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Chris Elliott Gets a Life

A comedy genius accepts cult heroism

There are few actors as beloved for their failures as Chris Elliott. Maybe this is why he has a difficult time imagining anyone is all that curious about his life. “The last thing I would ever want to do is actually write a real autobiography,” the 52-year-old Elliott explains over the phone from his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. He is promoting his latest book, The Guy Under the Sheets, an “unauthorized autobiography” that redistributes his real-life highs and lows within a radiantly strange, time-traveling, reference-filled fever dream. You either recognize Elliott for his bit parts on prime-time sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Everybody Loves Raymond, or you worship (or hate) Elliott for everything else he has done: his trippy routines on Late Night With David Letterman, the short-lived anti-sitcom Get a Life (which is finally available again on DVD), the disastrously eccentric film Cabin Boy. “It’s not me being humble,” he continues. “But I don’t think what I’ve done is particularly substantial.”

Devotees of the Elliott oeuvre would beg to differ. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s he pioneered a knowingly ironic, seams-showing approach to humor that could be both slapstick and cerebral. There was the silliness, the punch lines where they were supposed to be, Elliott flailing about in an exaggerated, fey ecstasy. And then there were those moments that were harder to process, when Elliott seemed to step outside the frame and poke fun at everything, from TV convention to our expectations as an audience. Sometimes, these interruptions of show-business-as-usual could be literal, as with The Guy Under the Seats (thus the book title), a pathetic yet megalomaniac version of himself who would open a hatch from underneath the stage and guarantee Letterman’s someday demise. It was television-about-television: He was a recurring character with a signature phrase about making Letterman’s life a “living hell,” yet there was something absorbingly bizarre about this bald goon materializing from offstage and going from mellow to vengeful in seconds flat, sometimes with the help of a petulant marionette.

Elliott played an entire binder full of “guys” during this period when Letterman was a playground of the ironic, eccentric, and perverse, stirring up (from Elliott’s book) “the stodgy middle-of-the-road clam chowder called ‘network television.’” He spoofed the Terminator films as “the Regulator Guy” and The Fugitive as “the Fugitive Guy” and even made a behind-the-scenes documentary about how he was actually a Don King–voiced robot.1 He taped a one-man cable special called FDR: A One Man Show but made no effort to look or sound anything like Roosevelt. The local high school basketball team bum-rushes the stage — listen to the glee of the one-man show’s announcer, Marv Albert — and everything ends with a Gallagher-spoofing, fruit-hammering encore. He made two seasons of Get a Life, a sitcom about a balding, 30-year-old paperboy who still lived at home with his parents. That ended with Elliott falling out of an airplane, his life flashing before his eyes in the form of a clip show, including one clip of him falling out of the airplane minutes earlier. He landed safely on a replica of the brass bed from Love, American Style, only it happened to be made of plastic explosives.

To ask someone how it feels to be a “cult hero” is to remind them that they never succeeded by any traditional metrics. But Elliott enjoys reflecting on the strange curves that constitute his career, even if he seems genuinely baffled that so many fans still remain by his side decades later. “I definitely embrace my failures more than my successes,” he explains. “Even though I’ve done mainstream things, I think I’m still an oddity in a mainstream project, and I’ve never been able to find that door into being more mainstream than I am.”

Perhaps it was his childhood that immunized Elliott from taking everything too seriously. He was born and raised in New York City, where his father, Bob, worked as an actor and comedian. The elder Elliott is best known as one-half of the comic duo “Bob and Ray,” specialists in satirical, deadpan send-ups of radio and television convention that still feel ahead of their time. Elliott would spend his summers going to work with his father, devoting himself to studying the studio’s dizzying collection of reel-to-reel sound effects.

Being exposed to the business at a young age was magical and enchanting — he can still perform an impressive array of “punch sounds.” But it also instilled a sense that this was work. Making people laugh was how his father paid the bills and provided for his family. “We didn’t sit around a table after he was on The Tonight Show and talk about his timing,” he remembers. “There was never any self-congratulation going on. In my family it almost seemed unseemly.” Despite his father’s minor juice, Elliott never felt entitled to a career in show business. “It all fell together somewhat accidentally,” he explains. He didn’t want to go to college and studied for a semester at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, where he quickly discovered that he lacked the “depth” to be a proper actor. “I couldn’t make myself cry, I’m too goofy-looking to be a dramatic actor, and I had a knack for amusing people.”

He returned to New York and worked as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center. His father helped him get a job at NBC, which eventually brought him to the attention of David Letterman. The endgame? More late-night. “I think at that point my goal was to be a writer at Saturday Night Live. I never thought, I’m going to have a TV show or I’m going to be a TV star … not that I ever was.”

Chris Elliott

Throughout our conversation, Elliott routinely makes these kinds of qualifications, as though it’s a reflex for him to dampen down any talk of celebrity or careerism or what could have been. “Maybe I would have been … I don’t want to say a bigger star since that wasn’t in the cards for me anyway. But maybe I would have done more if I had been a little more assertive and aggressive in trying to make myself, you know, seem more available to a larger audience, I guess?”

There is a fine line between taking your work seriously and taking yourself too seriously, and it’s easy to lose sight of this distinction when your livelihood depends on entertaining people and being recognized for doing it. In the early 1990s, Elliott was a figure on the rise. He had won four Emmys while writing for Letterman, and the steadiness of the job had allowed him to get married and raise a family. It earned him his own show, Get a Life, which succeeded despite the network’s efforts to make Elliott’s character seem less deranged. But as we discussed the failure of Cabin Boy, the psychedelically weird misadventures of a posh, self-obsessed “fancy lad” adrift on the high seas, I was reminded that Elliott’s content, mellow outlook was probably hard-earned.2 He eventually made it onto Saturday Night Live for the 1994-95 season, but by then his priorities and sense of what was possible in show business had shifted.

“It never occurred to me when we were doing Cabin Boy that if it failed I wouldn’t get a chance to do another movie. That’s how ignorant or innocent or naïve I was. It didn’t occur to me. OK, we’re trying something here. If it doesn’t work, we still get points for trying, and I’ll get another chance to try. I didn’t realize that that’s not how it works. And I think I’m still trying to figure it out.”3

The Guy Under the Sheets is a peculiar approach to trying to figure out where Elliott fits into the broader world of show business. There are moments of apology and gratitude, mockery and mild regret, only any real sentiments are crowded out by the fanciful stuff — director James Cameron’s momentary desire to work on a comedy with Elliott (true) bleeds into a scene involving one of his lovers, serial killer Aileen Wuornos (false). He passes up Dumb & Dumber (true) after firing his manager and hiring Wuornos instead (false). “I guess I do like adding bits where people have to go and Google who that is,” he admits. “If it goes over most people’s heads, I think I’ve succeeded.”

There’s rarely any bitterness in The Guy Under the Sheets. The same holds for Elliott himself, who continues to seem one of the least-neurotic comics around.4 Cabin Boy is the only thing that Elliott will revisit with scrutiny, “just to try and figure out what pissed people off so much.”

Elliott’s level-headedness has been challenged in recent years. Despite the success of his current Adult Swim series, EagleheartWalker, Texas Ranger reimagined as “the Ranger Guy,” with an astronomical budget line for fake blood5 — and the opportunity to pen books like The Guy Under the Sheets, there’s an anxiety about how work has “thinned out” a bit as he’s gotten older. As well, there is the “surreal feeling” of having his daughters, Abby and Bridey, enter the profession. “They saw the ups and downs of my career,” he explains, and he’s tried to instill a healthy sense of detachment in them. “When you lose that — that point of view — that’s when it engulfs you and can really eat you up.”6

It’s always tempting to conflate performers with the performance, particularly when they so habitually break through the fourth wall to pull us through. I remark to Elliott that one of the reasons Get a Life so inspired its fans was the sense of confidence he brought to the series’ man-child paperboy. For viewers raised on laugh tracks and staid premises, there was an arrhythmic thrill to watching a sitcom about sitcom conventions, one with its own, uncompromising laws of physics and relativity. “I’m obviously not the freak that I play. But at the same time, you picked up on something from Get a Life that is me … that little bit of carefree attitude that this isn’t really that important.

“When I was doing Get a Life, there was this moment when I felt like I had stepped into my television set from when I was a child.” He remembers walking through the lot at Universal, seeing his character’s house on the same block as the Leave It to Beaver house and the Munsters house.

“It just felt like somehow everything that had seemed like a waste of time when I was a kid was paying off.”

It’s the type of moment one recognizes as special only in retrospect, now that it can never happen again. His wistfulness stops short of regret. He freely admits that he is “an acquired taste.” But there seems to be a slight disappointment that more people didn’t get what he was trying to do. I want to tell him that those people chose not to get it, that the arc of his career remains unique and inspiring. That he made things worth memorizing and fashioning one’s young identity around. That there is integrity to the path of most resistance, that he blazed a trail for Arrested Development and Community and all the other freaky, convention-flouting TV comedies. That it was important. Instead, I make a joke about tartar sauce. Elliott laughs. I am 13 again, and none of it was a waste of time.

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Hua Hsu teaches at Vassar College. He is finishing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

Archive @ huahsu