Get a Life was certainly not the most successful or influential of FOX’s early “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach to programming (both of those, obviously, would be The Simpsons), but it might come in #2 on the latter regard, given the comic talent that started out on that show, and the growth of weird and surreal anti-comedy in the 30 years hence. I was fond of it as a child when it aired (1990-92); upon revisiting it in the last decade or so, I still find it to be a great deal of fun.
Chris Elliott’s initial concept for the show was “grown-up Dennis the Menace”; the finished product isn’t quite like that, but the idea of a man-child in an idyllic small town (in this case, the fictional Greenville, Minnesota) remains. The show’s focus is Elliott (fresh off a recurring role on David Letterman’s show) as Chris Peterson, a dimwitted 30-year-old who doesn’t seem to have any specific disability, he’s just not very bright and prone to delusions and not terribly capable of functioning on his own. At the start of the series, he lives with his parents Fred and Gladys (Elinor Donahue is Gladys; Fred is played by Elliott’s real-life dad, Bob Elliott, and yes, he’s the “Bob” in Bob and Ray, if you didn’t know) and works as a paperboy, often feuding with Sharon (Robin Riker), wife of his best friend Larry (Sam Robards).
In season 2, Chris moves out of his parents’ house, then Larry runs away; Chris’ new roommate is Gus Borden (Brian Doyle-Murray), an alcoholic ex-cop who was fired from the force for urinating on his superior. As odd as season 1 was, season 2 may be even more untethered from reality on this point, with Chris often trying new lines of work he’s deeply unsuited for; on top of that, some of season 2’s best episodes involve ludicrous sci-fi premises.
Of course, season 1 had its share of ridiculous episodes, and one particularly striking running gag started there, the ultimate negative continuity: Chris actually dies at the end of twelve episodes! (It only sticks at the series finale.) Listening to the DVD commentaries, David Mirkin often reveals other running gags and thoughtful details that may go overlooked if you aren’t focused on them. For example, whenever possible, the music montages of Chris feature a song about a woman. (“Pretty Woman” in “The Prettiest Week of My Life,” for example, or “She Works Hard for the Money” in “Chris Becomes a Male Escort.”) Another running gag throughout season 1 is that Fred and Gladys are almost never seen anywhere but at the breakfast table. (There are exceptions, like “Neptune 2000,” where a magazine-ad submarine Chris ordered as a child finally arrives. So he and Fred put it together in the bathtub and sit in it, wherein the bathroom floods and drowns them.)
Season 1’s classic episodes tend to stem from less fantastical (though no less absurd) premises: Arguably the most famous and the peak of the series is the second episode, “The Prettiest Week of My Life,” where Chris pays for male modeling school in a strip mall despite looking like an even worse version of Chris Elliott, feuds with a star pupil (whose stage name, inexplicably, is “Sapphire”– Chris chooses the even more ridiculous “Sparkles”), melts down at a photo shoot (in a scene lifted straight from Fame), and eventually storms his way onto a runway.
“Zoo Animals on Wheels” takes the piss out of self-important theater types and Cats; the town’s local theater show puts a bunch of actors in animal costumes and on roller skates. The director sees something in Chris and decides to cast him as the lead, infuriating both Sharon (as the female lead) and the company’s usual male lead. The goofiness of the training montages and the feud between Chris and Sharon are fun setup for the actual play itself, which includes the performers entering the crowd, a la Cats. (The audience usually doesn’t start fighting the performers at Cats, at least not to my knowledge.)
“The Big City” is one of the silliest episodes (written by future Seinfeld writer Marjorie Gross). Chris decides to make the journey to The Big City despite his parents warning him he’s not ready for its fast pace and slick hustlers. “The Big City” itself is absurd, with a literal gate opening the way to it, bad green-screen effects, and everyone looking and talking like they’re in a 1940s noir or screwball comedy. A nogoodnik slips Chris a mickey, and when he wakes up, his wallet is missing. A fast-talking tough dame reporter with a heart of gold takes an interest in him, and soon he’s christened “Walletboy,” given the key to the city, and feted as a hero. Until his parents call him and tell him he just left his wallet at home.
Season 2 leads into more surreal places, as Gus has far less concern for Chris than his parents did, and is willing to do things like get him into being a male escort and get him involved with organized crime. (Fred didn’t particularly care for his son, and often insulted him, but at least he and Gladys were concerned about Chris’ basic well-being.) The show increasingly used sci-fi premises toward the end; I don’t know if the writers ran out of more grounded ideas, but in any case, those episodes are some of the best.
“Chris’ Brain Starts Working” is a favorite: There’s a toxic waste spill in the neighborhood, but Gus is too stubborn to evacuate and Chris is too dimwitted to do anything but listen to Gus. When they seemingly die (and they hold the shot of Gus and Chris motionless for a long time– on commentary, David Mirkin said he wanted the entire second act to just be that), after a couple of minutes they awaken to discover they are not dead, but have gained super powers– well, more accurately, normal human powers they didn’t have before: Gus can make origami and Chris can spell. (“I got it! ‘Pants’! There is no silent ‘K’!”) Chris decides to use his newfound power to enter spelling bees around the world (and one on the moon) and crush the hopes and dreams of little kids everywhere, with Gus in tow betting on the action. Chris makes it to the final two of the World Championship… where, naturally, the journey ends when the two run out of toxic waste, and Chris is asked to spell “pants.” (In true Get a Life fashion, the crowd immediately realizes Chris was using toxic waste to cheat, the kind of extreme moral and ethical transgression that leads them to form a mob to chase him down, vandalize his house, etc.)
Other examples include “SPEWEY and Me,” where Chris and Gus discover an alien, and Chris insists on taking it in as a pet, a la E.T. or ALF, whereupon it turns out to be a disgusting vomit factory. (“SPEWEY” is Chris’ name for the alien: “It stands for Special Person Entering the World… Egg Yolks.”) Then there’s “1977 2000” (a lot of the episodes end in “2000” for no particular reason other than “90s hyping of the impending 21st century”), where Chris decides to use one of his many, many never-before-seen time travel devices to go to 1977 and get Gus his job back, without accounting for the unintended consequences.
It seems somewhat unlikely the writers ran out of ideas in season 2, at least in part because the show hired two green writers for season 2 by the names of Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk. And the showrunner, and co-creator alongside Elliott and Adam Resnick, certainly had no shortage of comic ideas: After Get a Life was cancelled, David Mirkin went directly to running The Simpsons for seasons 5 and 6. The anarchic spirit of those two seasons owes a lot to what Mirkin developed for and learned while making Get a Life (not to discount the groundwork laid in seasons 3 and 4, in particular by Conan O’Brien). Indeed, the biggest reason for the increased surrealism and insanity of Get a Life season 2 is that the show had been cancelled, then renewed last-second and moved to Saturday nights– a sure sign it was dead in the water, so, why not have fun with it?
While the series finale is a clip show– a good argument for “running out of ideas”– the absurd framing is very Get a Life (and might even be seen as a predecessor to something like “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular”): Chris falls out of an airplane after mistaking the emergency exit for the restroom, and his life flashes before his eyes… only for him to be disappointed when he realizes he can only “see” the last 18 months or so. When he dies, this time it’s for good, and really the only way this show could have ended.
The by-now legends of comedy that made this show understood the history of their medium and the debt they owed to their predecessors, too. Of course, Elliott comes from a comedy dynasty, so that depth of knowledge is no surprise, but it does show up in some of the show’s little decisions. In season 1’s “Chris Wins a Celebrity,” Chris wins a contest to spend a weekend with his favorite talk show host, played by Martin Mull– a canny casting choice for anyone who experienced Fernwood 2 Night. And in season 2’s “Chris Becomes a Male Escort,” his gig ends when his client’s husband returns home (and beats the crap out of him despite being an elderly man, naturally)… and when a new client shows up to his home, Chris runs and gets chased by her (and eventually a “bobby”) to “Yakety Sax,” Benny Hill style. (And if you didn’t get the Benny Hill reference, the closing credits play over a soccer brawl set to “Yakety Sax.”)
And in the other chronological direction, Get a Life‘s influence is certainly seen in the future works of its writers and creators and in the works they inspired, but that influence also reached some truly unexpected places: Prince Paul and Dan “the Automator” Nakamura named their recording project Handsome Boy Modeling School, the name of the modeling agency Chris signs up with in “The Prettiest Week of My Life.” First album So… How’s Your Girl? is littered with samples from the episode and hooks built off samples from the episode. (I never listened to second album White People, but So… How’s Your Girl? is great.)
For years, Get a Life was only available if you were able to preserve a bootleg VHS copy of it (and transfer it to digital if necessary). (Oddly enough, I did have a bootleg copy of the show, from my father-in-law of all places.) Even for a time, the only DVD release available contained a small selection of episodes, maybe eight of the 35 in total. Fortunately, in 2012 Shout! Factory gave the show a proper DVD box-set release, completely intact (including the preservation of R.E.M.’s “Stand” as the theme song) and including commentary. (Unfortunately, Chris Elliott doesn’t offer any commentary, which really sticks out given he was the star and co-creator. That said, Mirkin is quite insightful and funny.) It’s worth the investment if you’re interested in a weird show that would presage some of the surrealist humor and anti-comedy to come in the years hence, whether that was Mirkin-era Simpsons or Mr. Show or the Tim and Eric world. (And if you want to sample it first, it looks like all of the episodes are available on YouTube. Oh my God, they’re gorgeous!)