Chris Elliott: Got a Life

I have been a fan of Chris Elliott (b. 1960) since the beginning, the early to mid ’80s, when he began making frequent appearances on sketches on Late Night with David Letterman. On the show he was often what was called in vaudeville a “stooge:, i.e. an audience plant, a guy who makes sudden comical disruptions and interruptions from the audience, or, in one of his most popular characters from “Under the Seats”. His characters were usually insane and seemingly dangerous. In the spirit of the times, one of the most popular was “The Conspiracy Guy”.

What I didn’t know until almost a decade later was that he was the son of the great Bob Elliott of the immortal comedy team of Bob and Ray. (Letterman apparently liked to hire kids of his heroes; one of the regulars on his morning show had been Wil Shriner, son of Herb Shriner). Like his dad, Chris Elliott’s comedy is eccentric, surreal, and idiosyncratic. And while Bob and Ray were often dark and edgy, Chris was much much darker and edgier, which clicked very well with the spirit of the ’90s. Much like Andy Kaufman, Elliott often passed the line where something remained funny and became strictly a demand for attention. I hasten to point out that I am one of those people who strictly admire that and can sign off on the shenanigans for a very long time. It tends to be a bit much for a lot of people. Elliott also very wisely goes with the cards he was dealt in the looks department, converting them into strengths. He is, to be blunt, physically unappealing: prematurely bald, with a patchy, whispy beard, a pear shaped body, hands like flippers, prominent yellow teeth, a smile like a death rictus, and the eyes of a serial killer, And one need not have smell-o-vision to to imagine his breath, Elliott uses these attributes in his comedy and tries to be as disgusting and as objectionable as possible, while seemingly remaining clueless about how offensive he is. I can think of no one like him. He comes close to crossing the line from “comedian” into “freak”.

Elliott started out as a P.A. on Letterman in 1982. By 1990, his popularity on the show had grown such that Fox gave him his own sitcom, called Get a Life, co-created with fellow Letterman writer Adam Resnick. I was an enormous devotee of this innovative show. This was at a time when Fox, a brand new network, was like a laboratory for experimental television, airing shows like The Simpsons, Married with Children, In Living Color, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, etc. Get a Life was foursquare in this vein, playing with sitcom format and expectations, including all kinds of meta eye-winking. Elliott played a 30 year old paperboy who still lived at home with his parents and continued to cling to his childhood, to the extent of still playing with toys, dressing like a child and so forth. It was like Leave it to Beaver, if Beaver had had some sort of developmental break and never became an adult. Even better, his father was played by his real life father Bob Elliott, and the mother was played by the great Elinore Donahue, a veteran of so many sitcoms that she and baby boomers had grown up together: she had been a teenage girl on Father Knows Best (1954-60), Andy’s girlfriend on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-61), John McGiver’s daughter in Many Happy Returns (1964-65), and Felix’s girlfriend on The Odd Couple (1972-75). Sam Robards, son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall played Chris’s childhood friend, Brian Doyle-Murray was a gruff neighbor, and later Chris’s landlord. The theme song was by R.E.M., which was also influential. The producers of Friends later wanted to use R.E.M.’s “Shiney Happy People” as that show’s theme song in 1994. When the group passed, they went with the distinctly R.E.M.-esque “I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts.

Naturally, Get a Life was too weird for the masses, so it only ran two seasons. In 1993, Elliott appeared in Chris Rock’s comedy CB4 as “A. White”, and in Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. The following year, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and starred in the notorious comedy movie Cabin Boy. Cabin Boy is not just the first and only starring cinematic vehicle for Chris Elliott (for which he earned a Razzie for “Worst New Star”), but is the first and only movie in which David Letterman acts (as “the Old Salt”). It also has Bob Elliott, Brian Doyle-Murray, Russ Tamblyn, Andy Richter and Ann Magnuson. Written and directed by Adam Resnick, Cabin Boy is a lot like some of the famous screenplays that never got made by the likes of Michael O’Donoghue, or some that did, like Dan Aykroyd’s unfairly reviled Nothing But Trouble (1991). It tests the limits of taste and patience, but there are those of us who are glad that it exists, although it’s not like we’re likely to watch it again.

The Farrelly Brothers love Chris Elliott — he fits right into their vision. He has supporting roles in Kingpin (1996), There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Osmosis Jones (2001). He’s in the Nutty Professor II (2000) with Eddie Murphy, a couple of the Scary Movie sequels, and Sacha Baron-Cohen’s The Dictator (2012), and had recurring or regular characters on Murphy Brown (1994-95), The Naked Truth (1997-98), Dilbert (1999-2000), Cursed (2000-2001), Everybody Loves Raymond (2003-2005), and How I Met Your Mother (2009-2014). His greatest visibility of late has been his role as the loathesome mayor Roland Schitt on Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020).

Chris’s daughters, Abby and Bridey Elliott are both actress/comedians. Abby was an SNL cast member from 2008 to 2012, making her the 3rd generation Elliott to appear on the show (as we mentioned here, I first encountered Bob on the special Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda.)

For more on entertainment history, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.