Chris Elliott, Cabin Man: Rolling Stone’s 2008 Feature
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“They were basically left looking at us like, ‘What the fuck did we inherit you for?’ ” says Resnick. He remembers a scene, shot in a Long Beach, California water tank that called for Elliott’s character to drink seawater from a ladle while stranded on a small raft. Technically, the scene was a simple one, save for one little detail: The water in the tank had been stagnating for weeks — all manner of detritus floated on its surface. Technicians of varying degrees of cleanliness had been wading through the water for days, and, Elliott and Resnick were convinced, pissing in it. No one on the set could figure out how Elliott would pretend to drink the heinous stew without actually letting it pass his lips.
Elliott ended up tossing back ladles full of the water for as many takes as it took to get the shot. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m killing myself right now over this movie. I am ingesting something that 10 years from now will have grown into a huge head of broccoli inside of me ¬all because of this movie,” Elliott says. “And that thought crossed my mind when it opened, too.”
When Resnick screened the first cut of the film, Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of Disney’s film productions, told him, “You’re a sick fuck. That’s the weirdest movie we’ve made.” “He didn’t say it in a mean way,” Resnick says.
But the reviewers did. For an 80-minute comedy movie, Elliott says so much was cut from the film that “there’s enough left over for a Boy II and III” — that cost about $10 million to make, Cabin Boy was greeted with strangely robust howls of vitriol. “Call this one ‘The Nightmare After Christmas,’ ” wrote Variety, adding that the film was “as crude and gamy as the hold of an old fishing barge.”
Kimmel, then a radio DJ in Tucson, Arizona, says that when, on-air, he called up Disney’s marketing department to find out why the movie wasn’t going to be released in his city, the executive that got on the phone told him, ” ‘Well, it’s not very good.’ “
Cabin Boy is more than a funny movie — which it is. It has as a high point David Letterman’s only cinematic appearance — he is credited as Earl Hofert — a great verbal jousting match between Elliott’s bewigged Fancy Lad and Letterman’s cigar-chomping Old Salt. (“Don’t let them give you any of that flank steak bullshit,” Letterman tells Elliott at one point. “Try the London Broil.”) And for what is essentially a Disney movie, Cabin Boy is remarkably un-homogenized. Even the movie’s relatively happy ending (which depicts his character standing atop the actress Melora Walters as she swims off into the sunset) is memorable and weird.
In the 14 years since Cabin Boy was released, Elliott and Resnick have achieved a certain peace with the disaster and though they would have done a few things differently, they make no excuses for the final product. “I stand by that movie,” says Elliott. And yet, they remain perplexed by the outrage that was leveled at them. They also haven’t worked together since. “The reaction to Cabin Boy at the time was, we don’t want more,” Elliott says. “So, Adam and I went our separate ways, creatively, at least.” Though they rarely see each other, Elliott says they communicate almost every day by phone or e-mail, “like girlfriends.” “There’s no one I work better with than Adam,” he says. “And I don’t think he works better with anyone else either.In the 14 years since Cabin Boy was released, Elliott and Resnick have achieved a certain peace with the disaster and though they would have done a few things differently, they make no excuses for the final product. “I stand by that movie,” says Elliott. And yet, they remain perplexed by the outrage that was leveled at them. They also haven’t worked together since. “The reaction to Cabin Boy at the time was, we don’t want more,” Elliott says. “So, Adam and I went our separate ways, creatively, at least.” Though they rarely see each other, Elliott says they communicate almost every day by phone or e-mail, “like girlfriends.” “There’s no one I work better with than Adam,” he says. “And I don’t think he works better with anyone else either.”
Maybe it’s time for an independent film producer to reconsider them. Certainly it’s time for Disney to consider releasing a more deluxe version of Cabin Boy — with deleted scenes and a filmmaker’s commentary — than the comically bare bones version that’s currently on the market. Over the last 14 years, the movie has grown a deserved broccoli-like cult following. “That movie is so big with awesome stoner musicians,” says Andy Richter, who played the dim-witted, ill-fated first mate in the movie. When Richter worked as Conan O’Brien’s sidekick on the current incarnation of Late Night, he says that bands booked on the show, often told him, “We watch it on the tour bus all the time.” Indeed, when Courtney Love’s band Hole played Saturday Night Live during the single season that Elliott was a cast member, she told him that Kurt Cobain was a big Cabin Boy fan. Elliott and Resnick occasionally appear at screenings of the movie sponsored, for instance, by The Onion, although both say they haven’t watched the movie in its entirety since the cast and crew screening.
There would probably be a lot more Get a Life fans out there, too, if the complete series was commercially available. Elliott and Resnick say they’ve been to Sony, which owns the series, to record commentary for the first season of episodes, but have no control or say over when, how or even if it will be released. Calls to Sony were not returned at press time.
But although Elliott says he wishes he had a larger body of work to show to his children, he also admits that part of him likes it that comedy fans have to expend some energy to find much of his past achievements. “I’m not trying to compare my stuff to The Wizard of Oz,” he says, but that movie seemed much more special when you could only see it once a year rather than own it on DVD. “My suspicion is that if these things were readily available, I think people would get fairly sick of me fairly quickly,” he says.
Elliott prefers to focus on the future. Over the past few years, he has written two very funny comic novels that share the sensibility of his television work. He continues to work as a character actor in television and films. This fall, he’ll appear with James Brolin on Law & Order: SVU. He’s also still zinging Dave on Late Show with lines like, “Ma, spoke awfully slow on the farm, didn’t she?” as well as taking off his clothes whenever duty calls. “I’ve seen more of his naked body than I have of my own brother,” says Justin Stangel.
What’s missing — and what he ought to have — is an HBO comedy series or a starring role in an independent film. And Elliott does admit that, “as pompous as it sounds,” he would love to be able follow a path similar to the one taken by his hero Bill Murray. “I would love to be able to do something like Lost in Translation,” he says. “I think that I could pull something off like that in a couple of years from now.” Bobby Farrelly agrees. “That kind of a vehicle is down the road for him,” he says. “And I think people will say, ‘Wow. He’s different than we thought. He’s even better than he had ever been given credit for.’ ”
“Maybe,” says Justin Stangel, “if he kept his shirt on a little more.”