Chris Elliott: "'SNL' looks like a lot of fun but you're constantly auditioning"

Comic cult heroes Dave Hill and Chris Elliott discuss the brutal business of being funny

Published October 22, 2012 6:20PM (EDT)

Dave Hill and Chris Elliott
Dave Hill and Chris Elliott

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of doing a live interview with one of my heroes — comedian, writer and actor Chris Elliott — at the Barnes and Noble in New York. I’ve been a fan of Chris’ since his first appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman" in the early 1980s, when he changed the face of late night television forever with such characters as “The Guy Under the Seats,” “The Fugitive Guy,” “Chris Elliott Jr.” and countless others I am rendered incontinent just thinking about.

Over the course of an hour or so, Chris and I discussed topics including but not limited to his groundbreaking work with Letterman, "Get a Life" (the greatest television show of all time), "Cabin Boy" (the greatest movie of all time), his time at "SNL," his Adult Swim series "Eagleheart," and, of course, his excellent new book "The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Biography," a hilarious and at times chilling tell-all that chronicles not only his show business exploits but also surprising encounters with John Gotti, the Beales of Grey Gardens, Aileen Wuornos and several others I just never saw coming. Chris is a comedic genius and I have incredible hair. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

When I was a kid, I understood they were characters you were playing, but I always thought, and I still love, that it was not you just coming out and telling us, "Hey, I’m Chris Elliott." It was like someone who was insane, and I love that I felt, like with the fugitive guy, you can imagine the whole world of this character. You imagine that the guy was doing all that stuff before he even walked onstage and when he left, he’s still being completely out of his mind.

I’m insane?

No, no, no, I’m saying your characters, and … 

So you just sat there imagining all that.

How are we doing on time?

No, I know what you mean. In the book, I portray myself as a Chauncey Gardiner or a Forrest Gump kind of character who just sort of fell into show business. And there is a certain amount of truth to that even though I’m not a complete moron. But there is a part of me that isn’t entirely sure what I did or why I did it and why I’m still doing it and why people like you are fans of it. But that actually helps me a little bit to understand what I was doing and maybe how I helped you — I don't know. But I wasn’t thinking that I’m creating a world here. I mean, the thing with me was always that the joke was that I really am this sort of slightly deranged staff member who wants desperately to be a star on television and is going to try any way he can to get on the show -- and it was always these lame run-in characters that I was doing that generally were all the same. I would come out, something would scare me, I'd scream and I'd run out of the studio and then come back and take big bows.

At the time there weren’t other shows like "Late Night" on. There was no Internet, no cable and all that. And for me it was so perfect because I had my own little spotlight once a week on this show and if something in the news happened or I saw something on TV that I thought was funny, I had a couple of days to think about something to do and to write it with other writers and so forth. Nowadays something like that happens, it’s like that night somebody has a parody up that’s usually pretty good, you know, pretty funny — there's a lot of crap, too — but it’s like, nowadays I wouldn't be able to compete with all that out there. But at the time there was nobody else doing it. Certainly not doing what Dave Letterman did. And definitely not doing what I was doing.

But now, basically what you guys did was the jumping-off point for what everyone’s doing.

Right, yeah. It’s become the template for shows. I think that’s the word we’re looking for!

That’s actually my next thing. Template ...

The knight’s template! All right, go on.

Do you have a favorite character from then?

I guess the guy under the seats, but they were all sort of me doing this other character underneath these things with that weird sort of persona of this guy who was kind of angry that he wasn’t more successful, which was absolutely true. I think that’s what Dave initially responded to with me because I kind of acted that way in the offices. I was the lowliest low on the totem pole up there, I was the guy getting coffee and doing that kind of stuff and I wouldn’t laugh at his jokes and kind of stare him down and just like, oh, man … that guy. I guess that’s funny, Dave, and then walked away and I’d just steer him as he walked away going,  "Heeheeheehee." And he’s thinking that guy’s got balls and then that eventually ended up on TV so it was always that kind of character disguised as a running character. The first time I started doing a real character I think was when I did Marlon Brando on the show. Then it wasn't like, you know, the panicky guy or the fugitive guy or anything like that. I was actually, like, coming out as a character.

I love that even now when you’re on the show, you’re still the only person that’s willing to insult him — repeatedly.

I really hadn’t thought of it. Merrill Markoe, who was the head writer when I first started there, mentioned this the other day. Dave lets me get away with stuff that he would not let anybody else get away with — and still does. And I don't know where it comes from. I think from what we first started doing back in the '80s, and a certain amount of trust that he has in me. And I think that’s what audiences responded to, too, is that I would just call him on shit.

I wanted to ask you about "Get a Life," what I consider to be the greatest television show of all time. Do you have a favorite episode or memory from that?

Every episode I think came out great on that show. I think it’s easier to look at the ones that maybe weren't that great and even those I think were pretty funny when I look back on it. We did this pilot and the pilot was kind of a selling tool for the show to get it picked up from the network. And to do that you had to put things in it that the network wanted, and one of them that they were demanding was a, like, real relationship with my father, and my real dad played my dad on the show. So in the pilot there were actual moments where my dad said, "I’m proud of you, son," and they picked up the show, but that was not the show we wanted to do. And then I remember Adam Resnick and I were holed up in a hotel room over a weekend and together Adam had found an ad for male modeling and we just wrote this male modeling episode, which was the next episode after the pilot, and I think that was the signature show for "Get a Life." It’s the "Handsome Boy Modeling School." As soon as the network saw that, the writing was on the wall. Oh, no, that is not what we picked up … They actually said to me that they were hoping for the next "Cosby Show," and I was like, of course they’re going to get something like that: Bill Cosby and then you pick Chris Elliott. Same thing.

You mentioned your dad. One of my favorite episodes of "Get a Life" is "Neptune 2000," where you send away for the submarine and it shows up 20 years later.

Yeah, it’s to build your own submarine and I put it together in the shower and then I somehow convince my dad to get in it with me and suddenly there’s a technical problem and the shower starts filling up with water and we're running out of oxygen in the shower in this fake little submarine. That's another episode where the network looked at it and said he has to have a real moment with his dad, and he’s running out of oxygen and I was like, how do you do that? We’re in a handmade submarine in my shower and you want a real moment! It’s amazing to think that even into that season, after how many episodes we had done where we were obviously doing this insane show, they were still hoping that somehow they’d get a "Cosby Show" out of that submarine show.

What I love about your dad’s character is his incredible disdain for you the whole time. How much of that is acting?

Well, I think that by the second season it wasn’t acting at all. It was all acting. I mean, his character was kind of patterned in my mind after William Crawley who played Fred on "I Love Lucy." And that’s why I called him Fred on the show. He played that perfectly. You know, "Get a Life" sort of sprung out of an idea that I had when I was in my bed thinking that, well, I’m the youngest in my family and growing up I always come up with weird things I wanted to do and tell my dad about. Like I wanted to be a Lincoln expert at one point, I think I was 9 years old.  I said I’m gonna be a Lincoln expert, just gonna write books on Lincoln, and then I wanted to be a hockey player but I didn't know how to skate. My dad was always sort of smiled and said OK, and got me all the equipment to be a Lincoln expert.

What is the equipment?

Well, shin guards and all that. A beard, a helmet and a hockey stick. But I think there was the bemused attitude that he had that sort of influenced his attitude on "Get a Life."

One of the greatest movies of all time I think is "Cabin Boy." It is.

It is our new "Wizard of Oz."

"Cabin Boy" is very misunderstood, even all these years later. What are your memories of that time and how has it changed?

I stand by the movie. I think it's a funny weird movie, I think it's a flawed movie without a doubt. You know, Adam Resnick and myself had been writing for Dave Letterman and "Get a Life," and it came along because Tim Burton called me and said he wanted to do a Cosby movie. He actually wanted to do a "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" for the '90s is how he described it, and Adam and I had had this idea for a "Captains Courageous" sort of movie. Adam had written this really funny episode of "Get a Life," with these bad-ass construction workers that I become enamored with so we thought we could do the same thing on the high seas and then Tim Burton got involved in it and we thought, Oh, but we need to add some really weird creatures into it because it’s Tim Burton and he likes dark oooh spooky stuff. So we added the creatures and he loved the script and we were gonna shoot it and he was going to direct it and it was going to be like a $40 million special-effects movie and at the last minute he decided he was going to direct "Ed Wood" instead and then the budget was slashed to about $12 million. But we were so naive we didn’t change the script at all so we had to do a special-effects movie on a shoestring budget. It’s funny because a lot of people will come up to Adam, who directed it, and they’ll say it has this great look and it’s so funny when Chris is on the raft there and in the backdrop you can actually seem the seam in the backdrop — that’s so cool! And we’re just like, "Yes, well, that was all planned out." And it’s basically because we couldn't afford a better one. But it has its own unique look, I think. I think we were surprised at how vilified that movie was when it first came out.  I was so naive. I just thought, "Well, OK, we're trying something different here. If it doesn't work they’ll give me a chance to do another one and afterward try something else." Apparently that’s not how it works. I learned the hard way.

And around the same time you did "SNL" for a season. 

Yeah, that was actually to try to forget about "Cabin Boy." Actually part of the reason I did "SNL" was that we were living out in L.A. — I’m from the East Coast and we thought, "Oh, OK, well 'Cabin Boy' is gonna come out and then I’m going to be doing 'Boy' 2, 3 and 4 after that and all these other movies. Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed." But we got out there [to L.A.] and it was the year of the Northridge earthquake and the fires that came fairly close to the house we were renting, and then I just wanted to get back to New York. The offer came in to do "SNL" and I said yes. I had auditioned years before for the show in the late '80s. After Lorne Michaels had left and then was coming back and that cast was with Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr.,  and I auditioned for that and they offered it to me then, but I turned it down because Dave was giving me my own spot, my own show on "Late Night," so I didn’t think it made sense.

I had a terrible time. I always have to preface this by saying that all the cast, they really liked me, they were all really nice. I think I just went there when I was too old. I had already done "Get a Life," "Cabin Boy" and nine years working for Dave, and I was amazed that people like Chris Farley and Adam Sandler were still competing for airtime on the show, which is the process there. It’s a really unhealthy process. You’re doing comedy but you’re competing with your fellow cast members for airtime. I had never worked in an environment like that. I was always given my own little shot, and then "Get a Life" was mine, and so it seemed very alien to me, and I don't think people understand how hard that show is during the week. It looks like it’s really a lot of fun, but you're constantly auditioning. You’re auditioning the day you meet the host and have to pitch out an idea you might write that week, then you have to stay up all night and write sketches. And then there’s a table read on Wednesday where you’re basically auditioning your piece in front of everybody who wants their piece to go better than your piece. So there’s a lot of people just sitting on their hands and not laughing when you’re doing your thing and then doing real big fake laughs on the piece that they’re supporting. Then the show pieces get picked and then you have to go through this rehearsal thing and then dress rehearsal is the last stage before something gets cut — and that’s another kind of audition. So it’s very tense up to that point. I loved doing the show itself — that was the easiest part of the week for me, the actual show, because I was usually hardly on it. I think Lorne knew I had a hard time staying up after about midnight so my stuff was usually over before then. Just take a nap.

You have a new show, "Eagle Heart." [audience applauds

[To audience] Oh, thank you. That’s nice to hear. Yeah, it’s really fun doing it. It’s this 15-minute show on Adult Swim. It’s written by these guys Andrew Weinberg, Michael Cohen and Jason Wahler. Adam Resnick and I do some consulting on it. And it’s fun now to do these shows. I’m working with these guys that are working in their mid- to late 20s, but they grew up on watching "Get a Life" and "Cabin Boy," I guess, and stuff that I’ve done. They have my voice down better than I do, so all I have to do is step into it. It’s really funny.

It is the bloodiest show on television, ever. 

Yeah, absolutely. But we’re making a comment on violence.

That was my next thing. It’s coming back for a third season. 

It is. I love doing it. It’s great. I love that format. I love 15 minutes. It’s really just the ideal time for me, and for people to watch me. I think they’ve averaged out my appearances and said, “Yeah, no. Thirteen to 15 minutes, that’s perfect.” I’m happy about that.

Of all the things you’ve done, do you have a favorite thing or time in your career?  

I was going to say "Get a Life," but working at Letterman — it sounds cliche, but, like that movie "My Favorite Year"? It was a lot like that for me. I was living in New York City on the Upper West Side. I was very young, 22, 23, when I started there. I met my wife there, and we would walk down through Central Park to Rockefeller Center. I’d get to do this really goofy crazy thing once a week, and then at the end of each day we’d go out and just drink ourselves silly. It was just a really fun, exciting period to be at NBC and to be at that show. The nice thing about it is I didn’t take it for granted. I knew at that time that it would be hard to top. I knew, “This is a really good period in my life.” Next to this right now. [Laughter.]

Thank you. And you have two lovely daughters, Bridey and Abby. And they’re in show business as well. 

They are, and they’re both doing great. They each have their own sense of humor that’s very different from mine, and very different from each other's. It is so unique. They each have their own voice and their own expertise. It’s really nice to see.

Being their father, also being in show business, are you glad that they’re in comedy? Or are you like, “No, you should go become a Lincoln expert.” 

As a dad, there’s that side of you. This is a ridiculously tough business that is especially hard on women. So, the dad side of me would love to see them just settle down and marry doctors. You know, be set for life. Would take a lot of pressure off me. You know, I’d like that, after raising them. A little pressure gone. But the other side of all that is you encourage whatever they want to do. They’re either going to stay with it forever or they’ll get it out of their system and marry doctors. I honestly think they’ll be with it forever. They’re committed and both hilarious.

Should we ask the audience if they have any questions. 

Why don’t they ask you, and you’ll just sit here?

Does anyone have any questions for Chris Elliott? 

[Audience member] Tell us something about working on "There’s Something About Mary." 

The Farrelly brothers called me. It’s funny, there’s two stories with them. One is: When I was shooting "Cabin Boy," they sent me this script for "Dumb and Dumber." And there was a beautiful little note on it that said, “You’re welcome to do either role in this movie if you’d like to join us.” It was very eloquent and very sweet. And I thought, “Oh, OK.” I read the first page, and the character that Jim Carrey eventually played was ushering some dogs into a dog pound and the line I read was, “No sniffing of heinies.” I remember thinking, “No, this is not for me. I don’t do that kind of stuff. I am like Noel Coward.” I turned it down and, of course, "Cabin Boy" opened and didn’t do so well. So I got on the phone again with those guys, and it had already been cast at that point. But they remembered me, and they had me in "Kingpin." Then they sent me the script for "There’s Something About Mary," and that was, next to Adam Rosen, I think is the most brilliant writer I know. "There’s Something About Mary" just made me laugh so hard on the page. It was one of those scripts that every line was hilarious. I’ve actually said that I think you could plug in an entirely different cast into that movie and it would still be brilliant and funny if the Farrellys directed and the script was the same. It was a lot of fun because you knew the material was there. That’s always when things are better, when you know, “Oh, the jokes are really solid here.” Then you can relax and have a fun time with it.

[Audience member] I’m a big fan of the "Action Family." Any stories about that? 

Cinemax, back then, they were doing these comedy experiments. They came to me and — most of those comedy experiments were stand-up comedians doing their bits. They asked me if I wanted to do one and I said, “Yeah, but it has to be a sketch kind of thing.” I have been obsessed with '70s TV shows since I was a kid. That, and also sitcoms from then. The idea to me was to combine those two things that I love into one show. So it was kind of a "Mannix" and "Partridge Family," combined. I would go from the tough "Mannix" exterior film stuff, and then walk into my house and it would be video and I’d be with a laugh track in a sitcom. We had very little budget, and I think it came out pretty well. I haven't seen it in a long time so I don’t know if it holds up. But, that was what that idea was. Then I did "FDR: One Man Show" after that, which was also a comedy experiment thing.

[Audience memberHow did you become Dogbert? 

I did a pilot with Larry Charles. John Belushi was in it, actually. Michael Moore also wrote in that pilot. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but he went to do "Dilbert" and just called me and asked me if I would do Dogbert on it. And I said, “Sure.” I actually — I don’t like my voice. I don’t do a lot of animated stuff. Unlike my dad. I think I subconsciously tried to do something different than my dad. Radio is where he made his bones, and he has this beautiful, lilting voice. And I don’t, I have this really nasally voice. So, I did it, but I was never really happy with my work on that show.

Dave Hill: You worked with Jim Belushi, as well. What was that like? 

I worked with him on his show. But actually, on that pilot — he’ll kill me for telling this. I haven’t seen him since, but — Larry Charles offered me this part in this pilot. Jim wanted me to audition. So I flew out to L.A. and thought, “He knows me. I won’t do a reading. I’ll just talk to him.” We met, and it was a lovely meeting. But all through the meeting Jim was playing with this knife that he was flicking back and forth. It was one of those knives that opens and closes, and I got on the plane and left and thought everything was great. Then, I got a call that Larry Charles had this huge argument with Jim after I left because Jim thought that I was going to actually read with him. And, apparently, in the course of the argument with Larry Charles screaming on him and Jim screaming at him, Jim sat down and sat on his open knife in his back pocket. He stood up and there was blood, so Larry Charles — who tells this story better than me — says he ripped him a second asshole over me. But we did do it, and Jim was as sweet as apple pie. It was fun. I did not know you would be a fan of Jim's.

Where do you start? This is great, too. 

I know, I know.

How much blood did he lose? 

I don’t know. It’s probably all me. It’s probably just one of those Hollywood stories.

[Audience question]: Were you witness to any of the Letterman-Leno feud? Would you be able to grace us with your Jay Leno impression? 

I can’t do it without a chin. I had left "Late Night" by the time that that was happening, so I wasn’t around. I don’t think anybody plays me in the HBO made-for-TV movie. My only Leno story for you is that I did do him on Dave once, and the next week Leno was going to come on the show. He had come up with this idea that he’d say, “Yeah, I saw Chris. He was really funny.” Then he was going to invite me out and I would have been bruised and beaten up. Dave was supposed to ask me, “Chris, what happened to you?” And I was supposed to look really scared at Jay and just go, “I fell down a set of stairs.” We rehearsed it and it went fine. The night came and Jay came out, sat down and said, “Yeah, I saw Chris. I heard he’s backstage. Let’s bring him out.” I came out, and I sat down. I was all bruised up. Dave said to me, “Chris, what happened to you?” And I opened my mouth, about to say my line, and Jay said, “He fell down a set of stairs.” And I just stood there, sat there, with absolutely nothing to say. And I realized that’s the difference between a stand-up comic and what I did. It’s a very competitive world, stand-up comedy, I guess, and Jay felt the need to steal my joke. Fucking Leno.

Dave Hill: Who would you like to have played you in that movie? 

Mark Hamill.

I think that’s a good answer. I see it.

One thing I do want to say before we end: I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and it blows me away that fans like you come out like this and will be here for me after 30 years. It means the world to me that you’re here. I really sincerely appreciate it. Thank you very, very much.

By Dave Hill

Dave Hill is a writer in New York. He is author of, most recently, "Tasteful Nudes:...and Other Misguided Attempts at Personal Growth and Validation."


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chris Elliott Comedy Dave Hill David Letterman Saturday Night Live Snl