Da Elliott Code:
An Interview with Chris Elliott
(Originally appeared on VanityFair.com, May 28 2005)
Perhaps no other comedian, save Andy Kaufman, has done more to consistently stretch the boundaries of character-driven humor than Chris Elliott. Over the course of a 23-year career that includes stints as a writer and performer on Late Night with David Letterman, his own early-90s Fox sitcom, Get a Life, and the lead role in one of the most bizarre mainstream comedies to ever hit the big screen, 1994’s Cabin Boy, Elliott has carved a niche for himself as a fearless innovator, one willing to take chances and seemingly not concerned with earning the easy laughs—an almost unheard-of quality in showbiz. Now, at age 45, Elliott has turned his attention to the world of fiction. The result is “The Shroud of the Thwacker,” out this month from Miramax Books, a hilarious parody of the historical-crime-novel genre that, in what might be a literary first, includes the following trio: Teddy Roosevelt, Yoko Ono, and a grizzled 63-year-old whore named Old Toothless Sally. VanityFair.com talked with Elliott in the midst of his multi-state, cross-country book tour about, among other topics, Letterman, Steven Seagal, and serial killers.
What was it about the historical-crime-novel genre that made you want to lampoon it? I apologize for using the word “lampoon.”
The time period drew me to the idea. There’s a wealth of material to work with from the late 1800s, plus historical thrillers like “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr, and “Time and Again,” by Jack Finney, as well as books like “The Da Vinci Code” and Patricia Cornwell’s book on Jack the Ripper, in which she argues that the real Ripper was actually Norman Rockwell. All these have become extremely popular, and anything that reaches a large audience like that is ripe for parody. I admit to being a big fan of the historical-crime genre. The truth is, you can’t “lampoon” something unless you really like what you’re having fun with, but hopefully this book won’t be seen merely as a parody but more as a humorous thriller. I hope it will stand on its own.
The plot revolves around a criminal who hits prostitutes over the head with a bag of apples. I’m assuming the book is partly autobiographical?
Just the part about Old Toothless Sally. She was an ex-girlfriend.
It may surprise a lot of people to learn that this isn’t your first book. In 1989 you co-authored a book with your father, radio comedian Bob Elliott, called “Daddy’s Boy,” a spoof of “Mommie Dearest” and other celebrity “tell-alls.” Why the gap of almost 20 years between books? And will we now have to wait until 2026 for the next one?
It takes me a long time to come up with an idea that I like, but once I have one, then I work fairly quickly. “Daddy’s Boy” was more or less a series of unconnected, fake reminiscences from my childhood, but this latest book has a real story to it, so in that sense it’s my first novel. I’m writing another book as we speak about my experiences climbing up Mount Everest—which of course I would never do.
Let’s talk about some of the characters you created for Late Night. So many comedians do all they can to please the audience; you never really seemed to care. If they didn’t get the joke, you didn’t tip your hand.
I learned early on that the point was to make Dave laugh—if the audience laughed along with him then that was a bonus. The whole concept was that I was playing this unbalanced staff member who desperately wanted to get on TV—which was not far from the truth. And my characters like the Guy Under the Seats and the Panicky Guy, and all the “guys” for that matter, were basically poking fun at the running characters that were the staples of shows like Saturday Night Live. It was all very anti-performance oriented, but at some point the audience did start laughing, and I gradually evolved into the kind of running character that I was making fun of in the first place.
You and Letterman seemed to have a real rapport. When he’s bored with a guest, he can become somewhat snippy and sarcastic. But when he played the straight man to you, there was always a twinkle in his eye, as if he felt that he was on an even playing field. He had the same bemused expression when he played the straight man to Andy Kaufman.
I never did stand-up comedy, so Late Night was my only training ground and Dave was my mentor. I learned everything I know from working for him. He’s always been incredibly supportive of me, and when we’re on camera I’ve always felt like he’s quietly rooting me on. He’s had a huge influence on my life both personally and professionally. To this day, whenever I do anything, I ask myself if he would think it’s funny. I was on the Late Show last week, and Dave made no bones about saying how much he liked the book. I left there thinking: Dave likes “The Shroud of the Thwacker”! I’ve succeeded!
There were rumors circulating throughout the 80s that Saturday Night Live was courting you. And yet when you finally landed on the show in 1994, it didn’t seem to be such a good fit. It was all too structured. You weren’t permitted to run as wild as you did on Late Night. Was the show a disappointment for you?
I think it would have been a better fit had I gone there in the 80s, but I was busy working for Dave back then. When I finally did go, it was after eight years of Late Night, two years of Get a Life, and a few movies under my belt. So I had a bit of a “been there, done that” kind of attitude. If my work on the show was lackluster (and believe me, it was) I have nobody to blame but myself—and the time slot, of course. It’s on very late, you know, and with all the chores required to keep the salmon farm running, I have a hard time staying up past nine.
You were ahead of your time with Get a Life, the 1990 Fox sitcom in which you played a 30-year-old paperboy who still lived at home. You seemed to usher in the age of the infantilized slacker. The show is now a cult favorite, a huge hit on DVD, but it only lasted two seasons. Do you think if the show had come out a few years later it would have caught on with a wider audience?
Possibly, but I don’t think the ratings killed the show. Back then, all of Fox’s shows, even their big successes like Married with Children, were ranked fairly low in the ratings. The show was simply not what Fox thought they were buying. I had sold them a warmhearted premise about an adult with the heart of a child who hadn’t decided what he wanted to do with his life yet, but what they got was a nut living over the garage in his parents’ house—who, by the way, were also nuts—in a small town entirely populated by . . . nuts! There was no way I could have gotten that show on the air if I had pitched it that way. It’s interesting to me that nowadays when I meet with network executives about possibly doing another show they all praise Get A Life as being ahead of its time, but then they say they don’t want me to do that kind of show again. They’re more interested in me doing a warmhearted show about an adult who has the heart of a child.
You’ve acted in 15 film comedies and numerous sitcoms. Comedy is your thing. And yet I was wondering if you ever had any thoughts on playing a more overtly sinister character? Perhaps in a horror or suspense film? You’re more than capable of that “thousand-yard stare” that all on-screen villains have, and that Steven Seagal has offscreen.
Last year I did a two-part episode of Third Watch in which I played, ironically enough, a serial killer. I enjoyed doing it, but it’s not something I would pursue. And by the way, Steven Seagal and I are close buddies. He’s a teddy bear off-camera—he loved my work on Dilbert.
Are there any plans to turn The Shroud of the Thwacker into a feature film? If so, who would be your “dream actress” to play the role of the whore Old Toothless Sally? Casting isn’t my strength, but I’m thinking Dame Judi Dench. She has such an ear for accents.
Yeah, or maybe Margot Kidder.
I’d like to end this interview with a very important question: What’s your bust size?
I’m not particularly happy with my bust size, but I’m extremely proud of my childbearing hips.