Saturday Night’s Children: Chris Elliott (1994-1995)

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.

Abby Elliott, who recently announced her departure from SNL, shares something unique with her father Chris Elliott – they are the first example of two generations from the same family to be cast members on the show. In Abby’s case, she served a solid four years making her name known through her spirited impressions and beamy onscreen charm, but for her father Chris, SNL is just a tiny blip on a TV comedy career that started over ten years earlier.

Born in New York City in 1960, Chris grew up in the comedy world thanks to his father Bob Elliott, who was one half of the hit comedy team and radio duo Bob and Ray. (The duo made an appearance on SNL’s Christmas episode in 1978, making Abby the third generation to appear on the show.) Elliott got his first TV job as a production assistant for a PBS news show, then took a job as a runner for Late Night with David Letterman in 1982. Eventually he climbed the ranks from coffee-getter to writer to steady onscreen bit part player, and his eccentric and even psychotic characters like The Regulator Guy, The Guy Under the Seats, and The Conspiracy Guy were big hits and provided Dave the dash of genuine edginess that he needed. Elliott had actually auditioned for SNL’s 11th season in 1985 but passed up the offer to become a cast member, choosing instead to continue his Letterman roles. In a 2005 interview with Mike Sacks, Elliott said of his Late Night characters:

The whole concept was that I was playing this unbalanced staff member who desperately wanted to get on TV—which was not far from the truth. And my characters like the Guy Under the Seats and the Panicky Guy, and all the “guys” for that matter, were basically poking fun at the running characters that were the staples of shows like Saturday Night Live. It was all very anti-performance oriented, but at some point the audience did start laughing, and I gradually evolved into the kind of running character that I was making fun of in the first place.

In that way, it makes sense that Elliott’s brief run on SNL during its 20th season – one of the most overcrowded and critically-panned – resulted in no recurring characters and only a few impersonations including ER’s Anthony Edwards, SportsCenter anchor Chris Berman, and Yasser Arafat.

Elliott had already appeared in several films by the time he was hired, starting with small parts in 1986’s Manhunter, New York Stories, The Abyss, Groundhog Day, CB4, and Cabin Boy in 1994. He also starred in a very bizarre one-man show about the life of FDR for HBO in 1987 as well as his own Fox sitcom Get a Life, which ran from 1990-1992 before getting pulled off the air during its second season. The show has since gained a cult following, so much so that a DVD release has been set for next month a whole 22 years after its premiere.

So with titles of writer, creator, and actor already under his belt, Elliott continued playing strange, smarmy, and unstable weirdo characters on SNL instead of competing for the easy catchphrase. It’s a technique he describes perfectly in his 1994 sketch with host George Foreman called “Chris’ Bedtime Story,” where Foreman asks Elliott about his lax on and off-screen attitude: “Seems like a young boy like you should have a little more energy.” “You know, you’re absolutely right. Sometimes I think maybe I have that yuppie disease. I’m as lethargic as a kitty with a belly full of milk.”

Including Elliott, over ten cast members left or were fired at the end of the 20th season, and in Live from New York, he’s not shy about calling SNL “literally the worst year of my life,” crediting the huge size of the cast as well as his preceding experience on Letterman as reasons for his lack of success. Steady supporting roles followed almost immediately in Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, and Snow Day as well as recurring TV roles on Dilbert, According to Jim, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, King of the Hill, and How I Met Your Mother. He wrote three books including a 1989 memoir called Daddy’s Boy: A Son’s Shocking Account of Life with a Famous Father. And while Elliott has clearly mastered the art of playing the emotionally arrested psychotic bit part, between the resurgence of Get A Life fandom and his starring role as the Chuck Norris-esque US Marshal Chris Monsanto on Adult Swim’s hyperviolent, occasionally nauseating, but always hilarious Eagleheart, it seems as though comedy fans’ taste for the bizarre has finally caught up with Elliott, who Letterman once called “the funniest man on television.”

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

Saturday Night’s Children: Chris Elliott (1994-1995)