Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Hilarious Afterlife of "Get A Life!"

Chris Elliott, as 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson, lived with his parents and annoyed his neighbors on the short-lived, surreal and cartoony Fox TV show “Get a Life!” in the early 1990s.
Image: Fox Television

The Hilarious Afterlife of "Get A Life!"
Producer David Latt Gets the Last Laugh as the Cult and Legacy of Chris Elliott’s Doomed Sitcom Rolls On

Fifteen years ago, the unconventional situation comedy "Get A Life!" hit Fox Television like a plate of spaghetti hurled across the room at the wall: It made a crazy, messy splash but didn’t stick.
Starring Chris Elliott as a 30-year-old ne'er-do-well Chris Peterson, who rode his bike on a paper route and still lived at home with his sardonic, put-upon parents (played by Elliott’s real-life father Bob Elliott of the radio comedy team Bob & Ray; and Elinor Donahue), the absurdist, often surreal show arrived like a tonic in 1990 amid a sea of generic family sitcoms and 
promptly failed.
In the center of it all stood longtime Pacific Palisades, California resident David J. Latt, a veteran producer of TV dramas.
Producer David Latt.                                       Photo: Rich Schmitt

Elliott, who throughout the 1980s had created memorable running gag-characters on “Late Night With David Letterman” —Fugitive Guy, The Man Under The Stands, “Marlon Brando” — co-created “Get A Life!” with David Mirkin, a first-year writer on “The Simpsons,” and Adam Resnick, a former Letterman writer. Taped at the CBS Radford Avenue studios in Studio City (where earnestly cartoony stuff such as “Gilligan’s Island” had been filmed decades earlier), “Get A Life!,” totally absurdist and unhinged like a flesh-and-blood Looney Tunes cartoon, confounded the vast majority of its viewership while ultimately cultivating a cult audience among  college students and other hip folk. In fact, "Get A Life!" stymied its own network. Fox executives simultaneously supported it and were baffled by it. Ratings-wise, it ranked low, even for then-fledgling network Fox. The wacky show struggled through two seasons, surviving an executive transition at Fox and a conceptual overhaul, only to be rewarded with cancellation by 1992.
After all, what to make of episodes such as "Zoo Animals on Wheels," in which Peterson stars in a ridiculous community play that resembled the bad version of “Cats”; or "Wallet Boy," in which Peterson becomes a cause célèbre after believing he has lost his wallet while visiting “the Big City.”
Another episode, “The Prettiest Week of My Life,” saw Peterson up for a modeling job at Handsome Boy Modeling School while “Paperboy 2000” saw Peterson locking horns with a futuristic and robotic job-threatening paper-delivering vehicle and “Neptune 2000” had father and son building a submarine in their bathtub.
Really, why watch this goofball stuff when you can turn the channel and get cozy with the Huxtables on “The Cosby Show” or enjoy the macho humor and titillations of "Home Improvement,” thought millions of Americans to themselves. No, with its crackpot premise and Peterson antagonizing his neighbors or joining a street gang,  "Get A Life!" was veritable broadcasting poison
Yet creatively, the series arrived at the peak of Elliott's powers, in the wake of his career-making, scene-stealing appearances on David Letterman 's original NBC run and three short years before his third-wheel cameraman role opposite Bill Murray and Andie McDowell in "Groundhog Day" (the film that ultimately ushered in Murray's formidable late-career second act).

From Serious Drama to Cartoony Comedy

Producer Latt crossed joined “Get a Life!” after establishing himself with “Hill Street Blues” and “Twin Peaks.”
“My focus was really on drama and then the bottom fell out on drama,” Latt said. “It was one of those cyclical things [in television].”
At the time, Robb Rothman, now partner at the Rothman-Brecher Agency, represented Latt. Rothman ran into comedian Richard Rosenstock while picking up an order of chicken soup at Judi’s Deli in Beverly Hills and talked Rosenstock into hiring Latt, who had come from single-camera shows, as a producer on a TV vehicle based on Rosenstock’s teen years that wasn’t picked up. After all, years before, Latt had also served as a writer’s assistant on Norman Lear’s classic “All in the Family,” so he had experience doing comedy.
Mirkin’s experience, meanwhile, came from conventional sitcoms such as “Three’s Company” and “Newhart,” and having failed to adapt the cult British show “The Young Ones,” was itching to do something unorthodox.
“He really wanted to be in movies,” Latt said. “He really had a feature imagination.”
Rothman, who represented many writers working on “The Simpsons,” knew Mirkin was starting up on a three-camera show co-conceived by Elliott and Resnick, and pitched Latt to him. As Mirkin was eager to experiment with single-camera footage, he brought Latt on because he had that single-camera experience from dramatic fare.
“Virtually everything that’s on TV today (drama-wise) comes from those two shows,” Latt explained, whether it’s ensemble (“Hill Street Blues”) or weird (“Twin Peaks).
The story that’s been repeated online over the years is that Fox executives hated “Get a Life!” and were eager to rework its premise.
“It was more complicated than that,” Latt said.

Veteran radio comedian Bob Elliott (left) and real-life son Chris Elliott played bickering father and son on the younger Elliott’s Fox sitcom.
Image: Fox Television 
Too Ahead of Its Time?

In fact, “the Fox guys loved [Elliott],” Latt continued. “Chris had never run a show before and he had a deal with Fox. Adam was Chris’s buddy.”
What sabotaged the show were a series of internal tensions.
“The show was designed as a three camera show and there was pressure [driven by Mirkin] to add elements of a single-camera show,” Latt recalled. “Chris was happy with an audience, David less so. You can feel the pressure visually [when you watch an episode].”
Latt is referring to various cutaways done for comedic effect. For example, in “Driver’s License,” in which Peterson, having just learned to drive to impress a waitress, takes his date on a joyride that quickly devolves into a police pursuit. Peterson tries to bribe the policeman. Cut to a close-up of Peterson’s hand cupping a handful of change, buttons and lint, etc.
As season two approached, “Bob didn’t want to do the show anymore,” Latt recalled.
The weekly grind of doing a sitcom, exacerbated by the additional filming of single-camera sequences, was too much for Elliott’s father, then in his 70s (Bob Elliott is now 95). The veteran comedian was also still mourning the recent loss of his longtime friend and professional partner, Ray Goulding.
With Bob Elliott’s exit, out went a crucial comedic cornerstone of the show—Chris Peterson’s parents — and in came Brian Doyle-Murray as gruff ex-cop Gus Borden, in whose garage Peterson lived as a border. Producers also upped the ante on Peterson’s rivalry with his neighbor Sharon (deliciously and venomously portrayed by Robin Riker).
“He was fun, he made Chris look normal,” Latt said of Doyle-Murray, older brother of “Saturday Night Live”-minted movie star Bill Murrary. They were looking for a pairing that would give someone for Chris to work off of,” Latt said.
The second season included Spewey the power-vomiting alien.
“We had to give them all ponchos,” Latt said of audience members during the taping of the “E.T.”-spoofing “Spewey and Me” episode.
Still nobody really watched it. It was canceled in 1992.
“It was getting too weird [for Fox],” Latt said. “The problem was the audience didn’t hold, the network wants to change things, Mirkin tries to hold, Chris wants to stay on television.”
Right after “Get A Life!” crumbled, Latt worked on another short-lived Mirkin show, “The Edge,” a sketch comedy show on which the showrunner got to push his absurdist tendencies even further.
“Mirkin was always pushing the envelope,” Latt recalled.
The show only lasted one season, but it’s notable for including in its cast a pre-“Friends” Jennifer Aniston and Wayne Knight just prior to his “Seinfeld” run as Newman. From there, Mirkin joined “The Simpsons”; a perfect fit, Latt said, because the edgy animated cartoon was the ultimate outlet for Mirkin’s unbridled imagination.
Get a Career
In hindsight, the creative legacy of “Get a Life!” is impressive as the writers’ room was a who’s who of big breaks.
Recently an Emmy-nominated star of “Better Call Saul,” Bob Odenkirk wrote three episodes that aired in the 1991-92 season before going on to write on “The Ben Stiller Show” and forge his HBO sketch comedy show with fellow comedian David Cross, “Mr. Show” (currently being revived by Netflix). Charlie Kaufman, the revered screenwriter who wrote a pair of structure-bending Spike Jonze feature films, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” wrote a pair of episodes (“Prisoners of Love,” “1977 2000”) during that same season as well. Edd Hall, a former Letterman writer who went on to become Jay Leno’s announcer on “The Tonight Show,” wrote the 1991 Indian curse-incurred, body-switching installment “The One Where Chris and Larry Switch Lives.” In 2007, Mirkin wrote “The Simpsons Movie” in 2007 while Resnick went on to direct “Death to Smoochy,” “Lucky Numbers” and the 1994 Tim Burton and Denise DeNovi-produced Elliott feature film vehicle, “Cabin Boy” (in which Bob Elliott, Doyle-Murray and Letterman all had parts).
Latt sincerely believes that “Get a Life!” was ahead of its time
“It was atypical in 1990,” Latt said, explaining that while the idea of a 30-year-old living with his parents was alien and socially unacceptable back then, it’s become a mundane reality post-Great Recession.
Latt has no doubt that “Get a Life!” has influenced Millennial comedians and feels the show would have succeeded in today’s entertainment marketplace, characterized by niche corners on cable with the surreal likes of “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” and “The Eric Andre Show” thriving on Adult Swim, not to mention a generation digging daft random stuff on YouTube.
Most triumphantly of all, in 2012 —years after a perfunctory pair of VHS tapes missing many of the show’s best episodes was released—fans of the cult comedy were rewarded the ultimate present: a DVD box set of the complete series.
Not bad for a derelict 30-year-old paperboy living with his ‘rents!