Saturday Night’s Children: Ben Stiller (1989)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

For a mega-blockbuster mainstream comedy star, perhaps it makes sense that Ben Stiller spent only two months at SNL before leaving due to creative differences (they wouldn’t let him make video shorts). Not only did he go on to create the short-lived but adored cult favorite The Ben Stiller Show, but he’s helmed countless hit films, many of which could be right at home in the Studio 8H recurring character mold, alongside frequent “Frat Pack” collaborators Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Owen and Luke Wilson, and Vince Vaughn. But the steady fame and comedy world respect Stiller’s received since his MTV show didn’t come from compromising as much as it came from his comedy brand convictions, and while his drive to produce video content proved to be futile during his few weeks at 30 Rock, it’s gained him limitless success and box office cash ever since. And rightfully so for such a forward thinker – just take today’s pre-taped-to-live ratio on SNL as testament.

Born in New York City to veteran actor parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Stiller had a half-Jewish, half-Catholic upbringing largely forged in the heat of his mother and father’s show business careers. Alongside his sister Amy, Stiller inherited the family knack for performing and made his television debut at eight years old playing Chopsticks on the violin when his parents co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show, then two years later on the 1975 CBS show Kate McShane starring his mother as the title character. Following that, Stiller received a Super 8 camera as a gift and began playing around with film on top of honing his acting skills with New York’s First All Children’s Theater. After discovering Second City TV during high school (and, no doubt, constantly watching his own parents on The Ed Sullivan Show), Stiller sparked an interest in creating sketch comedy and snagged an opening act job for cabaret comedienne Jadin Wong, which he kept until leaving for film school at UCLA. He left UCLA after nine months and returned to New York, where he studied at the Actor’s Studio and looked for an agent and work.

Luckily, Stiller got his first big break when he was cast in the 1986 Broadway revival of The House of the Blue Leaves. While the production would go on to win three Tony Awards, the true success for Stiller came from his behind-the-scenes filming with his Blue Leaves costar John Mahoney, which he produced into a short mockumentary that went over so well among the cast and crew that the duo created another video called The Hustler of Money, spoofing The Color of Money with Stiller playing the Tom Cruise type and Mahoney as Paul Newman. The short – and Stiller’s killer Cruise impression – garnered the attention of Lorne Michaels, and he aired the segment during a 1987 SNL episode before offering Stiller a spot as a featured player two years later. Stiller joined the cast midseason and was the only new guy, along with Mike Myers, to join the established chemistry of Hartman, Hooks, Lovitz, and the rest of the late-80s survivors, and his aspirations to create video content instead of live characters became his instant downfall. Despite his bad luck on the show, Stiller still managed to appear in a handful of celebrity impersonations including Bruce Springsteen, Steve Wynn, Eddie Munster, Eckhart Tolle, and Mandy Patinkin, and he reprised his Cruise impression when he returned to host in 1998. He didn’t host again until this past season.

Stiller’s SNL departure might have seemed a bit quick, but there was certainly no time to waste for a hungry and connected young talent who had already appeared on Kate & Allie, Hot Pursuit, and Miami Vice, not to mention Broadway. He couldn’t stifle his desire to direct in the SNL cast member role, so he continued producing his own content with Elvis Stories in 1989 and Back to Brooklyn for MTV (written and starring with fellow future-SNLer Colin Quinn), which led to The Ben Stiller Show, his own weekly sketch comedy show costarring Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and Bob Odenkirk. The show ran on MTV from 1990-1991 and FOX from 1992-1993 and earned Stiller an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Variety or Music Program. Following The Ben Stiller Show, Stiller directed Reality Bites in 1994 and The Cable Guy in 1996 (the same year he gave a small but memorable performance as the terrifying orderly in Happy Gilmore), but it wasn’t until his starring role in 1998’s There’s Something About Mary that he began to hit the jackpot. He started his own production company Red Hour Films in 2001 and made a string of hit films starting with Zoolander (based on his 1996 short Derek Zoolander: Male Model) then following with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Blades of Glory, and Tropic Thunder. Almost as impressive as Stiller’s countless completed projects is the long list of those that never fully materialized, which you can check out in his Lost Roles column here.

In addition to his own productions, Stiller has also had plenty of starring film roles, like as Greg Focker in the Meet the Parents franchise, Larry Daley in the Night at the Museum franchise, and parts in Along Came Polly, Starsky and Hutch, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, plus his more dramatic performances in films like Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Greenberg (2010). He’s also appeared in TV comedy classics Mr. Show, NewsRadio, The Larry Sanders Show, Friends, Freaks and Geeks, Extras, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and most recently Eagleheart as the creepy kids show host Silly Sammy. He already has several upcoming projects in the works including five films (Zoolander 2 is set for a 2014 release), an HBO pilot, and a production and development deal with ABC through 2013. Thanks to his yen for directing, willingness to pursue his absurd visions and transform them into bankable projects, and solid roster of comic collaborators (including his wife Christine Taylor), Stiller has managed to stay on top of the Hollywood totem pole without suffering the slow decline of similarly recurring comedy stars like Adam Sandler, and his reputation for giving some of comedy’s biggest names their earliest opportunities in the business – from David Cross to Dan Harmon to Judd Apatow – only solidifies his influence and lasting power in the industry for years to come.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Ben Stiller (1989)