The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Unless you’ve been living under some sort of comedy-news-blocking-rock for the last few months, you already know that last Tuesday was a great day in the world of Splitsider approved DVD’s with the release of Steve Martin: The Television Stuff and the long-awaited Chris Elliott sitcom, Get a Life. Well, just because I personally support both of these items (and because I also like getting free copies of things mailed to me), this week and the next we will be looking at examples of work from these two comedy luminaries that remain unreleased deep within the Paley Center archives.
In 2007 it had been a long time since Chris Elliott had had a steady gig, the most recent being in 2001 with his portrayal of Dogbert for UPN’s animated Dilbert. During the intervening time he had made numerous guest appearances on sitcoms like According to Jim, Third Watch, and Everybody Loves Raymond, but for the most part, Chris Elliott was no longer on our televisions. Today, thank goodness, this dark period is over, with Adult Swim’s Eagleheart, but before they came to America’s rescue, Comedy Central briefly tried to get into the Elliott business.
The pilot for Chrissy: Plain & Simple followed a strategy that was working really well for Comedy Central at the time: pre-taped sketches strung together by the star introducing them to a live studio audience. You know, the Chappelle Show/Mind of Mencia format. Chris Elliott’s version of this begins with a slideshow of images showing Chris as a hobo, frolicking around a park, holding a knife to another hobo and then riding a raccoon like a skateboard as Chris’s voice booms: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage… me!” Chris, in a tuxedo, steps out from behind a curtain and onto a stage that is covered with many cardboard cutouts of himself portraying dozens of characters. He’s met with a standing ovation, but when it dies down he calls out an old man for not standing. When he tells Chris he’s in a wheelchair, he’s told that the next time there’s a standing ovation he should “just try to sit up a little straighter.” Tone = set.
The sketch introductions that are filmed in front of the live studio audience are short and sweet, but still keep the sensibility Chris is famous for. Take for example the introduction to his first sketch: “My Uncle Dan has money dripping out of his big ball sack. So please, join my eyes in watching the following.” What follows is a parody of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, in which Chris plans his super sweet 46th birthday party while talking and behaving like a spoiled teenager. As Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” plays, Chris plans his party, with some help from his daughters (and future comedians) Abby and Bridey. As the party draws nearer, Chris visits famous tattoo artist Kat Von D in order to get a giant 4 tattooed on his chest and a 6 on his back. Finally it’s time to party and Chris, dressed as a matador, exits his limo where he is excited to learn that his “Ancient Egypt meets a unicorn garden meets ‘Brats’” themed party is being held at a Ruby Tuesdays. Chris rushes in alone (his daughters are stopped at the door because their dad said “you’re cool, but you’re not super cool.”) and makes his entrance on a litter carried by four confused, muscle-bound guys. (I’ll save you the trip to Google: It’s one of those Cleopatra-bed-on-poles things.)
From here we see all the tropes of the classic Super Sweet 16 episode: the emotional breakdown (some uninvited children eat some of his sheet cake), the surprise celebrity guest (Chris won’t stop screaming when the Paul Simon impersonator is brought out), and the gift of a new car (Chris loves his VW Beetle that’s been painted to look like a ladybug, but he doesn’t notice Abby keying the side of it once he’s inside). The sketch is funny and draws from the familiar well that Get a Life often visited of putting Chris in a feminizing role and making him completely oblivious to the judgment of the people around him.
Before each commercial break they show existing commercials that have Chris inserted. The first is a Suzuki commercial for their motorcycles and SUVs in which the model riding the motorcycle tosses her keys to Chris, and says, “Think you can handle it?” to which Chris responds, mockingly, “Think you can handle it? CAN YOU? GUHHHH. Bitch.” It’s not that funny today but may have been in 2007 when this commercial was running constantly. The second parody was of the classic Life cereal “Mikey” ad, with Chris in a bowl cut wig as Mikey, who doesn’t speak; he just plunges his face into the bowl and violent eats the cereal.
The second sketch of the show is another parody of reality television, this time it’s The Deadliest Catch: Central Park Boat Pond. In it, Captain Chris, suicidal ex-celebrity, is paired with two other captains of tiny rowboats, and his greenhorn assistant Ethan, as they hunt for eels in the pond. They bait the traps with Lean Cuisines but only manage to fill their cages with garbage, guns, and in one case, blue crabs, which Chris is confused by and has no use for. Throughout the sketch, an intense, deep-voiced narrator plays up the drama as Captain Chris’s team stays on their boats overnight while Chris goes to a bar and drunkenly hits on a woman with the line, “You ever see a man put an eel inside himself?” The next day on the pond, Chris becomes desperate an excessively drunk. He shouts out to regular people enjoying the park (I can’t tell if the women sunning themselves by the pond that Chris yells “Hola Latino mermaids!” to are actresses or not. When they flip the bird at him it feels pretty genuine), and eventually he, and his fellow captains, are arrested by the police.
The final sketch is narrated throughout by Chris and tells the story of how he found love. The sketch begins with Chris and his wife fighting because of his self-loathing and suicidal tendencies. She lays out an ultimatum: “Until you learn to love yourself, this is over.” Chris stares at his reflection in the mirror, trying to love himself when he notices that he has “a very sweet smile and a very kind beard.” The courtship between himself and his reflection begins, first with some flowers and chocolates being presented to a hallway mirror. Chris speaks for both personalities in the relationship, who is very touched by the gesture. One evening, Chris lights some candles, and puts the needle on an Al Green record and begins to seduce himself. It is at this point that the viewing audience is treated to a scene of Chris rolling around in red silk sheets, underneath a ceiling mounted mirror, in a one-way sex scene. He caresses himself in the back of a Hansom cab in Manhattan, and rollerblades through Central Park in a midrif-exposing tie-dyed t-shirt (in the process he trips over a baby carriage and skates into a hotdog cart in a very convincing looking physical gag). Before long, Chris turns into an obsessive partner to himself, and when a young blond woman shows up at his door, he jealously pulls a gun on himself. When we cut back to the studio, Chris wipes a tear from his eye, clearly still in love with his own acting.
After a commercial break, Chris emerges once again from behind the curtains, now in a purple robe, holding a coffee mug. “We did it!” he announces, before thanking himself, the person that he couldn’t have done the show without. The first few rows in the front of the audience throw roses at him as everyone applauds, and the show ends.
While the show is entertaining and at times very funny, it’s hard to see it fitting in with everything else that was going on on Comedy Central at the time. Yes, it’s a sketch show, and yes, they’re mostly topical and pop culture related, but the surreal nature of Chris’s humor doesn’t fit in with the general broad comedy these shows usually feature. Tonally its closest counterpart on the network would have been 2005’s Stella, and given that show’s short run, it’s probably pretty clear why Chrissy didn’t get picked up. Chris Elliott’s comedy roots lie in sketch with his early appearances on Letterman, but ultimately his greatest success came with the sitcom, and that form is where he would return with Eagleheart. While Chrissy: Plain & Simple would have been a fun show, it’s hard for me to believe it would have sold DVDs like Chappelle did. But it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if he had been given the chance.