The silliness and stupidity of the brilliant show Get a Life

Was the Fox Network’s television show Get a Life ingenious on all levels, it was not, but it was decidedly, and brilliantly, different.  Some equate the term brilliant with intelligent, but Get a Life would forever provide a concrete contrast that people could point to to illustrate the difference.  The show would also give new meaning to the Monty Python meme “something different”.  To properly understand the breadth of the “something different” meme that Get a Life redefined in the early 90’s, we can take a step back in a Chris Peterson time machine to the era that preceded it.  The 80’s were what many call one of the worst decades of TV comedy.  I could go through an illustrative list to point to all of the offending shows, but I won’t.  Suffice it to say that while there were some good shows in the 80’s, and some good episodes of the other shows, most of the shows of this era followed a successful formula that was established by an influential show, market research, and the producers and execs that paid the bills.  It got so bad, during this era, that many TV junkies started to go outside to talk to people, and develop human relationships.

If a show of this era wanted to be purchased, or renewed, they had to learn to adapt to one of the era’s successful formulas.  While research shows that Get a Life was not completely impervious to these permeations from outside influence, it maintained enough originality to satisfy those of us who didn’t buy into what TV comedy “should be”.  Some of us were so “outside the box” that we went in one of two directions to satisfy our lust for something different.  Some of us sought more intelligent fare, others went to the silly and strange, and some even went both ways.

The late eighties/early nineties cultural phenomenon Seinfeld was deemed, by the formula, to be “too intelligent” and “too sophisticated” for Middle America.  Network execs feared that the basis for the show, that being the standup routines of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, was geared more to an erudite, metropolitan audience, and that it wouldn’t play well with people who don’t care for reading…like those in Nebraska.  Larry David’s standup routines focused on material from an historical perspective, foreign languages, and to a Hodge Podge of material only the erudite could understand.  Jerry Seinfeld focused on the minutiae of life in ways that appealed to so many of us who thought too much about stupid, inconsequential matters, but again it was all too smart for us.  It was a show about conversation, a show about characters, and a self-proclaimed show about nothing.  Those of us in Flyovercountry, Nebraska, who we were tired of innuendo TV, not because it offended us, but because it had grown so tedious, ate it up.  We were also tired of the “stupid people” formula show, and Seinfeld gave us something different.  Seinfeld was smart TV for smart people, and it was a welcome relief to those of us who grew tired of sitcoms that spoke down to us by appealing to our base.

As silly as Seinfeld could be with Kramer’s antics, it wasn’t really weird enough for the perpetually weird that still needed to be fed.  Enter the silly shows.  Some of the sillier shows that broke the formula in this era could be called stupid or weird for the sake of being weird, but I prefer to think of them as simply silly.  Whether or not The Fox Network made prescient choices to corner the market on silly, or if silly was all they had left from the select group of shows the other networks took a pass on, they ended up with a silly lineup.  The Fox Network appeared to capitalize on this idea of silliness in ways it appears the other networks feared.  Buoyed by the success of the shows The Simpsons, In Living Color, and Married with Children, Fox execs decided that silly would be their niche…silly and different.

Fox execs also “decided” that they would let their talent to rule, but this decision was based on an unsuccessful battle with the creators of Married with Children to micromanage content.  The creators’ successful battle with these execs paved the way for shows like for weird and strange shows, like Get a Life, to have a little more control over their contnt.

Get a Life would only last two seasons, but it would influence TV and movies for decades to come.  It would give life to many careers including Chris Elliott’s, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation and Being John Malkovich), Adam Resnick (Death to Smoochy), and Bob Oderkirk, (co-creator of the incredible Mr. Show), and it would change the face of comedy in ways that those who didn’t watch Get a Life would ever understand.

Chris Elliott’s career began as a writer and a side character “The Man Under the Seats”, among many others, on David Letterman’s Late Night show.  Most of these segments weren’t funny in the manner those of us who watched way too much TV understood funny, but while this new definition of funny confused most of us, it also excited us.  Chris Elliott, and his Late Show characters, (Tom Shales writes in the intro to the Get a Life DVD compilation) “proved Elliott was his own genre—not merely as the master of a domain, but a domain unto itself.”{1} Elliott would take these characters, or at least their influence, to the show Get a Life.

Prior to Get a Life, when a sitcom decided to get stupid, they sought to uniformly inform their viewers that something stupid was going on.  These shows also made a concerted effort to let you know one of the characters on the show was stupid, so that you were in on the joke, and if you didn’t get it the first time through, they repeated it over and over until you did.  These were simplified patterns designed to provide psychological rewards for those simpletons who could figure them out.  These patterns occurred consistently within a show, and throughout the comedic productions of the age.  Television viewers, like music listeners and movie watchers, want to be able to figure out patterns and be rewarded with the dopamine enzyme for doing so, and they tune into the programs that provide them this reward.  “People don’t want that art (stuff),” the esteemed Sean “Puffy” Combs once said.  “They want something they can dance to.”  It was a situational comedy, I’m sure many of those who called for the formula of this era would insist, it wasn’t rocket science or brain surgery.  You sit down after a hard day’s work, you pat your kids on the head, and settle in with a gawd damned bowl of popcorn and a carbonated beverage to watch a mindless marathon of market-tested humor.  If you don’t like it, change the channel.  Some of us did.  Some of us wanted something more and something different.  Even if that meant that weren’t going to get our dopamine fix for the night.

The networks weren’t concerned with us outliers though.  They wanted massive audiences, so they developed comedic formulas.  The thing of it is, most of us outliers didn’t realize how tired of the formulas we were, until we were introduced to something different.  We didn’t realize how brilliant it would be to have a character be so unaware of his stupidity, we didn’t realize that there was room for a bizarre trailblazer to never learn his lessons for his stupidity, and avoid normalization from the otherwise normal characters around him, until we met Chris Peterson for the first time.  Chris’s Dad on the show (and in real life as it turns out) pointed out his son’s stupidity, but he did it in a way we were not accustomed to.  This latter point apparently left some viewers confused regarding their role in the joke that you either got or didn’t get.  The jokes simply weren’t laid out for you in the usual, formulaic patterns in a show like Get a Life, and finding the humor was all up to you.  Some of the critics “got it”, as a 2008 Rolling Stone did when they called Chris Elliott: “His generation’s most underappreciated comic genius.”{2} TV Guide once labeled the Get a Life episode “Zoo Animals on Wheels” the 19th funniest moment in TV history.  But viewers weren’t as kind, as they failed to get the humor, or they simply didn’t think it was funny.  Humor, as they say, is relative, and Get a Life’s brand of humor definitely wasn’t designed for everyone.  It didn’t always work for me either, but when it did it achieved that rare air of brilliance.

With the recent release of the complete series of Get a Life on DVD, we can all look on the influence this forgotten and underrated show has had on the comedic landscape.   Some would say that the show’s “difficult to understand”, and inclusive, brand of silliness would later be adopted by actors Ben Stiller and Will Farrell, and that they owed a deep debt of gratitude to the ground that Get and Life and Chris Elliott broke.  Others would attribute this “new age of silliness” in movies and TV to the influential Airplane, Naked Gun, and Police Squad creators Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, but anyone who has watched those productions knows that Stiller and Farrell exhibited a degree of silliness that was different than that employed by Leslie Nielson.  It was similar, but different, in a way those who didn’t watch Get a Life would ever understand.





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