Looking Back at The Ben Stiller Show

The Ben Stiller Show was a brief but important show in the history of sketch comedy. The show ran on FOX from September 1992 through January 93, lasting just 13 episodes. It’s probably best remembered today for the people involved with the show who would go on to later fame, such as Judd Apatow and Andy Dick. It’s also where Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and Dino Stamatopoulos met. A few years later the three of them would help develop another important sketch show, Mr. Show.

The show features some sketches that anticipate the complex satire of both politics and pop culture that Mr. Show would specialize in. Take for example this sketch that parodies sitcoms, catch phrases and what passes for political debate in this country:

Of course the show also features plenty of simple, one joke bits too, many of which aren’t that great. Ever wondered what would happen if you crossed pig Latin with a Latin lover? Me neither, but Ben Stiller did.

Today I mostly think of Andy Dick as a drug addict who was once on NewsRadio, but on The Ben Stiller show he displays a surprising amount of versatility. Here he is heroically trying to diffuse a time bomb, which since it’s on TV takes a lot longer to blow up than its counter suggests.

In another clip he appears as the soothing disembodied head on a guided meditation video who isn’t afraid to kick some ass if he needs to.

Of course like all sketch shows, there are plenty of topical sketches that have not aged very well. A bit about a grunge band called The Grungies starring in a Monkees style TV show may have been cutting edge back in 1992, but today it comes off as a bit dated.

Although this parody of Beverly Hills 90210 could have suffered from similar problems, it comes off much fresher; maybe it’s because the genre 90210 helped establish is still around today, or maybe I just really enjoy seeing Bob Odenkirk in cutoffs and a leather vest for an extended period of time.

While everyone in the cast gets their chance to shine, it’s clearly Stiller’s show. The show tries to get as much mileage as possible out of the handful of impersonations that he can really nail, which means lots of Bruce Springsteen, such as this episode of “Legends of Springsteen.”

There was also a fair amount of making fun of Bono, whose tendency towards self-righteous lecturing hasn’t seemed to change much in the last 20 years.

Although the show will probably always be remembered for the people behind it than it’s actually material, one can’t help but wonder what the show could have accomplished if it had gone on longer. The 13 episodes that were produced are overall quite solid. Considering that most sketch shows take at least a season or two to really find their groove, who knows what the show could have developed into if allowed the chance to grow. That being said, the show could have easily gotten bogged down by a reliance on Stiller’s Bono and Bruce Springsteen sendups. It’s hard to say, but what is known is that almost everyone involved in the show was quite talented, as their later careers attest.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

Looking Back at The Ben Stiller Show