Remembering ‘The High Life’: a Look Back at one of HBO’s Most Underrated Sitcoms

With the exception of Arli$$, 1996 was a banner year for comedy at HBO. The Larry Sanders Show was still going strong, Mr. Show had entered its second season and a comedian named Louis C.K. appeared on his first stand-up special. But forgotten amongst those milestones was an obscure gem called The High Life. Created by Adam Resnick, The High Life shared a lot in common with his previous efforts Get a Life and Cabin Boy. It was smart, subtly absurd and unpredictable. But unlike Get a Life or Cabin Boy, The High Life never managed to find its cult audience. As Resnick notes, “nobody watched [The High Life]…there weren’t enough people to make a cult.”

Produced by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, The High Life was set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and revolved around the get rich quick schemes of loudmouthed Earl (Mark Wilson) and his passive sidekick Emmett (Robert Joy) who are partners in the world’s least impressive storage company (as one critic noted, it’s more like a storage room). Shot in black and white and inspired by Amos and Andy (and just a dash of The Honeymooners thanks to Wilson’s decidedly Jackie Gleason-esque turn as Earl) The High Life sounds blandly conventional but much like Resnick’s previous cult hit Get a Life, The High Life takes standard sitcom clichés and subverts them in a clever way.

In the pilot episode, Earl doesn’t want his wife Irene (Betsy Aidem) to discover that he squandered away their vacation money so he hastily rents his storage room to what he believes to be a civic group. However, this particular civic group turns out to be the Ku Klux Klan. Complicating matters is the fact that Earl’s black neighbor is interested in investing in the storage company and is on his way to look the place over. Yet instead of playing up Earl’s mad dash to head-off the neighbor, The High Life bucks convention by focusing on the austere pageantry of the Klan meeting, particularly the “sacred cotillion,” an odd tradition which finds the supremacists prancing around in a choreographed dance routine. Other episodes found Earl and Emmett selling bootleg Davy Crockett hats on the black market, Earl accused of being a communist because the flower design on his wife’s prize-winning cake vaguely resembles a hammer and sickle and in a plotline that skewers the standard sitcom trope of a bumbling dad or husband wrong-headedly taking on a DIY project that’s well outside their wheelhouse: Earl ineptly builds a coffin from scratch to alleviate the high cost of his mother-in-law’s funeral. In essence, The High Life was, as the New York Post critic Eric Mink once noted, “Like watching a Laurel and Hardy short through the fog of a deep depression.”

Watching The High Life in 1996 was like peeking into the future of television comedy. The show was frequently dark, and long before It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Eastbound and Down, The High Life wasn’t afraid to give us characters that were self-centered, sleazy and deeply unlikable. The show also deserves credit for some of its riskier and more experimental concepts such as Resnick’s decision to recast Steve Mellor (who played the affable Grand Wizard in the HBO pilot) as a different antagonist each week. It’s an idea that clearly anticipated Rachel Dratch’s reoccurring cameos during the first season of 30 Rock. There was nothing like The High Life on television in 1996 and very little like it even today. So it’s surprising to realize that the show wasn’t originally intended for HBO. As unbelievable as it may sound, The High Life started out in a slightly different form at CBS.

“The CBS version of The High Life was called Emmett and Earl and it was set in the present day but had a quasi-50s’ look to it”, Resnick said. “It was unnecessarily confusing, I guess. I had done a similar non-specific meshing-of-time-periods things with Cabin Boy and all it did was annoy people. Being the self destructive person that I am, I thought, ‘Hey, let’s draw from that well again.’ The numbers were beyond awful when CBS tested it. The funny thing is, and I think this happens with a lot of pilots - the live audience loved it. They howled the whole way through the taping and gave it a standing ovation at the end. I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ve done it. I’ve created the next Seinfeld. My problems are over.’ But it was a false positive.” He adds jokingly, “In retrospect, maybe it should’ve been a play.”

When things didn’t work out with CBS, Resnick sent the first version of the pilot to HBO’s then head of programming, Chris Albrecht. “Chris really liked it. He saw something there” noted Resnick. “He wanted to do the show exactly the way I pitched it to him: period, black and white, single camera, very stylized. With HBO I could open up the writing and make it smarter and more unusual. The only reason it was at CBS in the first place was because Dave’s deal was there. Now we could pretty much do the show we wanted.”

Once HBO committed to ten episodes, Resnick started assembling a small writing staff that included Vince Calandra and Future King of the Hill scribes John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky. Altschuler and Krinksy received their big break with The High Life and how they were hired remains one of the show’s more unusual backstories. As Altschuler recalls, “[Dave and I] were sharing a two bedroom, one bath apartment with no air conditioning in Burbank and we had written some feature scripts but nothing had been made and we were struggling. So, one day we get a call from an HBO executive named Carolyn Strauss. She asked us if we’d be interested in working in television. We told her we would so she put us in touch with Adam. We wound up talking to Adam for an hour and a half about The Godfather and at the end of the conversation Adam tells us that, “he’d love to have us” and he hung up. HBO called back and said that Adam wanted to hire us, would we be willing to move to New York in the next three days? So we locked up our apartment, got on a plane to New York City and three days later we’re in the Ed Sullivan Theater working with Adam Resnick on The High Life.”

With the writing staff in place and most of the original cast from the CBS pilot returning (Joy replaced Mike O’Malley as Emmett), production on The High Life began immediately but not without its fair share of problems. To start with, the show was shot with a non-union crew. “I have no idea why that was the case. It was a money thing, obviously, but it had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t even aware of it until we were shooting.” says Resnick. “Then I started hearing rumors that there were threats against me. That people wanted to rough me up. As if I didn’t have enough problems. I can barely get the scripts ready in time and now I have to keep an eye out for the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club.”

Secondly, The High Life was produced in New York City which, at that time, wasn’t set up for episodic television. As Altschuler notes, “the difference between shooting a show in New York and LA was dramatic back then. They just didn’t have the experience that an LA crew would have had so everything was much harder.” However, Resnick stands by his decision to keep The High Life in New York City, “Beside the fact that I would never have shot the show in LA, I specifically wanted to cast it with New York theater actors. Unfamiliar faces. HBO never had a problem with New York and Letterman wanted it here, so it was never an issue. It is true there’s a much larger pool of technical people in LA, but we did fine. It just took a little while to get the rhythm going.”

Another dilemma arose from the fact that the crew couldn’t figure out what kind of show they were making. According to Resnick, “I wanted it to have a film noir-ish look, something I was certain TV audiences where clamoring for. I kept stressing shadows and Dutch angles and that kind of stuff. The DP and the camera crew were great. Once they understood that, they really got into it…[but] sometimes the actors were a little confused by how long it took to set up shots. Wow, when I say it out loud, what the fuck was I thinking?” Krinsky adds, “It was unusual and I think people had trouble getting Adam’s vision. We had written a scene that was set at a Union hall and the director was putting moose heads on the wall and shuffleboard courts on the floor. It didn’t feel real to us.” Unfortunately, the only person who seemed to grasp Resnick’s vision was there only briefly. “Peyton Reed [who would go on to direct The Break-Up and Down with Love] should have been there since the beginning”, says Altschuler. “He directed the final two episodes and he not only got the comedy, he delivered a beautiful looking show.” Resnick was also enthusiastic about Reed: “I remember finally being able to relax a bit when Peyton was around.”

As production continued, grim omens regarding the show’s future at HBO started to materialize. Robert Morton, one of The High Life’s biggest supporters, was fired from Worldwide Pants. In addition, HBO decided to cut the 10 episode order down to 8. “We were relieved,” remembers Altschuler. “We had an insanely small staff and we were spread so thin.”  When production finally wrapped, HBO’s marketing department seemed to have a hard time figuring out how to promote the show. “The promotional stuff never quite fit”, remembers Resnick. “The print ads just showed the two main characters — two actors nobody had really seen before — smiling nicely for the camera. This was a crazy, surreal show, but the ads gave no hint of that tone.” Resnick did however manage to shoot a hilarious HBO promo with his former Late Night boss. “Dave loved the show. He fought for it every step of the way. In the end, just the fact that he was proud of it made me happy.”

Critical reception to The High Life was mixed. The show received glowing reviews from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. It also had its fair share of supporters (reportedly, George Clooney was a fan) but just as many felt the show was too “nasty” and “mean-spirited.” One critic in particular may have even prevented The High Life from reaching its second season. “Marvin Kitman’s review in Newsday was deliberately nasty,” says Resnick. “Jeff Bewkes had just replaced Michael Fuchs as the head of HBO and the review said something like, ‘if [The High Life] is any indication of the type of programming that Jeff Bewkes will be bringing to HBO, they’re going to be in big trouble.’ Once he publicly embarrassed Bewkes — who wasn’t even at HBO when we made the pilot — I knew I had seen the corpse bird.”

In spite of decent ratings, The High Life was cancelled just as it started to find its voice. “Despite the odds, I kind of thought we’d get a second shot, but it didn’t happen. All that’s left are the memories of those eight, gloriously uneven episodes,” says Resnick. “Actually, I doubt there are memories, so we’re really talking about nothing.”

The High Life was the kind of show that HBO should have stood by and nurtured instead of abruptly canceling. It was unique and it would have eventually found an audience. Instead it wasn’t just forgotten, evidence of the show’s existence seems to have been wiped away. Very little images from the show are available on the internet and nothing even vaguely related to The High Life has been uploaded onto YouTube, which is astounding because you can watch practically everything on there, up to and including the controversial pilot for the British sitcom Heil Honey, I’m Home. The High Life’s obscurity is as undeserved as it is inexplicable. Comedy nerds owe it to themselves to do whatever it takes to uncover any episode of this unjustly overlooked series.

Mike Sullivan has been writing semi-professionally for the past 14 years and will be homeless dead or both within the next two. Mike would also like you to know that writing in third person only serves to heighten his intense self-loathing.

Remembering ‘The High Life’: a Look Back at one of […]