P.S. Elliott

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Elliott Triptych.jpg

This past summer, I wrote a profile of comic Chris Elliott that Rolling Stone posted on its website in September in conjunction with the magazine’s comedy issue. I got a quite a bit of feedback on the piece—Elliott’s fans are an avid, loyal lot—some of it expressing frustration that I had not written about two comedy specials Chris had done for Cinemax in the late 1980s: Action Family and F.D.R.: A One-Man Show. The thing is, I had intended to include them in the story, until I realized I’d already written 5,000 words—twice as much as my editor had wanted—and decided not to tempt fate any further. But now that I have my own blog, in which I can gas on about anything —Hey Tina Brown, I’m not wearing any pants!—I figure this is a good place to weigh in on those specials since they rank as some of Elliott’s best work.

If you’re not familiar with Action Family or F.D.R.: A One-Man Show and you don’t know a reputable dealer of Elliott bootlegs, then read past the jump where I’ve aggregated the YouTube links. The bad news is you have the watch them in 10-minute increments. The good news is, they’re really funny.

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In my Rolling Stone story, I observed that Elliott was particularly brilliant at exploding the cliches and conventions that television audiences have been conditioned to accept as funny or dramatic, and the Cinemax specials do exactly that. In Action Family, Elliott and his co-writers, Matt Wickline (his first writing partner at Late Night with David Letterman) and Sandy Frank, grafted well-worn 70s sitcoms gags—such as the inane mealtime chatter from The Brady Bunch and the flushing-toilet sound from All in the Family—to the hackneyed, macho elements of 70s crime dramas (think Mannix and The Streets of San Francisco) then sutured in a kitchen’s sink worth of nods to British sitcoms, the end credits of Star Trek and that early hallmark of pay cable: arbitrary nudity. The resulting half hour is almost as unsettling as it is funny because Elliott and his collaborators make you realize that so much of television is just Pavlovian conditioning. Fortunately, Action Family—and most of Elliott’s comedy, for that matter—works as de-programming programming. (In Action Family even the laugh track is used as a weapon against complacency.) Once you see his stuff, you won’t be so gullible the next time you watch TV.

But enough with the smarty-pants stuff. The main reason for loving Action Family is it’s damn funny. Elliott plays a plaid-suited private dick—never was the term more appropriate—with a dark mop of Dave Starsky hair and what looks like a .357 Magnum in his shoulder holster. But, at home, as the cliche´ goes, he’s a different man. The noirish jazz soundtrack gives way to a laugh track, the loud jacket gets traded in for an even louder sweater, the hot-shit hair turns out to be a wig, and Elliott morphs from flinty hard-ass to schmaltzy head of a rather perverse family unit: the actress portraying his wife looks old enough to be his mother; his college-age daughter sits down at the dinner table completely naked; and his two youngest children have quite a bit of bloodlust coursing through their tiny frames. (“Hey Dad, let’s kill him!” his younger daughter says of her old sister’s boyfriend at one point.)

Action Family has a lot of great moments in it. David Letterman puts in a short-but-sharp cameo that begins with him calling out, “Hey! Jerk!” to Elliott as they sit in their respective cars at a red light. Elliott’s father, Bob Elliott (of Bob & Ray) makes an appearance, too, as a hotdog vendor who ends up brawling with his son. (Actually, there’s no attempt made to hide the skull-cap wearing stunt man who doubles for the elder Elliott in the scuffle scenes.) And at the show’s end, Chris does a weirdly impeccable impersonation of David Cassidy as the Action Family makes like the Partridge Family and lip-syncs to “Somebody Wants to Love You.”

One thing that I’ve long wondered about Action Family is whether it played a role in inspiring Spike Jonze’s great 1994 video for The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”, which also sends up 70s crime dramas. Stylistically, the two productions are quite different, but there are enough similarities—just look at the hairpieces—to suggest a connection. (For the sake of comparison, I’ve placed a link to the video at the very bottom of this post.)

Speaking of connections, if you’ve followed Elliott’s work closely, you’ve probably noticed that he seems to have a real affinity for making fun of Roosevelts. His depiction of Teddy Roosevelt as the flatulent (“Wee-hoo!”) mayor of New York in his 2005 novel, The Shroud of the Thwacker was hilarious, as was his own portrayal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the second Cinemax special, FDR: A One Man Show. When I interviewed Elliott, he explained to me that he was actually “doing Robert Vaughn as Roosevelt,” which, he said, not too many people got. (Vaughn, perhaps best known as the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. played a number of dead presidents in his day, including F.D.R.) I know I didn’t get it until Elliott told me, but I still find FDR: A One Man Showlaugh-until-you-cry funny because of the flagrant way in which it fucks with our tendency to blindly accept that movies and plays about historical figures are historically accurate. Nothing could be further from the truth with Elliott’s portrayal of F.D.R., which begins, preposterously and hilariously, with an anachronistic montage of audio and video that includes Martin Sheen’s “Shit, I’m still only in Saigon” line from Apocalypse, Now and Survivor’s Rocky III theme “Eye of the Tiger.” And it only gets sillier from there. My favorite moment is when Elliott, who didn’t even bother to shave for the part, broaches the subject of homely Eleanor Roosevelt. “Eleanor was not my first choice for a wife. Would she be yours?” he asks the crowd with a chuckle, before adding: “No, actually, I was interested in her sister What is the lingo of today? ‘A real piece?’ Well, that’s what Trudy was, a real piece of ass.”

From what I can tell, these two Cinemax specials were once available together on a single VHS videotape, but they’ve never been issued commercially on DVD. The funny thing is, when I interviewed Elliott this past summer, he told me that he probably could arrange to have these specials reissued in a digital format, but didn’t think there’d be any interest. As I pointed out in my Rolling Stone story, Elliott doesn’t like to dwell in or on the past, and I respect that about him. But I don’t think I’m alone in hoping that he’ll reconsider re-releasing these two specials, or at least providing a digital copy to Netflix.



articles from Vanity Fair by Frank DiGiacomo

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March 2008

John Mellencamp: One from the Heartland
February 2007

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January 2007

The Gossip Behind the Gossip
December 2004

articles from The New York Observer by Frank DiGiacomo

Puff Daddy’s Black and White Ball ’98
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The Bling of Comedy
February 8, 2004

Baldwin Aroused
November 30, 2003

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