“The Script Pile” is a biweekly column on Splitsider that takes a look at the screenplays for high-profile movie and TV comedies that never made it to the screen.
Playing the father on a CBS multi-camera family sitcom is probably the last thing you’d expect to find Chris Elliott doing, but the beloved comedian gave more conventional TV stardom a shot nearly a decade ago in a failed pilot called You’ve Reached the Elliotts, which I’ll be reviewing in this week’s column.
Co-created by Elliott and Rob DesHotel (a writer for That ‘70s Show and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other things), the script to You’ve Reached the Elliotts was written solo by DesHotel, and it was ordered to a pilot for the 2006-07 TV season by CBS. The pilot stars Chris Elliott as “Chris Elliott,” a fictionalized version of himself: a husband and father of two trying to balance raising his family in Connecticut and his acting career in LA, which mostly consists of him playing supporting roles in crappy comedy sequels (the script is pretty self-deprecating about Elliott’s career, name-checking Scary Movie 6 and Dodgeball 3 as his current projects).
The “Chris Elliott” character’s family consists of irresponsible 18-year-old daughter Amanda (played by Danielle Savre, Heroes), geeky 15-year-old son Brendan (Kyle Kaplan, the TV version of 10 Things I Hate About You), blowhard brother-in-law Phil (Christopher McDonald, Happy Gilmore), and his wife Tracy, “a midwestern party girl-turned-mom” (Cynthia Stevenson, Men in Trees). Chris Elliott’s real-life daughter Abby Elliott also made a quick pre-SNL guest appearance in the pilot.
A CBS family sitcom is so contrary to Chris Elliott’s sensibility (he even made fun of family sitcoms in his excellent 1986 Showtime special Action Family) that it’s hard to imagine how one that he’s at the center of would work. Yet, You’ve Reached the Elliotts is no conventional family sitcom. There are plenty of things in it you’d never find on a more standard show of its ilk, and even though Elliott didn’t write the script, Rob DesHotel definitely wrote it in his voice, which works in some spots and doesn’t in others. The pilot feels like a slightly more mainstream version of Chris Elliott’s Get a Life character has been thrown into Everybody Loves Raymond, which could work in principle, but some of the non-Elliott-penned dialogue tries so hard to fit his voice that it sounds unnatural:
Other times in the script, things seem to fit Elliott’s voice a little better:
The episode’s plot deals with “Chris Elliott” returning to Connecticut after having spent a few weeks in LA “playing the bearded bald fat guy in Dodgeball 3.” He’s feeling like he isn’t as big a part of his children’s lives as he’d like to be, made all the worse when daughter Amanda gets accepted into NYU. Chris is sent into a crisis as he tries to desperately spend time with his family while they’re still around, waking them up in the middle of the night while drunk on margaritas to give them a speech about becoming more involved in their lives:
Chris organizes a family fun day and deliberately doesn’t tell Amanda about a phone call from her friends so that they can spend more together, causing her to get really upset when she finds out. The episode resolves with Chris and Amanda making up while playing air hockey after she comes home drunk from a party in a conclusion that’s a little schmaltzier and more like a standard sitcom than you’d expect for something with Chris Elliott at its core. A mix between Get a Life and Everybody Loves Raymond starring Chris Elliott could hypothetically work, but the You’ve Reached the Elliotts script hews a little too closer to Raymond at times and doesn’t quite get Elliott’s character right.
The script also includes a running gag with some big celebrity voiceover cameos, although I’m not sure if production was actually able to score the guests who are written into the script:
And later, at the episode’s end…
CBS passed on You’ve Reached the Elliotts, choosing the elementary school reunion sitcom The Class, starring Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Rules of Engagement, starring Patrick Warburton and David Spade, as their new sitcoms for the 2006-07 season instead. Multi-cam family sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond, Yes, Dear, Still Standing, and King of Queens had been the bread and butter of CBS’s Monday night comedy block for the past decade, but all four shows had ended within the last year and the network was searching for a replacement. So, that’s where CBS was it when they turned to Chris Elliott, who had recently played a recurring role as Robert’s wife’s weird brother Peter MacDougall on Raymond, to head up a new family sitcom. They network developed multiple family shows that season, one starring Krysten Ritter and Ed O’Neill and another called Al in the Family that was to star Al Sharpton (seriously), but they passed on all of them and would find success with non-family shows like The Big Bang Theory, 2 Broke Girls, and How I Met Your Mother in years to come.
As much fun as You’ve Reached the Elliotts makes at the expense of his movie career at the time, this was a transitional time for Chris Elliott. He had been busying himself with guest spots on Everybody Loves Raymond, That ‘70s Show, and According to Jim and, yes, acting in Scary Movie 4 while searching for his next big TV project. Right before You’ve Reached the Elliotts, he was developing a sitcom at Fox, co-written by Mike Judge’s right hand men John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, about a real estate agent caught playing stage parent to his teenage daughter. “The idea is to do something different than what I’ve done in the past, but still very funny,” he told Variety at the time. “This is [Get a Life character] Chris Peterson if he grew up and had a wife and kids,” which seems like a less mainstream version of this CBS pilot. The season after You’ve Reached the Elliotts, he starred in and created a sketch show pilot for Comedy Central called Chrissy: Plain & Simple, but that didn’t take either.
Chris Elliott finally found the perfect comeback project for himself in Adult Swim’s Eagleheart, a 15-minute absurdist action-comedy from Michael Koman, Andrew Weinberg, and Jason Woliner that started good and became amazing as it’s gone on. Unlike You’ve Reached the Elliotts, Eagleheart expanded on the persona and voice Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick built on Get a Life instead of watering it down, making it a show, after many attempts to return to TV by Elliott, finally worthy of his talents.