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Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

A Look Back At Charlie Kaufman's Sitcom Work

Charlie Kaufman isn’t exactly an impersonal writer. His attempts to adapt The Orchid Thief turned into Adaptation., a movie about a painfully self-aware screenwriter named “Charlie Kaufman” falling apart while attempting to adapt The Orchid Thief. It’s a struggle to imagine Kaufman, either fictionalized or IRL, thriving in the anonymous and often abrasive environment of a sitcom writer’s room. So it’s surprising that, before breaking into screenwriting, Kaufman worked in television for almost a decade, staffing on sketch shows like The Dana Carvey Show and The Edge and sitcoms like Get A Life and Ned & Stacey.

There’s evidence to support the idea that Kaufman might not have thrived in collaborative settings. In this oral history of The Dana Carvey Show, the writers describe him in the same way surprised neighbors describe convicted serial killers, mentioning that he was “really quiet,” “extremely shy and awkward,” and “kept to himself.” Considering how poorly suited Kaufman seems for the job of sitcom writing, I wanted to take a look at his episodes of Get A Life and Ned & Stacey and see if there was any evidence of the man who would go on to write, among other things, the definitive film about a freelance puppeteer possessing a major film actor.

Could there be a project less suited for Kaufman then 1995’s Ned & Stacey? The ultra-generic sitcom centers on a couple named (wait for it) Ned and Stacey who have a sham marriage of convenience. The only thing they have in common? They irritate each other. And those last two sentences aren’t my purposefully hacky pitch of the show’s premise, that’s an actual quote from the voice-over that opens every single episode. (Every. Single. Episode.) It’s the ultimate mid-90s show, low on creative ambition but elevated by charismatic performances from leads Debra Messing and Thomas Haden Church. Kaufman was a producer on the show, but it’s not too hard to imagine that he was simply biding his time as the script for Being John Malkovich slowly gathered momentum. (Spike Jonze finally agreed to direct it in 1996.) Kaufman’s voice is nearly absent from Ned & Stacey, with one notable exception: The character of Ned’s best friend, Eric “Rico” Moyer.

In Kaufman’s hands Eric (played by Greg Germann) changes from Ned’s slightly nerdy older friend into a quirky, neurotic over-thinker who’s scared of life itself. (Sound familiar?) Both Kaufman’s episodes, Where My Third Nepal Is Sheriff and Computer Dating, feature Eric in the over-the-top B-plots that push Ned & Stacey into darker, more absurd territory. In the former, Eric backs out of a trip to Nepal, and the guilt sends him into a downward spiral of renting pornography and almost drowning on the floor of a muffin shop. In the latter, he slowly falls in love with the female voice of an automated accounting system. (Highlight: The creepy way in which he repeatedly uses the hand scanner just so he can hear it say, “Hello Eric, how may I serve you?") Both plots seem out of place in Ned and Stacey’s world of Friends-level stakes, but would actually make pretty decent pitches for Charlie Kaufman films.

Opposite Ned & Stacey on both the comedic spectrum and Kaufman’s career timeline is Chris Elliot’s Get A Life. A surreal anti-sitcom with plots involving space aliens, robots, and berry-induced hallucinations, Get A Life must have been a perfect first job for a young Kaufman. What other network sitcom would have let him write an episode about the dangers of time travel? Unlike Ned & Stacey, Kaufman’s Get A Life episodes, 1977 2000 and Prisoner of Love, contain plenty of moments that mesh perfectly with the sensibilities of his later work. Jokes like paperboy Chris trying to scare off an unwanted lover with a box labeled “A tiger is in here!” or confidently assuming that somebody shadowboxing is fighting their alter-ego feature that perfect Kaufman mix of absurdist humor and dry cleverness.

The only real distance between the show and Kaufman’s work is that Get A Life, although extremely funny, is completely without heart. The most emotionally resonant moment in any episode is hearing REM’s Stand over the opening titles. Kaufman doesn’t exactly give the characters of Get A Life emotional through lines, but his episodes do supplant the acerbic cynicism of the series with a sense of fun. In 1977 2000, for instance, Kaufman genuinely seems to enjoy writing a time travel story. His script is well thought out and lovingly silly, as seen when Chris mixes a “time travel drink” with watches, a mini-Stonehenge, the cover of Time magazine, and, most importantly, “a precious lock of Michael J. Fox's hair.” (A pigtail with a blue ribbon on it.)

Kaufman is a writer with a very specific, somewhat skewed view of the world and a very deep grasp on a certain type of character. It’s clear that, like most writers with strong viewpoints, he only really thrives when he’s writing about something that truly engages him. In the moments of these episodes where pure Kaufman shines through, his work becomes livelier and more cohesive. While Kaufman could have made a nice career writing either pleasant sitcom stories or nihilistic anti-humor, it’s clear he knew he would only be creatively satisfied telling his own stories about rehabilitated ape men, memory wiping machines, and well, I’m not exactly sure, but it made me very sad and miss my parents on his own personal, slightly off-kilter terms.

Ben Joseph writes comedy and cartoons for television and the Internet.

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  • youhaveunsuspecteddepth

    Having spent the last 15 years in writer's room, I have to say you have no idea what Charlie Kaufman's contributions were to the shows he worked on.  You don't know how much of his scripts were re-written, what he pitched in the room, (sounds like "not that much" from the descriptions of him).

    • ohthanksoldchap

      It's true, I can't definitively say what lines Kaufman did or did not write. However, at the very least, he did sit down and type out a first draft of these episodes, so it's fun to try and spot what might be his contributions. (I've also spent time in writer's rooms, though not on a major network sitcom.) -Ben

  • Carlos Rubi

    Pretty good piece.