because he came from Showtime. You know, I had worked on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which also was a boundary-pushing show, and Peter had been at Showtime for that, so he was interested in doing some things that were weird and different. But where it helped with certain executives—there were other executives, no matter what Fox’s reputation was, they seemed to be pushing the network to become more mainstream. Because the truth is, if you really get right down, there’s more money in it the more eyeballs you can get. That’s why people don’t want to be offensive, they don’t want to be edgy. It’s really, really good if you can just go right down the middle, right down the center cut and just get everybody. And so the economics push almost all the executives in that direction. And most executives are not hired because they think offbeat. They’re hired because they think on-beat. So when confronted with something offbeat, if confuses them and threatens them. You would think that Fox would be really embracing of this, but there was an enormous amount of resistance to weirdness. Married With Children, hilarious, as weird as it was, it didn’t have a main character who had trouble processing reality. In our very first regular episode, he practically has a psychotic break when he’s on the runway because he’s being booed and speakers are being thrown at him, and he’s arrested.
Check back tomorrow for more with David Mirkin on the episodes “The Prettiest Week Of My Life,” “Driver’s License,” and “Bored Straight.”