The Ben Stiller Show Speaks Out
Fri., Mar. 5, 10:30 pm
Wheeler Opera House
by Rob Cohen
The Ben Stiller Show was a hit. Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine both declared it one of the top 10 shows of the 1992-’93 season. The Ben Stiller Show was a bomb. It had the lowest rating of any show on television during the 1992-’93 season. The critics loved the show. Howard Rosenberg writing in The Los Angeles Times said, “Ben Stiller is funny! The proof is his rip-roaring hilarious half-hour show on Fox. It ranks with HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show was the creamy class of the new season’s comedy series.” The critics hated the show. Tom Shales in the Washingon Post said. “You, too, can probaby get your own TV show, like Ben Stiller, if you come from a show biz family and provided you kiss up to the right people in Hollywood.”
So, where did this show that hardly anyone saw and lots of people loved come from? You might say Elvis Costello played a role. According to co-creator and writer Judd Apatow, HBO Independent Productions came to him about creating a sketch show. Simultaneously, they approached Ben Stiller. Then Apatow and Stiller met waiting in line to see Costello unplugged on MTV. This chance meeting resulted in the two teaming up to create the show. Apatow recalls that the concept for the show underwent many changes. “Our original idea was that Ben would give film grants. Some would be fictional and some real. Like giving a grant to a porno director who wants to make a serious film about someone dying of a horrible disease. But his film still looks and sounds like a porno movie.” The goal was to blur the lines between reality and fiction. Fox suggested a few changes. In the Fox version, Stiller moves to Hollywood and events in his life lead to film pieces in the show. Then there was Stiller in a clubhouse where he knows he’s hosting a show, but he keeps getting interrupted by his friends. Eventually two pilots were produced. One was Stiller’s version. The other was more what Fox was pushing. Ultimately, the show became a cinematic sketch show that did dead-on pardoies and other bizarre comedy bits.
Helping to shape that vision was a group of relatively unknown writers and performers who included Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, John O’Donohue, Brent Forrester, Jeff Kahn, Bruce Kirshbaum, Sultan Pepper, and Dino Stamatopoulos. While they had never worked together as a group, everyone knew someone through someone else. “We all became quick friends,” recalls Apatow,” We knew we were doing something we would want to watch. We hoped it would be good enough to have a growing cult and receive enough critical acclaim to survive long enough to build a real following.” Each week, the cast and guest stars, who included Dennis Miller, Bobcat Goldthwait, Roseanne, Garry Shandling, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rob Morrow, and Tom Arnold, would introduce the segments from various locations. In the sketches were some of the casts favorite TV characters including Mickey Dolenz, Rip Taylor, Susan Anton, Gary Coleman, and Herve Villechaize.
With an enormous lack of experience and inspired by SCTV and Albert Brook’s short films from Saturday Night Live, the group produced 13 episodes. For the show, they created Oliver Stoneland, an amusement park whose attractions included the Hall of Conspiracy. They parodied Lassie in a skit called Manson. They skewered Beverly Hills 90210, U2, and Metallica. But one piece that epitomized the divergent reaction to the show was a bit satirizing both Yakov Smirnoff and HBO. Rosenberg said, “…like every bold satirist, Stiller doesn’t spare the hand that feeds, witness… The Last Stand of Yakov Smirnoff, which pokes fun at HBO’s comedy specials while sending an even sharper arrow through the heat of comedy– trashing Smirnoff’s stand-up act, which crumbled simultaneously with the collapse of the Soviet Union.” But critic Shales saw it differently. “A needlessly cruel attack on anti-commie comic Yakov Smirnoff was embarrassing in its belabored excess. Who is this impertinent newcomer Stiller to make such a savage assault on an established performer?”
In the end, the show was doomed by poor scheduling, including a stint against 60 Minutes. Apatow says the end came gradually. “There was an initial order for nine shows. Then another four. (Only 12 shows aired on Fox.) Then we waited. Nobody ever called and officially canceled.” However, the September after the show left the air, the writing staff was called up on the stage to accept the award for Best Writing in a Variety Show. So now, maybe Fox will call with an order for a full season. Then again, maybe not.
Read the transcript of the reunion!