Late Night challenged the conventions and clichés of television and talk shows that Nielsen audiences had come to blindly accept over the previous 40 years of the medium, playing with "the disparity between what television told us and what really existed" as a writer from this magazine once put it. And, for his part, Elliott usually played the antithesis of the good talk show guest — stupid, recalcitrant and repulsive instead of witty, entertaining and debonair. The talk-show host and his guest were supposed to flatter each other, but whenever Elliott was sitting next to Dave, seething antagonism was the order of the day. That little twist on the television audience's expectations was funny enough — Elliott's arrogant idiot was original, to say the least — but what made these interactions shockingly funny was that, like Andy Kaufman before him, Elliott played these characters so convincingly and with such an utter lack of vanity that it was entirely possible to conclude that he was not acting at all.
It was the kind of in-your-face humor that, "if you don't get it, you've got a long night ahead of you," says Gerard Mulligan, who was a writer at Late Night and currently performs with Elliott on Late Show With David Letterman. But for those who did get it, Elliott's idiot act worked on more than one level. On one hand, Elliott was blasting all the showbiz phonies and self-absorbed assholes who came onto Dave's show with the notion that all they needed to do to be entertaining was show a clip of their latest project. And on another, more personal level, he was building upon his father's legacy by creating a series of running characters who were more psychotic versions of the "Bob and Ray" staple Barry Campbell, an actor whose ego overshadowed his talent.
After almost nine years at Late Night, Elliott went to Hollywood and created an even more brilliant idiot: Chris Peterson, the 30-year-old paperboy of the short-lived Fox-network series Get a Life. Peterson was a slightly different kind of ass — less arrogant more infuriatingly clueless, and very cutting edge. Elliott and co-creator Adam Resnick, who had been his writing partner at Late Night during the latter half of the '80s, took what they had learned at Letterman's knee and made a series of it. So, 11 years before Ben Stiller satirized male modeling with Derek Zoolander and his Blue Steel look, Elliott's Peterson — a balding, slump-shouldered wimp with the physique of a soft-boiled egg — attended the Handsome Boy Modeling School, where he adopted the working moniker of Sparkles, studied the "What's-Off-in-the-Distance-While-I'm-Being-Handsome" pose, sent up Irene Cara's topless modeling scene in Fame and vanquished his rival, Sapphire, by accusing him of betraying "the muted beauty of the buttocks."
If you're under the age of 35, chances are you're not familiar with Elliott's Letterman stuff or Get a Life. Aside from a handful of scattered YouTube videos and bootleg products, much of Elliott's earlier work is not commercially available. In that case, you should rent the Farrelly Brothers 1998 There's Something About Mary and watch Elliott dare to portray Dom Woganowski, a hive-covered nutjob enslaved to the radiant beauty of Cameron Diaz. (The hives were Elliott's idea.) Or better yet, get Cabin Boy, the 1994 film starring Elliott as a spoiled, mincing Fancy Lad who mistakenly stows away on a ship of crusty old salts. In both movies, Elliott is doing a kind of jokeless comedy — so pure that it does what only first-rate comedy can, it creates its own universe.
Alas, as Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus tells Stiller's Tugg Speedman in Tropic Thunder, "Everybody knows you never go full retard," and though Cabin Boy was not a disaster of Elliott's own making, when it died at the box office, he was punished for it. Elliott had simply done what he has always done, let his freak flag fly, but this time, the press and the public treated him as if he were an actual idiot and not just playing one.
As it turns out, he was merely ahead of his time. Lately, we have been up to our ass cheeks in idiots — from the clueless Dunder Mifflin boss that Steve Carell plays in The Office to the disaster-prone man-children that Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly portray in Step Brothers to the self-absorbed and seriously deluded Hollywood types that populate Tropic Thunder. They can be hilarious, but in the end, they never go full retard, and that's why they're box-office stars and Chris Elliott is a comic genius.
ABC late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel says that along with Bill Murray and Fred Willard, Elliott is one of "maybe five people who make me laugh just by looking at them. His character is so odd that he doesn't even really have to do anything to be funny," he explains, and "any moment of earnestness is funny because you know that there's not a bit of genuineness about it."
"He's a genius. Honest to God, he's a genius," says Justin Stangel, who along with his brother Eric head the writing staff of CBS's Late Show With David Letterman, on which Elliott still frequently appears. "It's all in his delivery. Everything is really silly and stupid in a good way," even if, he adds, "It's bordering on bizarre sometimes."
"There's a certain ugliness that he'll sort of beat the viewer over the head with," says Eric Stangel.
Elliott is not only, according to the Stangels, an original voice — his skills are much in need. Reality television has produced a bumper crop of real, live idiots, and whether Elliott is playing "fannyfan2000" a creepy talk-show guest with nothing to plug (but a bag full of condoms, a wet suit and a Conan O'Brien mug) — on last year's Kimmel-produced spoof of "To Catch a Predator"; or "Bedlam," star of the American Gladiators-style ripoff "El American Conqu — EEES-tadors" on Late Show, he deserves both our revulsion and our love.
Like almost all of his best work, Chris Elliott is not easy to find. He lives with his wife Paula, who he met when they both worked at Late Night, in Old Lyme, Connecticut. But whenever he can, Elliott travels north to a surprisingly un-Chris Elliott-like comfortably furnished Adirondack-style house on Casco Bay in Harpswell, Maine, that once belonged to Senator Margaret Chase Smith. Elliott greets me dressed in jeans, a checked button-down shirt and a baseball cap pulled low on his head. He mixes us a couple of stiff Bloody Marys and shows off the stunning seascape out back: Elliott's house sits right on the water with fog-shrouded views of Ragged Island, where Edna St. Vincent Millay used to live; Bailey Island, and beyond that, the Atlantic.
There is another, much smaller island that's practically swimming distance from his shoreline, a nesting ground for terns. "There's a kid who lives out there every summer in a tent," Elliott says. "His job is just to watch this big group of terns that are nesting out there and to protect them from anybody showing up on the island. And, I swear to God, if I could afford that that would be my job for the rest of my life. I have no interest in birds whatsoever, but I would love that."
The crow's feet have moved in around Elliott's eyes and his beard looks like a sea captain's instead of that modified Wolverine look he used to wear, but there is still a hint of youthful wildness tucked back behind the irises and an air of perpetual amusement about him that suggests that, if the urge struck him, he would have no problem dropping his pants and running around like an Adderall-tweaked frat boy. There is something else, too: Elliott does not look anywhere near as pale, paunchy and, well, extraterrestrial as he can when, for instance, he's doing a Late Show sketch.
"I'm pretty much Eddie Haskell when you first meet me," Elliott says, suggesting that, like Wally Cleaver's good friend, he's on his best behavior unless he's among the initiated. We sit on the back patio where an exotic light-green Luna moth has parked itself on the screen door leading into the house. Elliott says he leads a bit of an anti-social existence. Sharing, audience participation — these are things that make him uncomfortable, as does discussing his career or explaining his comedy. But two things he says during our conversations go a long way toward explaining what makes him tick.
The first is when he reveals that as a student at the Rudolf Steiner School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where he grew up, he always enjoyed those "awkward moments" when another student didn't know the answer to the teacher's question.
The second is when Elliott says, "I think an annoying guy is funny. And I think a guy who doesn't know he's annoying is even funnier."
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