Chris Elliott, Cabin Man: Rolling Stone's 2008 Feature

Elliott went from NBC gofer to semi-fame as a juvenile oddball on 'Letterman,' but never tasted true Hollywood glory. Why the former 'Get a Life' star may be his generation's most underappreciated comic genius

September 18, 2008 3:10 PM ET
Chris Elliott
Chris Elliott
Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Late in 1980, Chris Elliott was working the admission booth at Rockefeller Center's observation deck when David Letterman walked up with his mother, Dorothy, and asked to buy two tickets. Earlier that summer, Letterman had been the host of his own daring and funny NBC morning show that had proven popular with television critics but not with viewers. And though the network, based in Rockefeller Center, had canceled the show after only a few months on the air, it had kept Letterman under contract—and working as a substitute host for Johnny Carson's Tonight Show — until it could figure out how to best utilize him.

Chris Elliott, on the other hand, was a bearded, balding 20-year-old man-child still living at home and dreaming of a career in comedy like his father Bob Elliott had. The elder Elliott was the Bob of Bob and Ray, "The Two and Only," sly, dry wits who were mocking show business and the idiocy of American conformity on radio decades before Letterman — who was a big fan — would make it cool.

The younger Elliott wanted to join the cast of Saturday Night Live, which had made a star of his comedy hero, Bill Murray. But, with no real stand-up experience or even a college diploma, what he needed was a big break. And when Letterman pulled up to the ticket counter that day, Elliott remembers thinking that Dave could open some doors for him. He charged Letterman the child's fare for admission — after all, he'd come accompanied by a parent — and when Dave giggled at this, Elliott threw down his biggest card: he was Bob Elliot's son.

Letterman took the bait. "He told me that he'd tried a number of times to book Bob and Ray on The Tonight Show when he was filling in for Johnny," Elliott remembers. "But he hadn't had any luck."

Staring opportunity in the face, Elliott blurted out the first response that popped into his head. "Yeah, well, my dad only does The Tonight Show if Johnny hosts," he told Letterman, bringing their impromptu bonding session to an abrupt and awkward halt. Elliott recalls Letterman, looking both "insulted" and "not sure if I was joking" backed away from the ticket counter mumbling "'Uh, okay, all right.' "

It would not be the last time that Chris Elliott acted like an idiot in front of the man. Not even a year later, when Late Night With David Letterman premiered in February 1982, Elliott would become one of its breakout stars by playing a series of deluded and increasingly insolent morons who periodically hijacked the program with lame and crazy bids for attention until Dave got annoyed and sent them packing with a few well placed barbs. There was Roger Campbell, "The Fugitive Guy," who was half-living/half-starring in a lame remake of Quinn Martin's overheated Sixties crime drama The Fugitive, although every time Dave pointed this out, Campbell insisted, "I have no idea what you're talking about." There was Marlon Brando, a masterpiece of brain-addled silliness who staggered around the set doing something called "The Banana Dance." And there was Chris Elliott Jr., a horse-mouthed, boil-covered talk-show host modeled after proto-Right Wing loudmouth Morton Downey Jr.

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