Looking Back at Chris Elliott’s Family Sitcom/Gritty Crime Drama ‘Action Family’
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 150,000 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.)
What happens when you take a 1970s cop drama and combine it with the Brady Bunch? First you probably get a bunch of people telling you that it’s a stupid idea. Then you do it and then somebody tells you that Chris Elliott already did this in 1986. Today we continue our 1st Annual Chris Elliott Two Week Streak by taking a look at Action Family, one of the strangest TV specials to ever make it to the air.
Predating Get a Life by several years, Action Family is a perfect distillation of Chris Elliott’s very unique sense of humor, and serves as a proto-Eagleheart a mere 24 years before the series premiered. The premise is simple, but remarkably jarring: Chris Elliott plays Chris, a private investigator who works the streets, trying his best to root out the bitter weed of crime. It’s shot on film, it’s gritty, it’s action packed, and Chris wears a ridiculous wig. However, that all changes when Chris comes home to his loving family. Suddenly the program is being shot on video, there’s a laugh track to go with hackneyed jokes, and Chris wears a ridiculous sweater. Rather than just loosely piece these two incredibly disparate ideas together, Action Family instead weaves them together, transitioning as well as one can from these tonal shifts. Chris’ jazz musician friend warns him that his fellow jazz friends are being murdered just before he himself is murdered outside Chris’ office. On top of his body, which now lies inside his smashed upright bass, he finds a clue: a feathered earring. Chris goes home to his family and is greeted by his youngest daughter and his son, played by Baby Seth Green. While at the dinner table, his wife warns him that their oldest, Melissa is turning into a young woman and has a date that evening before Melissa walks downstairs completely nude. She tells her father about her new boyfriend, Zack, whom she met at a prison dance. Chris plays the classic sitcom father and exclaims “On parole?! Excited?! Prison dance?! What in the heck tarnation is going on here?! Have we all gone bonkers?”
Back at work and in a wig the next day, Chris investigates around town, now suspicious that his daughter’s new boyfriend is the culprit in this case. On the street he has a few encounters with some exciting cameos (more on that later) before remembering that he has to meet with his son’s teacher. Back in sitcom mode, Chris meets Mrs. Diaz. Their conversation about his son’s progress is cut short, however, when one of his jokes strikes the audience as so funny that the actors decide to take the opportunity to give a bow. Returning to the scene, Mrs. Diaz informs the parents that they’ve enrolled their son in a Spanish-language school, and they should find alternate schooling for the lad. They chalk it up to Chris’ ditzy old wife and everyone has a good laugh.
Until they get outside. At the school’s exterior we switch to Action Chris as his wife tells him about the stress she faces every day, not knowing whether or not he’ll come home at the end of it. He gives her a passionate kiss before he hears from his secretary that his key suspect, Zack is with his daughter back at the house. Family Chris enters and the parents give Melissa a stern talking to about the choices she’s making and their effect on the family. She explains that she was simply trying to get attention from her parents, lamenting that they didn’t even notice that she had shaved her head! (The actress is now wearing a bald cap with a giant snake tattoo emblazoned across her skull.) However, when Chris accuses Zack of murdering those jazz musicians we learn that it was actually just Melissa the whole time! To get her out of trouble, the family decides that Zack has to take the fall. Chris shoots the boyfriend, the family hugs, and then they all dress in matching suits and lip sync the entire song “Somebody Wants to Love You” by The Partridge Family.
Like Get a Life, Action Family has an affinity for performing corny material seriously and having that be the joke itself. Family Chris is a flustered, out of his depth father and he plays it just as if he were Mike Brady. But the fact that it’s Chris Elliott doing this stuff is the joke. But there’s still humor layered on top of the genre parodies. The sitcom material starts with a standard laugh track, but grows throughout as we begin to hear specific voices in the audience repeating the joke in disbelief, or specifically talking to a buddy about how hilarious the last joke was. There’s also the occasional absurd joke that just feels inexplicable, for example, Chris’ jazz musician buddy is named No Brain. Is it just because he’s a side character, there only to further Chris’ plot? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a weird joke.
Action Family also includes some appearances from two important figures in his life. The first comes in the form of a hot dog vendor played by his father, Bob Elliott, that Action Chris visits while looking for clues about the criminal. Chris orders a dog with light ketchup and for whatever reason Bob is very nervous, dropping the hot dog, and stammering a lot before handing it to him. Chris admires his handiwork before pointing out the mustard, crumpling the hot dog in his hands, and then springing forth to pummel his father. They trade blows, and as the fight becomes more elaborate, Bob is replaced with a stunt double, and the one and only piece of true action in Action Family continues on for a full minute. As he drives to the school following this interaction, he stops at a light where David Letterman pulls up alongside him. “Hey, jerk! What are you doing?” Chris, as he does, breaks the fourth wall and explains that he’s doing a Cinemax special. “It’s just you?” Dave asks, skeptically. He asks a few more questions about the show before concluding, “They’ll put anything on cable,” and speeding off. Like his future cameo in Chris’ film Cabin Boy, his appearance is short and sweet, but incredibly memorable.
Action Family serves as a lovely time capsule of Chris Elliott’s post-Letterman/pre-Get a Life period, and I have some good new for you. Though he admits he hasn’t watched it in a long time, in 2012 Chris says “I think it came out pretty well… I don’t know if it holds up.” And I can safely say it did in fact come out pretty well.
And some exciting news for the readers of this column, after watching Action Family I began to do some further research online, only to learn that the entire program is on YouTube, which I present to you to watch whenever you want until it gets taken down. Enjoy it while it lasts, friends.