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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Get a Life, the surreal Chris Elliott TV series, comes to DVD

Posted by on Thu, Sep 20, 2012 at 4:45 PM

The neologism “man-child” has in recent years come to refer to the types typically played on screen by Seth Rogen, Vince Vaughn and other gentlemen aged roughly 21-40 who partake in video games, alcohol, pot-smoking and varied instances of gay panic, foul language and confusion/consternation with the opposite sex and the realities of adulthood.

Those who complain about the proliferation of these types may consider themselves lucky that they never encountered 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson.

Chris, the alter ego of actor Chris Elliott, was the star of the late, great Fox sitcom Get a Life, which ran from 1990-92 and has finally been released in its entirety on DVD as Get a Life: The Complete Series from Shout! Factory (previously, only a few scattered episodes were available on now out-of-print discs due to music rights issues).

But instead of lying around a filthy apartment with a bong or coming up with slang terms for the female anatomy, Chris’ path was far more whimsical and destructive. Over the course of the 35 episodes of Get a Life, he nearly drowns in his shower after assembling a mini-sub he ordered from a comic as a child, violently crashes a fashion show, inadvertently drives his childhood friend away from his family and reverts to savagery after eating hallucinogenic berries on a camping trip.

By the end of the series’ run, he’s also engaged in mind-switching, temporarily developed psychic powers, encountered a pudding-spewing space alien, traveled through time with the help of self-mixed “Time Juice,” and won a series of international spelling bees with toxic waste-enhanced intelligence. Most of these adventures end with him shot, stabbed, poisoned or blown to pieces, but by the next episode, he’s up for more disasters.

Get a Life ran during the early days of Fox, where the network distinguished itself with such left-of-center comedies as Married… with Children, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, In Living Color and of course The Simpsons. It managed to somehow be stranger than any of those shows, shot like an old-fashioned sitcom with a laugh track, then twisting stock sitcom plots into surreal, sometimes disturbing pretzels. Viewers might have gotten a clue from the opening credits, set to R.E.M.’s “Stand,” where the innocent image of a paperboy on his route gave way to reveal Elliott’s flabby, bearded form hurling papers from his tiny bike.

Rather than the endless pop-cultural riffing and shock-oriented humor of such Seth MacFarlane series as Family Guy that have come to dominate Fox’s airwaves, Get a Life allowed its weirdness to speak for itself. Chris’ parents were played by Elliott’s real-life father Bob Elliott, who’d developed his own surreal comedy as part of the Bob and Ray comedy team, and Elinor Donahue from Father Knows Best, as deadpan, indifferent figures always seen in their bathrobes at the kitchen table.

By the second season, Chris moves out (his parents then fill his old room with concrete) and moves into the garage of a gruff ex-cop played by Brian Doyle-Murray, who introduces him to such vices as the lucrative world of corrupt health inspectors. According to series co-creator David Mirkin in a call from his office in Los Angeles, had a third season been produced, Chris would have become a homeless drifter, “and every week he would have touched someone else’s life, and made it a little bit worse”.

The abbreviated second season saw a writing staff that included Bob Odenkirk (later of Mr. Show and Breaking Bad) and future Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman (appropriately for the Being John Malkovich scribe, the real Malkovich was a Get a Life fan, according to Mirkin).

Their warped chops are apparent on their scripts (Kaufman wrote the “Time Juice” episode), but a rewatch of the episodes reveals the show’s dark, bizarre tone is present from the very beginning—it simply gets even darker and more bizarre as it goes on. By the end of the second episode, Chris’ deluded efforts to become a male model (don’t ask) have ended in him crashing a runway show, which he narrates in a rapturous voiceover while shoes are flung at his head and police cart him away. “To him, that’s a triumph,” Mirkin says. “We originally thought of him as an adult Dennis the Menace.”

From the show: Chris, as male model "Sparkles," is horribly exploited when he's expected to pose topless.

I remember watching all this when it first aired, and at age 10, I somehow found the cartoony antics of Chris Peterson more relatable than the other “realistic” sitcoms where people talked about adult stuff I didn’t understand in sets that looked fake, while people who we never saw laughed at them (many of the episodes of Get a Life on DVD have the option to turn the laugh track off, though you can still hear crew members laughing on occasion).

Perhaps that’s why it’s stood up better than many of the bad sitcoms it parodied — there’s a willingness to play with the form that gives each episode an unpredictable, exhilarating quality. Any show could send its character on an ill-fated trip to the big city, for example, but only Get a Life would depict it as an actual place called “The Big City,” where everyone still talks like the 1930s, and most of the sets are depicted as rear-projected stock footage.

From the episode "SPEWEY and Me" — Chris meets a grotesque, vomiting alien he names "Special Person Entering the World, Egg Yolks," and attempts to introduce his magic to the pure innocence of children.

It’s taken Chris Elliott years to find a vehicle as good as Get a Life after the show’s cancellation and the bomb of his movie vehicle Cabin Boy. Aside from memorable appearances in things like There’s Something About Mary and Everybody Loves Raymond, few projects have fully used the surreal charms he perfected here and on his David Letterman appearances (a 2008 Rolling Stone profile called him “his generation’s most underappreciated comic genius").

Luckily, he’s found a new audience in the Adult Swim Walker, Texas Ranger parody Eagleheart, whose young creators were Get a Life fans. The time of Chris Peterson, greatest of all the man-children, may finally have come—or at least, the DVDs’ release prove there’s still room for a 30-year-old paperboy in the age of Seth Rogen.

Get a Life: The Complete Series is on DVD this week.

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