The Writers and Cast Take Us Behind the Scenes of ‘Get a Life’
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.)
In the 1990s there were only a handful of weirder, non-mainstream shows. Nickelodeon had Ren and Stimpy, Comedy Central had Mystery Science Theater 3000, MTV had shows like Liquid Television and Aeon Flux, but it was nothing like the “cult” programming we have today. In 1999, Sifl and Olly was cancelled without it’s third season airing. If it had been on Adult Swim ten years later, maybe they would’ve gotten a movie deal, like the Aqua Teens. But in 1992, Fox aired one of the weirdest, cultiest shows to ever be broadcast on the Big Four Networks. I’m talking, of course, about Chris Elliott’s Get a Life.
If you’re unfamiliar with Get a Life, correct that mistake. It finally came out on DVD last year after a really long wait. The basic premise is simple: Chris Elliott, famous at that time for his appearances on David Letterman’s Late Night as a wide variety of wacky characters, plays an adult man working as a paperboy who never moved out of his parent’s house. The show is silly, dark, and often ends with its main character dying. Co-created by David Mirkin, who was the showrunner of the classic Newhart, and would later go on to run The Simpsons during the classic seasons 5 and 6, it somehow managed to last two seasons but lived on in the hearts of comedy fans with crappy VHS recordings to cherish. in 2000, at the Paley Center’s annual Paleyfest, many of the minds behind Get a Life reunited to reminisce and listen to David Mirkin talk. (I kid, I kid.)
In addition to Mirkin that evening, the stage hosted Elinor Donahue, who played Chris’ mother, Brian Doyle-Murray, who played Chris’ landlord in season 2 and memorably in season 1 appeared as the owner of the Handsome Boy Modeling School, Robin Riker, who played Chris’ best friend’s evil wife, and writers Jace Richdale, Steve Pepoon, Charlie Kaufman (yes, that Charlie Kaufman) and Bob Odenkirk (there’s only one). Chris was unable to attend the evening after falling ill, or as Mirkin put it, “Chris won’t be here, and as you’ll see, it’ll be a huge loss and a horrible night.”
Throughout the evening, a number of interesting facts are gleaned about the creation of Get a Life, beginning with the fact that David Mirkin originally met Chris as he was hoping to cast him in a pilot he was making, the American version of The Young Ones. This show, which would have had a similar tone to what Get a Life ended up being, was not to be. Simultaneously, Chris pitched a show to Fox in which he would play an adult version of Dennis the Menace. According to Mirkin, Fox hated the idea, and even his own agent who was sitting on the meeting turned on him and told him in the room that the show didn’t sound very good. However, when David and Chris went in again to pitch together, David spun it as a positive thing: “He’s living the good life while everybody is going to work!” When they left out the idea of the main character dying constantly and being a complete psychopath, the network was on board.
The show, at the time, was basically a single camera show, and according to Mirkin, was filmed in two days with some very late nights. The network was initially hesitant about filming a show without an audience, so to prove that it could be done while keeping the energy up, half of the pilot was shot with an audience and half without. When the network executives couldn’t discern this fact, Get a Life was allowed to be shot without a studio audience. However, the production of the series was never so cut and dry. One episode, entitled “Spewy and Me,” which according to Bob Odenkirk was inspired by a random viewing by the writing staff of the eighties E.T. rip-off, Mac and Me, was sent to executives who said it was “too weird, too abhorrent…[and] gross.” The script was then sent up to the higher-ups at the network who said it was the funniest episode they’d seen.
At the end of the first season, Get a Life was the highest rated show on Fox. When the network started dragging their heels about whether or not they should pick it up for a second season, Mirkin, Elliott, and the production company got creative and decided to put a full-page ad in Variety, congratulating the show for being the number one show on Fox, publicly shaming them into a renewal. While they were successful, season two aired on Sundays at 9.
I jokingly mentioned earlier that David Mirkin tends to dominate the conversation. Now, to be perfectly clear here, I’m not criticizing. He was the sole co-creator to attend the panel, he’s a funny man, and has had a very accomplished career in comedy. Hell, I’ve listened to every Simpsons commentary he’s appeared on (there are a lot). That being said, many of the other panelists really don’t get much time to speak. Jace Richdale, writer for Get a Life, The Simpsons, and Dexter doesn’t get a chance to talk for an hour and 45 minutes. Charlie Kaufman, who at that point in time was nominated for an Oscar for Adaptation and waiting to see if he had one, answers a question asked by an audience member directly to him ten minutes after that. However, the writers do get a chance to tell us about a few episodes that never made it.
The first idea involved Chris’ character stealing cable. However, at that point Fox was trying to make a deal with cable companies to get their network to the lower position on the dial it is at today. As a result they vetoed the cable stealing episode to not upset providers (However, that same year The Simpsons did an episode in which Homer stole cable, but their show doesn’t get network notes). Another episode had Chris attend a poor quality freak show, fall in love with Monkey Girl (she’s not at all monkey-like; she just knows a lot about them). To join the freak show he becomes Out of Shape-O. Ultimately, Chris decides it wouldn’t work out because their kids would be flabby and know a lot about monkeys.
Get a Life was not really a show that featured many guest stars beyond Doyle-Murray, Jackie Earle Haley, and Martin Mull. The latter actor, however, was a scramble to find due to the original performer, David Letterman, dropping out at the last minute. Luckily both performers are capable of being funny while being sarcastic. According to Mirkin, John Malkovich also wanted to do the show, but they never found a spot for him.
Chris Elliott’s strange sense of humor is perfectly demonstrated in Get a Life. Based on the conversations between the cast members, it’s clear that this staff was a talented and dedicated one that put in very long hours both writing and filming, in order to make the show as good and as enduring as it could possibly be. Based on how fondly remembered the program still is, to this day, it would appear that they did a pretty good job.