The Ben Stiller Show  

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They year was 1992. Times were bleak in the once merry land of television...Cosby had moved on, "Seinfeld" looked to be on its way out and "Full House" was only one of Bob Saget's shows thriving across the country.

I was finishing up the last leg of an internship for Oregon's local Fox affiliate, KLSR-TV. In true Fox style, our station had been hurriedly assembled inside an abandoned shoestore located roughly ten miles from any form of indoor plumbing. The program schedule--when network shows weren't airing--was made up entirely of back-to-back episodes of such television classics as "Small Wonder" and "Mama's Family". Lovingly dubbed K-LOSER (by the owners, not just the employees), KLSR-TV was only a sliver of a station within a shadow of a network.

Perhaps this would explain why the powers that be placed a nineteen year-old intern in charge of the annual affiliate's luncheon. Having drawn the short straw, I was given several descriptions of new Fox programs, and sent out to win over an audience of skeptical advertisers.

I called upon my years of Staninslavsky Method Acting lessons to read the publicity cards in my most enthusiastic tone, trying to convince the audience that "Alien Nation: The Series" would truly be a "slam-bang adventure in the vein of 'Star Wars'." But they remained unmoved. By the end of the luncheon, I wasn't even trying. Just before leaving the podium, as if on an afterthought, I added: "Oh, and there's a new sketch comedy show, too." I hurriedly read the publicist's blurb: "'A scathingly satirical portrayal of life from today's hottest comedic minds'."

Ten weeks later, my praise would be a little more sincere.

Television is the most powerful medium in the world, and it speaks to everyone in different ways. We all have our favorite programs, and many of us find it difficult to understand why the rest of America can't appreciate the show we know to be the best. It is almost a given that any series I take to will be canceled by the end of its first season. I check the Nielsen ratings every week, where I see "Family Matters" and "Murphy Brown" firmly ensconced in the top twenty, and I have to wonder: doesn't anybody out there write television for me? Or, on the rare occasion I discover a program that truly, deeply speaks to me, I find myself asking: Why aren't other people getting this?

"The Ben Stiller Show" was more than just a collection of sketches slapped together in the typical "Saturday Night Live" assembly-line fashion. As a writer and director, Stiller always took the comedy one step beyond the obvious joke. There were movie parodies, but rather than just copying "Cape Fear", Stiller played the Robert DeNiro role as an aged Eddie Munster out for revenge against the network executive who canceled his show. Rather than just "Studs", there was a sketch that managed to skewer both game shows and religion called "Amish Studs" . And in spoofing the Jay Leno/David Letterman rivalry for "The Tonight Show", Stiller featured a sketch where candidates such as Steven Seagal, Sinead O'Conner and William Shatner auditioned. "Ben Stiller" was also the first program to recognize the kitschy appeal of featuring washed-up television actors. Stiller had the power to book Roseanne and Tom Arnold as guest stars on his first show, but he was equally interested in showcasing such 70s icons as Gary Coleman, Herve Villacheze and Danny Bonaduce. There was a sheer excitement to the "Ben Stiller Show", because you genuinely never knew what was going to happen next. It was as if Stiller and his writers had created an antidote to years of predictable and safe broadcasting. And, like most great discoveries, it was one I made completely on accident.

One Sunday evening, working overtime at K-LOSER, I experienced a true epiphany. You know how everyone over thirty always wants to know where you were the instant you found out that John F. Kennedy had been shot? It's a defining moment for their generation, right? When that news broke into their unsuspecting world, no matter where they were, people knew in that instant that their lives were going to be changed forever. Something awakened at that precise moment, and they knew that the world would never quite look the same again.

Now I wasn't even an embryo when Kennedy was assassinated, but I experienced by own defining moment at 10:49 p.m. West Coast Standard Time in the tiny operating room of KLSR-TV. This was the exact moment I first saw the "T.J. O'Pootertoot" sketch on "The Ben Stiller Show".

As anyone who has ever held a conversation with me knows, T.J. O'Pootertoot is a theme restaurant where the employees all don giant fake mustaches and eagerly push appetizers like "Red-Hot Rancheroos" and "T.J.'s Pooterballs" (made with "Pootermeat", a mystery meat "with a taste that's oddly familiar"). At once a parody of cheesy theme restaurants, "Soylent Green" and "The Stepford Wives", "T.J. O'Pootertoot" stands as one of the most original, expertly crafted pieces of comedy ever executed. Every minor detail, from the menus that fold into giant mustaches, to the all-too-probably names for T.J.'s drinks ("Miserable Whore", "Sex in a Hamper") is sheer perfection.

Watching this sketch, I immediately realized I was standing on the threshold of something enormous. And, like the passer-by who spots a $20 bill, I looked around in disbelief to the ignorance surrounding me. Stiller's show had actually been on the air for several weeks at this point, and like most people, I had been a little too late in my discovery. But week after week, I checked the overnight ratings for our market to see if the show had risen out of the ratings cellar. I scheduled a constant stream of promos urging people to watch, I wrote an article for the school paper naming "Ben Stiller" the best show since "The Simpsons" and I seriously considered bribing a friend of mine with the Nielsen Company.

I was relieved to discover I wasn't completely alone. Critical raves poured in for Ben Stiller and his cast, and the feedback on my article told me there was a following for this quirky little show. Fox Broadcasting had actually displayed considerable support for the program, trying it out in different time periods and allowing it a little more time to grow than some of their other programs. In the end, it wasn't enough. Before the end of the year, Fox had pulled the plug on "The Ben Stiller" show, choosing instead to invest more time and money on additional "Beverly Hills, 90210" spin-offs.

"The Ben Stiller Show" was not the first prematurely canceled program to be years ahead of its time. It was, however, the best. I state this not as my opinion, but as simple fact. By presenting a full history of the program's content, I hope to familiarize the reader with the unique style and tone of "The Ben Stiller Show". I will also provide information on the creative minds behind the program, both before and after it's broadcast. This evidence will be used to support my claim that as America emerges into the dawn of a new century, the influence of "The Ben Stiller Show" can be found in every form of worthwhile entertainment currently in existence today. In addition to which there stands a legacy of thirteen shows which serve as a textbook of utter audacity and sheer originality.

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