Not long after annoying Letterman at Rockefeller Center, Elliott learned that Dave was readying a new show for NBC and snagged an interview. While he was there, Letterman walked into the room and despite Elliott's attempts to look inconspicuous, recognized his former tormentor. "I like your shoes," he told Elliott. "Are you going bowling later?"
Elliott was offered the only job that was left — runner, which involved fetching lunches and making photocopies — and he almost didn't take it. But his father prevailed and at the Late Night offices, Elliott says he established a "weird persona" that was part Rupert Pupkin and part Lucy Ricardo, and would do anything to get on TV and be a star.
He got his wish. Along with Letterman's other stock company characters Larry "Bud" Melman and Brother Theodore, Elliott soon became a Late Night star playing the Panicky Guy, the Conspiracy Guy, the Fugitive Guy, the Regulator Guy and the Guy Under the Seats, who literally popped up through a hatch cut into the stairwell of the audience bleachers. He conducted a dog-food taste test by opening up cans of regular and "New Improved" Ken-L-Ration and downing spoonfuls of both. He also dressed in a black bodysuit, stuck a cardboard box decorated with toilet paper rolls on his head, and, with a group of staffers, destroyed the Mummenschanz troupe by dancing around onstage like sub-morons while the studio audience sat in stunned silence. The only spectator laughing, Elliott remembers, was Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein.
But what Elliott did most memorably during the eight years he was at Late Night was regularly engage Dave in exhilarating bouts of comic pugilism that were essentially more evenly matched reenactments of their first painful encounter at Rockefeller Center. Elliott's dryly sarcastic "Guy" performances often gave the impression that a seething psychopath lurked beneath his deadpan mug, while Letterman twitted him with lines such as, "Have you ever thought of having a complete neurological work-up?"
As the Guy Under the Seats, Elliott once told Letterman through clenched jaw: "One of these days mister, you and I are going to go round and round." And eventually the prophecy was fulfilled — Elliott says it all happened fairly organically — via the emergence in the late '80s of a number of characters that could best be classified as the Chris Elliott gallery of arrogant idiots. Among them was Chris Elliott Jr., a surreal parody of the late Morton Downey Jr., who enjoyed a brief spate of notoriety back then.
Downey was a caricature before Elliott took a crack at him: politically, a pre-Bill O'Reilly right-winger, horse-mouthed, with prominent boils on his neck, he stalked the stage in crimson socks, chain-smoking as he ginned up straw-man arguments and shouted down his guests. Elliott's impersonation made him monstrous with massive dentures, a ridiculous wig and so many boils on his face that Letterman once told him, "You know, Chris, looking at you is kind of like looking at a map of the constellations." (Downey once actually called the show's offices to inform Elliott that he'd had his boils removed.)
In this guise, Elliott would essentially perform a show within Dave's show, inevitably introducing Letterman as the chairman of some corporation or other, until Dave shut him down. Once, when Letterman griped that Elliott should get "some real guests," Elliott, looking like both a donkey and an ass with his prosthetic teeth, replied, "Let me tell you something, pal. The only things I gotta do is die and pay taxes and give the wife one of these, Ba-boom!"— he pumped his fist — "every now and then."
"Well, I'm sure she looks forward to that," Letterman replied. Eventually, Elliott shed the prosthetics and the wigs and played the arrogant idiot as himself. Introduced simply as Chris Elliott, he would arrive with an ultra-cheesy swooping bow then take a seat and pepper Dave with clichéd show-business compliments that, delivered in Elliott's effortlessly smarmy voice, became passive-aggressive shivs. "Geez, you're hot tonight," he would say to Letterman with a smirk and a roll of his eyes. "A thousand lashes with a wet noodle for you!"
Although this kind of comedy verityé is more commonplace today, in the Eighties it was a riskier venture. "He was really laughing at himself at a time in history when a lot of guys weren't laughing at themselves," says Bobby Farrelly, the co-writer and co-director, along with his brother Peter, of There's Something About Mary.
The mid-1980s was the heyday of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy. "They were rebels, but they weren't dumb," Farrelly says, whereas Elliott's on-air persona "was totally misinformed about his place in the world. And that's what was so funny about it." And so, Farrelly says, when he and his brother set out to make their own brand of comedy films — movies that would define the Nineties — "That's kind of what we were copying."
Also, though Elliott's arrogant idiots bore little resemblance to the characters that Andy Kaufman was performing prior to his death in 1984, the two men did have at least one thing in common: an unrelenting commitment to their material. "A lot of people commit 95 percent and you can see it," says Farrelly. "You can see there's part of them saying, 'What if this doesn't work?' But you never think that with Chris."
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