A great philosopher once observed that there's a fine line between stupid and clever. Thirty year-old idiot paperboy Chris Peterson never came close to walking that line, and if he did he would probably have tried to lick it. But in its woefully short two-season run “Get A Life” (1990-1992) pulled off a remarkable trick by managing to be a very smart show about a very stupid man.
Writer-producer David Mirkin (then best-known for his work on “Newhart,” later to be executive producer on “The Simpsons”) wanted to work with comedian Chris Elliott, and eventually found the right project when Elliott pitched the idea of playing a grown-up Dennis the Menace who still had his paper route and lived at home. Dennis morphed into Chris Peterson (fewer copyright issues there), a man-child who lived in a groovy bachelor pad (or stinking cesspool, depending on whose description you believed) above his parents' garage.
In the pilot episode (“Terror on the Hell Loop 2000”), Chris is an eccentric free-spirit whose responsibility-free lifestyle earns the envy of his straight-laced friend Larry Potter (Sam Robards) and the enmity of Larry's even straighter-laced wife Sharon (Robin Riker), who would prove to be a bitter and rather shapely adversary. But as the show progressed this “slightly bloated Peter Pan” turned increasingly psychotic (more of a Teletubby Travis Bickle), and his inability to process reality provided the show's go-to source of humor. As surreal as the suburban dystopia of “Get A Life” was, it still had no place for a full-on weirdo like Chris and he was the subject of endless verbal abuse as well as frequent punchings, stabbings, shootings and getting crushed by giant boulders, all of which he endured with the vacant optimism of a sugar-fueled imbecile. Harlan Ellison once wrote a story about a toilet clogged by dismembered body parts called “Only Death Can Stop It.” It somehow seems appropriate to mention that here; isn't it lovely? But death could not stop Chris Peterson, even though he had no real life to get back to.
Chris's parents certainly weren't waiting for him. Fred (Bob Elliott of “Bob and Ray” and “Being Chris Elliott's father” fame) and Gladys (Elinor Donahue) spent most of their time sitting at the kitchen table in their bathrobes, and resented being disturbed by Chris's constant attempts to seek their advice or approval. In “Pyschic 2000” (Disc 4) when Chris dies while eating cornflakes and returns from the great behind with clairvoyant powers, Gladys shares her skepticism and apathy: “It's hard enough for your father and I to believe you have any ordinary abilities, let alone special ones.” But she says it with a smile, and that's good enough for Chris.
The show hit its stride almost immediately with the second episode, the brilliant “The Prettiest Week of My Life” (written by Elliott and writing partner Adam Resnick) in which Chris pursues a career as a male model at the Handsome Boy Modeling Agency, and winds up being arrested after crashing a runway show (the first sign of the dark fate that awaited him in the series). Nonetheless, Mirkin fought constantly with the Fox. The upstart fourth network had embraced edgy programming such as “Married... with Children” and a new cartoon called “The Simpsons,” but they simply had no idea what to do with a show about a babbling lunatic (later, Fox launched an entire news network around the premise) and Mirkin dueled with executives who shut the show down repeatedly. However, he had just enough high-level support to keep things going while maintaining creative control, and the show actually scored high ratings in its first season.
The first season's highlight may be the justly celebrated “Zoo Animals on Wheels” (written by Resnick). The episode's centerpiece is a lengthy performance of the title summer stock play in which Chris plays a kindly, fat wildebeest next to Sharon's royal giraffe: “Living in a zoo can be very sad. People stare at you and make you mad.” Terror, hilarity, and shame ensue – as with most community theater productions. It was selected by TV Guide as one of the 50 Funniest Moments in TV History, and the other 49 weren't performed on roller skates, so nuts to them.
Despite strong ratings, Mirkin and company had to fight tooth and nail to get picked up for a second season, and in so doing had to cave in to studio notes demanding that Chris “develop” and be more “proactive” because one of the interns who worked for them had read something about that in a screenwriting book once. Mirkin spun executive stupidity into comedy gold. Chris “developed” from living in an apartment above his parents' garage to living IN a garage, one that was owned by a drunken, violent ex-cop named Gus (Brian Doyle-Murray) who got fired years ago for peeing on his captain. It took a few episodes for Gus to be fully integrated into Chris's delusional world, but he wound up being a perfect fit.
As the ratings dropped and the show was punted from one forsaken time slot to another, Mirkin and the creative team (which by then included Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk) took a show that was already off the rails and plunged it straight off a cliff. Chris befriended an alien named SPEWEY (Special Person Entering the World... Egg Yolks), became a spelling bee master after exposure to toxic waste, died from tonsilitis, and even concocted his own time travel juice (patent pending) in order to travel to 1977 and prevent Gus from peeing on his captain. That show, with the brilliant title “1977 2000” (scripted by Charlie Kaufman), may be my favorite of the series, and as the last full-fledged episode (a final “Clip Show” rounded things out), it proved that “Get A Life” was nowhere close to running out of manic energy.
“Get A Life” has long been one of my favorite shows, but like most people, I haven't revisited it in a while. My fifth-generation VHS copies (I got them on eBay and I didn't ask any questions) are buried somewhere in the closet and the show never received more than a piece-meal DVD release until now mostly because of copyright issues involving the music, all of which is preserved here, including the R.E.M. theme song “Stand” and the array of pop tunes used in the show's absurdist, hilarious montages.
After spending the last few days blazing through the entire series, I was pleased to find they remain every bit as funny as ever, and with better quality (though still not great) transfers, it's easier to appreciate the show's visual innovations, from its frequent reliance on grotesque close-ups (a major tweak on the safe distance maintained in traditional sitcoms) to truly remarkable accomplishments like the rear-projected 1940's New York of “The Big City” where Chris finds fame and, of course, failure as Walletboy.
The key to the show, of course, is Chris Elliott who combines off-kilter, idosyncratic line deliveries with an innate knack for physical comedy that takes full advantage of his “soft dough” physique; no character has ever been so confident in his total lack of appeal to anyone and everyone else. I think Elliott is a comic genius, and only a show as protean and daring as “Get A Life” was ever big enough to provide a proper stage for his unique talents. It's also easy to see where the talent comes from; Bob Elliott is pitch-perfectly caustic as Chris's deadpan dad.
I have no qualms in agreeing with Kato Kaelin (age check: did you have to Google the name?) that “Get A Life” is one of the greatest sitcoms of all-time. And I can't believe nobody has pounced on Chris's idea for cheese-flavored pants.
Season One ran 22 episodes, Season Two had 13. Season One finishes off at the Start of Disc Four with “Psychic 2000.” Season Two kicks off with “Chris Moves Out.” Each episode runs about 23 minutes.
Terror on the Hell Loop 2000
The Prettiest Week of My Life
A Family Affair
Pile of Death
Zoo Animals on Wheels
The Counterfeit Watch Story
Chris vs. Donald
Chris Wins a Celebrity
The Construction Worker Show
The Big City
The One Where Chris and Larry Switch Lives
Chris Moves Out
Larry on the Loose
Meat Locker 2000
Health Inspector 2000
Chris Gets His Tonsils Out
Prisoner of Love
Chris Becomes A Male Escort
Chris's Brain Starts Working
SPEWEY And Me
Fans are thrilled to finally have the full series available on DVD, so I'm a bit reluctant to deliver the bad news. These look like video dubs and suffer from a lack of image detail as well as distortion around the edges of the full-screen frame. They are a major step up for those of us who have relied on oft-recycled video copies, but they're a far cry from the quality of many DVD releases today. I don't want to overstate the case. These transfers are plenty watchable and the medicore quality will not in any way interfere with your enjoyment of them, but if you were expecting a deluxe treatment, you'll be disappointed.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is good enough, with clear dialogue throughout and enough quality to preserve the music. Unfortunately, no subtitles have been offered, however.
This six-disc set is the David Mirkin show through and through. Mirking provides either full of partial audio commentary on all 35 episodes, and even the episodes marked as “Selected Scene Commentary” are close to full-length, with only a few exceptions. The audio commentary on the pilot episode “Terror on the Hell Loop 2000” is one the best DVD extras of the year. It actually runs 52 minutes (the episode is 23 minutes) and Mirkin freezes the video to go into more detail as he relates his struggles from the pitch stage to the earliest episodes, talking about the need to make the show a little more “normal” at first to appease uneasy studio executives who would quickly become uneasy when he ventured into the more daring territory he envisioned from the start.
Occasional, Mirkin has guest commentators. On the episode “Roots” (Disc 2 – Chris goes Amish), Dr. Wendy Walsh provides professional analysis of Chris' mental health issues. Writer-producers Steve Pepoon and Jace Richdale also appear on several commentaries. And, for some reason, Kevin Nealon gets his shot as co-host on “The One Where Chris and Larry Switch Lives” (Disc 4).
In addition, many of the episodes can be listened to without the laugh track. The option isn't available on all episodes (some were shot with a live studio audience) and sometimes you hear the crew laughing instead, which adds a layer of weirdness to... the weirdness.
There are other small features scattered throughout the set. You can see Production Stills and unproduced Script Pages for “Terror on the Hell Loop 2000” as well as stills or storyboards for a few other episodes. “Girlfriend 2000” (Disc 5) has an extended scene that runs about 6 minutes and is definitely worth watching.
Disc Six contains all the major non-commentary extras:
“Looking for Noise” (29 min.) includes interviews with Mirkin, Judd Apatow (a big fan of the show), James L. Brooks, Peter Chernin (then Fox TV president and a booster of the show), and Kelly Kulchak (a Fox exec and another supporter). They related their enthusiasm for the show, its legacy, and talk about some of the struggles in getting it produced.
“Death of Life” (26 min.) includes the same mix of interviewees, with some overlap with the previous feature. The focus here is on the show's eventual demise after Season Two.
“Paleyfest 2000” (31 min.) is a panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media. Mirkin is on stage with several writers and cast members, including Robin Riker, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Elinore Donahue – no Elliotts, however.
“Horrible Secrets of the Writing Room” (54 min.) is a lengthy piece with Mirkin and writer-producers Steve Pepoon and Jace Richdale. I haven't had a chance to watch this one yet.
Mirkin is an absolutely phenomenal commentator, and his voice and perspective make for a deep set of extras. However, Chris Elliott is 99.999% missing (I will let you discover the other point two-thirds for yourself.) I don't know why he didn't participate in the production of the set and his absence is surely going to come as a major disappointment to fans. Still, what we get is pretty substantial.
The set also comes with a 24-page insert booklet including an essay by TV critic Tom Shales and a full episode guide with credits and capsule descriptions.
“Get A Life” was too delicate, too smart, and too sexy for its time. Today, it looks like the drunken, abusive papa to dozens of WTF shows, including the majority of the Adult Swim lineup. And surely no show has ever so thoroughly explored the humor found in the word “pants.”
Fans have been waiting for a long, long time to get their hands on this series on DVD and even if the transfers aren't great and Chris Elliott seems to be missing from the extras, as a professional DVD reviewer loved and admired by both of my readers, I can state with authority that “Get A Life: The Complete Series” is the DVD event of the year. Thank you, Shout! Factory, for making the world a better and creepier place.