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Memphis Flyer Life Lessons

The video release of "Get A Life" reveals the roots of an offbeat comedy boom.

By Jim Hanas

JUNE 7, 1999:  While burgeoning bandwidth has delivered us more of everything, and, therefore, more that is bad, there are a few strains of comedy today that are delivering some of the funniest programming in years. On television, HBO's Mr. Show with Bob and David has revolutionized skit comedy by borrowing the dadaism and deft segues of Monty Python, the savage topicality of vintage Saturday Night Live, and the creepy taboo-bending of The Kids in the Hall and combining them into what is consistently the funniest half-hour on television. In film, meanwhile, the Farrelly brothers make us laugh, whether we want to or not, at a new take on an old genre: stupid movies made by smart people.

The genius of Mr. Show traces its roots to the short-lived cult hit The Ben Stiller Show, which pioneered a new breed of sketch comedy and employed Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk and David Cross as regular and writer, respectively. That strain collided with the Farrelly brothers last year, with Ben Stiller's starring role in the hilarious, if disquieting, There's Something About Mary.

But the two had met before, even before The Ben Stiller Show, in another cult hit, Get A Life, which starred Chris Elliott and included Odenkirk on the writing staff. Like Stiller, it aired on Fox and had a pretty short run: from 1990 -- sporadically -- through the 1992 season. But for those who remember it and for those who have forgotten it, it's worth taking another look.

Rhino has recently issued four episodes of the series on two tapes for just that purpose. Looking back, it's easy to see the roots of both a riotously absurd form of sketch comedy and the gross-out tactics later adopted by the brothers Farrelly.

Elliott -- starring as Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old man-child with a paper route -- continues the persona he developed on Late Night with David Letterman: a doughy loser who manages to be condescending and an idiot at the same time. He is alternately lugubrious and naive, but always knowing -- albeit wrong. His banter is suggestive and inappropriate -- centered around bodily processes and acts you'd rather not imagine him engaged in. "I've met the woman of my dreams" runs one typical quip that combines both. "The kind of dreams that make a mess, if you know what I mean." He makes skin crawl just walking around, and it seems no accident that he went on to a supporting role in There's Something About Mary.

In a particularly Farrelly-esque episode, included in Rhino's collection, Elliott befriends a space alien, convinced he has encountered a higher form of life. The alien, which he dubs "Spewy," projectile-vomits on everything and everyone in sight and eventually kicks the pope's ass. In another, he's run over by a doctor (played by soap star Emma Samms), whom he promptly falls in love with and decides to stalk. He, in turn, is stalked by another woman, who, in turn ... well, you get the idea.

Get A Life, like Mr. Show, is all about taking an idea and pushing it way, way too far. In another episode, liberalism itself is taken too far when Elliott tries to rehabilitate a cartoonish street gang and, after being threatened within an inch of his life, converts them into images of himself, shapeless golf-shirts, beards, and all.

The funniest of Rhino's four selections, however, is "The Prettiest Week of My Life," which begins with Elliott enrolling in the Handsome Boy Modeling School and ends with him crashing a runway show, jiggling and grinding his schmooish body in unspeakable ways, until he is apprehended by security. He thinks they've come to protect him from adoring fans.

In many respects, Get A Life is a traditional sitcom, if twisted terribly and turned on its head. Elliott's blissful ignorance mocks that of all the great TV families, and the episodes' plots follow the revelatory "Let's put on a show!" formula that is such a mark of bad television it might be entirely responsible for today's so-bad-it's-good thinking. All of the episodes include at least one, and sometimes two, musical montages featuring Elliott haplessly romping through modeling school or another stalking expedition.

The evident tension between comedy and parody reappears in the strains of offbeat comedy that have appeared since. It's not as if the Farrellys don't know their gags are stupid, corny, and adolescent. They revel in it, as does the duo behind Mr. Show as they regularly serve up the worst parts of the culture, mimicking rather than mocking, trusting that the ridicule will take care of itself.

Get A Life and its successors are really like Elliott himself: stupid yet condescending, idiotic yet -- above all -- knowing.

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