The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
I don't think I'm going out on a limb here if I say that the bulk of the people reading this article have probably seen The Ben Stiller Show. (If you are one of the few who have not, I would kindly ask you to spend the time that you would use reading this article to research the best way for you to watch this program. It's very funny, and it features many of the comedy talents that you already enjoy.) In it's short, 13 episode, Emmy-winning run it managed to launch the careers of Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garafalo, Andy Dick, Stiller himself, as well as the behind-the-scenes talents of David Cross, Dino Stamatopoulos and Judd Apatow. It would be redundant for me to say that the show was one of the cornerstones of the modern comedy nerd's favorite things.
Well, in 1999, seven years after the original airing of the show, the Paley Center got the original cast as well as Apatow, writers, producers and the director of the show to come together and discuss what made the show different and what made it such a cult classic. The evening begins with a screening of the very first episode of the show, as well as the 10th episode, which was the one that won the Emmy for writing that year after the show had already been canceled.
One of the highlights of the night was a 10-minute video that was made as a parody of VH1's Behind the Music to serve as a fake expose of all the drama that went on behind the scenes at the show. (They even got Jim Forbes, the actual narrator to do it.) In the special we see interviews with Andy, Bob, Janeane and Ben as well as Eugene Levy who says about the show that it was "basically an SCTV rip off," and on the show's Emmy win: "That thing wins a trophy?! Three or four shows. They call that a series? I've got eyebrows longer than that!" We also learn that after the show ended, Bob Odenkirk went back to barber school, Janeane moved to Ireland (as shown from footage from one of her movies) and Ben Stiller resurfaced as a Greenwich Village artist. The whole thing is short and fun, and it's nice to see the cast reunite with some original comedy, just as they did in The Cable Guy and would again in a Comedy Central special promoting the Ben Stiller Show DVDs.
The panel discussion then begins as moderated by Ron Simon, and it serves as a wonderful hodge-podge of reminiscing, catching up, and insights on what made this show different from all the other comedies on television.
First let’s talk about what made the show different, according to the people that made it. The key idea that everyone seems to come back to again and again is the cast. They talk about the difference between their show and other sketch shows in that the way that they had cast the show was very organic. It wasn’t a group that had been pieced together out of different submissions from different cities: everyone had worked together before. Ben and Bob had worked together on SNL, Ben had made a short film that featured Andy Dick, Ben and Janeane had done stand-up together. Apatow doesn’t even call it “casting.” “We just said who’s funny?” And they went out and got those people.
The writing also appears to have been done in a much different way from the traditional sketch show. Ben says that his biggest influence on the show for him was SCTV in the way that they would take one concept from pop-culture and another very different concept and fuse them together, citing the opening sketch from the first episode in which Ben plays Eddie Munster in the movie Cape Fear as the perfect example of that technique. For Bob, as he wrote, he says that he just tried to follow Ben’s lead and hope “he wouldn’t notice I didn’t know what I was doing.” Two of his sketches that followed this same idea of mixing two pop-culture elements were the famous Manson/Lassie sketch and the sketch that combined Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula with Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which he co-wrote with Dino Stamatopoulos.
According to Apatow, once the sketches were written they were never read out loud until it was time to shoot them. There was no giant table read with fifty sketches for the week, because, according to Judd, they got into a big fight the one time they did. The sketches were selected by finding the best out of the bunch and just making those.
Probably the biggest difference between The Ben Stiller Show and… pretty much any show that was ever on television was the way that they dealt with notes from the network. Simply put: they didn’t listen to them. Judd Apatow, who served as co-producer of the show, took the brunt of these, and in his words, shielded everyone else from the network. Basically, there was regime change between Fox buying the show and Fox airing the show and the new person in charge was not a fan. Apatow says that knowing that the head of Fox hated the show only drove them to do whatever they wanted and not change the show. The network’s basic attitude towards the show is typified by one executive who said, “Judd, I am a moron. And everyone in America is a moron. So if I get it, America will get it.” Fox brought in veteran writer Bruce Kirshbaum to serve as a father figure to “kick their asses” and instead, they impressed him with their artistic vision and commitment to making the show that they wanted to make. Judd sums up the relationship with Fox with an anecdote in which they called and gave him a “whole bunch of notes” and he replied “Well, I’m not going to change anything, so what happens now?” Clearly you get canceled.
From all of these factors we get to the true essence of what made The Ben Stiller Show different from any other sketch show: everyone liked each other. Bob, Ben and Janeane, who all had famously unhappy stints on Saturday Night Live, say that working on Ben’s show showed them that television could actually be an enjoyable experience. Odenkirk says that Ben’s show is the reason he wanted to create Mr. Show; to recapture the fun of making a TV show he could be proud of.
That genuine enjoyment of one another’s sensibilities and humor is apparent throughout this conversation. It’s fun to watch these funny people get along. These things that The Ben Stiller Show did right seem like pretty basic concepts that would be pretty hard to disagree with, but the rare shows like these are lightning in a bottle. But for twelve short weeks, Fox aired a great show, written by a great staff and performed by a great cast that would go on to change the world of entertainment.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.