Splitsider

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

The Cable Guy's Unfair Stigma

The Cable Guy was one of the funniest movies of the 1990s and few people know it. If you’ve only seen it once, chances are you probably still think it’s a stinker. If you happened to revisit the movie at some point in the last 15 years, you know the real deal — it’s hands-down hilarious.

When it was released in 1996, the movie was supposed to be a hit. Looking back at the people involved, it’s hard to fathom how it wasn’t. The Cable Guy roster reads like a comedy dream team: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Judd Apatow, Jack Black, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, Owen Wilson, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk… they’re all in there. But The Cable Guy was not a hit at all. Even though the movie technically made money, it was largely regarded as one of the biggest bombs of the 1990s, an undeserved branding that’s only now starting to wear off. So why did both critics and audiences leave it for dead? New York Magazine went right to the source and asked Apatow himself.

There’s several things he pointed to: Jim Carrey’s $20 million paycheck, the social satire, the dark tone, the departure from the light-hearted comedy of Carrey’s past movies — in taking on the role of a lonely and needy, borderline psychotic cable repairman, Jim Carrey basically plays a villain, albeit a sympathetic one. With all of those things added together, it kind of makes sense why the movie was jarring to so many people. Carrey, Stiller and Apatow were really trying to push the comedic envelope. Aside from a few dated cultural references (Sleepless In Seattle, Tabitha Soren, Soundgarden) the movie could have come out last year. It’s every bit as edgy as anything on Adult Swim or IFC. But audiences were just not ready for it in 1996. Even more surprising, the critics weren’t ready for it either. The reviews were unusually harsh and way off base. However, all of that goes out the window when you watch it again.

I revisited The Cable Guy back in college after my buddy Andy made the dubious claim that it was “the best Jim Carrey movie of all-time.” All of our friends thought the statement was bogus. Better than Ace Ventura? Better than Dumb and Dumber? No way. I remembered not hating The Cable Guy when I saw it in the theaters, but definitely not loving it. A lot of the guys didn’t even think it was good. And pretty much everyone had only seen it once. The stigma was still there. It sucked, it was a bomb, etc.

After the movie started, it wasn’t long before everyone was in hysterics. Scene after scene, the movie was delivering big laughs. Nobody remembered it being so jam-packed with jokes. By the time the basketball sequence was over, people were literally gasping for breath. And things were just getting started.

When you break down the structure of The Cable Guy, what you end up with is a series of amazingly solid set pieces that all fit together. More importantly, they also really hold up on their own. YouTube is packed with nearly all the great sequences from the film and is a big reason why the movie has been slowly growing its cult audience. A quick search and you will find multiple uploads of the Medieval Times fight, the basketball game, the hallway nightmare, the Silence of the Lambs moment (which was totally improvised), the Jefferson Airplane karaoke, the bathroom scene with Owen Wilson, and more. There’s even a fan-edited video of the Sam Sweet trial with Ben Stiller.

After it was over, everyone was convinced. While there was still debate over what was the best Jim Carrey movie, the general consensus was that The Cable Guy was amazing. And no one could believe why it’s maintained such a bad reputation. What baffles me is the divide between how good it is and how bad it’s still perceived to be. The rating on IMDB right now sits at a mediocre 5.9/10. The Rotten Tomatoes score? Even worse at 54%. Not that those ratings are the end all be all, but if nothing else they’re good aggregates of general opinion. And this is an opinion that needs to change.

Aside from being legitimately funny, the movie is a landmark as well. Along with Bottle Rocket, which was also released in 1996, The Cable Guy marked the inception of the Frat Pack — a group that’s essentially dominated the comedy box office ever since. Another interesting fact is the story surrounding the writing credit. It belongs to a guy named Lou Holtz Jr. who’s actually a real person and not the obvious pen name that I always thought it was. The Cable Guy is also oddly insightful and prophetic. In particular, the speech that Chip Douglas delivers on the satellite dish foretells the rise of the Internet with amazing clarity:

The future is now! Soon every American home will integrate their Television, phone, and computer. You'll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel or watch female mud wrestling on the other. You can do your shopping at home or play Mortal Kombat with a friend in Vietnam. There's no end to the possibilities.

Hopefully the 15th anniversary Blu-ray that came out yesterday will help introduce it to more people and win it the respect it deserves. I for one can’t wait to get my copy and listen to the commentary that Carrey, Stiller and Apatow recorded. The Cable Guy was ahead of its time. Fortunately, the future is now.

Ben Worcester would play basketball with Chip Douglas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Herrman/61001188 John Herrman
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Herrman/61001188 John Herrman

    Jim Carrey's massive paycheck highlights the main reason for the movie's reputation: it failed to meet expectations. Whoever decided to cast Carrey did so assuming the movie could easily be sold on his name alone; likewise, a lot of people who paid to see the movie did so expecting a Jim Carrey Movie. I mean, look at the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xj259Pi_vrA

    What both parties ended up with was a film that, while funny, is pretty devastating, too. Which is not a bad thing! But I think it explains why so many people regard it as a not-so-good movie.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      I agree that it was probably the paycheck, more than anything else, that was responsible for the bad reputation. But it couldn't be more undeserved. As Apatow said in that interview, someone was bound to be paid 20mil at some point, it just happened that Jim was the first.

      But you're right… people were expecting a Jim Carrey Movie. It took balls for those guys to stick to what they believed in and not cash in on what was already proven to work.

  • tommytimp

    Not funny. There's some pretty decent satire about media saturation and bro culture,m and the cast is dynamite for the most part, but the fact that it's not first and foremost a media satire or an ensemble comedy is what makes it fail. It's that Ben Stiller, while striving to make a media satire, still had to make a Jim Carrey Movie, and Carrey plays Chip Douglas like a hydrocephalic snotbag.

    The stupid lisp and the complete lack of anything approaching a reality from the character make it so unbelievable and jarring in juxtaposition to everyone else that it's instantly off-putting. If Carrey played him like a real person, with just a touch of creepy loner, it would have been a lot better. But Stiller surely wasn't able to tell Carrey's people that at the time, since ass-talking Ace ventura was as hot a commodity as there was. But even with a different performance, it's still not the neglected classic y'all think. it's not a bomb or anything, it just doesn't work.

    • mat

      "If Carrey played him like a real person…" why would you pay $20 million dollars for a "real person"?

      • tommytimp

        I wouldn't. I didn't even pay 7.50 or whatever the going rate was to see him played like a fucking caricature, either. But I think the answer you might be looking for me to give you is "because the preformance he gives throws the rest of the movie completely out of balance whilst not being funny."

  • http://asianniceguy.com El Sabor Asiático

    I'd agree that the film's sense of humor was a few years ahead of its time, but I think for the most part Cable Guy didn't do well because (a) it was extremely dark, and dark comedy tends not to go over very well with the masses, and (b) the movie pretty much falls apart in the last half hour. I still love the hell out of this movie, but the ending…blech.