Inside the stucco hangar of Soundstage 3 on the Sunset-Gower Studio lot in Hollywood, Dobie Gillis stands at a lectern, stabbing a freshly sharpened pencil at an open script. Off in a corner, Betty Anderson — ”Princess” to her mom and dad back in those carefree cardigan days of Father Knows Best — is on the horn to her car mechanic. A week earlier Dobie and Betty had been joined by Wally Cleaver and F Troop bugler Hannibal Dobbs — all four of them working on Get a Life, the demented new Fox comedy series starring balding, bearded Late Night With David Letterman alumnus Chris Elliott.
This is the Sunday-night show whose hero, Chris Peterson, is a 30-year-old paperboy who lives above his parents’ garage, shimmies his love handles at the Daryl Hannah poster taped above his bed, attends male-model school, and berates a movie usher who asks him to remove his feet from a chair by snapping, ”Well, excuse me, Mr. Adolf Eichmann. I happen to sit this way for medical reasons.”
This is also the show that sprang fully (de-)formed from Chris Elliott’s mind and that critics either love (”the sole bright spot among Fox’s nine new fall shows”) or hate (”infantile”), a subverted take on the American sitcom whose producer-writer-star crows: ”It’s stupid, it’s goofy, and I’m proud of that.”
And finally, this is the show whose episodes are being directed by Dwayne Hickman (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) and Tony Dow (Wally of Leave It to Beaver), with a TV mom played by Elinor Donahue (Betty of Father Knows Best) and guest shots by the likes of James Hampton (Hannibal of F Troop).
”I know, it’s strange,” Elliott says of these living, breathing icons from television’s baby boom years. ”I was sitting here and we were doing an episode that Tony Dow was directing. Dwayne Hickman was here observing. Elinor Donahue was here. They were all standing around me and I’m thinking, This is odd.
”It’s like I had jumped into a nightmare,” he says, chortling.
A nightmare of his own making.
It was only a year ago that the honchos at Fox approached the 30-year-old Elliott about doing a series. The son of Bob Elliott (half of the legendary comedy team Bob and Ray, and Chris’ dad on the show), he had carved a niche as a writer and performer on Letterman, where his lode of Guy characters — the Guy Under the Seats, the Conspiracy Guy, the Panicky Guy, the Guy Who Does Kablooey Impressions of Marlon Brando — had won him a cult following. Using those appearances as a springboard, Elliott cannonballed into the pool of prime-time TV (including Miami Vice) and film (The Abyss, the Coppola chapter in New York Stories). He also landed a book deal for Daddy’s Boy, the Mommie Dearest parody he wrote with his father. And there were two Cinemax specials: the loopy FDR: A One Man Show and Action Family.
”It’s weird,” Elliott muses about the latter, which answered a question nobody had asked: What if The Brady Bunch had been produced by Quinn Martin (impresario of The Fugitive and Barnaby Jones)? ”We were blatantly just making fun of situation comedy and detective shows. Now I’m doing a situation comedy and I’m in a position of defending why I was making fun of them.
”But the thing is, this show wouldn’t have been one of the situation comedies I was making fun of,” Elliott says. His smile fades. His blue eyes turn as cold as a box of frozen Eggo waffles. ”Because I’m in it, and I wouldn’t make fun of myself.”
Elliott’s wayward personality on Letterman — an edgy goofball unencumbered by any sense of decorum — was just what the Fox folks had in mind when they offered him a series. ”We wanted to bring Chris’ persona from Late Night pretty much unchanged,” explains David Mirkin, Get a Life‘s executive producer. ”You know, none of the edges rounded off, still keeping the strange borderline psychotic aspect that I found attractive.” And there is a borderline psychotic aspect to Elliott’s aging Dennis-the-Menace character, who blithely thumbs his nose at all adult responsibilities and has a face like that of a crazed mouse.
Witness Elliott in the episode he’s just been rehearsing, the one directed by Hickman, which is airing Oct. 21: Chris has just been jilted by his best friend’s wife’s younger sister. He had thought he’d found the love of his life; she’d just been looking for a ”classic transitional relationship.” He had been used for sex. Wrapping his arms around his soft, doughy body, Elliott stares off into space, exclaiming, ”Wow. Me a sex object!”
His pal Larry (Sam Robards) enters the room. ”Aren’t you going to miss her?” Larry asks. Chris cocks his head 45 degrees to the west and leers like a loon.
”I am. But you know what?”
”I’ll always have my memories.”
”I don’t know where he gets that borderline psycho thing,” says his father, who shambles around the set in the plaid bathrobe that is his character’s requisite attire. ”But he’s turning it to good advantage, I guess. He’s making better use of it than some people have.”
There weren’t any childhood traumas that might account for this particular shtick, says Bob Elliott, but he theorizes that perhaps it grew from his son’s uncanny knack for absorbing everything like a giant human sponge. ”He grew up watching TV, and it all made an impression on him. Dobie Gillis, Get Smart, the Beatles, the space program. He even got into ice hockey one season. He just absorbed everything that he came up against. Maybe that’s what it is: that he’s remembered everything and this is just a release mechanism.
”But I wouldn’t count on it.”
Chris Elliott isn’t sure where this crazed swine guy comes from either, although he knows when it arrived: on Letterman. ”Without a doubt, it’s something that I developed at Late Night. And it was something that seemed to work real well with Dave — that I was the staff member who was a little psychotic and you weren’t quite sure which direction I was going to go.
”It may stem from my enjoying awkward comedy. I like awkward pauses; I like moments that are uncomfortable but funny at the same time. Andy Kaufman used to do that to perfection. Anybody with that sort of borderline personality creates a feeling where you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. So maybe that’s where it comes from.”
But where is it going?
A few weeks into the fall season, coproducer Adam Resnick, Elliott’s former Late Night writing partner, isn’t sure. ”The sitcom world is completely new for us,” he says. ”On Letterman it was real easy to be stupid for four minutes, but then suddenly when you’re stretching it out to a half hour, it’s a little scary.” So far, things haven’t been too scary: Get a Life has been Fox’s most successful new show in the ratings.
But neither Resnick nor the Elliotts Chris and Bob are putting down roots in the alien world of Los Angeles, although the younger Elliott’s wife, Paula, and two young daughters have relocated to Southern California with him. ”Like Chris, I’m keeping my New York apartment,” Resnick says. ”We both hate it out here. My first month out here I was completely miserable. It’s like, why can’t they do this show in New York?”
Maybe it’s because Chris Elliott is not Bill Cosby.
”Well, that’s what we’re hoping for,” says Resnick, and he offers up this smart-aleck scenario: ”We figure in about three years we’ll be more powerful than Cosby. Then we’re going to set up in New York — that’ll be the first thing we do. In fact, I’d say that after six episodes we’ll probably be getting higher ratings than The Simpsons. Fox will focus their attention on us and have to let us move to New York. That’s our strategy.”
And if this strategy of ElliottLand Productions (the name’s for real) fails, its namesake can always go back to Letterman or pursue his career on the big screen. After all, he was making noise about some big movie deal a couple of years ago.
”Well, in fact, I’m not thinking anymore of doing films,” Chris Elliott says, chortling again. ”And if this goes down in flames, I’m not thinking of television anymore either.
”I think I’ll go ruin my career in theater after this.”