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Friday, December 10th, 2010

Chris Elliott's Lost Gems: Action Family & FDR: A One Man Show

Supercult profiles the obscure, the offbeat, and the feverishly celebrated pieces of comedy which deserve more recognition.

It's 1987 and Chris Elliott is desecrating the memory of a beloved national treasure.

Performing in Irvington, New York's Town Hall in front of a packed house — if you count the numerous cardboard stand-ins — Elliott blithely stumbles through the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt while paying no credence to facts, character, or taste. In the midst of a grossly inaccurate tale, a stagehand slinks up to the performer and whispers in his ear.

"The audience hates you."

"Aw, shut up," Elliott replies.

And it's with that two-sentence exchange that we have a perfect summation of Chris Elliott's on-screen persona: a smarmy, egotistical jerk who couldn't care less about entertaining his audience or pleasing his peers. From his appearances on Late Night with David Letterman to his cult hit Get a Life to these two incredible and criminally obscure Cinemax specials, Chris Elliott is an unlikeable cad.

It's just a matter of whether or not you're in on the joke to actually believe it.

Beginning in 1986 with Action Family (IMDb transposes the air dates, for some reason) Elliott stars as a hard-nosed private detective investigating a string of murders involving jazz musicians. When he's on the job, at least. At home, he's a harried family man who humors his scatterbrained wife and tries his best to keep his rapscallion kids in line. It's a mashup of two diametrically opposed genres: the grisly cop drama and the cheesy family sitcom.

The following year came FDR: A One Man Show — a bizarre take on the life of our 32nd president. As a cross between a hammy thespian of community theater and a junior high student giving a book report on a novel he never read, Elliott condenses the four-termer's biography into a litany of falsehoods and anachronisms. During which, the performance is interrupted by Teutonic understudies, Lincoln hallucinations, and Marv Albert providing updates to a high school basketball championship nearby.


Both specials are quintessential Elliott. Surreal, genre-bending, and with a mixture of satire and sincerity. Not to mention they're really friggin' hilarious.

Each tackle a bevy of cliched tropes found in their respective categories. The sitcom portions of Action Family, for example, punctuate a character's mention of "Grandpa" with an off-camera toilet flush and uproarious canned laughter. The story of FDR's early years is broken up by Elliott reenacting a flashback as a young boy — prototypical of one man shows. But those stage performances don't usually include a mimed fight scene with an abusive mother, complete with a switchblade and a face full of sulfuric acid.

Fans of Chris Elliott will quickly note the inspiration that the Cinemax specials had on his future projects.

Tonally, Action Family sitcom is very similar to Get a Life. It presents over-the-top, hackneyed writing legitimately and almost without commentary — to the point where audiences unfamiliar with Elliott's work would mistake it for another shitty Fox program from the early-'90s. But there's a winking undercurrent throughout the writing and clever takes on tired formulas that let sharper viewers know he's turning it all on its ear.

The ridiculous alternate history to FDR also serves as a guide for Elliott's superb novel The Shroud of the Thwacker — an ill-informed and erroneous account of Jack the Ripper with Teddy Roosevelt as the mayor of New York. Elliott even writes himself into the novel, somewhat mirroring how he breaks character as FDR.

From the looks of the specials, Elliott was given free rein to deliver two wholly whacked-out comedy pieces. There seems to be few limitations, if any, to either production — fourth walls are broken, film is mixed with video, and audience members force their way into both programs. After a plot point is revealed in Action Family, the story cuts to a portly at-home viewer commenting on the twist. The FDR performance is also momentarily halted, here by the triumphant high school basketball team celebrating their win by storming the stage and TPing the star.

I'd be surprised if the final products are much different than the scripts written by Elliott and Late Night collaborators Sandy Frank and Matt Wickline.

But to his credit, Elliott's body of work shows very little deviation from that tone and creative freedom. As a 30-year-old paperboy or a Guy Under the Seats, Elliott goes for gusto with every role he plays and makes each of his characters as off-kilter and reprehensible as possible. There's a definite connection between a man devoted to make David Letterman's life "a living hell" and a self-centered actor mouthing off to an audience member who won't let him finish his sandwich during intermission.

Although within those performances, he never achieves total unlikability. Elliott has a tremendous ability to portray despicable characters and still endear himself to the audience. I mean, it's nearly impossible to dislike a guy who gets into a fistfight and eventual shootout with a hot dog vendor played by his 64-year-old dad.

And much to the presumable chagrin of television writers slaving under the confines of network restrictions, he's never let standards or logic get in the way of a great gag.

It's just in your best interest to be in on the joke.

Mike Schuster has somehow molded a lifelong proclivity of crackin' wise into a steady paycheck. He is a staff writer for Minyanville.com and a survivor of chronic petulance.

  • Cales_Bhively

    This is absolutely one of my favorite bits of television, and this was a great article that gives me more ammunition to share the VHS copy I have of these specials with friends. Thanks/Great Job/We're all proud of you.

    Chris Elliott has the ability to present his work seriously and steeped in a strong sense of literature, and then have that utterly abandoned in the name of pure silliness. FDR is such a good example of that (and is a great companion piece to Cabin Boy), while Action Family serves as Elliott's brilliance of parody.

    As a huge Elliott fan, I would place these with his pre-mainer-stream golden age. I would also recommend everyone everywhere to watch The Traveling Poet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INTPq_zLMDQ

  • Harpo

    As much a fan of his as I am, I'm mostly thankful for him producing Abby Elliott.