Co-creator David Mirkin walks us through cult classic Get A Life (5 of 5)
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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 four’s discussion, this final section includes season-two episodes “Chris Becomes A Male Escort,” “Girlfriend 2000,” “SPEWEY And Me,” and “1977 2000.”
“Chris Becomes A Male Escort” (December 21, 1991)
Chris enters the shadowy world of male escorts when he becomes a paid plaything to a wealthy older woman.
David Mirkin: Fox never had a problem with Chris becoming a male escort. That was the great thing. Married With Children plowed the way forward with any discussion of such things. So that was all fine. And the client’s husband was played by an actor I used a lot on Newhart [Ralph Manza]. He’s just terrific.
I guess there are two stories about [this episode]. I had the joke where she puts the cigarette out in his eye. She takes a cigarette and puts it in his eye; that was one of the lovely things that came to mind that I wanted to happen. I wasn’t on the floor; I go down on the floor—if I’m not directing—when they’re shooting, but when they’re rehearsing, that’s when you leave it to the director. I get a call, and I hear that the cigarette’s not happening. I go down and for the very first time in the history of the show, Robin Riker is not comfortable putting out the cigarette in Chris’ eye. And I go, “Well, why Robin?” And she goes—this is what the network would say, though the network didn’t have this problem—“It’s replicable. People around the country could do this!” I said, “You know, the show’s been on for a long time now, and anyone that’s left watching the show is not going to try and do this. Anyone that would do this, it’s kind of Darwinism. We sort of need them to be gone.” So she understood that that was fine, once I talked her through it. Like I said, she’s the greatest trooper in the world, she was just worried that she was going to hurt somebody out there in TV Land. We got about 11 eyes in the mail, people that sent us their burnt-out eyeballs, complaining. We sent them, like, a free DVD of something to shut them up. In those days it was VHS. We sent them blank videotapes. A box of 10, and then you never hear from them again. So it wasn’t a big deal.
The other thing that was fun about that is shooting the Benny Hill sequence at the end. There’s two things that we put into it, and I can’t remember if it was Adam [Resnick’s] or mine or whatever. It doesn’t matter, because they’re ripped off anyway: [Chris] running through the wall at the end à la Bugs Bunny or à la The Three Stooges. He leaves a cutout of himself as he runs through the wall, and another woman comes wanting him to be her male escort. Then it becomes a Benny Hill chase to the classic and make-sure-to-get-the-rights-and-master recording Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.” You can’t really be in comedy without eventually using that song, I think.
The A.V. Club: Get A Life, maybe more so than other shows at the time, had this incredible sense of comedy history. As you said before, you have to understand what you’re doing before you can subvert it. Community does things that Get A Life did 20 years ago, in terms of taking variations on familiar tropes, turning them on their heads, and making the audience aware of the artifice behind so much television and entertainment.
DM: Yeah, I would say that if Community were a successful show, like hugely successful and making a lot of money, we would definitely be suing the shit out of them. No doubt about that. It’s nice to see there are influences; if we get credit for that, we certainly take it, wherever it comes from. The shows that I love that I felt were influenced by us, or I hope were influenced by us, or I hope think kindly of us: I love 30 Rock, which also has an enormous influence from The Simpsons. I mean, Tina [Fey] always said she wanted to do a live-action Simpsons, and 30 Rock is the first to really pull that off. They had the budget for it. They had brilliant writers, top to bottom. Robert Carlock is just a brilliant guy. And Tina is a goddess dream to me. An incredible cast, everything. I love that show, and I get incredibly depressed. To me, I can’t understand why that doesn’t have a 40 [percent] share and 80 million people watching it.
AVC: It is on its seventh season, though. That’s not a bad run.
DM: Well, it never got big, though. It never had a huge audience. Its audience is limited. Just down to, you’re not going to get the kind of numbers that a more mainstream thing might get. And it’s some of the best jokes I’ve ever seen. It’s the absolute top of comedy writing. Obviously, I love Louie, though I don’t think Louie has much to do with Get A Life. I love that it’s its own voice, and it’s great. And The Sarah Silverman Program, lots and lots of funny stuff came out of that as well. I know there were big fans of Get A Life that worked on that show.
AVC: Before Get A Life, there weren’t many television comedies that had protagonists that were crazy or psychotic or self-absorbed or unlikable. Fawlty Towers might have been the exception that proved the rule, whereas now it’s a lot more common.
DM: It absolutely freed it up. You’re right about Fawlty Towers. In England—being the insane Anglophile that I am—generally the history of their comedy, it was always loser-based. The loser is the hero in England, and their comedies were in competition with each other about who could be the biggest bastard that was the star of a show. Obviously Ricky Gervais eventually did that with The Office. It also happened in Rising Damp and Leonard Rossiter in The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin, which they’ve done incorrectly in America several times at this point. They’ve done Fawlty Towers incorrectly in America several times. They always back off the negative aspects of the character, which is what England celebrates all the time. They love people to be bastards and assholes. They just get a huge kick out of that. That was our goal to an extent, really funny stuff in following in those footsteps. But I’ll always say, there’s never been—and I’m waiting for it—there’s never been a main character that’s been as psychotic and out of touch with reality as Chris Peterson. There’s never been anybody that nuts and that dangerous. I think it’s, as the San Francisco Weekly once called it, “The most American show on television, the show about the potential assassin next door.”
“Girlfriend 2000” (January 12, 1992)
Chris begins stalking a pretty scientist (Emma Samms) after she runs him over, then gets stalked himself by a woman who works at a drugstore (Amy Yasbeck).
DM: [Laughs.] That was just, “Let’s go straight-on stalking.” I always found stalking to be something that was a giant taboo, that I thought was hilarious. [Laughs.] So that was completely where that came from. It was like, “Let’s do something that everyone’s completely worried about and just go as far with it as we can.” I guess the redemption of it was to show what happens when a stalker becomes a stalkee, so we can now feel what the other person was feeling from being stalked. That’s why it was important that Chris get stalked by Amy Yasbeck, who [had just started seeing] John Ritter. They weren’t married yet, but they were seeing each other. I had worked on Three’s Company, and I had seen Amy for the part [of the drugstore clerk]. And John called me up, we were still good friends, and John said, “I know you saw Amy, and I hope you’ll consider her,” and I said, “You don’t have to call, John. She was great. I’m going to use her.” She’d worked with Mel Brooks. A very, very funny girl. And Emma Samms beat out a lot of women for that part and did just a fantastic job.
Chris is so committed to this insane world. I’m very proud of the opening of that show, because he gets run over about five times, and it was a lot of fun shooting those dummies getting run over. He’s lying down, and cars are just continually running over him. Just a piece of information: If you ever want to shoot a dummy getting run over like that, you actually have to chain the dummy to the concrete, to the asphalt, because the car will move the dummy. So that’s how he stays in the same position: He’s kind of nailed in position there as the cars continue to run over his face.
AVC: The episode is noteworthy in part because it involves Chris looking for love.
DM: Several of the scripts I wrote were about him dating, trying to be the guy who would take those stories on. It wasn’t typical for Adam Resnick to write women. He was more interested in writing construction workers and nasty cousins and stuff. So it was kind of left to me to do whatever insane romances we were going to do. And I loved doing them, by the way, because I love funny women. I’m a big fan of funny women and funny actresses. In “Married,” where [Chris] gets married, has a fight, drifts apart, has an affair, gets divorced, and starts seeing other people all in one day, when the boulder hits him at the very end, a supermodel falls in love with him. It turns out he’s her soulmate because they both keep candy in their pockets that gets gushy. They have these weird things, so she falls in love with him; that’s even weirder, I think. The scientist takes a long time because she says no, and he stalks her. We were trying to point out that stalking can pay off, which is technically the point of The Graduate, by the way. You may say, “Well Dave, you’ve written this very weird show,” but technically The Graduate celebrates stalking, saying, “Don’t give up, no matter what. Get on the bus with the girl at the end, and then you won’t have any idea where to go.” It’s actually a hilarious, dark story. One of my favorite, favorite films. One of the reasons I wanted to direct was because of that movie.
So, yes, she doesn’t like him in the beginning, and then in the end, she kind of likes him if only to experiment on him because he’s so weird. Unfortunately, he’s stabbed moments later by Amy. And the only reason Amy likes him is she’s out of her mind, and she’s being stalked as well and runs off with her own stalker. So that is a match made in heaven. Emma is great in that, again, because if you watch—it’s not easy to do, but she does—she plays every beat completely real. She doesn’t do anything that’s letting on that it’s comedy. She plays all of the emotions normally. She plays all of her reactions to Chris the way an intelligent person would react to him. When he says he’s a genius too and goes, “Beep,” she says, “Well, good for you.” [Laughs.] A very good performance from a good performer.
“SPEWEY And Me” (February 9, 1992)
Chris encounters the most disgusting space alien in the world, in a feral, savage parody of E.T and Mac And Me.
DM: “SPEWEY And Me” was one of the most fun times I had shooting an episode, and it was the most fun in the room coming up with it. The guys around the office, when I was gone on the floor, nothing could happen, I was directing. So they were spending their time—comedy writers are bastards—they would watch movies that are purposely bad so they could make fun of them, and the one that was going around at the time was Mac And Me. It boggles the mind. It was The Room of its day, if you know what I’m saying. They came to me and said—it was Jace [Richdale] kind of leading the pack—and he said, “We want to do an episode where Chris meets an alien.” And I hated the idea because everyone was doing that at the moment. In fact, Married With Children just did a thing where little grays come and visit, and the whole idea is how cute aliens are. Ever since E.T. and Close Encounters, aliens were nice. It was laserdisc time, and my girlfriend and I got box sets of laserdiscs. That’s the way I relaxed: I got the big box set of E.T., which I loved when I’d first seen it. I get home with the laserdisc and with the girlfriend, and we put it on and I didn’t like it the second time. Because by then, a lot of Spielberg’s movies, you just saw them too much, and they seemed repetitive and the music seemed a little cloying. So I didn’t like E.T. the second time I saw it, even having loved it the first time.
So they’re saying there’s this alien, and the alien is going to be the nice alien and I’m saying, “I just don’t see it. I just don’t see it.” But Jace kept on me. And I really love Jace; I trusted him, and he said, “I really want to do this,” and I’m going, “Gee. It’s the same thing like when Chris says, ‘I want to go back to the big city.’ How do I do it?” It suddenly hit me; I had this image. Sometimes ideas come to me that are visual, and I picture the alien with his head spinning and spewing into a living room and just making a giant mess and Chris looking at this pus-bag thing going, “Can’t you see he’s teaching us about love?” Then the second image I had was SPEWEY clearly defecating, but it’s coming out of his elbows and then Chris eating that. Then I realized—this was all at the same time—the epiphany was the alien is this evil, gross thing, but because of the Spielberg movies, Chris can’t process that. He can only see him as good. Then we started to pitch the rest of the story out, and I’ve never laughed so hard. We laugh a lot in those rooms. That’s always the goal. The only way to make these 17-hour days work is to laugh and have fun. You want to make it as positive as possible, and this was the hardest we’d laughed, coming up with those various images. What’s interesting is that I couldn’t get the head to rotate. That was the image I had in my head, but SPEWEY has to walk around in a 360-degree circle and do it that way. That actually helps a joke later, because when Chris crashes on the bicycle, SPEWEY’s head is on backwards and Chris has to flip it around. It’s a good, funny look, and if SPEWEY’s head could freely rotate, it wouldn’t be that funny that his head was on backwards.
Also, it was exciting because I got to design the alien with these great guys who were designing the creatures for Dinosaurs, and they were big Get A Life fans, so they agreed to make us a $70,000 creature for about $10,000. That’s why you’ll look and see his eyes open and move, his antennae move. It’s a radio-controlled thing. There’s a wonderful little person named Arturo Gil inside that suit, and he shows up now and again. When I watch it, I can’t believe I shot it in two days. If anything had gone wrong with the electronics or the suit or anything, he would have been dead, and that’s a lot of stuff to go wrong and typically does go wrong when you try and shoot that many special effects. Arturo shows up, he has a temperature of 102. And obviously you can’t just replace him. There’s not many people that size with that history. He went into that thing, and if you watch SPEWEY, he has enormous energy. It’s amazing it didn’t kill him, because it’s 120 degrees in the suit under those lights, and he just did this amazing job. We had an enormous time shooting it.
I’ll also say Chris Elliott… He wasn’t in the [writers’] room that much second season. He was probably busy with Cabin Boy and other things, so he hadn’t really seen the “SPEWEY” script until we were shooting it and he was learning it. Always fantastic on set. You never get anybody that gives you any more commitment than Chris Elliott. He’s always so fantastic. But he’s being given a lot of the material as we were doing it, and it was the first time I’d ever seen him lose it on the set. He would realize how funny it was, particularly seeing the guy in his suit. It’s also one of the few places you can see Brian Doyle-Murray almost lose it, when the detectives come in and they say, “Just how big and how thick is this cat?” You can see Brian has to purse his lips, because the crew, who never laugh, the entire crew fell apart. It was so funny the way that actor said that line. By the way, great Jace Richdale line. I say we break these stories, and obviously there’s a lot of things that I come up with, but Jace… like Adam, they’ll go away and write this thing, fantastic scripts, and he was the one that wrote, “Just how big and how thick is this cat?” When Chris drinks the stuff that’s coming out of SPEWEY’s elbows, he wrote the lines that go with that, which is Gus saying, “That’s not a goddamned Mr. Softee machine! You don’t know what that is!” And Chris drinks it and goes, “Try nectar of the gods!” All these great lines.
I took Arturo out of the suit, and Chris pushes SPEWEY, “SPEWEY, run like the wind!” SPEWEY falls face first. The only way to do that was without the guy in the suit. I wanted to do the other thing that visually hit me right away… all the Spielberg things that I ripped off, that early image I had, SPEWEY spews Chris right in the face, and then Chris hugs him and says, “I’m keeping him.” Also, when Chris is getting spewed, right before he says that, the spew was very viscous, so it had to come out at a very high level of pressure, so Chris has his face right in it like the perfect idiot he is, and it turns his eyelid inside out. It’s the first time Chris ever broke character and ran because it really kind of hurt, and he didn’t know if it knocked his eyeball out of its socket. [Laughs.] He had no idea what had happened. He quickly came back, but if you look at that shot, you’ll see that his eyelid is a little bit funky. In fact, I cut away right before he runs away. It was still the best take of getting him in the face. There’s a lot of stories about “SPEWEY.”
The network’s take on it was one of the funniest arguments we ever had. They saw the script and their initial reaction was, “Well, you can do this, but we don’t want you to eat him. He can’t eat SPEWEY.” And I said, “We wrote it so we could eat SPEWEY. That’s the whole point.” I said, “He regenerates from his own leftovers. It’s a Christ story. It’s a resurrection. It gives people hope.” [Laughs.] So it’s an insane argument that I’m having with them about whether or not this phony creature can be consumed. And, of course, I said, “We’re not going to change it. It’s going to be fine. Trust me.”
Oh, the other E.T. thing I wanted to do: In the very beginning on a bike, the exact shot against the moon, except the bike crashing. Not flying at all. That was done as a miniature. Cost between $11,000 and $15,000. They went to a miniature stage and built me a little bicycle with a cutout of Chris on it, based on a very accurate cutout. The pedals actually articulate and they move very, very fast because you then shoot the miniature in slow speed, at about 120 frames per second, and that makes it look like a full-size bike that goes off a little miniature cliff, against a moon. That’s where that shot happened. So $11,000 to $15,000, that’s how much that joke cost, but it was worth it.
Anyway, I shot the episode, and then I sent it to them. Again, when I’m saying executives, it’s not up to them to be able to picture everything they read. It’s an enormous skill to be able to do that, and you’re not going to find everybody that can do it. So even though they had been reading about SPEWEY spewing on Chris and Chris eating what is, basically, SPEWEY’s defecation, they couldn’t picture that. But when they saw it, they went into shock, basically. And when they called me, for the first time ever they said, “We can’t air this episode. This is the first episode we can’t actually put on the air. It’s too disturbing.”
And I was like, “Wow.” This was a big deal. We’ve already spent $650,000, $700,000 or so. That’s a big eat. It’s going to be a big problem; it’s going to be a big fight. Very, very luckily, I had the episode sent up to the top of the network to Peter Chernin, and he came back and said, “That’s the funniest episode you’ve ever done.” So again, that’s the way a corporate hierarchy can work: The lower-downs don’t completely know or understand everything, or they’re not talking to each other, so we got saved by the bell on that one. That was their initial reaction to that.
“1977 2000” (March 1, 1992)
Chris travels back in time to try to save his landlord Gus’ career in an episode written by future Academy Award-winner Charlie Kaufman.
DM: That was Charlie’s second script. I can’t remember what I read of Charlie’s to hire him, but he was about to leave town. He had come to town to try to get a job, and nobody called him. He got no interest at all. There again, it shows you the brilliant people that can be around… I read his stuff, and I immediately recognized a future Oscar winner. No, I loved his stuff right away, and I called him, and when I called him, he was leaving town. He said, “I’m about to leave town.” I said, “Don’t leave!” I said, “You can do this. Come on and be on the show.” He came on, Charlie’s a lovely guy, but he didn’t say a word. He’s one of the quieter people. I think since he’s won his Oscar I’ve seen him talk a lot more. But pre-Oscar, getting much information out of Charlie in a room, he’s just quiet. Great on the page, though, and a lovely guy. I loved him so much I brought him onto The Edge with me, too. This was the episode that really had more of his sensibility to it, because it had the time-travel aspect of it. We all worked on it; this episode was a big deal to me because I got to explore all my favorite time-travel ideas. It was fun to shoot that.
We shot the last three episodes of Get A Life together in one week, because we were finished. It was the last week of December; it was the week of December 20, 1991. Our very last week. We didn’t know for sure, but we had a pretty good idea we weren’t coming back, because we had been moved out of Sunday into Saturday night when there was nobody watching. Then we were moved back to Sunday, but after 10 o’clock when most of the Fox stations had already signed off, so we weren’t [on] in most of the country. If the network doesn’t know what to do with you, and you are not a favorite of the network… We were definitely getting the shuffle, the timeslot, the death-slot shuffle, as you would call it. But I shot “1977 2000,” “Bad Fish”—which was the other Bob Odenkirk show with the ripping off of Chris’ head, one of my favorite deaths. I’d wanted to rip off his head for a while, and I finally found a place there. And they play soccer with his head in that. And I shot the “Clip Show,” which involves him falling out of an airplane and landing on a bed and the bed exploding. I shot that all in four days, all three of those shows, and I put the whole shooting schedule for that last week on DVD, so you can see how funny it is to shoot Get A Life. You can see when we need Chris’ head, Chris’ torso, time machine, DeLoreans. It’s funny to see a list of things needed to do these things. All three of those shows happening together, the actors could not have been more into it, more committed. Terrific performances. I loved the stuff, and I think it’s all Charlie’s jokes that when he sees himself on the street as a young kid and the kid goes, “Will I go bald? Will I travel back in time and see myself?,” asking questions that are completely obvious. Then Chris kicks him in the butt to get him leaving, and he feels it in his own butt. All his insane logic. Very, very well done. Terrific performance by Brian. I know that Charlie purposely wrote the line, “Borden, your cock fights suck, you bastard,” or whatever that line is. He purposely wrote it to be vulgar and awkward to say because he knew we would be saying it multiple times every time we went back. I liked that. I like that it was kind of a bad line. A purposely poorly written line that was going to be repeated many times.