Splitsider

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Get A Life: The Community of Its Time

According to the internet, television network executives are a bunch of deplorable scumbags. They are wretched slime, only existing to please the philistines that situate themselves in the middle of America that find Tim Allen and Jon Cryer funny. They purchase Monets and use them as target practice. They are only experts at bringing joy to the deserving loud minority that appreciate high brow things such as irony, only to take it away and watch as Tumblrs drown in their tears. Executives get their assistants to make screengrabs of the most depressing tweets about a show's cancellation to show their children on Christmas. After tousling their kids' hair they Purell their hands and take one of their speedboats out for a ride with their favorite mistress. The one with the best diabolical laugh.

In reality, executives are not assassins of art so much as they selfishly attempt to maintain a job. They tend to green light and keep programs that make money for themselves and their bosses. Usually those shows are similar to those before it because they can see with empirical data that they have worked before. Once in awhile an original, smart and/or weird show seems that it could potentially be profitable. Those shows have huge cult followings. Unfortunately it doesn't get watched by anyone with a Nielsen box. The show gets taken to TV heaven to play with the other really old shows. The executives are vilified for about three months. The next smart show comes along. Boethius's wheel turns. The process begins anew.

Long before Community and Cougar Town won over the hearts and minds of the internet savvy, on September 23, 1990, Get A Lifepremiered on Fox. Chris Elliott, best known at that point as an oblivious, self-aggrandizing weirdo prone to bouts of anger who lived under the stairs on David Letterman's Late Night show, portrayed the main character Chris Peterson, an idiotic 30 year old paper boy who lived with his parents, who can barely tolerate him. Years before South Park, some episodes would end with Chris dying, only to come back as alive the following week. The show was the first to employ Charlie Kaufman as a writer. It directly influenced The Simpsons during their peak, which was arguably the apex of any television show ever.

It was doomed from the start.

After being on the air for four years and sticking around by putting on "crude", "counter-culture", "alternative", "first sign of the apocalypse" type programming, Fox wanted to act like the grown-up channels. "By the time I went (to Fox) In Living Color had been on for a season and Married With Children was on for a season," Chris Elliott recounted to Jesse Thorn in a 2006 interview on The Sound of Young America. "I remember specifically them telling me that they wanted a new Cosby kind of show. When I came along with something equally as strange they didn't want that anymore. They were looking for something more normal, more sitcom fare." While it was pretty stupid of Fox to think that Chris Elliott could be the next Bill Cosby, Elliott initially pitching to a national broadcasting corporation that he should play Marlon Brando working as a housekeeper in the Midwest while trying to hide from his agent was equally as shortsighted.

Elliott's savior would end up being David Mirkin. After writing for Three's Company and Newhart, Mirkin attempted but failed to remake the British series The Young Ones for Fox ("It tested through the floor.") According to Mirkin in a DVD interview, he had heard that Elliott was seriously considering doing a "very average, very tepid sitcom kind of idea" (probably the Cosby type show Fox was pushing him to do) and talked him out of it. Elliott suggested to Mirkin that they do Dennis The Menace grown up. Mirkin liked the idea, but suggested that instead of getting sued they don't make it with the exact same characters. Elliott first attempted to sell Fox the show. The meeting supposedly went so poorly, his own agents turned to him during the meeting to say it was a bad idea. Mirkin, who had a better feel for how to bend the truth to people in show business, succeeded in getting them to order a pilot script by subliminally claiming the show was going to be like a certain Tom Hanks movie. "You know he's 30 years old and living at home but who's to say that makes him a loser? He's into a different, alternate lifestyle and he knows how to have fun even though he's old and he never wants to grow up!" Mirkin claims he pitched. Remembered Elliott in regards to what the network expected when the show started: "Fox liked the 'magical idea' of a kid not quite growing up and it "kind of being like Big."

Along with Adam Resnick, a former Letterman writer, Elliott and Mirkin teamed up to pen the pilot script, beginning their year and a half battle with Fox executives. With this episode and virtually every other, when the Fox executives would get around to reading the script, which never once featured an oversized piano duet, they would balk. The executive producers would sometimes take the notes given to them, making Elliott's character seem less "psychotic" and more "connected to reality", but not always. They would add sentimental lines, only to later dump it or undercut it through sarcasm or with a retort that was purposely left out of the script. By the time episodes would air, some executives would see it and find it "hilarious", but some would still hate it. The strain of working on a show that seemed to have a million more detractors than fans led Elliott, Mirkin and Resnick to realize that Get A Life was not destined to last very long. With nothing left to lose, the three men committed Hollywood suicide and decided to just put on whatever the hell they wanted. That approach would lead to some of the most stellar, absurd, original half hours of television in history.

Married

The sixteenth episode of the series drew from the writers' science fiction roots. It featured Chris meeting a beautiful woman. The two fell in love and got married. Chris cheated on her with a neighbor that did not appear in a previous episode and would never come back again. They went to marriage counseling. They divorce. The twist is that it all happens in one day. The other twist is that the end of the episode is a straight parody of Annie Hall, before Chris gets hit by a meteor. Elliott's character at this point had only been killed off twice in the series, making it even more random, jarring and funny.

The Big City

(Part 1 is not available on YouTube)

Elliott: "The weirdest show I think was called 'The Big City', where I go take a train into the big city and it's kind of this 1940's movie with a lot of rear screen projection and stuff and that was the one that the network finally said 'We don't know what we're putting on here.'"

What Fox put on on April 21, 1991 was the best episode the show would ever do, and one of the best episodes that any show would ever make. Written by future Seinfeld writer Marjorie Gross, Chris goes off on an adventure to "the big city," which is actually early 1950s New York City.* The quirky angle to this is that nobody ever acknowledged a) the actual name of the metropolis or that b) Elliott traveled back in time. There are several vintage cinematic influences that are expertly blended together, with no one single classic movie or style taking the spotlight. For example, after Elliott gained fame for being a naive out-of-towner who had his wallet stolen he began to develop a big ego and became drunk with power, which sort of sounds like A Face In The Crowd (1957). As if knowing that viewers would start to think the episode was a parody of that one film, the story seamlessly changed into being about Chris falling for the female reporter that is using him for her own career, peppered with great comedic bits sprouting from the unique situation. The episode concluded with Elliott getting kicked out of the city when it is discovered he had left his wallet back at home. Elliott died waiting for the city folk to forgive him.

* While Elliott claimed it was set in the "1940's" the marquees in the background of the episode list movies that are from 1951 and 1955.

Neptune 2000

"They were so excited about that. This is a perfect opportunity for a father and son episode. They just didn't see. I was always amazed that they didn't see what was so funny about the show."

"Neptune 2000" seemed to be a huge middle finger to the network for all of the hope it had in getting those precious Cosby Show type family moments. Chris and his father (played by his real life father Bob, a comedy veteran in his own right) ended up stuck in a submarine they had built together in Chris's enclosed shower that gradually filled with water. When the two think they are about to die, the younger Elliott is more than happy to get a rare hug from his old man. While embracing, the elder wishes, out loud, that his life would end already. The episode ended with Chris as an old man dying of a heart attack, after reading that he needed to return the submarine in its original packaging to get the full refund.

Once the first season was over everyone on the show's staff expected it to be the end. "It was actually cancelled after the first year but then there were backdoor dealings," Elliott said to Thorn. "They printed it that it was cancelled and I remember watching What About Bob? to lift my spirits. But then I got a phone call that I can come back." In the end Fox could have hoped and wished all they wanted to grow up and be an adult, but in the fall of 1991 they were still three years away from acquiring the rights to broadcast professional football games and earning legitimate respect in the industry. Until that time, as much as it disdained surrealistic programming with average ratings taking up space on their schedule, it wasn't as if Fox had any guaranteed to be successful programming in the pipeline. Get A Life got a last second reprieve and received a thirteen episode order, albeit on Saturday nights. This encouraged Elliott, Mirkin and Resnick to push the envelope even further.

Meat Locker 2000

Mocking the sitcom trope of two people who don't get along being trapped in a room (usually in an elevator or a closet) only to be forced to confront each other and make peace, "Meat Locker 2000" introduces for the first and last time a meat locker in Chris's arch nemesis Sharon's house. "You know in all the times I've been coming over here, I never noticed you had one of those handy walk-in meat lockers," Elliott said two and a half minutes before being stuck in a handy walk-in meat locker with Sharon. Sharon had never liked Chris, but never before or since did she physically abuse Elliott more than in this episode. After she found out that Chris lied about the two of them having sex with various slabs of meat watching, Sharon paid Elliott a visit and beat the crap out of him. It should be noted that despite the repeated blows to the head and body, the man didn't even bleed, let alone die.

Girlfriend 2000

A fan favorite, the David Mirkin written "Girlfriend 2000" was more cartoonish than usual, with Elliott getting crushed by a car repeatedly in the very beginning of the episode. Also unique was the twist not appearing until the third act of the episode, when a woman (played by the late John Ritter's wife) stalks Chris while he is stalking a different woman. Elliott ended up fatally being stabbed in the chest.

SPEWEY And Me

(Part 3 isn't available on YouTube.)

It was just like E.T., if E.T. constantly vomited and your roommate ate him after unsuccessfully trying to sell it to Michael Jackson's zoo.

1977 2000

The second of two episodes written by Charlie Kaufman, "1977 2000"'s tone was determined right away after Elliott decided he was going to travel back in time. While any other show, even a science-fiction one, would first bother to deal with the perplexing question of how one can move backwards in time, Kaufman gave Chris a plethora of options. Unfortunately, Chris couldn't use his time machine because he didn't want to disrupt the family of raccoons living inside. His buddy's Delorean? The left blinker was out. The time tunnel in his bedroom? Picky Chris was afraid of the huge bugs that were in there. And in something that even a Looney Tunes writer might consider over the top, Elliott died after mistakenly drinking from a bottle with the label "Juice That Makes You Explode."

It would be the final proper episode Fox would run. A clip show, narrated by Elliott as he fell out of an airplane, aired the following week, twenty years ago tomorrow.

After USA Network ran reruns of the show for a brief time in 2000, the only legal way to see Get A Life again was from bootleg VHS tapes. Two DVDs featuring four episodes each exist, but the other twenty seven episodes are scattered and adrift on YouTube and the murky waters of torrent websites, preserving its cult classic status. As Community and Cougar Town fans are biting their nails waiting to see if their weird, very funny cult shows will be allowed to churn out new episodes, they can find solace in knowing that no matter what happens, every installment of the programs will be preserved in high definition goodness, and that now more than ever, executives can almost hear the disdain and anguish of actual viewers thanks to the internet when a show is on the bubble.

And there's always cable.

David Mirkin's next job after Get A Life would be the writing job he's best known for — executive producing The Simpsons during seasons five and six. He even earned the sole writing credit for the classic episode "Deep Space Homer." He would claim that The Simpsons was heavily influenced by Get A Life because the writers watched the show. "When I went and took over The Simpsons I was able to do a lot of the same subversive stuff we did on Get A Life, even darker, even worse," Mirkin recalled. "We had lots of death and we'd blow up animals and all that, but people would accept it because it was a cartoon. When you see it live action it works in England, people accept that kind of darkness in England. In America they don't want to see the main character's head get ripped off and then someone play hockey with it." Mirkin claimed that if Get A Life had reached a third season, Elliott would have become a homeless drifter.

Adam Resnick would go on to write Death To Smoochy and had stints writing for SNL and The Larry Sanders Show.

Fox in 2007 would try again with the Big concept with The Winner, which starred Rob Corddry as a man in his thirties living with his parents. It lasted six episodes.

Chris Elliott would continue to find work on television and in movies, even spending a year on the cast of Saturday Night Live. His most notable roles were portraying the cameraman Larry in Groundhog Day and writing and starring in Cabin Boy (probably best known as one of the very few movies David Letterman deigned himself to appear in). Currently, Elliott plays Alyson Hannigan's father in a recurring guest star role on How I Met Your Mother and stars in the Adult Swim Walker: Texas Ranger parody Eagleheart. He's also written two books, one of which involves Chris Elliott traveling back in time.

Chris Elliott is clearly a survivor.

Roger Cormier is two credits shy of graduating from the Handsome Boy School of Modeling.

Sponsored Content
  • James Rocker@twitter

    I already own the dvds, but for curiosity's sake, I looked up the prices for used copies of the dvds and they're surprisingly pricey.

    Are they really that scarce? Is the demand really that high? Whatever the answer, it makes me happy to know that there are fans out there rabid enough for the show.

    I also appreciated that on Amazon, customers also appear to buy the Amazin' Laser after their GaL purchase.

  • Just One Thing

    This show was absolute genius. I would readily nominate it best live action show of the 90s. So scarily surreal!

  • Just One Thing

    Also: David "Motherfucking" Mirkin. I love that guy. He was a heroically good show-runner at both "Get a Life" and during seasons 5 and 6 of "The Simpsons"

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    The studios complain about Netflix and Hulu etc, but what harm would it be to let Netflix stream this? I'm sure the licensing wouldn't be much, but its more than they are getting now.

    This is the first show I watched that had at least part of an episode without a laugh track. I remember laughing, and wondering why the people on the TV weren't (I think show had a laugh track, and this part was a montage or something). As much as I dislike laugh tracks now, I understand a studio's hesitation to ditch them.

  • uncleezno

    The Awl has put up intelligent posts about the Nielsen rating system in the past. This is just silly:

    "In reality, executives are not assassins of art so much as they selfishly attempt to maintain a job. They tend to green light and keep programs that make money for themselves and their bosses. Usually those shows are similar to those before it because they can see with empirical data that they have worked before."

    If it's somebody's job to make sure their company brings in advertising dollars by putting out popular television shows, that's not selfish, and it shouldn't surprise people when less popular shows are cancelled? I love Community and 30 Rock, but I'm not shocked to read about their low ratings, and it would be understandable if NBC pulled the plug on them. That doesn't make television executives bad people, or uninformed people, or jerks, it makes them people who are doing their jobs (which somebody has to do) to the best of their ability using imperfect data.

    If NBC was run by AVClub commenters, it would have gone bust a long time ago!

    • B Westof@twitter

      @uncleezno Ultimately, you are right. But there should be a way around it. For folks trying to save a show, rather than doing a letter writing campaign (or sending in bananas or something else ), someone should just start an on-line pledge where signees state that they will do their absolute best to purchase products from the advertisers of the show. That would create a premium for the rates networks could charge for cult shows, if the signees would actually follow through enough to make a difference for the sponsor's bottom line.

      Even today, if I have to eat fast food, I still try to eat at Burger King, solely because of their promotional effort on Arrested Development. It's my little encouragement for them supporting the show.

  • Just One Thing

    P.S. – your tag erroneously spells "Merkin". Might want to fix that.

  • B Westof@twitter
  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogoldstein Pablo Goldstein

    If I took a shot for every time Community is mentioned on this site, I would be dead from alcohol poisoning. Still, great article.

  • J.R.

    I remember my little high school mind being blown every Sunday night by this show. It was amazing.

  • cece

    FINALLY Get a Life getting the recognition it deserves! I think it was one of the funniest shows ever, unfortunately the style of comedy was way before it's time. I remember watching it in high school and heard it might be getting cancelled so tried to get my friend's to watch it, but they were all too into Married with Children and Saved by the Bell. Who doesn't love Zoo Animals on Wheels, Handsome Boy Modeling School (Sparkle vs Sapphire-WAY better than Zoolander) or Cousin Donald and his Chevette (the episode with my favorite TV line ever "Don't make me stab you with this plastic fork!") I actually even dated a boy in 1993 because he told me that his friend had left his collection of all the Get a Life episodes on VHS at his house and he would give them to me if I went out with him, so OF COURSE I went out with him and still have all the episodes on VHS and both the DVDs. (Yes, I was even more opportunistic than Goldman Sachs at 19)I didn't realize how rare the episodes had become. If anyone is interested I heard someone might be uploading them to a swedish bit torrent site within a few weeks.

    • Abc

       Smart woman!