In assembling this project, I have become greatly indebted to several individuals. I offer thanks to my roommates, Kristy Wakerlig and Cory Meiner, for never complaining about my odd hours or unhealthy relationship with the VCR. I thank Rachelle Layton-Fowler of KLSR-TV for the chance she took on a 19 year-old college junior who thought it would be glamorous to work in television. I thank my parents, who didn't say a word when I announced I would be taking my $40,000 education and using it to pursue a graduate degree in Television Analysis. I thank Professor Ronald Sheriffs for approving my project and finally putting my degree within sight. I thank my best friend / psychiatrist / role model Michelle Coleman for being the most important person in my life. And finally, I thank the immense talents of Ben Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garafalo, Bob Odenkirk, Daivd Cross and Judd Apatow for divine inspiration. Let's hope that what most people would consider "stalking", they can view as "admiration".
In studying this project, I was intrigued as to why exactly "The Ben Stiller Show" failed in the ratings. Was it poor marketing on behalf of Fox Television? Was the show simply too far ahead of its time? Or was it just too intelligent for a typical American audience to enjoy? To examine what kind of appeal "Ben Stiller" has when actually viewed on a regular basis, I assembled a small focus group of individuals who had never seen the show before. Varied by race, age and education, I will often refer to this group in my analyses of the program. Participants were asked to observe seven episodes of the series and offer feedback to each individual sketch.
Participants were as follows:
Joy.................Caucasian Female.................Age 34..............Occupation: Musician
Kevin..............Caucasian Male....................Age 25..............Occupation: Sales
Richard...........Asian Male...........................Age 52..............Occupation: School Administrator
Laura..............Afro-American Female.........Age 21..............Occupation: Electrician
Kristy.............American Indian Female.......Age 24..............Occupation: Law Student
This essay is an educational project written by the student for the sole purpose of receiving a graduate degree from the University of Oregon. It is in no way endorsed or approved by Fox Broadcasting. The purpose of this project is to explore a particular aspect of media, and the grade will be based primarily upon the writing quality displayed by the student, rather than the research. Due to the limited amount of resources and Fox Television's refusal to cooperate with this project, all character names have been spelled phonetically. This analysis comes with a fully annotated bibliography.
Criteria agreed to by
Jenelle Lynn Riley
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.
Cast of Characters
"Quite the little comedic star chamber you've assembled here, my friend."- Dennis Miller
What is there left to say about Ben Stiller that other, more eloquent critics haven't already said? Entertainment Weekly: "...the creative mind behind one of the best shows of 1992". Broadcasting Magazine: "A genuine comic genius". Mediatimes: "A star of immeasurable talent." Or, as one of the females in my focus group put it: "Damn, he's hot!"
Actually, it's somewhat of a minor miracle that Ben Stiller managed to become such a critical darling in a medium quick to judge on appearance. Built like an Olympic athlete, with a face like Tom Cruise and eyes like Paul Newman, Stiller looks more like he belongs in a John Hughes movie than performing cutting-edge comedy. He's even Hollywood royalty, being the son of the great comedy team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. He's gorgeous, rich and had a show named after him before the age of 30. So why does he still come off as so darn...likable?
Part of the answer lies in Stiller's apparent unawareness of his own charms. He plays the underdog, allowing people to laugh at him and any every humiliation he endures. Whether being rejected by guest star Sarah Jessica Parker or showing his Video Diary (which always seems to end with him getting dumped, getting his ass kicked, or both) Stiller never acknowledges his obvious sex appeal. Even when he plays the pretty-boy role--such as in the "Melrose Heights, 90210-2402" parody--it's so over-the-top and goofy, he comes across as more cutup than pinup. Guest star Colin Quinn once criticized Stiller for laughing at the pretentiousness of the characters on "90210" and pointed out: "But Ben, you look just like them!"
In fact, Stiller could have easily ended up a Tiger Beat poster boy, had one of his early movies worked out. In the 1989 Molly Ringwald romance "Fresh Horses", Stiller played the best friend to Andrew McCarthy. "Fresh Horses" should have been a major breakthrough for Stiller, and probably would have been, had it not been one of the worst movies of all time. Stiller also appeared on the New York stage in John Guare's "House of Blue Leaves" and appeared briefly on "Saturday Night Live". Then, in 1992, Stiller teamed up with Executive Producer Judd Apatow to develop and write a series of his own.
The original concept for "The Ben Stiller Show", according to an early Fox press kit, was to feature Stiller in a sitcom about a struggling actor. His character would interact with a variety of famous celebrities, and would address the audience by speaking directly to the camera. Somewhere along the line, it developed into a pure sketch comedy program, which was actually a much better showcase for Stiller's unique talents.
His impersonations ranged from Tom Cruise to U2's Bono, but Stiller was more than a convincing mimic. As a director and writer, Stiller was fearless in his work. He seemed willing to try anything on his show, from a sitcom about a talking sock to a theme park revolving entirely around Oliver Stone movies. On paper, it would be almost impossible to know if these would translate to a mass audience. But part of the appeal of "Ben Stiller" was the fact that the writers seemed to be putting out a product that was funny to them. And if you liked it, you were in on the joke.
Although "Ben Stiller" only aired twelve episodes (the "lost" thirteenth later showed up on Comedy Central), it was enough to make Hollywood recognize they had a major talent on their hands. Stiller was quickly tapped to direct and star in "Reality Bites" with Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. A smart, funny and completely original film, Stiller garnered great reviews for his effort. However, the movie was considered somewhat of a disappointment at the box office. Most insiders attributed this to the fact that the movie was marketed and unfairly labeled as a comedy for "Generation X", when it was actually appealing to all ages.
As an actor, Stiller has kept a full schedule. He appeared as a crazed fitness guru in the underrated Disney comedy "Heavyweights", scripted by Judd Apatow. He'll soon be seen onscreen playing supporting roles in Adam Sandler's "Happy Gilmore" and the romantic comedy "If Lucy Fell". And he recently won the lead in acclaimed director David O. Russell's new comedy, "Flirting With Disaster", which pairs him with such legends as Mary Tyler Moore and Alan Alda. But it is his next project that will probably garner the most attention, as the director of Jim Carrey's new comedy, "The Cable Guy". With a revised script by Apatow, "Cable Guy" stars Carrey as a desperately lonely cable installer who forces his friendship upon customer Matthew Broderick. If you think the dark and satirical Stiller seems an odd choice to direct the notoriously goofy Carrey, you're not alone. Countdown critic Craig Lucas was prompted to wonder: "Jim Carrey, America's favorite clown...acting for one of the sharpest, wickedest directors today? I can hardly wait."
Once described by guest Dennis Miller as "Martin Short stretched out on a rack", Andy Dick's gangly appearance can be deceiving. Rail thin, with an unkempt head of blond curls that seem to spring from his own manic energy and round glasses that complete the Woody Allen-esque effect, Dick would seem destined to be limited by a lifetime of "nerd" roles. It is a testament to Dick's talent and charisma that he has managed to excel beyond anyone's expectations.
In actuality, Andy Dick can sometimes even appear rather handsome. As evidenced by his role as Van Hammersly in "Manson"--a parody of the classic "Lassie" series featuring Charles Manson as the family pet--Dick possesses the cleft chin and wholesome good looks of a matinee idol. Broadcasting television critic David Robens states: "Andy Dick is reminiscent of the early Tom Hanks. While not conventionally good-looking, he could use his boyish qualities to try for a career as a leading man. Luckily for us, Dick is currently playing up his nerdish charm, which he does better than anyone else on television."
Certainly "The Ben Stiller Show" can't be accused of typecasting Dick. As a former member of the L.A.-based theater troupe "The Groundlings", Dick is capable of playing a wide range of parts. In addition to his appearance as Van Hammersly, Dick has played a football star ("Bad Twist Ending Theater"), a foreign terrorist ("Die Hard 12") and an irritable sock puppet ("Skank"). Not that Dick didn't play his share of nerdy roles: there was his dead-on Woody Allen in "Bride of Frankenstein" and his priceless performance as the beleaguered neighbor of a rap star in "Kill Doug Szathke". Whenever Dick appeared on camera as himself, he deliberately came across as the ultimate high strung neurotic--such as his scene walking down Melrose Avenue complaining about people who "have brass rings in places where you should not poke holes".
If Dick seems comfortable with presenting himself as the put-upon nebbish, it may be because the role has served him so well. As an actor, Dick has been extremely prosperous post-"Stiller". There was a delicious cameo in "Reality Bites" as a video pirate, a performance I'm well-qualified to judge since I'd swear it was based on one of my ex-bosses. Dick was also featured in a supporting role in the 1995 comedy "In the Army Now"; a film that forced me to break a pact I'd made long ago about never viewing a Pauly Shore movie.
His television career also took off in 1995, when he pulled the coup of starring in two network shows simateanously--Fox's "Get Smart" revival and NBC's "NewsRadio". This was a feat not seen since the early 80s, when Heather Locklear could be seen on both "Dynasty" and "T.J. Hooker". The double-bill didn't last long, however, when "Get Smart" was drummed in the ratings. Dick seemed unconcerned, however, since he had already gone on the record as saying "NewsRadio" was the superior show. TV Guide criticized Dick in its infamous "Jeers" column, for what they considered to be Dick "putting down" his own program. Dick's response to Entertainment Weekly was: "All I said was that I preferred 'NewsRadio'..."
With good reason. Created by Paul Simms, one of the minds behind Garry Shandling's hilarious "The Larry Sanders Show",
"NewsRadio" was quickly proclaimed "the season's best new comedy" by The Wall Street Journal. With a cast Entertainment Weekly proclaimed to be a "perfectly-tuned" ensemble, "NewsRadio" has thrived critically and creatively. As reporter Matthew Brock, Dick is given the opportunity to display his unique talent for scene stealing without falling into stereotyping. Perhaps most importantly, "NewsRadio" has brought Dick the commercial success he so richly deserves.
When selecting a comedienne to be the only female cast member, Ben Stiller knew he had to find an exceptional talent. Locating a woman who could hold her own opposite Stiller, without falling prey to tokenism, is not a simple task in sketch comedy. "Saturday Night Live" has been criticized for misusing some promising female comics over the years, but at least they tried. Other troupes, such as "Monty Python" or "The Kids in the Hall" are entirely male. The fact remains that there is a widely held, but completely unspoken, belief that women just aren't as funny as men.
That myth was shattered when Janeane Garofalo won a place in the cast of "The Ben Stiller Show". Armed with a dry sense of humor and a lightning wit, Garofalo was completely in sync with Stiller's unique brand of comedy. From the first moment she appears--as the retainer-wearing Juliette Lewis in the "Cape Fear" parody- Garofalo stakes her claim as a terrific mimic and gifted comedienne. As the weeks progressed, Garafalo would get the opportunity to play everything from Demi Moore to a time-traveling high school student.
Post- "Stiller", Garofalo continued to steal scenes in every project. As the 70s obsessed Gap Manager Vicki in Stiller's "Reality Bites", Garofalo walked off with most of the best lines and rave reviews. Shortly thereafter, she made a huge impression with a small role as the blind date with a hairball in "Bye, Bye Love". She also snagged a recurring role as "Paula the sour talent booker" on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show". She appeared briefly on "Saturday Night Live" in the fall of 1994, but politely bowed out after a few weeks. Her next project is scheduled to be "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" with Uma Thurman. Described as a female version of the classic tale "Cyrano deBergerac", Garofalo is cast as a radio talk-show host who asks her friend Thurman to pose as her when a hopeful suitor becomes enchanted by her voice.
Like Stiller, much of Garofalo's' appeal lies in her self-depreciating sense of humor. Short and cute, Garofalo gains a lot of mileage out of the fact she doesn't resemble the typical Hollywood starlet. On "Larry Sanders", her character is in a perpetually dark mood and spends a great deal of time obsessing about her weight. And as host of Comedy Central's "Comedy Product", she once told the audience: "I smell bad as a rule" and proceeded to describe the scent as that of "utter defeat". Performing stand-up in her HBO special, she threw herself on the ground when the audience cheered her, shouting: "If you do that, I just don't know how to handle it." Even those who aren't familiar with Garofalo's talent seem to quickly become converts. One girl in my focus group, who had never seen Garofalo before became instantly taken with her after about thirty seconds. "What else has she been in?" she asked. "She seems so...real."
It's this same down-to-earth quality that has elevated Garofalo to almost icon status among many young women. She remains one of the few women who every man I know wants to date and every girl I know wants to be. And anyone who thinks Garofalo's jaded self-image is just for her act, consider the name she gave her production company: "I Hate Myself".
A former writer for "Saturday Night Live", Bob Odenkirk made the transition to actor by stepping in front of the camera on "The Ben Stiller Show". Smart move, considering his offbeat humor and style probably went largely unappreciated in the increasingly cautious atmosphere of "SNL". In addition to his duties as a performer on "Ben Stiller", Odenkirk was the only other cast member to sign on as a writer.
On the surface, Odenkirk might seem to be a bland choice for sketch comedy. But he uses his generic appearance to great advantage; Odenkirk is probably the only cast member to become totally hidden behind his make-up and costumes. His metamorphoses are so convincing, it's reminiscent of Joe Piscopo's early work. (Yes, that is a compliment.) In fact, it's often difficult to tell if Odenkirk is in a scene, his disguises are that good. What usually gives him away is the voice; his distinctive halting manner, with a tone that always sounds on the verge of prepubescent cracking, often provides the only key to being completely sure you're watching Odenkirk.
Make-up aside, Odenkirk is surprisingly versatile in his performances. He can range from the "saucy English prankster" Vaughn on "Melrose Heights, 90210-2402" to the gangsta rap star Ice Man McGee in "Kill Doug Szathkey". And, of course, he does the best Charles Manson I've ever seen. ("I can't go away 'cause I'm not even here! I'm a ghost of a phantom of a shadow in the heart of your children!") In his own subtle way, Odenkirk is absolutely essential to the success of the "T.J. O'Pootertoot" sketch. Playing the eager young waiter Dwayne, Odenkirk imbues lines such as, "It's not a fake theme!" with the perfect amount of tension and humor. Odenkirk is one of the primary reasons this sketch is able to work on so many levels.
Out of all the cast members, Odenkirk seemed the least visible following the "Ben Stiller" cancellation. He was nowhere to be seen in "Reality Bites", and he never showed up in his own sitcom like I kept expecting him to. Unlike the majority of the show's writers, he didn't go to work on another show for Fox and he didn't return to "Saturday Night Live". I was beginning to wonder about his health, when I turned on HBO's Free Weekend Special and found him alive and well.
Apparently, Odenkirk had been very busy. In addition to a recurring role as the agent on "The Larry Sanders Show" and his stand-up work (which included a hilarious performance on "Comedy Product" with Andy Dick as dueling Marilyn Monroe impersonators) Odenkirk was the co-creator and star of a new HBO series, "Mr. Show". Along with David Cross, another Stiller scribe, Odenkirk had returned to the sketch comedy form that served him so well. Similar in spirit to "The Ben Stiller Show" but with it's own distinctive voice, the program featured Odenkirk and Cross doing what they do best--playing a multitude of characters in off-beat, anarchistic skits. "Mr. Show" aired a handful of episodes through the end of 1995, prompting The Village Voice to herald: "Like "The Simpsons" and "The Larry Sanders Show", "Mr. Show" deserves its own channel."
High praise, indeed, but I think I can do better. I liked "Mr. Show" so much, I actually ordered HBO.
This is the first impression we have of Ben Stiller: as Bono, the angst-ridden singer of U2, Stiller affects a convincing accent and startling likeness. As Bono reflects on the early years of the Irish band, we meet their first manager. It turns out he is none other than the man once responsible for The Partridge Family, Mr. Kinkaid (played by the actual series star, Dave Madden.)
Following the opening credits--a fast-paced montage of the cast shot on a hand held Super 8 camera and set to a snazzy Dweezil Zappa score--Ben Stiller introduces himself to the audience. Strolling on the Fox lot, Ben converses with his head writer, Bruce Kirschbaum. Bruce is ambivalent to the U2 sketch, saying he prefers the "movie stuff".
This leads to a movie trailer that is essentially a shot-by-shot parody of Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear". But in this version, an incarcerated Eddie Munster (Stiller) seeks revenge against the network executive (Odenkirk) who canceled "The Munsters" years ago. Eddie Munster affects the same mannerisms as the Robert DeNiro character, squinting menacingly and terrorizing his prey all over town. Like DeNiro, his body is a canvas of tattoos. But rather than biblical quotes, his arms read "Fester is Mine" and "Grandpa Sucks". There's even a very faint tattoo on his right shoulder that says "syndication". Munster even sports the same awful Hawaiian shirt DeNiro wore- over his wide-collared shirt and black bow costume, of course. The trailer ends with the famous thumb-sucking scene, where Juliette Lewis (Garofalo) is hindered by her retainer.
Ben then introduces us to Andy Dick, and they argue over which segment of Ben's "Video Diary" they are about to show. The entry that ends up airing turns out to be shortly after Ben's girlfriend has dumped him and he's "realizing this is an opportunity to be with myself". His girlfriend returns to pick up her belongings, along with her self-defense instructor, Harry. Harry warns Ben to "cut the cord", and ends up beating on Ben until the camera is knocked over and the picture is lost.
Ben explains to the audience that a whole part was missed where he kicked the guy out. This is followed by a brief commercial, that asks "What is Sexy?" and features several young hardbodies cavorting about. The advertiser turns out to be Wilson Garden Hoe.
We return to the "Rockumentary" on U2, where Mr. Kinkaid discusses Bono's egotistical behavior: "He should have named that group 'Me Too', not U2". He then reveals how he helped the band make money in the lean years through "product endorsements". This is followed by a video/commercial for Lucky Clovers cereal, sung to the tune of U2's "One":
Have you had your breakfast?
Why not try the best?
I'm talking about Lucky Clovers--
Why don't you put them to the test?
Won't be enough...
One box, you know you'll eat it right up
They're fun...and so delicious
Eight Essential vitamins and they're magically nutritious
One bowl and it's running low
One box you know it's gonna go...
Did I eat too much?
More than a lot...
You give me one box
Now it's all I got
One bowl and I've got to share it, baby, got to share it...
Ben introduces Janeane Garofalo, and tries to make a clean segue into a sketch about a "crazy agent". She doesn't play along, so we cut to the Talent Agency of Michael Pheret. Michael (Stiller) is a hyped-up, mile-a-minute sleaze with a blond ponytail and telephone headgear permanently strapped to his skull. He offers career advice to clients Roseanne and Tom Arnold (appearing as themselves) in his typical, stream-of-consciousness manner: "Let's get serious, come on, you guys are too good for comedy. I mean, let's do a disease, all right? Tom, you get sick. Rosie, you come and take care of him. Rosie you get sick, Tom takes care of you. I mean, I don't care, it works both ways, you both get sick, you die, you fall love, whatever. Right?" When Michael stops to take a call and do a quick workout on his stair master, the Arnolds take the opportunity to slip out. Another client, Garry Shandling (as himself), is more interested in the "disease movie" and pitches a plan to Michael to play an obsessive hand-washer.
Stiller and Bob Odenkirk discuss the different shows that have been shot on the studio lot over the years. It turns out that Stage 2, where Stiller shoots, is referred to as "The Morgue" and was previously used by such programs as "Fish Police", "Cop Rock" and "The Dennis Miller Show".
In "The Last Stand of Yakov Smirnoff", the Russian comedian (Stiller) tries to perform his comedy act now that the Iron Curtain has fallen. Unable to use any of his Communism jokes, he begins to sweat under the lights and lose "defectors" in his audience. Even his patented horse laugh and catch phrase "What a country!" receive no reaction. He ends up in the fetal position on stage, muttering: "I'm cold...I'm frightened...what will the new world order bring for Yakov...?"
There is another abstract commercial featuring shirtless men and a sexed-up model for the Wilson Garden Hoe.
Stiller wraps up the show by wishing the audience well, while Bruce tries to think up catch phrases to make the show more popular. His suggestions "What the what the hey!" and "look out below!" are not well-received. The end credits feature scenes that were cut from the episode, including Bono and the band working a Bar Mitzvah.
Stiller's show was scheduled at 7:30pm, running up against the very powerful "60 Minutes". However, Fox had scheduled it back-to-back with their hit comedy "In Living Color". The idea was to give audiences a full hour of sketch shows to counter-program the dramas "Life Goes On" and "Secret Service" running 7-8 p.m. on ABC and NBC.
Stiller's premiere was an excellent example of things to come. The "Cape Munster" sketch made it very clear that we were witnessing a new kind of comedy, one that assumed it's audience would be intelligent and clever enough to understand such parodies. Both the "Cape Munster" and U2 parodies were such realistic variations on the actual product, it would have been easy for someone flipping past the channel to mistake it for the real thing.
The "Wilson Woman", who struts provocatively in the commercials, is none other than Stiller's long-term girlfriend, Jeanne Triplehorn. Triplehorn made a major breakthrough earlier that year as one of the stars of "Basic Instinct". Since then, she's appeared in such films as "Waterworld", "The Firm" and in "Reality Bites" as a Cindy Crawford-esque TV reporter.
In this episode, Stiller immediately sets himself up as the underdog. His "Video Diary" portrays him as a pathetic loser and his scene with Odenkirk reveals his insecurities about being canceled. Stiller obviously knew what he was up against, and was able (or forced) to laugh about it.
Agent Michael Pheret is one of Stiller's best original characters, and he's vaguely reminiscent of the television executive Stiller played in "Reality Bites", also named Michael. They are both the quisessential yuppie, and both have a tendency to stumble over their own sentences when they get riled up.
"Oh, oh, my hands are dirty! Oh, oh, oh, I'm a dirty boy...I can't even go out!"--Garry Shandling, pitching his idea for a movie-of-the-week on obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"Quit the show. What're you going to do, wait 'til you're down with Seinfeld in the middle of the pack, nobody knows who you are?"--Michael Pheret to Roseanne and Tom Arnold, referring to the floundering "Seinfeld" ratings.
"Very different...it's not like most sketch shows. I really like it. I think."--Laura
Overall Show Quality....8
*(Based on a 10-point scale, averaged among the five participants. No scores were thrown out.)*
The opening sketch features Stiller doing one of his favorite and most accurate impressions, Tom Cruise. In "Tom Cruise Dress Casual", the superstar takes to the stage to re-enact some of his most famous roles. He segues from "Rainman" to "Born on the Fourth of July" to a dance montage of scenes from "Top Gun", "Cocktail", "The Color of Money" and "Risky Business". Stiller perfectly captures Cruise's nasally snicker and smart-aleck smile.
Stiller introduces guest Bobcat Goldwaith, who is confused about the content of the show. They introduce "Melrose Heights, 90210-2402", a parody of the glut of Fox programming aimed at young adults. The show's cast is introduced:
"Devin...handsome, attractive and good-looking" (Stiller).
"Britton...she's beautiful, pretty and gorgeous" (Garofalo).
"Tank...he's just as attractive as Devin, only with slightly different sideburns ...they're...less pointy" (Stiller again).
"Anna...an exchange student who's learning that 'America' is more than just a language" (Angela Visser).
"Spider...all he's ever had is his music...kind of" (Dick, playing the guitar very poorly.)
"Vaughn...a sassy, English prankster...with a twinkle in his eye...and a secret" (Odenkirk).
"And Akeem...the black guy" (DeVeau Dunn).
This particular episode of "Melrose Heights" deals with the school's prejudice after Devin reveals he has a headache. Although he becomes a social outcast from people who fear they'll catch it, his friends stand by him and they end the episode with a rousing song. Devin sings: "I had a headache, but I'm okay...I am a young adult, and I am in love..."
Ben and Bobcat discuss the best way for Ben to promote his new show. This leads to a discussion of how Johnny Carson, the father of comedy, never helped Bobcat's career by letting him on the show. Ben consoles Bobcat as he wails: "My daddy doesn't love me!" This leads to a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the auditions for the new host of "The Tonight Show". Along with Jay Leno (Judd Apatow), celebrities from Todd Bridges (as himself) to William Shatner (Stiller) try out. Steven Seagal (Odenkirk) wants to open the show by kicking down a door, while Sinead O'Conner (Garofalo) doesn't want to tell a joke "when there's so much suffering in the world". The auditions turn bloody when Shatner and Seagal break into a traditional "Star Trek" fight. Shatner wins, but cries out to the judges: "Look at us! Is this what you want? you've pitted us against each other, like animals in a cage! For what? a silly, late-night talk show. Do you know what it is to feel...to love?"
There is a promo for the new Fox sitcom "Skank", starring a dirty sock puppet (voiced by Dick) with an attitude. Constantly berating his wife (Garofalo) and guest star Normal Fell (as himself), Skank introduces his catchphrase: "Shut yer stinkin' trap!!!"
ESPN and the World Tennis Organization team up to bring us the made-for cable movie "Advantage Agassi", starring tennis pro Andre Agassi (Stiller) as a crime fighting athlete. Martina Navaratilova (Garofalo) plays Cyborg 40-Love and Ernie Hudson (as himself) plays Agassi's captain, prone to spouting such cliches as: "This is a game of doubles...you've been playing singles way too long!" And perennial villain Armand Assante (Odenkirk) finds a creative way to torture Agassi, by chaining him to a wall and letting an automated pitching machine pelt him with tennis balls. The advertisement promises the show to be "a high-strung, grand-slam, scruffy-faced, line judge, ground-stroke winner!"
Bobcat and Ben introduce the "Video Diary", where a 16 year-old Ben is about to go to a VanHalen concert. Literally bouncing off the walls, the long-haired, tie-died Stiller plans to make his move on Sarah Dalton during Eddie VanHalen's "Jaime's Crying" guitar solo. When Stiller returns a few hours later, he's covered in mud and states: "All I can say is...you know, if you have your blanket down, that means that's where you're sitting, right? And you shouldn't lose your spot when you go to the bathroom! You know, nobody owns grass!"
There's a brief commercial for the "Skank Hotline", telephone number 1-900 123-SYST. (Shut Your Stinkin' Trap).
"Cops In Salem, Mass" tracks Constable Miles DeSipio (Stiller) and Lt. Constable Josiah O'Donohue (John O'Donohue) investigating a witch sighting in 1640. The "Witch" (Garofalo), is arguing with two men (Dick and Odenkirk), and swears she's innocent. When Dick reveals the woman is no more than a simple prostitute and the argument began because they refused to pay her, Odenkirk claims: "Of course he'd say that, he's a witch, too!" The two "witches" are hauled off to be dunked in a cauldron of water and "if they drown, we'll know they' weren't witches".
Bobcat wants to direct the show, and takes over the hand-held camera following them around. He ends up making a run for it, with Ben chasing after him. The closing credits feature more "Tonight Show" try-outs, including a crazed Todd Bridges pulling a gun when his audition is cut short.
Stiller not only looks and sounds like Tom Cruise, but he perfectly captures all of the actor's cutesy mannerisms--especially his tendency to rely on a killer smile to win audiences over. One of Stiller's few contributions during his brief tenure on "Saturday Night Live" was a hilarious short film parodying "The Color of Money", the 1986 sequel to the pool hall classic "The Hustler". As "Wince", Stiller plays Cruise as a bowling phenomenon who hustles small children. The Paul Newman role is assumed by John Mahoney, who Stiller later cast in a small but memorable role in "Reality Bites".
The "Cops" sketches were a regular feature on "Ben Stiller", and were always set in a different time period. However, the two officers were always thoroughly 90s. With slicked-back hair, a thick New York accent and yellow shooting glasses, Stiller's Officer DeSipio is prone to bursts of obscenities and other such modern behavior.
Evidence of Stiller's influence on today's entertainment can be found in even the most obscure places. Case in point: the character of "Skank", the grouch sock puppet. In 1993, Bobcat Goldwaith (a special guest on this episode) appeared in a wonderful, little-seen comedy called "Freaked". His character was a young man who is turned into a freak show attraction when his head is replaced by a talking sock that looks remarkably like Skank. And in the WB Network's sitcom "Unhappily Ever After", Bobcat lends his voice weekly to the character of...a talking stuffed toy of some kind. Either this is one of the strangest examples of typecasting in entertainment history, or there are a lot of speaking roles for laundry out there.
"Talk to him the way you always did...only not as loud."--Spider's advice to Britton on how to deal with Devin.
"The 'Cops' thing cracks me up because it's just like an episode of the show. They even scrambled the faces of the people in the background!"--Joy
Overall Show Quality....7
Stiller's Tom Cruise impersonation was rabidly received by everyone, but most people felt the show went downhill from there. The "Melrose" and "Cops" parodies tested highly, but the "Skank" sticom seemed to really confuse people. The biggest laugh probably came during Stiller's "Video Diary", when he first appears in a long-haired wig.
Ben is considerably excited at the start of this episode, as this week's special guest is slated to by James "Scotty" Doohan from the original "Star Trek" series. Andy is somewhat less enthusiastic, wanting to know why they couldn't get somebody else...like Bruce Springsteen.
This leads to the first segment of "Legends of Springsteen", in which ordinary people discuss their encounters with the great rock-and-roller. Joey Bentley (Dick) relates the story of how he was alone and depressed in seedy local bar, unable to get tickets to the Boss' big concert. Just then, Springsteen (Stiller) appears in the door, bathed in a golden light like some kind of angel. Bentley goes on to say that Bruce performed for over 15 hours, even singing his all-time favorite song ("99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"). After the bar has cleared out, Bentley is amazed to see Springsteen grab a mob and start cleaning up the place. "I mean, he was really scrubbing!" Bentley marvels. Bruce even refills all the ketchup bottles. And when Bentley awakens the next morning, he finds himself cleanly shaven and his shoes freshly polished.
Mark DeCarlo (Stiller) hosts "Amish Studs" from Lancaster, Pennsylvania; contestants Noah (Odenkirk) and Jebediah (Dick) are competing for a date. All the participants are uncomfortable by the sexual overones DeCarlo and the audience seem to read into such innocent statements as "he really knew how to churn butter" and "I was impressed with his incredible plowing ability". Jebediah ends up choosing Beth (Garofalo) to continue "courting", providing it is approved by the deacon and her father. Noah selects the sexy Suzie, the only non-Amish contestant, "because of her incredible body...it is forbidden fruit, and I'm a fruit fly!"
Janeane is criticizing Ben for picking on "defenseless, peace-loving people" like the Amish, and Ben suggests she speak to his agent if she has a problem with it. Janeane retorts that Ben's agent never returns her calls, but Ben explains his agent is too busy with other clients.
Ben's agent, Michael Pheret (Stiller) returns, to take a meeting with rap group Run D.M.C. (appearing as themselves). They are interested in performing on "The Ben Stiller Show", but Michael advises them to do something different. He suggests a sitcom, a talk show or an informercial for a product that has something to do with magnets. He thinks they would all be perfect for "Batman 3": "J, just make up an animal. J, who am I? Ooh, I'm Koala Man...Yeah, I climb up trees and then I scrape people and I got a little fuzzy nose and I go on an airline..." As Michael is finishing up his lengthy rant, Run D.M.C. are making a quick exit.
Janet Paulson (Garofalo), a nine-and-a-half months pregnant waitress, is finishing up a double shift at a local bar when her water breaks. The nearest hospital is too far away and none of the patrons know what to do. But in walks Bruce Springsteen to save the day, in this second installment of "Legends of Springsteen". Springsteen helps deliver a healthy little girl, "born in the U.S.A.!" Paulson is overjoyed, until two space aliens enter the bar and say they need to baby "to fuel their rocket ship". Springsteen just happens to speak their language, and manages to get the two to leave without a scene. Paulson and her baby, "Springsteena" are grateful Bruce saved the baby from ending up on "some gas station up on Venus".
Because they are up against "60 Minutes", Bob tells Ben they should do some "informative" programming. However, because they're on Fox, it also needs to be a bit "racy". So Ben introduces a documentary on space travel: "The Quest For Space, Chapter Seven: Forgotten Heroes". The story recalls how in 1960, President Kennedy came up with the idea of sending high-fashion models into space. Out of 4,000 applicants--all of whom the President screens privately--only two are chosen. Called "Bim" (Anna Karin) and "Bo" (Alicia Ann), the two spend hours at NASA learning such necessities as what a shape a star is. The "model-nauts" are launced successfully into space, but Bim has made the mistake of bringing along her personal stylist (Dick). With the extra weight in the capsule, they cannot make it back to earth...but NASA considers the mission a success anyway.
James Doohan finally arrives on the lot, and Ben is eager to talk about "Star Trek". But first there is a quick commercial, asking "What is Sexy?" As a couple of model-types (Dick and Jeanne Triplehorn) are featured in a montage of dancing, fighting and chewing their toenails, the advertiser is revealed as the "Wilson Post-Hole Digger".
Ben is bombarding James Doohan with all kinds of "Star Trek" questions, wanting to know "the difference between impulse power and warp drive" and about the layout of the engineering room. James politely answers a slew of questions, as Ben fantasizes about how great it would be if the two of them became friends. He drifts into a dream sequence (set to the "Star Trek" theme) where the two bond over coffee, cook lobsters a la "Annie Hall" and paint models of the U.S.S. Enterprises. James even cooks a dinner for Ben and his date, but beams Ben out of the dining room and takes his place. The fantasy is completed when James gives Ben his red "Star Trek" jersey, and the two embrace. As he drifts back to reality, James is growing irritated with Ben's questions. He's sick of all the Trekkies and everyone calling him "Scotty".
Abraham Lincoln (Odenkirk) is trying to write the Gettysburg Address, but is stuck with a terrible writer's block. Luckily, Bruce Springsteen appears and spends three hours working with him in this third installment of "Legends of Springsteen". He suggests Lincoln use the phrase "four score and seven years ago" because "it's got a better ring to it than eighty-seven". Lincoln raises a glass to Springsteen, declaring: "I got a lot of mileage out of that speech! Thanks, Bruce!"
As Ben wraps up the show, he gives an increasingly impatient James a "Scotty" doll and suggests they hang out sometime. James is trying to make a quick exit, but Ben follows him offstage with more "Star Trek" questions. The closing credits feature Springsteen performing to the tune of "Hungry Heart", but his song is just a collection of unrelated sentences strung together:
"I've gonna drive out to the shore
I'm gonna drive, I'm gonna go fast now--
Fortune teller gonna drive me insane
I just met a girl, and I don't know her name..."
Odenkirk's "stud" Noah, looks exactly like Odenkirk's Lincoln. I think it's even the same beard. Just an observation.
"The Quest For Space" documentary again displays the excellent production values found on "Ben Stiller". Mixing actual film of Kennedy and NASA with their own footage, Stiller assembles a quality production to rival Oliver Stone's "JFK". Before "Ben Stiller", most variety programs stuck to sketch comedy and would never even attempt something so ambitious. Segments like "The Quest For Space" represent how truly ground-breaking Stiller's show was.
"This guy's acting like I just installed electricity in his house!"--Mark DeCarlo, referring to an angry Amish elder.
"This is the weakest episode of the ones I've seen. The first Springsteen sketch is funny, but the other two just drag the joke out."--Kevin
"Out of everything we've seen, this is my favorite!"--Joy
Overall Show Quality....7
This episode tested the lowest of them all, largely due to Kevin rating the "performances" so low. His particular complaint was with Stiller's Springsteen, who he felt looked nothing like the Boss, "in spite of all that obvious make-up". Another character that seemed to be an acquired taste was the agent Michael Pheret. At first, response to this character was ambivalent. However, in later episodes some members of the group actually applauded when Pheret appeared.
A trailer for "A Few Good Scouts" finds Tom Cruise (Stiller) investigating the case of Willie Santiago, who was hung by his underwear from a flagpole by his fellow Cub Scouts. Demi Moore (Garofalo) plays the Den Mother to the troop, and together they take on the powerful and arrogant Jack Nicholson (Mick Lazinski). He warns them: "You want to investigate me? Roll the dice and take your chances. I eat breakfast every morning with twelve fathers who think I'm secretly touching their kids, so don't think you can come down here, flash a Merit Badge and scare me." They also question a character played by Kiefer Sutherland (Dick), but his accent renders him incoherent. A production of Oscar-Craving Pictures, Cruise does his best to look serious in this very important role.
The cast members are all upset that Ben brought in an actor to play the Jack Nicholson role, and each one offers their own take on how they would have done the impersonation. Bob does the famous "Here's Johnny!" line from "The Shining", while Andy and John both offer their take on the sandwich scene from "Five Easy Pieces". The best Janeane can do is say: "I'm the guy from 'Terms of Enderment'."
Officer DeSipio of Essex (Stiller) and Lieutenant O'Donohue of Loxley (John O'Donohue) answer a disturbing the peace call on "Cops in Medeval Times". A drunken sorcerer (Dick) has accidentally turned his wife into an ox and is creating a scene, blowing up things with his magic wand as he tries to return her to her normal state. DeSipio explains: "A situation like this, we'll apprehend the suspect and then we'll impound the wand, run a check on it...it usually turns out it's hot." A note tied to an arrow tells the officers a domestic disturbance is taking place nearby, and they leave to check it out. Another drunk (Odenkirk) is trying to pull a sword from a stone, much to the irritation of his wife (Garofalo) and young child. The officers manage to calm the man down and his son ends up pulling the sword out and is transformed into the King. "I loosened it for him!" the man protests. The officers head off, as DeSipio reccommends O'Donohue use leeches to cure his "touch of the plague that's going around".
Tabitha Soren (Garofalo) hosts "Ben Stiller's Music News", reporting on a trio of back-up singers named Vanilla Heat. Suing the entire music industry for discrimanation are Val (Stiller), Kim (Odenkirk) and Mosely (Dick). Convinced that men cannot get work singing back-up, the bitter threesome have over 700 cases pending in court. A couple of defendants, Casey Kasem and Marky Mark, appear as themselves to express their confusion. Dressed in spandex bicycle shorts and goofy berets, the group is seen practicing their horrible act. None of them can hit a note, but that doesn't stop them from storming Blind Jam Records and trying to get an audition. "It's happening again," Mosely tells the camera when the receptionist refuses to let them in and calls security. "Maybe we should have worn our dresses!" Kim adds with disgust. The threesome try to stage a sit-in, but are dragged out as they sing: "we will not move, till we get a break..."
"American Profiles" features Billybob Hoyt (Odenkirk), a "high-tech hillbilly" who is "trying...to preserve the hillbilly lifestyle by making it profitable." Billybob and his eighth cousin Floyd (Stiller) have come up with such inventions as the Beard O' Matic to make facial hair pointer and the Pick O' Matic 2000, which picks your feet clean, "leaving your hands free to shoot flies away, smoke a pipe, whatever". They are also working on a brand of non-alcoholic moonshine ("all of the kick, none of the sick") and Feud Technology, where they hunt members of the Hatfield family. Billybob is honored with The Golden Jug Award, and he explains: "I'm a hillbilly, I'm a businessman...but mostly I'm just a guy who never understood the word 'cain't'."
Ben shows the cast a list of words they can say on the air, now that they're on at 10:30 p.m.. The cast read over the list with considerable excitement, continuing even when Ben asks them to stop.
"The Legend of T.J. O'Pootertoot" begins with the first day of work for waitress Faith (Garofalo) at a restaurant where all of the employees are required to wear bushy moustaches and push such food as "atomic liver crisps" and "pudding shots". Faith inadvertently offends fellow waiter Dwayne (Odenkirk) by relating how her boyfriend thought fake theme restaurants were corny. "It isn't a fake theme," Dwayne replies tensely. The creepy Manager (Stiller) keeps a intent gaze fixed on Faith as she deals with a difficult customer (Dick). When she's asked what kind of meat is in "pooterballs", she replies: "it's pooter-meat...with a taste that's oddly familiar." Dwayne brags about all the "pooter-points" he's racking up by selling appetizers, but Faith points out that all he gets with "pooter-points" is T.J.'s mustache wax. "I know you didn't mean that," Dwayne replies edgily, then mutters, "You should be more careful. If somebody overhears you, we could both get shipped off to Pootertoot Spirit Camp!" The Manager tries to get Faith to join an "alley rally"--where all the waiters band together and sing--but she claims she's too busy. "We're having an alley rally," he replies stoically, and three waiters band behind him. They begin to advance on Faith, backing her against the wall.
"Who's the best, East or West?" the Manager chants.
"T.J. O'POOTERTOOT'S!" the waiters chime in.
"Where does the guest rest with zest?"
"Who always passes the fun-food test?"
Faith's boyfriend David (David Cross) bursts into the kitchen just in time, holding the waiters at bay with an electric razor. Carrying "the book of Pooter", he explains to Faith that T.J. O'Pootertoot was a member of the Donner party--the pioneers who were forced to resort to cannibalism after being snowed in. "It's people!" David tells her. "Pooter-balls are made out of people!" Faith manages to trim the mustache of the Manger, and she and David escape the restaurant. A hysterical Dwayne reminds the Manager they "need a female to repopulate with, T.J. must have a male heir, it is written!" Luckily, a young woman comes up to apply for a job and is led back into the kitchen.
A commercial for Grady's Oats finds spokesman Wilford Brimley (Dana Gould) doing his best Travis Bickle ("you talkin' to me?") impersonation with his .38 caliber. When a baseball breaks through his window, he snaps and begins shooting at the local kids.
As the show ends, Janeane thanks the rest of the cast for always being respectful and supportive to her as the only girl. But when Andy leaves to go to his trailer, he is follwed by catcalls and whistles. Vanilla Heat are seen rehearsing a commercial jingle for soap as the credits end.
After being regulated to the 10:30 p.m. time slot, "The Ben Stiller Show" responded with this sharp and hilarious installment. Not that they were aren't sharp and hilarious, but this one stands apart as probably the best single episode in the entire series.
Every single sketch works on several different levels, beginning with the ingenious "A Few Good Men" parody. Garofalo is wonderful as Demi Moore, perfectly capturing her husky voice and steely glare. And Stiller's performance will spring to mind anytime you try to watch Tom Cruise play outrage.
The "American Profiles" sketch is another example of the small touches that make "Ben Stiller" so exceptional. Odenkirk's Billybob Hoyt is a perfect mix of hillbilly and young executive. He wears a fancy suit, but the pants are cut off just above the knees, exposing mounds of untamed leg hair. Not to mention Odenkirk's outrageous cowlick, pointed beard and giant freckles. There's even a bottle of moonshine on his desk with a giant "XXX" on it.
The highlight of the show, of course, is the "T.J. O'Pootertoot" sketch. In the 94-95 season of "Saturday Night Live", they attempted to do a parody of "Soylent Green" with Charlton Heston's character being stuck in a series of sequels that always found him repeating the famous line: "It's people! Soylent green is made out of people!" Basically a one-joke idea, Heston would insert "Soylent Red", "Soylent White" and even "Soylent Cow Flops" in the according movie. While this was mildly amusing for about twenty seconds, it shows none of the absurdity and originality of "T.J. O'Pootertoot". The writer(s) of this sketch know that there's a dark side to everything- even those cheesey little theme restaurants where everyone seems so happy. This is also an extremely intelligent sketch, with references to everything from "Soylent Green" to the Donner Party. But most importantly, it's just balls-out funny.
Andy wailing "stop harrassing me, once and for all!" before storming out on the cast as they taunt him.
The entire "T.J. O'Pootertoot" sketch.
"Yes, 'T.J. O'Pootertoot' is funny. But I wouldn't make it my religion."--Kristy
Overall Show Quality....9
The high scores of this episode can be attributed to several factors. First, this is an excellent show--even without the T.J. O'Pootertoot's sketch. Another possibility is that the control group was adjusting to the offbeat humor and style of the program. Everyone scored the "humor" as a 9 or better, and the "performances" were rated a 10 straight across the board. This is probably due to the oustanding impersonations in the "Few Good Scouts" parody, which seemed to be a turning point for the viewers. From this point on, every episode was rated extremely high.
Ben opens the show on "hip, trendy, happening" Melrose Avenue. He explains that, due to the success of "Melrose Place", Fox now wants all their shows to take place on Melrose.
"Cops in Ancient Egypt" finds Officer Ramses DeSipio (Stiller) and Lieutenant Osiris O'Donohue (John F. O'Donoghue) looking into a riotous gathering at Red Sea Beach. Moses is attempting to part the Red Sea without a permit and has been caught "drinking while prophesying". There's also a burning bush found and two of his followers (Dick and Garofalo) are caught with a golden calf. When the officers continue to pester him, Moses causes Osiris to disintegrate. DeSipio decides to go for back up, since Moses is "obviously hopped up on something".
Bob thinks Melrose is the perfect place to get some feedback on the show, and he makes Ben ask a pair of ladies what they think of "The Ben Stiller Show". Neither one has ever heard of it or him.
On a new episode of "Skank", the angry sock puppet (voiced by Dick) is blinded by runaway bacon grease. Todd Bridges (as himself) stops by to try and cheer Skank up, but Skank is unimpressed. "Honey, you keep him busy while I call the cops," he whispers to his wife, Doris (Garofalo). His disability doesn't take any of the edge off Skank, as he tells Doris: "I can't see your stinkin' trap...but I know it ain't shut!"
On "Ben Stiller's Music News", Tabitha Soren (Garofalo) tells of the controversy over rap star Ice Man McGee (Odenkirk). Soren explains that McGee's next-door neighbor Doug Szathkey (Dick) is protesting Ice Man's new hit single, "Kill Doug Szathkey". The album cover itself features a picture of a terrified Szathkey, with a target on his face. To show both sides of the debate, the video to the song is shown. In it, Szathkey is seen yelling at McGee to turn his music down and stay off his property.
"That's right, I said kill Doug Szathkey!
He makes me mad, chief, always frontin' up my posse
Telling me to keep it down and all that--
He's just a sucker, stepping on my ballsac
Just a stupid neighbor, complaining
Keep it up, I'll call the block association
The one that meets at the end of my fist--
Little doggies, gonna get kissed!
Cutting up my lawn and scattering his clippings!
You think I don't know where my yard begins?
He lives at Springer Road, number three-eleven
Sucker gets home every night around seven.
Kill Doug Szathkey!
That's right, I said kill Doug Szathkey!
Szathkey is seen at his home, which has been turned upside-down by vandals, crouched beneath the window. He recognizes McGee has a right to say what he wants, but he fears for his life. As he gets up to move across the room, gunfire rips through the house and barely misses him. He crawls into a corner, whimpering: "Leave me alone!!!" Ice Man McGee holds a press conference where he explains: "Like I'm saying, it's just censorship, straight up! I'd would like to make it clear that when I said "Kill Doug Szathkey", I was using street terminology to describe a situation from my life. When you misinterpret my words, all y'all 'dis me, you 'dis my fans and you 'dis the United States Constitution and that's the real crime!" The record company decides to issue the record with a warning, stating that they do not "condone the killing or in any way harming of Doug Szathkey."
At a "hip, Melrose Avenue" restaurant, the cast and crew order lunch items varying from "Gary Coleman Gazpaucho" and "Ice-T Ice Tea".
Andy tells Ben he's "freaked out" by the people he sees on Melrose Avenue, and wants to walk faster.
As the camera spins about dizzily, a mysterious voice announces: "You're looking at late night shock jock Damien Faustman, a man who hates his listeners almost as much as he hates himself. Tonight, he'll learn that it doesn't take a lot of expensive special effects or an original storyline to come face-to-face with his worst nightmare...his soul". Written and directed by Josh Silverberg and starring Brad Silverberg (Stiller) as Damien, this episode of "Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horror" is titled "A Call From Hell". Damien, who can be reached at 666-DVIL, proceeds to berate his callers as he chain-smokes a series of cigarettes. He begins to hear mysterious voices calling his name and the room grows unbearably hot. When he begins receiving strange phone calls, the camera begins to spin about even faster, and the "Satanex" clock begins to bleed. The evil voice begins to taunt him, saying: "Ooh, there's horns on your poster...I wonder what that means! Your "on the air" sign is getting red...interesting! It's getting so hot in here, here at WDVL...get it? Pleased to meet you, won't you guess my name?" The caller finally informs Damien he's in hell, and Damien screams as he is transformed into a hoofed beast. Unfortunately, Damien is less than impressed with the way things turn out. He feels he should fall into a fiery pit or get eaten by insects, but the Devil explains they're in a recession and he's on a budget.
Ben and Janeane talk about their school days, where Janeane says she "never cracked a book."
This leads to "B-Minus Time Traveler", featuring a high school student (Garofalo) "with nothing but a B-Minus average from an American public school" who tries to help famous historical figures with her poor knowledge of American history. George Washington (Stiller) wants advice on the Civil War, but the student can only remember that he needs lots of shoes and at some point he crosses the Delaware. General Douglas MacArthur (Odenkirk) wants advice on when to bomb Pearl Harbor, but the student cheated on her exam and can't remember the right date. And when she tries to warn Christopher Columbus (Dick) about him losing one of his ships, she realizes she "should not have cut Spanish!"
A commercial for Tito Gallegos (Stiller), "The Pig-Latin Lover" announces his new album of love songs. Featuring such hits as "atisfaction-Say" and "oxanne-Ray", the record company accepts "all-ay ajor-may redit-cay ards-cay".
Andy, clad in black leather and sunglasses tells Ben how much he loves Melrose. Ben wants to discuss this sudden change, but Andy hitches a ride on a motorcycle and leaves Ben behind.
Long before Quentin Tarantino invaded American pop culture, Ben Stiller was using icons from the 70s and early 80s on his show for their camp value. Todd Bridges appears on both "Skank" and the "Tonight Show" auditions, both times poking fun at his criminal record. Stiller also featured Danny Bonaduce before his make-over as a talk-show host, Normaln(Mr. Roper) Fell and Herve Villacheze on his program.
"Kill Doug Szathkey" features some of Odenkirk and Dick's best work and is probably one of the most outstanding sketches of the series. Odenkirk is utterly unrecognizable as the rap star, disguised behind a goatee, sunglasses and a hairnet. He adapts all the mannerisms of a street-tough gangsta rapper, despite the fact he's the whitest guy in his entire "posse".
Stiller displays a unique talent with his "Pig Latin Lover" Tito Gallegos. He manages to perform such fast-paced songs as "American Pie", despite the fact that he has almost twice as many words when he sings in Pig Latin.
Despite the fact John F. O'Donoghue is playing a character named "Osiris", Stiler refers to him by his usual name--"Johnny"--in the "Cops" parody.
"If you can't remember that date, this could be the greatest disaster since Washington capsized in the Delaware with all those shoes!"--General MacArthur, in "B-Minus Time Traveler".
"The rap song is hilarious--it actually sounds like something Ice-T would release."- Richard
"I don't get 'Skank' at all. I guess it's supposed to be satirical, but it's just so stupid."- Kristy
Overall Show Quality....10
When I pointed out to the control group that they were rating this episode and subsequent episodes higher than the "Scouts" episode, they were surprised. Almost everyone agreed that Episode 4 was their favorite, and Laura and Richard actually re viewed Episode 1 and marked it as the best. When questioned about this, three participants responded with almost identical answers: either they hadn't "fully appreciated it" on first viewing, or they were "just now getting the joke".
Ben introduces special guest Dennis Miller, who "would like to say hi to you, the six to eight people out there who actually watch this show." Recently canceled himself, Miller says Stiller's show "makes me feel like Jimmy Arness, ratings-wise".
Three bachelors find an elderly gentleman on their doorstep in "Three Men and An Old Man", a sequel to the other hit "Three Men" movies. Crazy hijinks ensue as Ted Danson (Dick) fits the old man (Alvin Hammer) with a toupee, Steve Guttenberg (Stiller) spoon-feeds him dinner and Tom Selleck (Odenkirk) wrestles with the adult diapers. Worst of all, they are forced to listen to the old man's long, boring stories ("And then...my prostate blew up...I had the operation, but it got infected...LISTEN TO ME!")
An episode of the classic television series "Manson" finds an idyllic family in the 1950s living on a farm with their pet, Manson (Odenkirk). Manson is his usual self on the telephone: "You want to talk to Mrs. Wilson? Why don't you want to talk to Charlie? You think if you don't talk to me, I'll go away, but I can't go away because I'm not even here! I'm a ghost of a phantom of a shadow in the heart of your children!" Little Timmy (Jeffrey Roth) and Manson go hunting for toads, but Timmy is accidentally bitten by a snake. "I've been bit, too, and I like it!" Manson says, "Truth don't play no favorites, bite on that, Jack!" Manson runs home to tell Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (Dick and Garofalo), and they somehow manage to understand his strange language. Timmy is saved in time, and they all share a good laugh at Manson's odd behavior.
Dennis Miller compliments Stiller on his cast and show, in his own back-handed way. He warns them not to get too funny, or "it might be Hoffaville".
A casting agent (Garofalo) for "Beethoven" interviews Al Pacino (Stiller) for the lead role. Pacino proceeds to improvise, going so far as to kiss the stuffed dog: "I know it was you, Beethoven! You broke my heart!" He has other ideas, such as throwing himself against a wall: "Go ahead, frisk me! You wanna frisk me, Beethoven?"
A commercial for Ed's Clownwear , a parody of Levi's "What Fits?" campaign, features a clown (Stiller) performing his beat poetry:
"Pie fits face, so throw it.
Seltzer fits bottle, so spray your baby down.
Floppy shoes fit feet, so wear them
And the dirty toes they adorn remind you of some clown you once knew
In some hot tent long ago.
Familiar as these baggy pants that fit like a glove
Like the bearded lady, coming back for more
Curved into the shape of a blimp, like they were custom-made
To do just that."
Danny Bonaduce (as himself) hosts "America's Most Suspicious", which features people "we think are up to something...but we're not sure". A dramatization of the case of Ed Janek (Dick) finds his neighbors, the nasally and high-strung Tad and Laura Gradshaw (Odenkirk and Garofalo), relating several disturbing incidents. The first occurred when Laura was working in the garden, and she saw Janek running around outside his house naked. She then heard strange music coming from Janek's house and saw him in the window in a tuxedo, singing opera. Next, Janek began singing to a dead fish and frozen chicken while striking them against each other. "Then he starts taking pictures," Laura continues, "Of ME!" This prompts a hysterical Tad to run over to Janek's house, wielding a golf club. Janek answers the door covered in feathers and insists he's been in the basement all day working on pottery. "Pottery?!? What about the naked running and the fish singing and the opera? You're a lunatic, you're freaking us out!" The police refuse to help, saying Janek hasn't done anything illegal. "I guess freaking your neighbors out is legal!" Tad retorts, before breaking down into sobs. Bonaduce then follows up on other cases, including The O'Conners..."a pair of first-class weirdoes who have their whole neighborhood freaked out". Once again, the Gradshaws are featured to tell about how the O'Conners "just sit in that car for hours, listening to square dance music". As Tad grows more upset, the Gradshaws recite a prayer to calm themselves down.
Ben tells Dennis how much he enjoyed his talk-show, and Dennis gives him advice on how to deal with cancellation. Ben wants to know if Dennis has heard something, but Dennis is vague.
Sandra Bernhard (Dick) auditions for the role of the coach in "The Mighty Ducks", a script she loved so much she licked every page. She also improvises: "Look at you kids, my little bratskies! I love you! I want to stick toothpicks in you and eat you like hors d'oeuvres!" She completes her performance with a song and dance on the agent's table.
"The Pig Latin Lover's Ariety-Vay Ectacular-Spay" finds Tito Gallegos performing with Rip Taylor (as himself) and the All-American Football Team. He also sings a duet of "9 to 5" with Dolly Parton (Garofalo)--him in Pig Latin, her in English. Susan Anton (as herself) stops by to borrow some bolt cutters, but he'll only lend them to her if she asks in Pig Latin.
Dennis Miller starts giving Ben advice on how to take charge of his show, so Ben gets rid of him.
Dennis Miller was one of the best guests Stiller ever welcomed onto his show, performing improvised riffs on the show that rang eerily true. When he begins discussing cancellation, Ben asks if Dennis has heard something about the show. Dennis says he's heard nothing, then states: "I'm not Kreskin, but I've got my ear down to the track and I hear the Silver Streak coming. But you will rise above it. You'll be bigger and...you'll learn."
Miller also makes a joke about how Fox is as committed to Ben's show as they are to "Herman's Prostate", a reference to the sitcom "Herman's Head". Fast-forward a couple years to "The Critic", an animated comedy starring Jon Lovitz and featuring Stiller's executive producer Judd Apatow as a consulting producer. In one episode, the character Duke Phillips remarks: "I haven't seen him this upset since they canceled 'Herman's Prostate'."
The "America's Most Suspicious" skit is another one of those strange bits that people react very differently to. Many members of my focus group said they just didn't "get it"- what was the joke? Was Ed Janek really crazy, or were these neighbors just convinced that everyone around them was nuts? To be honest, I'm not sure...but it doesn't really matter. "America's Most Suspicious" is hilarious to me because of the wonderful characters found in Janek and the Gradshaws. As Janek, Dick wears a thick brown wig and some kind of contact lens or something that gives him a lazy eye. The scene of him singing to the fish and the chicken may make no sense, but it sure does look hysterical. Garofalo and Odenkirk are also very good in their prudish roles. Just the way Odenkirk runs when he goes next door, then bangs on the door screaming: "Open up! Knock, knock!" (Yes, he actually says "knock, knock"). The best moment, however, is probably when Janek says he's working on pottery and holds out a lump of misshapen clay. He's trying to behave very casually, but he's covered in feathers.
Ed Janek also appears, ugly wig and all, in another episode a parody of "Rescue 911" entitled "Information 411".
"Andy, great name, don't change it. Look good on a marquee some day when you're doing films. Parents show up and think you're doing gay porn."--Dennis Miller on Andy Dick.
"The 'Manson' bit is really very tasteless when you get right down to it. What kind of a sick mind thinks of putting Charles Manson in a television show as the family dog? Good thing it's so funny, or I'd probably be really offended."--Laura
Overall Show Quality....9
Everyone was increasingly impresed with Tito Gallegs and Stiller's unique talent with Pig Latin. A few tried singin "9 to 5" in Pig Latin and everyone agreed it's not as easy as it looks.
Ben and Janeane open the show on the beautiful California beach, a setting Ben chose because of all the viewer letters that say they want to see Janeane naked.
"Relaxation Tape No. 2" features Relaxation King Brent Forrester (Dick), trying to soothe away the tensions and anxieties of his listeners. Just a giant floating head superimposed on several scenes of nature, Brent speaks in a calming voice as New Age Music plays lightly in the background. Brent is easily distracted by a beautiful young woman sunning herself on the beach, urging listeners to: "Let the sound of the ocean relax every muscle...starting with your calves...and moving up to your nice, creamy thighs...that's right...relax and rub that into your stomach...very good with the lotion thing..." When the woman spots him, she screams and attracts the attention of several other beach-goers. One begins to poke at the giant head with a rake, causing Brent to temporarily loose his cool and strike him unconscious.
An episode of the talk show "Roundtable" features host Art Lewater (Stiller) examining the controversy over a recent episode of the hit sitcom "Skank". The sock puppet with a bad attitude, who is actually played by British actor Theodore Hume (voiced by Dick), was featured wasting water in his season premiere. This drew criticism from Senator Edmund Warring (Odenkirk), for trivializing "serious issues such as water conservation". Skank's retort on the next week's episode: "The human body is ninety percent water...how much of that is wasted every year by murder? Senator Warring, get your priorities straight or shut yer stinkin' trap!" Appearing opposite each other on "Roundtable", Hume tries to explain that nobody is going to emulate Skank. He also brings evidence that Warring used to have water balloon fights as a child, wasting an untold amount of water. The two begin their discussion maturely, but are soon screaming at each other to "shut yer stinkin' trap!"
Ben and Janeane are talking about the "clean, fresh air" and "natural beauty of the water" of Southern California when they catch Andy drinking some of the contaminated water. Andy begins gagging: "I really drank some of that stuff...it burned going down."
"Headbanger's Ball" features MTV VJ Karen Duffy (Garofalo) interviewing Metallica's Lars Ulrich (Odenkirk) and James Hetfield (Stiller). The pair have always wanted to score a movie, but wanted to wait for one "as extreme and dark" as Metallica. Luckily, the new Pauly Shore movie "The Boy Who Magically Switched Places With His Dad" came along. Having already been rejected after writing a song for the film "18 Again"--entitled "18 is Three Sixes"--James decided to just revise the song for the new movie. The video for "The Father-Son Switching Song" features Pauly Shore (Dick) switching places with his father (Fred Willard) after discovering a book of magic spells. The son then takes his father's place on a local t.v. talk show while the father gets in trouble at school for smoking cigars. James explains: "This film deals with a lot of complex issues on a lot of different levels, but the bottom line is...it's just the old switcheroo! Ha!"
Andy Dick's Political Children's Theater features Andy and two child actors (Brady Bluhm and Narissa Nicola) performing a scene "meant to spark discussion of a very serious topic...the homeless". In it, the young boy asks for a handout and the girl tells him to get lost. The cast join hands and ask the audience: "where do we draw the line?"
"Henry the Wicked", the story of King Henry (Stiller) and Sir Charles (Odenkirk), is interrupted for a message from the KFSB Pledge-a-thon. Needing to raise $10,000, the host of the pledge (Garofalo) extols the virtues of "free television". When they return to the show in progress, Henry and Charles are still arguing. Henry pulls something from his coat--but we can't tell what. The host explains that every pledge will receive a beautiful tote bag. One of the operators (Dick) explains that every $200 pledge receives a tape from "comedian-slash-commentator-slash political satirist Mark Russell." As the dramatic tension in "Henry" builds, we continue to cut back to the pledge every few seconds. Finally, the host steps onto the "Henry the Wicked" set, announcing: "I'm not moving 'til you make the call...the gravy train is over, get off!"
Andy is performing mime as Bob shills for him, encouraging other people to give him money. Bob and Ben get worried when Andy starts to climb the building and won't stop.
Relaxation King Brent Forrester returns for "Relaxation Tape No. 6", but is invaded by a turban-clad Jefferson Conn (Stiller), Master of Inner Balance. Brent doesn't want to share the space with Jefferson, so they begin competing to relax the audience. Jefferson intones: "You are happy, you don't look like a pathetic Superboy with strange blond hair." Brent gets worked up by Jefferson's taunts, and disintegrates.
Stiller's Wheel of Filler lands on "Bruce Springsteen Makes an Answering Machine Tape". The Boss (Stiller) is shown attempting several comedic ideas, finally deciding on: "Hello? What's that, I can't hear you, you got to speak up...ha-ha, got you! Just playing around with you!"
Ben tries to break up a fight after Andy destroys Bob's sand castle. In response, Bob decimates Andy's castle and the two attack each other.
As the credits role, Andy is seen disciplining the child actors from his "Political Theater" sketch. Accusing them of stepping on his lines, the girl retorts: "stepping on lines? You use mine as a railroad track!" He finally explodes, screaming: "You do your part and you do it well and then get out of here!"
Brent Forrester, the "Relaxation King", is actually the name of one of the show's writers.
This is a great show to observe Dick's variety and range. From Brent Forrester to the tantrum-throwing host of "Andy Dick's Political Children's Theater" to his excellent Pauly Shore, Dick is featured prominently in every scene. His Pauly Shore impression is eerily accurate and somewhat ironic, considering one of Dick's first jobs post "Stiller" was co-starring with Shore in the feature film "In the Army Now".
"Pauly Shore scares the hell out of me."--James Hetfield.
"The scary thing is, I think I saw that movie Metallica's singing about."--Kevin.
Overall Show Quality....8
The reason for the drop in ratings can be attributed primarily to Kevin, who dislikes both the character of Skank and Stiller's Springsteen impersonation. However, everyone loved the segment staged during the end credits when Andy Dick pitches a fit and screams at the child actors. Kristy seemed to speak for everyone when she remarked: "I would love to see outtakes of the cast filming this show. They're probably just as funny as what goes on the air".
It had to have been a bittersweet victory for the writers of "The Ben Stiller Show" to win an Emmy several months after their cancellation. While it validated what critics had been saying all along--that this was a revolutionary program that could change the face of modern comedy--one had to wonder if its short time on the air had been enough to have any influence at all. The answer, happily, is yes. Three years after being taken off the air, "The Ben Stiller Show" seems to finally be coming into its own. The show itself now re-runs on Comedy Central and the creative minds behind it are exerting their influence in every area of entertainment.
It is no coincidence that the three best shows on television all have ties to "Ben Stiller". Brent Forrester, the writer whose name was used for the "Relaxation King", is a regular contributor to "The Simpsons". If any show shares the same ironic style and skewed sense of humor as "Ben Stiller", this is it. Fox Television itself has called "The Simpsons," "the show that built a network" and credits the program with giving a struggling empire its early voice. On HBO, "The Larry Sanders Show" is perhaps the only vehicle to properly capitalize on the enormous appeal of Janeane Garofalo. Her Paula is graced with a sardonic wit, and Garofalo presents her excellent dialogue with just the right amount of venom--stinging, but not poisonous. HBO has long been proud to associate itself with "Larry Sanders", using its success to launch other original programming. And NBC's "NewsRadio" is easily the best new show in years, due largely to Andy Dick's physical and comedic talents.
The film world is also recognizing the talent on display on "The Ben Stiller Show." Why else would Jim Carrey, probably the biggest star in Hollywood, agree to star in "The Cable Guy" for sophomore director Stiller? Stiller will also be seen in front of the camera in a slew of new movies next year, including "If Lucy Fell", "Happy Gilmore" and "Flirting With Disaster". "Ben Stiller" executive producer and writer Judd Apatow is also in demand, having displayed considerable range by following up Disney's "Heavyweights" script with a rewrite of the dark "Cable Guy". And Janeane Garofalo will move from supporting roles to romantic lead in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs" early next year.
The influence of "Ben Stiller" has not been lost on sketch comedy. The past two years have seen an emergence of comedy troupes more like "Ben Stiller" and less like "Saturday Night Live". Shows like "MTV's The State", "Exit 57" and "Mad TV" have moved away from traditional sketch comedy and branched out into more unconventional areas. These shows are venturing outside their studios, shooting more films and moving beyond the obvious punchlines. "Mad TV" recently featured a movie parody titled "Apollo the 13th: Jason Takes Houston" that was similar to "Cape Munster" in its skillful blending of two separate genres.
"The Ben Stiller Show" cast have also done their part to see that other comedy voices can be heard. As creator and host of "Comedy Product", Janeane Garofalo welcomes "alternative" comedians to perform their acts. And HBO's "Mr. Show" gives former "Ben Stiller" writers Bob Odenkirk and David Cross a showcase for their hilarious and offbeat talents.
"The Ben Stiller Show" was a program that respected its audience and treated them with intelligence. Had the show been exposed to a wider audience, I believe it would have enjoyed the commercial success it deserved. Every member of my focus group said they would watch "Ben Stiller" now, after being exposed to a handful of episodes. When asked why they hadn't watched the show when it originally aired, the overwhelming response was a lack of interest. Kristy responded: "There were just too many sketch shows on back then...it didn't stand out to me." But on a scale of 1 to 10, not a single person rated the overall quality of any of the seven episodes below an 8. Perhaps the strongest indicator that this group was taken with the program, every single one of them borrowed my copy of "Reality Bites" (even those who had seen it before).
It is my belief that we will be seeing the effects of "Ben Stiller" for years to come. Only time will tell how this skewed take on life will affect the artists of tomorrow. It is with considerable excitement that I look forward to an era where I won't feel like the only one getting the joke.