Three Elliotts

The low point in the low point laden history of Saturday Night Live just have been the 1995-1996 season.  It was a season between two “epocah” casts — or to put another way, two Bill Clinton impersonators.  The lowest moment might have been this single sketch — Jeff Daniels was interviewed on a movie review show, and a single clip from “Dumb and Dumber” — where Daniels is on the toilet — is shown over and over and over again, and over and over and over again, and over and over and over again.

Chris Elliott was a cast member that season.  I read parts of the oral history Live from New York, so know Chris Elliott’s thoughts on his stint at Saturday Night Live.  It was the low point of his career, and he was out of sorts there.  He and a couple of other mismatched cast members formed a bit of a bond to endure the season — Jeanine Garaolo managed to get out of the last few episodes, something which I am sure Chris Elliott would have done if he were able to do.  Years later, the obviousness of just how mismatched Chris Elliott was becomes ever more acute.  Why did Lorne Michaels, or anyone else on the show, think he fit this show?

At the time I watched a bit wearily, and had the vcr ready to record.  All in all, there were three or four sketches that struck as belonging to Chris Elliott.  Tellingly, in Central Central’s shortened re-runs, they were cut out.  I’m not entirely sure if one of the bits survived the rerun redactions — George Foreman reading to Chris Elliott “Good Night Moon” — was that one ran?  (I guess now we’ll never know.  Comedy Central has moved on from stacking its schedule with SNL reruns.)

I’ll mention two other other sketches — I suppose to be inserted into the long-delayed “Best of Chris Elliott” edition of a SNL collection.  There’s this one where Elliott is taking a survey at the new Denver Airport to guage opinions on a possible new opinion — a Penis Extender.  This is not an especially remarkable sketch, except that it’s basically a set up for Elliott to break the fourth wall, declare that he’s quitting the show to work on such devices for “The Future” — and walks out… Lorne Michaels and — um… John Connaly (?) in tow.  To the groans of the audience who knows where this is going, with Chris Elliott being assassinated.

The other sketch, I am a fan of, and quite possibly the only fan on the face of the Earth.  It is a bit which was the perfect display and demonstration of just why Chris Elliott probably should not have been on Saturday Night Live.  Chris Elliott is a novelty gag store owner, and so has one customer after another coming in to ask for a classic novelty gag or other — Chris Farley comes in asking for some fake vomit, for instance.  Chris Elliott has to forlornly explain that his store does not carry such things — that this is a “Funny Strange” store, and not a “Funny Ha Ha” store, but they do have — say, a file full of Insect Vomit.  When asked then where they go to get fake vomit or a whoopie cushion or chattering teeth, Chris Elliott has to wearily give directions to a different store across town.  In the end, Chris Elliott closes up the store, groaning about how lousy business is, and in walks his identical twin brother to gloat about how terrific business is going at his “Funny Ha Ha” business.  Angry, Chris Elliott strangles his more successful and mainstream identical twin brother to death, next there’s a dramatic close up of chattering teeth, and a pointless add on from Kevin Nealon and his identical twin.  I think the studio audience was more puzzled by this than anything else — though I guess it could fit as a highlight on an SNL collection of sketches of the sort inserted as the second to last bit, ready to be cut if need — right next to your “Big Ear Family”s or whatnot.

It should be noted that the infamous Dumb and Dumber toilet clip sketch was on the Comedy Central reruns.  But I suppose there’s not too much confusion on the bit.

Today, Abby Elliott is a Saturday Night Live cast member, and the New York Times Magazine ran a story about the Elliott Comedy family tree.  Some things pop out in this NY Times article.  It appears that a secret to Abby Elliott’s success lies somewhere with the fact that she has made a relative break from the comedy traditions of Bob and Chris Elliott.  See:

What Chris did on Letterman’s show “wasn’t an attempt at a mainstream type of comedy,” Adam Resnick, who wrote with Chris in those years, told me. “Chris on Letterman was abrasive. That was part of the joke. If you weren’t smart enough to get it, you’d hate him.”

Of course, the price a performer pays for causing part of the audience to hate him is reduced popularity. “I think he has a really powerful legacy to live up to,” says Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of “Saturday Night Live,” where Chris worked as a writer and performer during the 1994-95 season (he and Abby are the show’s first parent-child cast members). “When you grow up around show business and you’re determined to have some notion of integrity. . . .” He paused, then finished the thought: “There are so many easy ways to hack out. I think he was so rigorous that he would quite often not want to do things that might have made the audience like him more, because he would have thought it was false.”

Chris acknowledged the audience’s ambivalent feelings toward him every time he walked out on Letterman’s stage. He’d take huge sweeping bows and blow kisses to the audience as if he were a Judy Garland impersonator at a gay-pride concert instead of a guy whom half the audience found simply puzzling — making a joke of the fact that some people didn’t think he was funny.

And compare that to the Abby Elliott’s approach to comedy…

After 35 years, the humor of “Saturday Night Live” has long since become the norm, and Abby has not had the opportunity, or inclination, to display the kind of audience-confounding humor that her father and grandfather often favored. “I want to make people laugh,” she says, “and making a lot of people laugh on TV is amazing. If I want to do something superweird and out there, I’ll do it for an audience of 30 people drinking beers at U.C.B.”

And really the “Funny Strange” sketch resembles nothing but a metaphor for his own frustrations on SNL.  Subconscious or not , I do not know.


One odd last note about this quasi-accusation — somewhat worth mentioning from the NY Times article by way of suggestion:

By this time, Chris was ready to enter show business himself. “I can’t remember wanting to do anything else,” he told me (he did toy briefly with the idea of becoming a professional hockey player, he said, “but I never learned how to skate”). Seeing no need for college, he got a job as a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, where David Letterman, before “Late Night” but already a successful comedian, showed up one day with his mother to show her the observation deck. Because he was with a parent, Chris sold Letterman a reduced-price child’s ticket. “He giggled,” Chris recalls, “and walked to the back of the elevator. That’s the cool part of the story. The uncool part is I blurted out who my dad was. He said, ‘I’ve always tried to get your dad on when I host the “Tonight Show” for Johnny Carson.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, he doesn’t do the show unless Johnny’s hosting.’ ” Which, according to Chris, “kind of weirded Dave out.”

Chris Elliott was hired as a gopher at the start of Late Night with Letterman’s run — which morphed into his reoccuring appearances.  And it is worth mentioning that Bob Elliott was a guest on Letterman within the first two weeks.  Add two and two together, and perhaps Chris Elliott was in the position of doing Letterman a favor with that one?

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