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“Fox, I think you missed something here.”
That was a pre-Meet The Parents/Night at the Museum Ben Stiller venting to network executives as he accepted his 1993 writing Emmy for his self-titled-sketch series.
And his observation perfectly describes what happened to The Ben Stiller Show, which had been cancelled eight months before. In only 12 aired episodes, the comedy series resurrected the anarchic spirit of early Saturday Night Live and the absurdist tendencies of SCTV while being completely of its time. Of course Fox wasn’t alone in its share of the blame. Most viewers showing up for the then-fledgling network’s 7 p.m. slot were looking to kill a half hour as they waited for The Simpsons. They didn’t know what to make of unknown comics’ surreal jokes with semi-recognizable pop-culture references. At the same time, the show’s intended target audience, hip comedy fans, secretly worried how anything this weird could possibly survive family hour.
Here is a mere sampling of what the brave few who got it saw during its blink-and-you-missed-it run:
Cape Fear, starring Eddie Munster instead of Robert De Niro. Eddie seeks revenge not on his lawyer for a poor defense that condemned him to prison, but the network executive who canceled The Munsters.
Oliver Stoneland, a conspiracy-themed but family-friendly amusement park that boasts attractions like Mr. Morrision’s Wild Ride, a Pirates of The Caribbean-style excursion focused on the trials and tribulations of everybody’s favorite Doors frontman; a Born on the Fourth of July bumper car ride with wheelchairs; and the musical roller-dance troupe Platunes, who perform their signature number, “Viet Cong,Viet Wow.”
Manson, a reimagined Lassie in which the heroic family dog is replaced by the ’60s counterculture madman. Manson saves Timmy from danger not by barking and gesturing to his loving family, but by spouting crazed, delusional rhetoric they have come to understand as a second language (also employed to great effect in “Ask Manson,” wherein Manson dispenses domestic cleaning advice to overwhelmed housewives).
A pre-fame U2 make their way by touring in the old Partridge Family bus and playing Bar Mitzvahs. At the gig, Bono follows praise for a relative’s gefilte fish sculpture with outraged commentary about the political discord in Northern Ireland.
And yes, Stiller’s isn’t the only face that may be familiar in these clips. The show’s roll call includes future Larry Sanders Show actress Janeane Garofalo, a pre-News Radio Andy Dick, “better call Saul” Bob Odenkirk (his Mr. Show partner David Cross was a writer as well). Also behind the scenes as executive producer and writer was Freaks and Geeks creator and future blockbuster filmmaker Judd Apatow. In many ways one would have to go back to the writing staff of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows (where Mel Books, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, among others, got their big break) to find so much budding and seemingly unrelated talent in one place. The Ben Stiller Show was the beginning for a group that would define what comedy would feel like in the early 21st century.
The series may have travelled a trail blazed by many, but was particularly inspired by SCTV, the’80s alternative to Saturday Night Live, which introduced the world to Bob and Doug McKenzie, Martin Short, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and so many others. That show’s stock in trade was its mixing of two seemingly dissimilar concepts or situations in pursuit of producing something that was intentionally made to feel “a little off” and right on the money at the same time.
But The Ben Stiller Show’s incredible strength—and what made viewers who loved it feel like it was filling a void—was its ability to capture the zeitgeist of the early ’90s. Reality show precursors like Cops and the numerous overwrought yuppie teen angst dramas like Beverly Hills 90210 were all grist for its mill. The program exposed the decade’s excess and ridiculed its pretensions, yet clearly expressed a love for a lot of what it skewered. While it took Bono to task for his piousness and preciousness, Springsteen for his overt working-class earnestness, and Oliver Stone for his hyperactive paranoid obsessive tendencies, the parody was almost always informed by an extreme love and appreciation for the very thing they were making fun of.
Nothing from The Ben Stiller Show illustrates this more than a trailer from Tom Cruise in Dress Casual, the one-man show that finds Cruise relegated to off-Broadway, reenacting classic scenes from his best-known films.
None of this would have worked so well without Stiller’s professed fandom for Cruise’s work—and his keen understanding that the best parody is not without a healthy dose of tribute.
And even when the show’s creators were less enamored of their targets, they understood a little teasing affection was required to make the savage evisceration go down.
With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to see what could’ve happened had the series been given a shot during the era of cable or non-network TV—which encouraged the kind of experimentation The Ben Stiller Show helped foster. Thankfully, there is still a season’s worth to watch. And if, like me, you think the best moments of Saturday Night Live are its culture-savaging fake ads and movie trailers, you won’t want to miss any of it.