Backstage at Late Night, Elliott treated the offices as his own personal comedy laboratory and the staffers — and even Dave — as guinea pigs. Letterman vet Gerard Mulligan recalls that shortly after the Barnum & Bailey Circus midget known as the Mighty Michu appeared on the show, Elliott became a Michu of his own making, who pursued a production staffer named Barbara around the office promising her "lots of cheese" if she would marry him. "For weeks, maybe months afterwards," Mulligan says, Elliott could be heard in the office, mewling in a munchkin-like voice, " 'Michu love you. Love pretty lady. Give you cheese!' And we would just be like, 'Where the fuck did that come from?' "
On afternoons that he was not scheduled to appear on that day's taping, Elliott would sometimes head down to Lindy's in Rockefeller Center and after downing a few drinks and getting the waiters to deliver plates of the establishment's rank meatballs to strangers, "from Mr. Elliott," would come back upstairs and terrorize the staff.
"There was this pair of khaki shorts that he wore that were already a little too short," says Resnick. "And he would come up, take his shirt off and roll these shorts up higher than hot pants — you could totally see his tan lines — and walk from office to office, splaying his arms out and saying, 'I debase myself for the woman,' occasionally adding, 'For we have gotten much merriment from her debasement for thousands of years.'
"If he was tanked up, he would be quite tenacious," Resnick says.
On one of the few occasions that he attended the Late Night writers meeting, Elliott says he and another writer — he declines to name him — began calling each other by women's names. The other writer, who Elliott christened "Nancy," took the ribbing in stride, until the following morning, when the two men ran into each other in the hallway. "Hi, Nancy," Elliott said to his colleague, who promptly hauled off and punched Chris in the mouth. Differences were then settled over "cocktails at nine in the morning," Elliott says, adding that when he told Letterman about the run-in months later, Dave said, "You should have told me. I would have fired the guy."
"Meeting Dave was just the luckiest thing in the world for me," Elliott says. "He gave me a place to be an idiot for an audience." And to this day, he adds, his main criterion for judging a piece of comedy he's written is whether "Dave would think it's funny."
Along with his father, Chris Elliott counts Letterman as one of three people who most shaped his career. The third is Resnick. If Letterman functioned as Chris Elliott's on-air "Ray" Goulding to his "Bob" Elliott during Late Night, Resnick was his behind-the-scenes partner and confidant. It was with Resnick that Elliott created what many consider his crowning Late Night achievement. In the late Eighties, the two men got onto the subject of The Godfather, and the fate of Marlon Brando. The actor hadn't been in the public eye since 1980 and had earned a reputation as an eccentric who had forsaken Hollywood for life on a Tahitian island. Elliott and Resnick began to kick around an idea: If Brando showed up at Late Night, what would he do to Dave?
"We both loved the idea of Dave always being in really awkward situations and not knowing how to respond," Elliott says. At some point, discussion turned to The Godfather's wedding party scene. In it, Brando dances elegantly with his daughter, but, bizarrely, both men both remembered that in the background of the scene there's an extra "doing this weird sort of Forties thing." Elliott says. That, they decided, would be the way that Brando would dance for Dave.
The Brando impression that Elliott unveiled and performed several times over the course of that year was not so much an imitation as it was "a surrealistic push," Resnick says. "It was never about referencing his show-business career. It was just about him coming on as a nut." Elliott portrayed Brando as disheveled, disoriented and overweight, with long greasy hair and a jutting jaw full of bad teeth, He usually came onto the show bearing idiotic gifts for Letterman such as a Garfield mug from a McDonald's Happy Meal or a letter ("Because you are the Letter Man").
But the pinnacle of the performance was usually "The Banana Dance" wherein Elliott, imitating that Godfather extra, lurched around a bunch of bananas he'd thrown on the floor to the tune of "The Alley Cat." This was Resnick's idea. Every so often the music would stop and Elliott would throw up his hands in front of his face and say, "Bananas!" Other times, he would shrug his shoulders and say, "Bananas?" with a look that, Resnick remembers, "said, 'I don't know, Bananas? Why not?' " It was surreal, it was silly. But somehow they were playing on another level.
At the end of the 1980s, Elliott and Resnick left Late Night to produce Get a Life. By the time "The Prettiest Week of My Life" episode — which aired early in the first season — was in the can, Resnick says "the notes started" from network executives "and so did the concern." Just as Late Night blew up the talk show, Get a Life exploded sitcom conventions and clichés and rearranged the smithereens into a new comic language. In an episode where Elliott's Chris Peterson character fan-worshipped a group of construction workers that his father (played in the series by Elliott's real dad) had hired, there was a scene where Elliott and the men lobbed catcalls and wolf whistles at a series of women who were inexplicably strutting through the Peterson backyard. After the construction men yelled their stock come-ons ("If you're selling, I'm buying!"), Elliott took his turn: "Pluck that banjo! Eat that cheese!" he told one woman, who promptly turned around and kicked the shit out of him.
"I wanted the show to feel like live-action cartoon," Elliott says, and it did, taking the kind of visual risks that actual cartoons, such as Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy take for granted. Looney Tunes-style violence was remarkably common in Get a Life, as was, in later episodes, the repeated death of the Chris Peterson character. As a Salon.com essay on Elliott by Connell Barrett noted, Peterson pre-figured South Park's Kenny. Elliott puts it this way: "We were just too tired to come up with a funny ending. So, we'd rip my head off and kick it down the street."
Elliott says he and Resnick were determined that "no moments" of gooey earnestness would creep into their show. There were no redeeming characters in Get a Life — not only was Chris Peterson a moron, but everyone else, including his parents, were mercenary, if not downright nasty — and when the network suits demanded the inclusion of a heartwarming moment, as they did from time to time, Elliott and Resnick made sure it was torpedoed by an adjacent scene or line. When, for instance, the network insisted that Peterson and his father hug during a scene that involved a malfunctioning mini-submarine taking on water in Chris' shower, the elder Peterson prefaced the cheesy act with a warning: "Watch your hands."
Given its subversive (even for Fox) content, Get a Life lasted a remarkable 35 episodes from 1990 to 1992. It continues to have a strong cult following, despite the fact that the bulk of its episodes can only be viewed on grainy bootleg DVDs. The show even influenced a hip-hop collaboration between Prince Paul and Dan the Automator who put out two albums, in 1999 and 2004, as Handsome Boy Modeling School.
Another fan was director Tim Burton, the director of Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Around the time that he was directing Batman Returns for Warner Bros. and producing The Nightmare Before Christmas for Disney, he met with Elliott and Resnick to express his interest in working with them on a film. The two men came back with the script to Cabin Boy, a very loose adaptation of Captain's Courageous. But what sounded like a promising collaboration became a slow-motion train wreck after Burton decided that he wanted to direct another picture, Ed Wood. Burton convinced Resnick that he should direct Cabin Boy and left the filmmaking novices to fend for themselves while dealing with the studio, Disney's Touchstone Pictures, that, Resnick says, had only gone into business with them because it wanted to work with Burton.
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