In the more than 150 From the Archives articles I’ve written, I’ve looked at a wide variety of genres of comedy: variety shows, late night talks shows, interviews, radio programs, musicals, and sketch. Today I am proud to say that we are venturing into a genre of comedy that has never been explored here. You guessed it: infomercial.
A synthesized orchestra hit plays as the star of the program turns dramatically towards camera and then launches into his opening remarks. “What if I told you there was a bridge between dreams and reality that was made out of smiles, and the toll to cross… was adventure? Hi! I’m William Shatner, and it’s… time… for… Wake Up Your Smile!”
Yes, that’s the real William Shatner, and yes, I’m actually going to be writing about an infomercial that aired one time on Comedy Central on December 1, 2003. Don’t worry; I didn’t suffer brain damage recently, though that would explain this influx of rhetorical questions. This infomercial is not the usual kind played on basic cable in the wee morning hours for cleansers and cooking gadgets. Instead, Shatner sold out to shill for his friend Ben Stiller and the release of the complete Ben Stiller Show on DVD.
Wake Up Your Smile is a weird animal. In one way it is a very real advertisement, reminding you again and again that The Ben Stiller Show is available for purchase online and at retail stores across the country (I bought mine at a Sam Goody not long after this infomercial aired). There are a ton of old clips from the show, and a classic voice-over announcer reminds you that you can call the toll-free number on your screen to order (yes, there was an actual number you could order from). But, while this half hour program is trying to convince you to spend 20 of your dollars, it’s also satirizing the very concept of an infomercial with stilted interviews, fake, forced laughter, and people constantly holding up products to display to a camera.
Hollywood Comedian Ben Stiller, as he’s credited on-screen, is the first to sit down with Shatner who explains that “it’s always seemed natural to make people laugh since the moment of my birth, really. My mother tells me that I was making her laugh while I was still in her womb!” It is this nonsensical statement causes Shatner and Stiller to break into a giant (fake) belly laugh that has the rare combination of going on far too long and ending incredibly abruptly with a stony stare from Kirk. When asked why the show is coming out on DVD now, Ben replies that people on the street are always asking him, “When are you going to put The Ben Stiller Show out on DVD?” When Shatner agrees that he must get this all the time, Ben isn’t quite done. “Yeah, or they say, ‘Hey Ben, is your dick still caught in your zipper?’ or they say ‘Hey, Ben! What’s that goo in your hair?’ and I reply, ‘Hey, friend. I’m eating.’”
Ben isn’t the only cast member who took part in this infomercial. Bob Odenkirk also recorded a piece in which he stands on top of a yacht and laughs maniacally. In his segment, Captain Bob and his supermodel friends talk about his life post-Stiller Show and how it went downhill, fast. A quick cutaway to a different part of the boat and Bob continues his thought: “On skis! I became a professional skier. But, because I never asked for a paycheck, I was really just an amateur.” But after rediscovering The Ben Stiller Show on DVD his life changed as he was immediately given a boat, a briefcase filled with money, and beautiful women appeared.
Andy Dick also appears, wearing a top hat and tails, to discuss the restorative qualities of The Ben Stiller Show DVD. Before the show began, Andy states that he was “drinking, boozing, and I was consuming a lot of alcohol. I was having a lot of sex with strangers, taking drugs, and most important of all, spending a heck of a lot of time not liking me.” Post-show, as you well know, Andy has put all that behind him. Catching up, Ben asks him how Newsradio is going, forcing Andy to point out that’s been over for a while, causing him to spiral into an angry tirade about Ben constantly belittling him, and finally, he angrily storms out.
Political Activist Janeane Garofalo takes to the streets of New York City to ask them about their excitement for the upcoming release of The Ben Stiller Show on DVD. Some actual New Yorkers have clearly been asked to hold the DVD and answer questions about ice cream or something as they’re talking about the combination of flavors. Eventually the segment deviates so far away from DVD promotion that we are simply watching Eric Slovin and a shirtless Leo Allen clap and prance around the street as Janeane stands stoically with microphone in hand. The piece comes to a close as Janeane gives her final pitch: “The Ben Stiller Show! Some of it holds up!”
Wake Up Your Smile is a strange experiment in television that unfortunately leans more on commercial than entertainment. Could this have been crafted into a piece more worthy of revisiting? Yes. With a little more work, especially with the star quality already attached, this could have been a fun opportunity for new material from the creators of this show without it feeling quite so much like an actual infomercial. Did they need to put any more work into this at the time? Probably not. I’m sure people watched it at the time and as a result, I’m sure it moved a few extra DVDs. You did your job, Wake Up Your Smile. Now get back into the archives, you weird comedy artifact, you.