It was an unfathomable concept, even in light of cable. For what seemed like an entertainment eternity, there were only three broadcast networks, memorable corporate giants with easily memorized alphabetical logos. Then Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdock arrived on the scene, and subverted the standards as only a free thinking market pirateer could. His newly minted entity, known as Fox, would play the upstart for the first few years, barely eking out moral victories against the behemoth of old school scheduling. But thanks to a now famous family of yellow skinned satirists, and a desire to test the very limits of legitimate programming (reality TV???), the Down Under dynamic worked. It even inspired an additional pair of pretenders to the VHF throne.
Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge, Robert Llewellyn, Chloë Annett
(BBC2; US: 5 Feb 1988)
The beer-soaked byproduct of the brains belonged to Doug Naylor and Rob Grant, the idea for Red Dwarf seemed destined to underwhelm everyone who came in contact with it. Using one of their old radio shows (“Dave Hollins: Space Cadet”) combined with a pilot episode’s plotline sketched out on the back of a lager mat (how apropos), the duo were determined to bring science fiction and comedy together in a way that had never been tried before. Executives lucky enough to hear the pitch understood how funny, clever, and confident it was. But they thought there was no way a half-hour sitcom could be fashioned out of an abandoned ship, a lowly service technician, and his idiotic non-human companions. The script shuffled around the BBC for a while, with everyone praising it (and no one touching it). Then young hotshot Paul Jackson, who had just wowed the comic cosmic universe with his own hyper-surreal sitcom about a group of university students on the dole in Thatcher’s England (The Young Ones), got a hold of it. Instantly, Red Dwarf got the go-ahead.
When casting was completed, noted UK comedians Chris Barrie and Norman Lovett were hired to play Rimmer and Holly, respectively. Accomplished musical comedy and stage actor Danny John-Jules was brought on to find the right balance between the suave and silly for Cat. But the role of Lister seemed a tough one to personify. When the creators saw Craig Charles’ comedic skills showcased on the British version of Saturday Night Live, they realized they had found their man. Later on, they would add Robert Llewellyn in the crucial role of a subservient robot named Kryton. The character would round out the cast perfectly, giving Naylor and Grant untold satire possibilities. Since its 1988 debut, the show has had a scattered if successful run. Made whenever the cast and crew feel up to it, the eight series created so far (with more to come, supposedly) have spanned almost two decades. While local PBS stations still air the import, DVD is the best place to get acquainted with interstellar masterwork. Each full season set contains so much added content (including a complete oral history via in-depth interviews) that it’s like rediscovering the show all over again.
The Ben Stiller Show
Ben Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk
(Fox; US: 27 Sep 1992)
The most worthwhile collections have always captured that fleeting show or film or event that was so magical, so touched by manic inspiration (and usually so overlooked in its time), that if you didn’t have the DVD to back you up you’d never be able to convince anyone that the thing even existed. So it is with The Ben Stiller Show. This collection is of the show’s entire single-season run on Fox (including the never-aired 13th episode), filled out with commentary by Stiller, Executive Producer Judd Apatow, and cast members Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick.
Skits could be so impossibly brilliant that you rewatch them more in amazement than hilarity. This is good and bad. Hopelessly specific and dated in their references (Beethoven the dog movie and not the composer, Five Easy Pieces, Yakov Smirnoff, Melrose Place), as Stiller points on the commentary to Episode Nine some viewers will be easily lost. But the best skits; “Oliver Stoneland” (“If it’s musical merriment that you want, don’t miss “Platunes;” a rabel-rousing salute to a war we’ve never stopped fighting as performed by the Combat Rollers”), the re-imagining of Husbands and Wives with Frankenstein and the Mummy (“She holds onto my bolts when we do it”), Charles Manson recast as Lassie, (“Oh no Bernice, he’s not in anyone’s children, he just likes to say that”), U2’s Zoo TV set as a late night talk show with Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as guests, “Kill Doug Szathkey,” and David Cross’s “The Legend of T.J. O’Pootertoot’s,” are like transmissions from another world that you think you’re the only one receiving… that is until you find someone else who gets it too. So if the show was all about “getting it,” than it’s not for everyone. Which is fine. With send-ups of Metallica, Cape Fear, COPS, Tom Cruise, the Seattle music scene in general, and with a sometimes unforgiving eye towards the various ways that we all puff ourselves up in general, The Ben Stiller Show is a massive mess of ideas that came and went so fast, that without this essential document to record its passing, we’d almost never know for sure that we saw was actually real.
The Kids in the Hall
Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson
(CBC; US: 1988)
The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—and, for fans, most welcome—quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons—you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.
Although only one member of the ensemble is gay, queer culture was featured prominently—or, at least unabashedly—waaaaay before it was as widely accepted, or commonplace as it would thankfully be less than two decades later. Perhaps the primary reason it was easier for some to describe, or dismiss the show as a bunch of dudes in dresses is because it was, and remains, pretty difficult to pinpoint what they were up to. Precious few impersonations, less than a little political pot-shotting, The Kids in the Hall managed to consistently skewer piety and send up our ever-uptight social mores through the creation of insanely indelible characters: they understood that to effectively ridicule the world they had to make themselves ridiculous. In one skit, fur trappers cruise office buildings, killing yuppies in order to sell their “pelts” to a high-end haberdashery. In another a harried corporate big shot, in the midst of a stress-driven cardiac arrest, rips his heart out of his chest, pouring coffee on it and yelling “Get back to work!” And how inadequate would our world be without the Head Crusher, the Chicken Lady, Buddy Cole or Cabbage Head?
The definitive sketch? Every fan will claim one, but it’s difficult to deny the exceptional “Retelling of a Complicated Italian Movie”, which features everything that made The Kids in the Hall so inimitable: as two guys in a bar discuss a foreign film, the happy hour crowd slowly assumes the roles being described. All of a sudden the storyteller is holding a pistol and melodramatic shots ring out. “Wow, what a complicated plot!” his friend says, still holding his buffalo wing as he collapses, clutching his bleeding stomach. You have to see it to disbelieve it, but it manages to be clever, surreal and, as always, hysterical. Naturally, one character is dressed in drag.
The Larry Sanders Show
Garry Shandling, Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Penny Johnson, Wallace Langham, Janeane Garofalo
Having successfully guest-hosted for Johnny Carson, saturnine comedian Garry Shandling coulda been a contender in the late-night chat league. Instead, he punched his way to the top of the heavyweight sitcom division with this genre-busting, convention-capsizing work of splenetic, unparalleled comedy genius. A sitcom/talk-show hybrid, chat segments are interspersed with behind-the-scenes sequences which expose the bare wires and raw nerves underlying the showbiz veneer. Larry Sanders (Shandling) conducts interviews with real celebrity guests, who drop their anodyne on-air masks during breaks in filming, revealing personalities ranging from needy to monstrous. It’s riveting, often cringe-making viewing, and half the fun is in guessing to what extent they’re sending themselves up. Hilariously illuminating a world we normally only glimpse through heavy media filtering, the show really ignites when it moves backstage to reveal a landscape populated by herds of elephantine egos, in which guests, hosts, producers, and crew come together like colliding storm fronts of narcissism, neurosis, jealousy, selfishness, and misanthropic rage.
An incredibly talented ensemble cast gives vivid, hyper-realistic performances, but the real stars are Shandling, Rip Torn as gruffly cynical producer Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor as Sanders’s emotionally volatile sidekick Hank Kingsley. Differing radically in style, all three share the happy attribute of having a great face for comedy. Hank has the look of a Midwestern preacher with a heavy porn habit, and Tambor’s deadpan playing accentuates both his buffoonish and tragic aspects. Torn resembles Benny the Ball from Top Cat, after an alcohol problem and a spell in prison. Most extraordinary of all however is Shandling’s oddly pneumatic face, seemingly custom designed for expressing discomfort and social awkwardness.
Comparisons with Seinfeld are unavoidable, both shows sharing a sardonic worldview and vaguely post-modern self-referentiality. But The Larry Sanders Show is darker, edgier, hipper, and spikier. Put it another way: if Seinfeld is like cocaine, Larry Sanders is amphetamine sulphate: cheaper, nastier, and leaving a much more bitter aftertaste. It’s the sort of thing Woody Allen might have written if he’d been born with the sour sensibility of a Lou Reed. It’s also the greatest satire on the media since Network in 1976, reveling in picking apart the dysfunctional dynamics of celebrity and office politics.
The show has been ill-served (qualitatively and quantitatively) by DVD releases, but the recent Not Just the Best Of collates 23 key episodes and adds some truly essential extras, notably Shandling’s interviews with celebrity guests such as Alec Baldwin and Sharon Stone (with whom both the fictional Larry and real Shandling had affairs). If anything, the always-aloof Shandling is at an even further remove in these uncomfortable encounters, and like the guests who graced his fictional show it’s hard to say if he’s acting or being ‘real’. A jumping off point for every subsequent worthwhile TV show, all available Larry Sanders DVDs should be snapped up by anyone with a sense of near-the-knuckle humor. As Shandling says, “it’s like ringing an authentic Buddhist temple bell, and saying why does that ring so clearly? Well, it’s because, it’s the real thing.”