Twenty years since going off the air, Chris Elliott’s cult classic anti-sitcom Get a Life, about a failure-to-launch 30-year-old paperboy who is quite possibly psychotic, has finally been compiled as a complete DVD set. But even diehard fans who marathon the whole series and all of the extras in one sitting won’t learn everything humanly (or inhumanly) possible about the show, which was cancelled in its second season despite being the highest-rated new comedy on Fox its first season. For trivia the ultimate fan might crave, we turned to Get a Life’s executive producer David Mirkin, who was happy to share with Vulture a few choice tidbits not commonly known about the series, its writers, and its viewers.
1. Fox execs thought the episode “SPEWEY and Me” was too disturbing to air.
Get a Life repeatedly ran into trouble during the script phrase, such as when an episode called “Bored Straight” suggested a street-gang theme. But for the most part, after a few days of meetings, Mirkin was usually able to convince skeptical Fox executives to let him move forward anyway, even if they thought something was “upsetting” or “weird.” However, when it came to the alien creature known as SPEWEY, Fox execs had a conniption fit. “SPEWEY was the first time that we had that argument once they saw the final cut,” says Mirkin. “That’s when they went crazy: ‘You can’t put this on the air!’”
SPEWEY (which stands for Special Person Entering the World, Egg Yolks) was a perverse twist on family-friendly extra terrestrials such as ALF, E.T., and the knock-off from Mac and Me. This putrid and violent creature, true to his name, would spew, spit, and projectile puke his guts at you, just out of spite, but Chris falls in love with him and takes him home. Fox’s main bone of contention was that Chris and his friend Gus end up eating SPEWEY: You can’t eat him! Mirkin was told. “But we wrote it so they can eat him,” Mirkin said. “That was the whole point of the story, and it was beautiful because he regenerates from his own leftovers. So it’s a bit of a Christ story, and it gives people hope.” Fox “reluctantly relented,” Mirkin said, but it was a lesson for him in how the network couldn’t always visualize what was coming based on the scripts.
2. The show was actually packed with special effects.
Mirkin wanted to open up the sitcom and have a multi-camera show look like it had a single-camera budget, but to get that higher production value meant shooting in two days what would normally take six. During the course of shooting the pilot (in which Chris gets stuck mid-loop on a roller coaster), Get a Life had a studio audience, but the audience couldn’t follow the story for all of its pick-up shots and special effects, and soon Mirkin realized it didn’t make a difference whether they had an audience or not. Plus, if they got rid of the audience, they could save money and stage space, which meant room for more sets. “Now we could do a lot more single-camera techniques and get really weird,” he said. Once he showed the network the results, they agreed — but he couldn’t talk Fox out of a painfully fake laugh track. “On the DVDs, though, you can turn that off and it sounds more modern that way.”
3. John Malkovich was a fan and wanted to guest star.
“I thought about how to use him,” Mirkin said. “Like, what if Chris had a freakishly older brother that no one talked about? He had gone away, and it had been so painful that they had put away all the pictures of him. But within moments of him returning, the pictures would come back out, and they would choke the house.” In this idea, not only would the parents prefer this older sibling, but he would also have a dark, evil side — he would try to murder Chris, and do away with him once and for all, since a running gag on the show was that Chris often died at episode’s end. Mirkin says the plan was that the brother’s attempts on Chris’s life would be fairly obvious and out in the open, but completely ignored by their parents. “If you tell John Malkovich this, he may completely deny it,” Mirkin laughed. “But it was enough of a big deal that I dreamed up the possibility of bringing him in at least once per season.” Before he could make it happen, however, the show was cancelled. Pure coincidence: One of the show’s writers — Charlie Kaufman in his first gig — later found a way to come up with a more surreal role for Malkovich in his first film, Being John Malkovich, but Mirkin said it had nothing to do with Get a Life: “It’s a funny connection, but I don’t think I shared this with him.”
4. Chris moved out of the house to accommodate his real-life father, not to appease the network.
A popular misconception about Get a Life — repeated on the show’s Wikipedia page and even by Chris Elliott himself — is that Chris’s character moved out of his parent’s home in season two because of network pressure. Mirkin said this isn’t what happened. “There was always pressure from the network to have Chris be more lucid, smarter, not psychotic,” Mirkin said. “That was the push. But Fox didn’t have a problem with Chris living at home. They just wanted him to process reality, which was never going to happen. We had no intention of that happening.”
The real reason for the move, Mirkin said, was that Bob Elliott — Chris’s real-life father, who played his father on the show — was in his 70s, and the show schedule was starting to wear on him. “It was such a complicated show to shoot and we often went to three, four in the morning,” Mirkin said. “And even though Bob is the nicest guy in the world, he said, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this next year. I don’t want to spend my 70s waiting for my shot to come at three in the morning.’ So that spurred us to go, ‘What if Chris moves out of the house?’”
The solution? Move Chris into Gus’s garage (Gus was played by Brian Doyle-Murray), so that all the scenes with the parents could be shot on a different schedule, in one week. Had the show continued beyond the second season, Chris would have left the garage and become “a homeless drifter traveling from town to town. Everyone’s life he touched would become a little worse.” Clearly, character growth was not the goal here, even if the network did perk up at signs of possible maturity on the horizon. “People will probably still think he moved out because of the network notes because it sounds right,” Mirkin said, “but they never attacked that premise. The pilot is closer to what they were expecting, and they just wanted a happier version of the same thing — more lucidity, more brain function. But he’s just been hit in the head too many times.”
5. The opening sequence was an accident.
The shots that ultimately got used as Get a Life’s opening montage were actually written for one scene in the pilot, as inspired by R.E.M.’s “Stand.” When Mirkin heard the opening notes of that song, he thought it sounded like an organ grinder’s monkey and he pictured feet going around on the pedals of a bike. This sequence — tight shot on the feet going around, reveal on the rider as the guitar kicks in — would end with a crash. “Originally, we were going to have Chris fall off his bike,” Mirkin said, “but then the stuntman said, ‘I can’t fall off the bike onto concrete without seriously hurting myself. Why don’t we do it into the hood of a car? That’s thinner and it’ll brace the impact. It’ll hurt way less.’” So they made the change on the day, and had Chris crash into a red car with a funnier sound effect, “just to save the life of our stuntman, because we needed him to die many more times!”
Eventually, this became the opening sequence as well as a scene, but because the R.E.M. song was used in such a specific way — as well as other hit songs throughout the show — it caused a problem in syndication. USA started to rerun episodes in 2000, but the network replaced the music with bland generics to avoid paying royalties (just to use “Stand,” it cost $40,000 an episode). “I got a call, ‘You might want to turn on USA,’” Mirkin recalled. “They were showing Get a Life with all the music replaced, even the theme song, and they went to all this trouble to do that, but they never asked if they could. If they had, the answer would have been no. They assumed they had the right to do that and they didn’t.”
Consequently, USA pulled the episodes rather than pay the money for the original music — an exorbitant cost that also kept Get a Life from getting a complete series release on DVD “until now,” Mirkin said. “Finally, we’ve cleared all the music and luckily all the economics work now. And by the way, R.E.M. are a great hero to us and cut the price for us, so we’re really grateful, because now all the right music is in there.”