Offspring of a Comedy Line
Ben Stiller, child of TV and comics, parodies old plot lines and punch lines on new Fox show.
BY JOE RHODES
BEN STILLER, 26 years old, with his own network television show and his baseball cap on backwards, is between meetings, eating take-out Italian food at the desk of his no-view, back-of-the-building Hollywood production office that is decorated only with an Albert Brooks movie poster and an autographed Bruce Springsteen photo hung right where he can see it.
And, while he eats, he does something rising-star writer-director-actors rarely have to do. Ben Stiller answers questions about his parents.
“I think we’re really different in a lot of ways,” he is saying. “My dad grew up on the Lower East Side in Brooklyn and his dad was a bus driver. My mom grew up kind of middle class in Long Island and her dad was a lawyer. I grew up surrounded by show business.”
Stiller’s parents, in case the name hasn’t rung a bell yet, are comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, lineage he neither dwells on nor avoids. “It’s not a burden,” he says. “We deal in such different territory. It’s not like I’m starting a stand-up comedy team with my wife.”
“My parents’ comedy dealt with real things, actual first-hand experiences,” he continues. “Mine comes from watching TV.”
You can tell. Ben Stiller’s show (airing Sunday nights at 7:30 on Fox and cleverly named “The Ben Stiller Show”) is built around a barrage of SCTV-like film and television parodies, devilish in their details and overflowing with tube-fed pop culture references – what if Eddie Munster were the Robert De Niro villain from “Cape Fear”? If “Cops” went back to the days of the Salem witch-hunts? Or Reuben Kinkaid of “The Partridge Family” had managed U2? And that’s just the obvious stuff. One parody features, but never mentions, a large photo of Max Casella, the actor who plays Doogie Howser’s best friend.
“I definitely come from the generation that watches too much television,” Stiller admits. “I mean it’s much easier for me to sit and watch TV for three hours than to crack a book. It’s not something I’m proud of. It’s just a reality.”
For Stiller, the reality of getting his show on the air has not been altogether pleasant. After signing a deal with Fox and moving from New York to L.A. two years ago, he’s spent much of that time wrestling with network executives over the show’s format, an issue that wasn’t settled until just a few weeks before the show’s Sept. 27 premiere date.
“We had originally tried to make this thing more like a sitcom, and it just didn’t fit,” says Joe Davola, the Fox vice president who signed Stiller on the strength of his 1990 MTV show (also cleverly named “The Ben Stiller Show”). “It was more natural to give him a free-form show. In a straight sitcom, you would have wasted a lot of Ben’s talent.”
As recently as last month, the network was still sending out press releases describing the show as being about a guy who does a talk show from his apartment. “The apartment just got demolished,” Stiller says, sounding relieved. Instead, it was decided Stiller would simply talk to the camera from a studio backlot, introduce the bits and pretty much get out of the way, which is what he had in mind when all this started two years ago.
“Having gone through this experience, I don’t think I’d be too quick to jump in the television ring again,” he says, some of the exhaustion evident in his voice. “There’s just so much stuff that goes with getting a show on the air that you don’t think about.”
“Like focus groups. I sat in a room for four hours behind a two- way mirror and watched people talk about my show and about me, which is like a strange nightmare, one of the weirdest things you’ll ever experience. I found all of my childhood insecurities starting to come back.”
Not that his childhood was bad. Unlike some celebrity kids, Ben had no aversion to his parents’ line of work. He remembers accompanying them to Hollywood and Las Vegas, hanging out when they did guest shots on television shows. “It was bizarre sometimes,” he says, remembering one visit to the set of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” “I remember Brandon Cruz [who played Eddie] knocking this candy bar out of my hand and it was like this whole power thing going on. Strange things like that.”
“I think I always planned on being in show business,” Stiller says, “but I thought it would be as a serious film director. I never planned on being a comedian.”
In 1983, Stiller left New York to study film at UCLA. But homesick and unhappy, he returned in less than a year, deciding to pursue acting first and to worry about directing later.
His professional debut came in the 1985 Lincoln Center revival of “The House of Blue Leaves,” and it was during that run that Stiller managed to persuade his fellow cast members (Swoozie Kurtz, Stockard Channing and John Mahoney among them) to participate in a short comedy film he was making just for fun. The reaction to its first screening (at a cast party) was enough to convince Stiller that he might have a future as a director.
As he continued to act, (with a number of small film roles, including one of the American POWs in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”), Stiller also kept making short films, among them a parody of Martin Scorsese’s “Color of Money” (featuring Stiller’s devastating dead-on Tom Cruise impression) that made its way to the producers of “Saturday Night Live.” They not only aired the film but hired him as a writer and featured player, setting him on the path that eventually led to “The Ben Stiller Show.”
`YOU HAVE TO be willing to really go for the detail,” Stiller says, asked what it takes to create a successful parody, “but that’s only part of it. That’s not the part that makes it funny. I’ve had people say to me that “Cape Munster” is cool because the way we got the angles just like they were in the movie. Well, yeah, but all I did was copy Scorsese. He’s the one that made it up. That’s what’s really impressive.”
Given a chance, following in Scorsese’s footsteps is still what Ben Stiller would like to do. He’s already in line to direct feature films at two major studios. “I don’t have a grand master plan,” he says, “but I’d love to be able to have a career like Albert Brooks, who does what he wants to do with his own films and shows up in other people’s movies, too.”
For now, though, there is the matter of the show with Ben Stiller’ s name on it, parts to be played, parodies to be written. (“We’re working on one about a bunch of twenty-something people who are still in high school, can’t graduate and all want to be in a band together. It’s called `Melrose Heights, 90210.’ “)
“This is a great experience and I don’t want to make it sound like it’s not,” Stiller says. “But I know I wouldn’t want to do it for more than a couple of years. I don’t know how I could survive.”
Copyright 1992, Newsday Inc.
JOE RHODES, Offspring of a Comedy Line Ben Stiller, child of TV and comics, parodies old plot lines and punch lines on new Fox show.. , 10-04-1992, pp 18.