Stand in the place where you live

VHS Vault will screen “Get a Life Vol. II” in the lobby bar on March 5 at 8 p.m.

The 1990 season was a big year for FOX. In its fourth year of operation, the scrappy new network had already scored several surprising hits, including 21 Jump Street, Married… With Children and In Living Color, and, in the previous year, launched a pop-culture juggernaut with The Simpsons. But even with all of that FOX still lagged far behind the big three networks.

Taking aim at television’s biggest show, The Cosby Show, FOX moved The Simpsons from its original Sunday night timeslot to lead off its Thursday night line-up, putting Springfield’s finest in direct competition with the Huxtable clan. With The Simpsons off battling Cosby in a weekly quest for ratings, FOX found itself with a gap in its generally strong Sunday night programming. With the undeniable success of Cosby’s brand of clean, warm comedy, executives at FOX were itching to ditch the kooky label that their network had found itself with after concentrating so heavily on weird, edgy, youth-oriented programming throughout its nascent years. For its competitors to take notice, FOX needed a Bill Cosby of its own, and they hoped to find it in Chris Elliott and Get a Life.

Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

In 1990, Elliott had already made a name for himself as a writer and performer on Late Night with David Letterman, where his oddball characters like The Guy Under the Seats and Marlon Brando were a hit with both Dave and the audience. With his writing partner, Adam Resnick, Elliott developed a pilot about a Dennis the Menace character who grew up to never leave the nest, continuing his work as a paper-boy and living in his parents’ garage well into 30’s.

The fact that FOX thought they could spin Elliott’s mad-eyed vision into something cuddly for the family-friendly audiences of the 1990’s is something that mystifies Elliott even today. In interviews, Elliott claims that the network only picked up the pilot for Get a Life because he and Resnick played a rather sly game of sleight of hand with the network. “I sort of said it was like Big: a guy with a kid’s heart, a kid’s mind,” Elliott told The A.V. Club in 2005, “What they really got was a retarded adult, who, you know, lives with his retarded parents.”

In reality, Get a Life was a far-cry from Cosby. Even snugged between programming like In Living Color and Married… With Children, shows that existed solely to push the boundaries of good taste, Get a Life looked positively other-worldly. Elliott’s adult paper-boy Chris Peterson edges closer to outright sociopath than naïve youth in an adult’s body, one whose perpetually pajama-clad parents (Elinor Donahue and Bob Elliott, Elliott’s real-life father and a successful comedian in his own right) seem to exist solely to drink coffee and half-heartedly try to keep their idiot son from accidentally killing himself–which he does, frequently, over the course of the show.

Without straying too far from sitcom conventions, Get a Life stretches familiar television tropes to surreal extremes.  A newspaper-boy father/son games turns into American Gladiators with Peterson’s elderly father beating the hell out of the other fathers in the joust; Chris and his father become stuck in a fully-functioning submarine that the pair of them built in the bathtub; a trip to The Big City ends with Chris becoming a hero for having his wallet stolen–all traditional sitcom stories, but distorted as if reflected in a fun house mirror.

While producer David Mirkin opted to shoot the show on a sound stage rather than in front of a live audience–rare for a sitcom in 1990–he went along with FOX’s insistence that the show have a laugh track, thinking that by adhering to certain traditions it would better illustrate how ridiculous and phony the format had become.

“The show is purposefully so sarcastic and sort of angrily dripping bile at most sitcoms,” says Mirkin in an interview from one of Get a Life‘s out-of-print DVDs. “It was our reaction at being inundated with sitcoms that were full of a lot of sickly sweet bullshit that wasn’t real–everything being wrapped up in 23 minutes–it was a crock of horse shit and we were fed up with it.”

Even today, having a prime-time sitcom led by a character whose idea of courtship involves threats of kidnapping and high-speed car chases nears unthinkable. Get a Life aired while The Simpsons was in its second season, and many of Chris’s adventures make those slower paced contemporary episodes of The Simpsons look tame by comparison.

In the episode “Married,” Chris meets, marries and divorces a super-model over the course of about 5 hours, ending in an Annie Hall pastiche that culminates with a giant boulder falling from the sky and crushing Chris to death. No explanation, no reason, just roll credits and the episode is over. Nonsense like that makes Bart playing Todd Flanders in a mini-golf tournament look positively muted.

Despite a first season that ranges from blissfully bizarre to affably strange, Get a Life struggled in the ratings. With only the numbers to go by, Elliott, Resnick and Mirkin had no idea that their strange little show was developing a robust cult following, and the three of them—along with a surprisingly strong writers room that boasted Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show)—soldiered on. They even picked up half of a second season from Fox after they agreed to curb Chris’s psychotic refusal to grow up, starting the second season with Chris moving out of his parents’ house and working towards becoming a more responsible adult. Had the show continued (FOX cancelled Get a Life mid-way through the 1991 season), Mirkin claims that he would have had Chris continue to deteriorate throughout the seasons, going from living with his parents to living in a man’s garage to becoming a kind of homeless drifter moving from town to town destroying lives along the way.

After Get a Life‘s cancellation, Elliott and Resnick went on to make the feature Cabin Boy–a film that’s widely derided to this day, but isn’t without merit. Cabin Boy was originally slated to be a Tim Burton project (Burton expressed an interest in working with Elliott and Resnick after seeing “Neptune 2000,” the bathtub submarine episode), but he backed out after being offered Ed Wood.

Get a Life’s more lasting impact lived on through Mirkin, who went on to produce The Simpsons during its fifth and sixth seasons. Those years proved to be pivotal for the show,where James L. Brooks and Matt Groening’s even pacing and heart-warming, family oriented center took a turn towards the insane. Mirkin wrote “Deep Space Homer,” the episode that saw Homer joins NASA, which was a controversial change in the show’s tone that many on The Simpsons writing staff took issue with, but ultimately proved wildly successful with fans (I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords).

While Get a Life retains a healthy cult following, it’s only by the skin of its teeth. The full series never received a VHS or DVD release, and only about 8 episodes ever hit home video, all of which is now out of print. It continues to exist via bootleg on YouTube and other dark corners of the internet, but getting legit copies can be costly (used DVDs run around $30, while mint copies are up to $150–for only four episodes).

A future release seems unlikely, for reasons that the show’s creators either aren’t privy to, or simply won’t divulge. But if Mirkin is to be believed about how many executives feel about Get a Life, its lack of availability likely has more to do with fear than the licensing fees for “Stand.” “It really offended a lot of development people on a very deep levels,” he said, “Where they remembered it years and years later… It’s still not something that everybody embraces.”

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