The Simpsons Decade

Get a Life: The Anti-Sitcom That Helped Launch the Careers of Bob Odenkirk, Charlie Kaufman, and Simpsons Showrunner David Mirkin

In The Simpsons Decade, Nathan Rabin explores key works that defined the sensibilities of 1990s comedy. This week's column: deranged Chris Elliott anti-sitcom Get a Life.

by | March 3, 2016 | Comments

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When I interviewed Get a Life co-creator David Mirkin for The A.V Club, he said Chris Elliott’s original concept for the show involved a middle-aged Dennis the Menace, who still has not grown up or evolved beyond the emotional age of a small child, living at home and tormenting long-suffering next-door neighbor Mr. Wilson. This abandoned version of Elliott’s television vehicle would have taken a character already in the public sphere and contorted it into unrecognizable shapes, not unlike how the Cartoon Network took also-rans from deep in Hanna-Barbera’s back catalog and and transformed them into vehicles for bracingly odd anti-comedy on Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Sealab 2021.

It was not to be, however. So instead of starring as the Dennis the Menace, Elliott instead starred in what would be called Get a Life as Chris Peterson, an overgrown Dennis variation who still lives with his parents in a room above their garage and works as a paperboy despite being 30 years old.

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Get a Life lasted two seasons, compiling a 35-episode run. That abbreviated output was all it took for Get a Life to change comedy forever.

Get a Life lasted two seasons, compiling a 35-episode run that pales in comparison to the voluminous output of Big Bang Theory or Two And Half Men. But that abbreviated output was all it took for Get a Life to change comedy forever. Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, who we will be covering in this column later for Rock, Rot & Rule, bonded over their shared love of Get a Life. When producers Dan the Automator and Prince Paul decided to impishly deconstruct hip-hop, they chose the name Handsome Boy Modeling School for their project, after a Get a Life second-season episode.

And when Get a Life died an eminently predictable, if unfortunate and much-lamented death, Mirkin segued smoothly into a position as the show-runner for the fifth and sixth season of The Simpsons. Story editor Bob Odenkirk, meanwhile, would make his presence felt on two other 1990s comedy institutions I’ll be covering here: The Ben Stiller Show and Mr. Show. And a guy who wrote some of the show’s weirdest episodes named Charlie Kaufman would take his obsessions with post-modernism, deconstruction and our obsession with celebrity first to a writing job on The Dana Carvey Show (which we will be covering here) and then to his screenplay for Being John Malkovich (which, full disclosure, we will also be covering here).

That is a hell of a legacy for a show that was unavailable on home video in its entirety until 2012, when the nostalgia specialists at Shout Factory corrected a grievous cultural oversight by releasing a definitive Get a Life box set. Perhaps the most fascinating and valuable special feature is an option that allows audiences to watch episodes with the laugh track off.

Watching Get a Life with the laugh track underlines the series’ connection to the television comedies that came before it. Visually and sonically, it looks and feels like a conventional sitcom: brightly lit, filled with the braying laughter of unseen masses and populated by television veterans.

Watching with the laugh track off is a completely different experience. Without the comforting cues of a laugh track, the show’s darkness turns trippy and unnerving, more psychodrama than comedy. Where the laugh track places Get a Life firmly in the then-present and comfy past, the laugh track-free option underlines the show’s influence on the shows that would come after it, from Community to 30 Rock to Arrested Development and Eastbound & Down (another show about a weirdly lovable sociopath that found time for a kick-ass musical montage damn near every episode).

Most television shows use the conventions of the medium to explore the inner lives, conflicts and complexities of its character. Get a Life, in contrast, used its characters as a way to explore its own medium. The show was less about people than television.

The conventions of entertainment feel organic because we’ve been programmed to accept them from a young age. This is done partially through genres, which are essentially rules. We know that newscasters will report news in a stern tone of voice behind a desk, and not while hanging out in a recliner in their living room.

When these rules are ignored, the results can be historic because the result pushes the art-form forward or because they are so preposterously misconceived. Cop Rock boldly defied audience expectations that police officers wouldn’t spontaneously sing and dance several times an episode. Baywatch Nights deviated from the original show’s comfort zone of dumb-ass adventure liberally augmented by shimmering cleavage in a desperate attempt to hone in on some of The X-Files’ supernatural action and was similarly ridiculed for its desperation.

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Get a Life replaces the concept of “flexible reality” with “flexible anti-reality.” It flaunts its contempt for reality.

In Get a Life all bets are off. It takes place in Sitcom World, yet in the show’s crazy comic universe, Sitcom World is but a quick jaunt from Inspirational Mentor World, which is right next to Science Fiction World, which in turn is next to Screwball Comedy World.

The writers and producers for The Simpsons often talk about the concept of “flexible reality” — the notion that the reality of the show can change dramatically from episode to episode; that Homer can go into outer space one episode while another episode could focus on Lisa’s relationship with a substitute teacher.

Get a Life replaces the concept of “flexible reality” with “flexible anti-reality.” It’s not just that the show doesn’t want to be realistic: it flaunts its contempt for reality. It inhabits a lunatic realm of infinite possibilities where anything is possible and the only limits are those of the human imagination. Indeed, it is entirely possible to see the entire show as the elaborate delusions of a deeply mentally ill man.

Elliott may not have gotten to play Dennis the Menace, but he did get to play a human cartoon character who is relentlessly pummeled by various enemies, plummets out of a plane after mistaking an “exit” door for the bathroom, and generally endures a life that resembles that of Wile E. Coyote more than Archie Bunker. In the second season, the show disrupted reality in the most complete possible way, by having Chris Peterson die at the end of nearly every show, only to pop up at the start of the next episode inexplicably unharmed. A few years later, another comedy that I’ll cover in this column, South Park, took this concept to new heights — but before an actual cartoon made a point of killing Kenny every episode, a live-action cartoon wasn’t shy about continuously killing its protagonist to convey that it didn’t have to abide by rules, including the rules of life and death.

Chris Peterson can be anybody in Get a Life. He can be a daftly innocent hero from a 1930s screwball comedy, as he is in the episode “The Big City.” He can be the world’s least likely male prostitute, as in “Chris Becomes A Male Escort.” He could travel through time, as in the Kaufman-penned “1977 2000.” He could have thousands of pounds of crap piled onto him, as in “Pile of Death.” He could square off against a robotic, motorized paper-delivering competitor out a terrible low-budget post-apocalyptic thriller, as in “Paperboy 2000.”

In other words, Chris did things throughout Get a Life that no sitcom character is ever supposed to do. Sometimes he did two distinct things sitcom characters were never supposed to do in rapid succession, like when he goes from being inundated with dangerous levels of toxic waste and develops freakish mutations like a second mouth in “Chris’ Brain Starts Working” to experiencing a Flowers for Algernon-style boost in intelligence and deciding to capitalize on his newfound brilliance by traveling the world defeating children in spelling bees.

Chris could do seemingly anything — anything, that is, but be a believable character in an objectively plausible reality. The show would never be sadistic enough to ask audiences to imagine that its protagonist was somebody like them, somebody they might be able to grab a beer with or relate to an emotional level.

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In its second season, Get a Life took Fox’s mandate that Chris Peterson experience emotional growth and transformed it into a bleak meta-joke on the concept of maturity.

In its second season, Get a Life took Fox’s mandate that Chris Peterson experience emotional growth and transformed it into a bleak meta-joke on the concept of maturity. Network execs were nervous about audiences being able to like and relate to an emotionally stunted, mentally ill man-child who seems wholly uninterested in fulfilling even the most basic requirements of adult life. They wanted Chris to, well, get a life, and for them that meant moving out of his parent’s place.

In a deliciously passive-aggressive twist, Get a Life fulfilled Fox’s wish in a way that made an already defiantly non-commercial show even more spectacularly non-commercial. Chris moves out — but rather than move into a swinging bachelor pad worthy of a conventional sitcom hero, Chris goes from a depressing hovel above a garage into a depressing hovel inside a garage owned by Gus, an alcoholic, disgraced ex-policeman in a never-ending downward spiral. In season one, Chris spent a lot of time enduring the scorn of his perpetually bathrobe-clad, cranky old man of a father. In season two, in sharp contrast, Chris spends a lot of time enduring the derision of his perpetually bathrobe-clad, cranky old man of a new landlord/friend/sidekick.

Gus is played by Brian Doyle Murray, who also appears in season one as the hilariously unlikely proprietor of the Handsome Boy Modeling School — but considering that a typical Get a Life gag involves Chris coming across a corpse that looks exactly like him at the morgue, something that is never referenced again, casting the same actor in two different roles on the same show doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.

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There is a gloriously sloppy, self-destructive quality to the second season. It’s as if the people behind Get a Life realized that a show so audacious had no chance of lasting a third season, so they decided to go down as spectacularly as possible.

There is a gloriously sloppy, self-destructive quality to the second season. It’s as if the people behind Get a Life realized that a show so audacious had no chance of lasting a third season, so they decided to go down as spectacularly as possible. Chris was never too hemmed in by the dreary dictates of the real world, as opposed to the infinitely more colorful world that exists exclusively inside his fevered imagination, but in season two he seems to have suffered a full-on psychotic break.

Within the context of Get a Life, Chris’ irrepressible, inexplicable happiness is both a form and a symptom of mental illness. If Chris ever seriously confronted the nature of his existence, he would be suicidally depressed. But he has built a thick wall of self-delusion around himself that nothing can permeate it. If ignorance is bliss, then it’s understandable why Chris exists in a state of perpetual joy.

Chris is an amoral idiot and a jerk. His conception of romance centers on stalking, obsession and servicing the elderly as a professional sex worker. He’s rude, insulting and condescending to everyone despite his low status in life. He’s not just pleasantly daffy in a safe sitcom fashion: he’s genuinely unhinged. The world that he inhabits is exclusively his own and bears only the fuzziest resemblance to objective reality.

Yet Chris is strangely likable all the same — the key to his likability lies in his unflappability. His life may be a gauntlet of humiliation and abuse from a world eager to make its contempt for him apparent, yet he never despairs. He never loses hope; an idiot grin of simian self-satisfaction seldom leaves his smug visage. In its own weird way, that’s inspiring. If someone with as little to be happy or hopeful about as Chris Peterson goes through life in a state of perpetual contentment, then maybe there’s hope for all of us, and I’m not just writing that because I happen to live in my in-laws’ basement at the moment, Chris Peterson-style.

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Get a Life would not be what it is without the brilliant physical comedy of its star. Elliott is blessed with a complete lack of vanity.

Get a Life would not be what it is without the brilliant physical comedy of its star. Elliott is blessed with a complete lack of vanity. The most jarring aspect of watching Get a Life in 2015 isn’t Chris’ continual deaths in the second season, the incessant genre-hopping or its free-floating craziness — no, it’s how often Chris smokes. This isn’t a cop show or Mad Men, where smoking would be explainable by the character’s profession or lifestyle. Chris is a man-child with a child’s job. When he smokes he looks like a shaved baboon or a giant toddler sucking down a cancer stick. There’s nothing cool or glamorous about it. Chris is a real creep, but he never looks creepier than when he’s smoking.

When Chris dances, as he does throughout Get a Life, he suggests a demented marionette of human-shaped dough, all love handles, baldness and pasty skin. Elliott is filmed throughout the show to make him look as repulsive as humanly possible, to underline his unattractiveness physically as well as spiritually. Before Walter White, Kenny Powers, Dexter and Don Draper, Chris Peterson proved that a sitcom protagonist could be an anti-hero at best, and a deranged, sociopathic lunatic at worst.

Elliott, Resnick, Mirkin and their talented collaborators set out to make a show that riffed affectionately and irreverently on the comedy and television of the past. In the process, they created a show that pointed the way towards the future of comedy, a future that would be endlessly self-referential, overflowing with pop culture references and — perhaps above all else — obsessed with television, the bitch-goddess that ruled the 1990s before being supplanted by the even more ferociously addictive internet.


 

Up Next: Lookwell, the cult TV pilot starring Adam West, co-created by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel.

Nathan Rabin on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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