Veteran comedian Chris Elliott has had small turns in big comedies like There's Something About Mary and Groundhog Day, but he's best known for Get A Life and Cabin Boy—two projects that landed with resounding thuds when they were released, but have since won a cult following. The son of straight-man Bob Elliott (half of the radio-comedy duo Bob and Ray), Chris Elliott was one of the first writers on Late Night With David Letterman, and over eight years, he played some of that show's funniest and weirdest characters, including "The Fugitive Guy," "The Guy Under The Seats," and maybe the strangest guy of all, Marlon Brando. Soon, Elliott got the opportunity to be even weirder (and in prime time) when he and fellow Letterman writer Adam Resnick created Get A Life, a TV series about a 30-year-old paperboy. It was equal parts sitcom and surrealist comedy, and it got decent ratings, but its strange turns put Fox off, and the network ended the show after a season and a half.
Resnick and Elliott teamed up again in 1994 to make Cabin Boy, a nautical adventure spoof that features Elliott as an overgrown "Fancy Lad," David Letterman as an "Old Salt," and a giant talking cupcake that spits tobacco. The movie was almost universally panned, and its dismal box-office performance became a running joke on Letterman. Most recently, Elliott has turned author, albeit a comic one, penning the murder-mystery parody The Shroud Of The Thwacker. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Elliott about trying to impress Letterman, the making of Get A Life, the after-effects of Cabin Boy, and the day he refused to sit in a vat of chili.
The A.V. Club: This isn't actually your first book.
Chris Elliott: Well, I'm calling it my first book, because the other one, Daddy's Boy, was this parody of Mommy Dearest that I wrote with my dad. The idea there was that I would write a chapter, and then for legal reasons, he got the right to rebut what I was saying in the alternating chapters. But there wasn't really a story. It was a short little parody, a Father's Day book. [Shroud Of The Thwacker] is actually, believe it or not, as crazy as the story is, a real book. It sort of holds together in my mind, you know? At the end, it kind of comes together, so you sort of feel like you've read a book.
AVC: It definitely seems like a real book.
CE: Yeah. I thought it'd be funny to write a fake history of the murder spree that took place in 1882, and sort of make fun of Patricia Cornwell's books, and her Portrait Of A Killer, the one about Jack the Ripper. But it's more of a book than a parody, that's for sure.
AVC: In Daddy's Boy, though, the pictures tell the story. They're really funny.
CE: [Laughs.] Yeah, the pictures in it are funny. That's right, I remember that. And the cover was really funny, too. For, like, five cents, you can get a copy of the book [on eBay]. But I think I have most of the ones that were ever ordered. It didn't do well, and I think it was partly because of the press tour. It was strange. I mean, it was purely a Father's Day gimmick present. But for some reason, a lot of the press dates were after Father's Day. So it was weird for me to come out and do press. I found myself saying, "This will be a great Father's Day gift a year from now." I don't think that there was a lot of hope for the book anyway, so it was whatever they could get.
AVC: What was it like growing up with a famous comedian as a dad?
CE: I honestly didn't know he was a famous comedian. He could have been a lawyer as far as I was concerned, because his humor is sort of the buttoned-down, Bob Newhart sort of dry wit. It's not bouncing off the walls or anything like that. Although it was fun. We weren't a Hollywood family, we lived in New York City. His friends were more from the literary world, and the dinner parties weren't huge.
AVC: But there were dinner parties.
CE: Yeah, but it was usually Art Buchwald or Dick Cavett who was there. It wasn't a big affair, or anything like that. So I think it was a fairly normal child-rearing. And that was the joke about Daddy's Boy—that I had absolutely nothing to complain about, so I had to find things like wearing gold-toed socks as my big complaint.
AVC: Did your dad help you see comedy as a viable career?
CE: Oh yeah, without a doubt. I guess it was 1969 or '70, he had a Broadway show, and I was like 10 years old, so just going to that as frequently as I did… Before, I would go to his radio shows, but you would never hear people laughing there, so it was different when I heard people laughing at what he was doing. I think that's when it sort of clicked with me that I could take what I had been doing in the classroom and maybe develop it at some point. It was definitely that I wanted to live the life he had.
AVC: How did you get started?
CE: My dad actually got me started at PBS on a show that looked at the news press' performance in the past week. I think it was called Inside Story, or something like that, and I was just hired as a production assistant. But while I was there, there was a writer's strike, so someone who was working at NBC took a job at PBS, and we got to be friends, and they introduced me to Barry Sand, who was putting together Dave [Letterman]'s show. I almost didn't take the job because it was less money than I was making at PBS, believe it or not. And it was my dad that said, "No, no, that's what you have to take, you have to go into that, that's where you want to go." So I took the job, and eventually was made a writer there.
AVC: So you started at Letterman as a PA?
CE: I started, actually, as a runner. There were PAs, and then there was the runner, so I was the slave even to the PAs. I was getting people coffee and screwing up the Xerox machine, stuff like that.
AVC: What was it like on the show in the early days?
CE: You know, as corny as it sounds, it was like My Favorite Year, that movie. I was still living with my parents when I started working there, and I would just walk down to Rockefeller Center and get to be on TV at night and walk home. It was a dream. And it was such a small group of people that you could work your way up, or impress Dave, or get to know Dave, because he was very accessible. Early on, I remember he invited me out to breakfast, and it was just so cool. It was the coolest thing in the world. And once I became slightly known on that show, it was like this whole other thing. To be this 22-year-old and have people go, "That's the guy who comes out from under the seats!"
AVC: When was the first time you were on the air?
CE: The writers were kind of writing me into the show right away. I was on the first show, and actually, that first week, I think, was the first time I actually spoke on the show. Dave always liked me coming on. I think I was sort of geeky, and I was obviously a good foil for him.
AVC: Because he's not geeky at all.
CE: [Laughs.] Exactly. So that had started, and then like a year into the show I was made a writer, and then I just wrote myself into the show as much as I could.
AVC: You also met Adam Resnick on Letterman.
CE: Yeah, and we were immediately buddies. He came as a production assistant maybe a year after I was a writer there, and I think within the year, he was a writer, and we were suddenly working together, doing a lot of stuff together. Despite the fact that he says when he used to watch me at home he thought I'd be a prick, we became friends pretty quickly.
AVC: Did you ever write anything that was rejected horribly?
CE: Plenty of stuff. I mean, you came up with jokes that Dave would say "no" to. Everybody did. But you started to know what was in the ballpark, at least. With me, because I was writing a lot for myself, Dave was pretty open to letting me do whatever I wanted on the show. He started to trust my instincts for what I did, I guess, even though I was just finding my voice myself. I remember one time writing my own death on the show, because I used to kill off these running characters that I did, and I used to make people watch these stupid guys for three weeks and then have a really emotional goodbye to the character. But I remember actually writing my own death on the show, that staff member Chris Elliott had gone, with this sort of corny, funny montage, and Dave thought maybe that was a little too much.
AVC: You like to kill yourself off a lot.
CE: Yeah, I do. I'm always finding ways to kill myself.
AVC: That was one of the staples of Get A Life. How many times did you actually die in that show?
CE: I have no idea. I can't even remember all those shows. There's a lot that I don't even remember doing. Especially that last sort of half-season. We got Brian Doyle-Murray joining the cast, and I remember doing some funny shows, but my main memory of that is being exhausted, and thinking, "Why am I doing this? The show's canceled. Why should I even put effort into this?"
AVC: Did you feel ripped-off when you saw South Park, with Kenny dying all the time?
CE: No, I didn't. I mean, I don't know that they got that from me, and if they did, who cares? Honestly, that wasn't, to me, the funniest part to Get A Life. Having me die was really just a way to get out of episodes that had no blow-off.
AVC: How did the idea for Get A Life came about?
CE: The first idea Adam and I had for a show was Marlon Brando as a housekeeper, and Fox didn't want to go down that road. I remember just waking up one time and thinking, "I'm the youngest in my family, and everybody thinks I'm kind of an idiot, and I haven't grown up yet. Maybe there's something in a guy that's never grown up, and he's living in a Leave It To Beaver sort of world, but he's an adult." What's funny is that what I pitched to Fox was essentially that. At the time, that movie Big was out. I sort of said it was like Big: a guy with a kid's heart, a kid's mind. What they really got was a retarded adult, who, you know, lives with his retarded parents.
AVC: Fox wanted something more heart-warming?
CE: Yeah, they definitely did. Even in the pilot, we had a couple of odd moments, you know, emotional moments——we made jokes out of it as much as we could. They required us to have a moment where my dad and I hugged. You know, that kind of thing. Then I think once they picked up the series… the first show was the male-modeling show that Adam and I wrote together in a weekend. That suddenly set the tone for the whole series. [Laughs.] And Fox realized, "Shit. This ain't what we bought."
AVC: But they stuck with it for a while, right?
CE: A season and a half. The second half-season… we had to beg to get that. It was an odd time for Fox. There was some transition in the leadership there, and the show was really not supported to any great extent. And we had no idea that people liked the show. We knew that a couple of reviewers liked it, but the ratings at Fox were impossible to gauge anything by, because even In Living Color, all their good shows, still had bottom ratings. You couldn't really look at that and go, "Those are terrific ratings." We weren't doing badly, but I think Fox was just kind of scared of the whole thing.
AVC: There's a story you've told about the première party for Get A Life…
CE: [Laughs.] Yeah, Fox had set up this huge—not huge, but in my mind, I thought it would be huge—party. But we walked in and it was in some shitty hotel, just like the opening-night party where everybody comes and watches the show and congratulates everybody and whatever. They had this big monitor set up, and we were following In Living Color. So everybody stood around with their cocktails and watched In Living Color, and everybody was laughing hysterically because it was so funny. And then Get A Life came on, and it was dead silence in the room. It was just so depressing. I remember that Lauren Bacall was there, because her son, Sam Robards, was in the show, and I remember her leaning over the table and looking at me as the credits rolled, and saying, "It wasn't that bad."
AVC: That must have been comforting.
CE: Yeah. In retrospect, Adam and I both said that they probably should have turned the TV off after In Living Color. It probably would have been a more fun party.
AVC: There seem to be a lot of grown men acting like adolescents on TV nowadays. Why do you think that's as funny as it is?
CE: I'm not sure, and I don't know that there were that many at the time Get A Life came on. I'm not saying I'm the Little Richard of this kind of stuff. I think there was a trend happening right then where people were starting to do that, and at the time, Dumb And Dumber hadn't come out… those kind of things. But it's just like watching somebody make you laugh in high school. You act like an idiot, and that makes your buddies laugh. That was the charm of Get A Life.
AVC: Does the show's following surprise you?
CE: Yeah, I am. Because honestly, we really didn't know it at the time. I wish we would have felt better about what we were doing, but we just thought, "Fuck it, nobody's watching this," or "Nobody likes it." The first season was really hard. Every show was like a big show. We did these big events in every show which most series will do once every four weeks or so: a big theme show, or some big setpiece. But that was the concept of the show, so it was really hard work. Then the second season… We were picked up for nine episodes, but we knew four episodes in that we weren't gonna get picked up anymore. So all those shows… I started feeling like, "I don't want to sit in a vat of chili. I'm sorry. The show's canceled. I'm not gonna do that." You know, that kind of shit. So a lot of it just ended with my head getting ripped off and kicked down the street, and that kind of thing, because we just were lazy.
AVC: Is there going to be a complete DVD set at some point?
CE: Right now, it's sort of tied up in legal matters that are more complicated than I thought they were. Adam and I actually did some commentary on the first season. Sony was supposed to be putting it out, but somebody else who will remain unnamed is halting the process. Hopefully we'll be able to get by that and get it out.
AVC: Why did you choose R.E.M.'s "Stand" as the theme music?
CE: Well, I liked that song, to begin with, just the tune. But the more I listened to it, the more the words sounded like what we had shot. At the time, R.E.M. was not… They were just about to become really big. And so they gave us the rights to use it on the series. We had to buy them, but they weren't expensive. I met Michael Stipe at a party at Saturday Night Live years later, and I told him that everybody associates that song with my show, and he said that it was, without a doubt, the stupidest song that R.E.M. had ever written. And I said I think that's ultimately why it appealed to me, because it was the stupidest show that I had ever been on. So it was a perfect match.
AVC: It's not such a stupid song. R.E.M. probably has one that's even stupider.
CE: Yeah. "Shiny Happy People." That would be a good sitcom theme, too.
AVC: You were on SNL—
CE: That's what people tell me. I have a vague memory, but that's about it.
AVC: That was sort of the disgruntled season.
CE: Yeah, it was just a hideous year. It was a year when there were so many cast members, and [Adam] Sandler and [Chris] Farley and [David] Spade were still there, but they were on their way out. I did the show because I'd always wanted to. They offered it to me and I was moving back, and I thought, "Okay, that's something I can do in New York." I think I was lazy. I had a hard time elbowing my way in amongst all the cast members. There were just so many people there. I can remember shows where I was dressed like a munchkin until 10 of 1 a.m., and then I'd be on and go home. It wasn't what I thought: that sort of fast-paced, "from one set change into something else" kind of thing, which, I guess when you only have five cast members, you have to do. It was also not a good year in terms of the tone of the show. There were a lot of unhappy people there, so I didn't have a particularly good time.
AVC: You only stayed for one season?
CE: Yeah, there was no question that I was gonna stay. Everybody there was unbelievably nice. In retrospect, I look back and I go, "Maybe if I would have stayed, maybe things would have changed," or whatever. But I think I was just too old to be doing the show. I mean, I was still only 32, but… If that had been my first job, if I hadn't spent eight years at Letterman and then done my own show, I think I would have had more of a hard-on for it. I think I was just kind of like, "Well, I've kind of done this already."
AVC: I went to a screening of Cabin Boy recently, and it was pretty crowded. Everyone was really happy to see it.
CE: Yeah, which is really cool for me and for Adam. It's still, I think, reviled in the general world of moviemaking. But in meetings, I'm coming across more and more people in the established Hollywood world that say it's one of their favorite movies. And you go, "Are you just saying that?" But [Cabin Boy] and Get A Life, people have really hooked onto.
AVC: People embrace how weird it is. It's pretty funny, too.
CE: Yeah, it's funny in sort of a nauseous way. It's like you're on Vicodin watching it. It's a strange kind of thing. You know, all the jokes are funny. Adam wrote a brilliant script. It's just sort of the pacing and execution that put it in this weird world compared to what's out there nowadays… or what was out there when it came out. But it is its own thing, and it looks like what it was: two guys that only half-knew what the hell they were doing.
AVC: Cabin Boy's actual look is really interesting.
CE: It was going to be Tim Burton directing it. He produced it and he was going to direct it, and so it was going to be a pretty—I don't know how many millions—but it was going to be a high-budget film, because there were all these special effects in it. But when he decided not to direct it, the budget dropped to basically nothing. But we never changed the script, so we still had all these special effects, and we had to figure out a way to do them. The special-effects people we got were great, but if you don't have enough money, what you come up with is something that looks like you decided to make it look cheap. But it really just was cheap.
AVC: That wasn't a conscious decision?
CE: No, there was no conscious decision. People actually point out that when I'm on the raft, they like seeing the seam in the sky in the background: "It's really cool that you guys didn't bother with that, that it's still there." I can remember in dailies going, "We don't have money to re-shoot this! Oh my God! It looks awful!" But now, usually we take credit for it and go, "Yes, we were trying to go for a very surreal kind of look."
AVC: You and Adam seemed very surprised by the response at the screening. But you weren't defensive about the movie at all.
CE: Well, Adam and I don't hate the movie. We hate what happened afterward, to our careers. We had a good time making the movie, and we had fun writing the movie, and we had fun thinking about it and the fact that we were gonna do it. So I don't hate it, and he doesn't. It's flawed, there's no doubt about it. But it was our first attempt at something, so I don't personally feel like it was this momentous failure. I don't defend it to any great degree. It wasn't great, but compared to all the other shit that was out at the time… It was put at the bottom of the shit list, and it should have been at the top of the shit list.
AVC: The response to it when it came out was certainly bad.
CE: Yeah, terrible. And I think that part of it was that people expected more. Or that it was a Tim Burton movie. And it was given this big release. There were lots of promos for it. It was not like a small, Rocky Horror Picture Show release that then caught on. It was a big thing. I think for some reason, it just pissed a lot of people off, and I think maybe that was one of the reasons, I don't know.
AVC: Why didn't Tim Burton direct the movie?
CE: He loved the script when it came in. He was the one that pursued us. We weren't even thinking of doing a movie after Get A Life. Actually, it was during Get A Life that he called, because he had seen the "Submarine" episode. I get stuck in a homemade submarine with my dad in our shower, and then oxygen starts to run out. He liked that and he wanted to do like a Pee-wee's Big Adventure, but for the '90s. And I think at the time our script came in, Ed Wood's script came in also, and he opted to do that, for whatever reason. And it was the right decision for him, I guess, instead of Cabin Boy. He was involved. That's the thing. I remember meeting with him quite a bit during the production and talking about things he drew, the way certain things should look ,and that kind of thing.
AVC: When it didn't go over well, what was the studio's response?
CE: They pretty much blamed it on Adam and me. I mean, it was pretty much "Here's what happens when you give two guys a movie. This is what happens." It was really bad for our careers. I had never really thought of what happens when you fail on a big scale like that, or when you are presumed to have failed. Because on Letterman, you could come out one week and do a great bit, and the next week you might come out and flop. But then you're always coming back the next week and trying again. I think that was sort of the rhythm that I was used to, in terms of trying stuff and experimenting and trying to find something funny. Even on Get A Life, there were some shows that were great and other shows that were terrible, and I think in my mind, I just thought, "Well, you do movies now. You're doing movies. Okay, so this one wasn't great, but you'll do another one." That kind of thing. I didn't realize that it doesn't work that way. That you're really sort of stigmatized once you fail momentously, or publicly, in the business. It actually took a long time for Adam and to get work. I mean, we got work, but it wasn't our kind of work. The idea of me and Adam going in and pitching another movie was just out of the question.
AVC: Some people still consider it a bad movie today, but do you think part of that is because of Letterman's references to his role in this bad movie, Cabin Boy?
CE: Well, I'm sure he's kept it in people's minds. But Dave does that because he thinks the joke is on him for being in it. I'm sure if I said, "That bothers me," he wouldn't do that. But it doesn't bother me.
AVC: He's not really making fun of the movie. He's making fun of himself.
CE: Yeah, in the movie. But if you take that a step further, then it comes back to he's making fun of himself being in that shitty movie. [Laughs.] You know, it really doesn't affect me in any way anymore. At the time, I think he may have thought that it was a nice thing to do. He was great in the movie, and it was nice that he did it, and he's always been unbelievably supportive of what both Adam and I do on the outside. Even today, whatever we write, even if we know Dave will never see it—or even read it, like this book—I imagine in my head whether Dave would think it's funny. He's like that first teacher who you try to impress a lot, and then all through your life, you're thinking of that relationship.