The Ben Stiller Show  

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Despite once-laughable ratings, 'Ben Stiller' series is still stellar

By Joanne Weintraub, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

All right, you ingrates. You wouldn't watch Ben Stiller for free when he was on Fox, so now you'll have to pay to see him. And if your cable service doesn't carry Comedy Central, you won't see him at all.

Too bad for you.

The star and co-creator of The Ben Stiller Show on Comedy Central (10 p.m. Saturdays, repeated at 9 p.m. Tuesdays) is a card, a caution and a hoot. When he's at the top of his form, he's brilliant. When he's not, he's still funnier than those people on that Saturday Night Comedy Show You're Sick of Reading About.

Stiller's 1992-'93 sketch comedy series, first developed for MTV, quickly moved to Fox, where it got delirious reviews but disastrous ratings. Comedy Central, which has a sharp eye for other folks' rejects, is recycling the original 13 episodes this fall.

The son of comics Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara (boomers and their folks will remember the couple's act from The Ed Sullivan Show; younger sprouts may know Papa Jerry as George's irascible dad on Seinfeld), Stiller looks like a less hunky, more vulpine JFK Jr. He's got a mean mouth, though not quite so mean as Dennis Miller's.

Even in '92, Stiller was no newcomer; he'd already acted on Broadway and had been a writer and occasional performer on that other Saturday Night Comedy Show. After his TV show flopped, he directed and appeared in the underrated movie Reality Bites.

One sign of how good Stiller and writing partner Judd Apatow are at sketch comedy is that their cast which includes Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, Bob Odenkirk and Stiller himself generally fares much better than any of them has in other settings.

Garofalo, who limped and languished last season through SNL, is completely self-assured here, whether in disaffected Gen X mode or as a smug ubermom with a homicidal maniac for a pet in a Lassie takeoff called Manson. (If you don't think that sort of thing is funny, well, you won't think this sort of thing is funny.) Dick, who's sweet but a little monotonous as a twittery assistant on NewsRadio, is a revelation in a whole spectrum of character parts, including a sequin-spangled Sandra Bernhard and the fatuous paterfamilias to Garofalo's mom.

Best of all is the star, who shines at whatever he does: a commercial for exercise equipment that segues into a spoof of Last of the Mohicans; a sketch that impales late-night infomercial vampire Tony Robbins; a sublime five minutes of Al Pacino auditioning for the beleaguered-father role in Beethoven, wherein the actor bestows the Godfatherly kiss of death on a giant stuffed dog, which promptly topples to the floor.

There's been talk of Stiller returning to TV, but at the moment he's directing a movie that's as close to a sure thing as Hollywood can offer: Jim Carrey's Cable Guy.

Is Stiller as funny as the so-hot-it-hurts Carrey? That's comparing Brazil nuts to kumquats. Let's just say Stiller does a better Pacino and leave it at that.

September 5, 1995

Copyright 1995, The Detroit News

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