Comedian, actor and satirist Chris Elliott has made a career of blurring truth and absurdity. Elliott wrote and performed for "Late Night With David Letterman," and went on to perform in other television programs, including "Saturday Night Live," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "King of Queens," and the cult series "Get a Life!" Elliott is the author of Daddy's Boy, and The Shroud of the Thwacker. His most recent book is Into Hot Air, a satirical look at classic survival adventures- City Arts & Lectures
Dave Eggers is the author of six books, including "Zeitoun" and "What Is the What." Several of his books, among them the story collection "How We Are Hungry" and "The Wild Things," an interpretation of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," were first excerpted in The New Yorker. He is the founder of McSweeney's and of 826 National, a network of nonprofit writing and tutoring centers for young people.
Chris Elliott became known in the early 1980s, when he was a writer and performer on Late Night With David Letterman, playing an assortment of recurring oddball characters. In 1990, Elliott created and starred in his own sitcom, which was called Get A Life! He has appeared in numerous films and has written three books.
Welcome back to City Arts and Lectures. This is a one in the series that benefits 826 Valencia, downat 826 Valencia, between 19th and 20th. It's a non profit writing and tutoring center for Bay Area youth.Chris has happily and that's not the right adverb has generously and happily agreed to be here as abenefit for that center.I have been suggesting Chris Elliott as a guest here at City Arts for many years and I am so happy thathe is I was part of a fan/stalker club, a fan club in high school. We actually compiled a four year Imean a four hour clip reel of every thing that he did on the Letterman Show and we were MontyPython fans and Letterman in general and Chris Elliott in particular were the only performers and themain performers that we could see on American television that sort of combined that same elements ofsilliness and and the surreal and even a little bit of the sinister. So we watched everything, we dideven when he wrote the first book "Daddy's Boy," we all went down to Chicago and waited line, in theloop and like a Waldenbooks I think it was, for his signature. I still have a glossy an eight by tenglossy of Chris Elliott from that era, is ultimate geekdom. Anyway, since then Elliott has gone on tostar in his own TV show, Get a Life, you saw a clip a second ago. He has appeared in dozens of moviesand other TV shows and has written two books, the astoundingly funny "The Shroud of the Thwacker"and the brand new "Into Hot Air". He is one of the smartest and most original comedic minds inAmerica. We are very, very happy to have him here, please welcome Chris Elliott.Thank you thanks Dave that was very nice, very sweet.I wasn't going to ask you .Just over the top enough thank you very much.I wasn't going to ask you but I was going to I wanted to know if you were going to do that bowwhatever it is .If I was going to do the Harvey Korman bow, that's what I call it that's where I got that fromactually, it was Harvey Korman from the ''Carol Burnett Show.'' He did it before me.What was your you know, as most people know your father was a pretty well known comedic genius himself.He was Bob of Bob and Ray.Yeah.Now, thank you thanks and still is he is still around, Ray is not, but my dad is. I think, I am gettingconfused, it could be Ray, it could be my dad somewhere around.Did you did you find him funny, growing up?Yeah I did, you know, he was funny around the house. But I think I just assumed everybody's dad wasfunny and it really wasn't until you know I started going over to other people's houses that I realizedthat you know most people's dads beat their wives and you know, are not are not particularlyfunny. But he he was very low key, just like their comedy around the house, you know, I you know,he would leave and go to rip the radio studio in the morning you know, and dressed in suit and carryinga briefcase and come home.Carrying a briefcase?Yeah, carrying a briefcase.Of jokes or what was it?I never knew. I think what was in the football, I have no idea what was in there. And he would gowhether they had work or not. They would go to the Graybar Building, where there office was and sitand put in a day's work from you know, nine to five and then come home and he could have beendoing anything, you know. It wasn't like a very flashy childhood.And you would see him on TV or hear him on the radio from time to time.Yeah and my brother and I were talking about this. I don't think we appreciated his performing asmuch as we did later when we were kids. I can remember him and it sounds bizarre now to have bigfans of Bob and Ray. But I remember him taking me to the studio and just having me sit there for likefive hours while they you know goofed around on the air on WOR or whatever it was at the time. andI remember being bored out my mind all time, just with that painted on smile all time and you know,occasionally he turned around to look at me and I just you know, give him a thumbs up and I was justbored silly and I think of this because I had I had heard that kind of goofiness around the house, youknow, all you know, it was just like being home. I just you know, wasn't around my friends, I waswith my dad.But it was really a dry humor that may be you got to get older to appreciate or I don't know .Yeah, I mean I knew you know, walking down the street with him and and people would come upand you know, tell him like what a huge fan they were of his, you know. I knew that what he wasdoing was special. They did a Broadway Show in I think it was 1969 or 1970, and that's when Iyou know, it suddenly dawned on me, oh my dad's a funny entertainer, and he and it's when I sortof decided I wanted to go into it too.And was that high school?Well, I was nine years old. Yeah, I was in the 12th grade.12th grade I don't know.No, I started Kindergarten I think when I was one, zipped right through that ?You did go to a weird school though, didn't you?Yeah Rudolf Steiner is where I went and they yeah they start you early there.I don't know, yeah so you were nine.I was nine yeah.And were you funny?Yeah I guess I was a goofball and I don't know if I was funny, you know, I think I was just a goofykid. But I remember going to their show, Bob and Ray, The Two and Only, and I could only go toyou know, I went to few night time shows, but because I was still in school, I had to go to the matineesand it was always an older crowd at the matinees, and never really, not a not a lot of laughs. Youknow, lot of feedback from hearing aids you know, during the matinees. But my dad was always youknow it didn't count of a great mood in the matinees because they kind of blew off the matinees. So itwas always fun to go and watch them work there.But when you you started as a at Letterman, as what, a runner or a PA?I started as a runner on the old show they they really didn't have interns yet, they didn't have internsyet. They it was such a small group of people and and I told you the story. I had met Dave a yearbefore when he was doing his Morning Show and I was our tour guide at Rockefeller Center and I wasmy job during the day at that point was to sell tickets to the observation deck upon the 65th floor of 30Rock. And Dave came up and he came up with his mother who was in town visiting him and and soI charged him the kiddy fare. And he giggled at that and and when I went back a year later to applyfor a job on the Night Time Show he remembered me. Charging him the kiddy fare because he waswith his mom is kind of the cool part of the story. The unhip part of the story is that I did I then blurted outwho my dad was. And it turned out Dave was like a huge fan of my dad's, which was great to hear andand Dave said, yeah you know whenever I host the Tonight's Show, I always try to get Bob andRay on in and I can't get them on, and I don't know why I said this to this day. I just said, yeah I knowmy dad doesn't do the Tonight's Show unless Johnny is hosting. And Dave was just like you know,well, okay you know, and he just walked off and I was like enjoy the view, you know. And butthen a year later he remembered and he remembered that comment too, you know. And but then thatfirst week of Late Night, Bob and Ray on too it was fun. Yeah it was fun.And was that your doing or not.No, I didn't have any he was a big fan of Bob and Ray he had the sweetest quote he ever said thatthat I heard him say was that if you don't know anything about a person or you are not sure if youlike a person or not, you know, ask him what they think about Bob and Ray. And depending on theirreaction you will know if that's a person you want to be friends with.And how do you try .I just made that up.It really sounds good.It would be sweet if that's what he said. I live in a fantasy world, quite a bit. I think some things havehappened, some things haven't and there is kind of a line that even I don't know, what's real or not .When you was this how do you was it a small enough show that you could transition from being aPA to writing and ?That's the only way I could. I there was it was a really small group of people and I was I guess Iwas on like the first show, and Dave did like a tour at the studio, I remember, and I was enjoyingOctober Fest in the control room. And I was in lederhosen and I didn't have a beard yet, I think soyou should find that on YouTube, but yeah you could actually sort of talk to Dave back then. Youknow now it's it's a big corporation sort of there now. It's a little harder to to have access to him, butyeah, and I was goofy and I used to go out on the remotes with Dave and Merril Markoe, who was thehead writer at the time and you know, Dave would always you know, do something with me on theremotes and I would occasionally I started to sort of write little jokes here and there for him, foropening remarks and he he used a few of them on the air and then I guess about three years into theshow, he they hired me as writer because I wrote a submission.And in between you were just as .In between, other writers had used me on the show like in Viewer Mail as you know, some goof inthe audience or something like that and you know, once I was a writer then I just started writingmyself into the show.Of course.And I was on every week. But that's actually true. I mean I was and I remember it was it was sortof thrilling to you know, write something for Dave and hear an audience laugh at it, but actually writesomething for yourself and go out and do it and get a laugh was like a whole another you know, shotof heroine for me. It was like just completely different, you know, and I and I knew you know, thatoh I should try to do stuff for myself here.When so many of the characters and we saw a few and we saw some of the interaction between youand Letterman, and that was what attracted us was that that it didn't it always had a real air ofmenace about it, like your relationship with him and you wanted to get on it and you but then once hewas asking you questions, you were like really kind of aggressive and snide to Letterman and it wasjust so bizarre, you never knew where that was going to go.It's going to happen here too. In about 10 more minutes things are going to start to change.Oh boy.Yeah oh boy is right.I can leave that .That was a lovely dinner before this date but you know, I think it started because and I think Ishould credit my dad because I think my delivery initially was very much like my the dry delivery ofBob Elliott, because you know Dave up in the office which is where a lot of those bits originated, youknow, we joke around with you and if I gave him like one word answers and just stared at him, hewould suddenly laugh, you know, and I remember early on, on the show I I was I came out in acostume I was dressed as a garbage, it was a urban disguise, and Dave asked me a couple of things orwhatever and then the show that night when it was aired for some reason, that part of the show, whenI came out, got blacked out on the Eastern Seaboard and so Dave had me come out the next night andI was in the same garbage suit, but you could see my face this time. And he asked me how disappointedI was that the show hadn't aired and so forth and and I had friends in the audience and I said, yeahand he said, well what did they you know, what did they say of your performance? And I said to him,well they said it was the funniest thing they had seen in North America, Dave. And he laughed, youknow, and the audience had about the same reaction if not if not less. But I knew at that point itdidn't matter if the audience laughed or not, it was making Dave laugh, that mattered and so that wholething of and you know kind of that seething anger underneath me was just something that I kind ofdeveloped with him you know, up in the office that he got a kick out of the fact that may be I waskind of a nutYeah.- you know, and and that was you know, every character that I did on that show was kind of that guy,you know, and you know, the all those running characters which were essentially kind of pokingfun I guess at the you know, running characters on SNL on Saturday Night Live, with catch-phrasesand so forth was you know, really designed just so I could get to that moment where it will youknow, I could say well, Dave I am going to make you're a little bit tough you know. And yeah, Iwould do like those characters for about you know, three weeks and then I would ram them down inon audiences throat, you know and and the whole idea was to do something kind of lame you know,and then I would do really fond bon voyage to the character at the end, you know, reallysad montage with the character dying and make the audience feel something.Yeah it was like three days after you had debuted the character and then there would be this montage.Yeah, and then I will kill it off.What was the importance of the cheapness of it? Like the wigs had to look cheap and the costume hadto be cheap and the special effects in it had to have an air of lame so explain it .I didn't realize it was cheap then. I spent a lot of time with the hair -.That was supposed to be William Shatner there, right?I really don't know. Yeah, I guess that was my version of Shatner at the Science Fiction Awards there.But yeah I think the whole concept with me honestly and it was a calculated concept was that Ihave no talent, and that I am a I was a staff member trying to work my way on to the show, in anyway that I could and these terrible characters that were so lame and awful was the only way I couldcome up with you know, a way to get on the show. And so you know the and then Dave you know,calling me on on things and me turning on him became a sort of the running thing. But I guess theidea was to make it look as lame or as cheap as you said.That was a Jay Leno chin, right, I mean -.Well, that looked good, didn't it for 1972 or whenever it wasI don't knowIt did they all do that with you know, computers nowadays so, but that was yeah that wasprosthetics; that was six hours. That's what they came up with.How did you choose the character of if its Marv Albert or Marlon Brando or and then increasinglylike the Brando and some of the other characters you didn't bother costumes or makeup after a while.It was just you saying that you were that person.Well I started to drink heavily during the Brando Era. I would kind of roll up from Hurley's the bardown there and run out and do it. I thought it added to the character, if I had had a few before I wenton. They were all designed sort of to make Dave laugh. Marv Albert was a regular guest on the show,and I used to see him walking around you know, backstage, and what I would do what I would seebackstage, which of course the general public will never see, which he always have a Styrofoam cupand he always brushed off his pants as he walked around you know waiting to go on. And so Iremembered doing that coming out and before I said anything Dave was you know on the floorbecause he recognized that too you know you know, I don't think that fucker think of that youknow, it's a .But to us you know, I was just dying because I haven't seen that. Since like we were watching thatclip review we had no idea why you were doing that.Right no I know.Because we hadn't seen him do that backstage or anything.Yeah, not that was it's all an inside joke. Just with Dave just like you know, that's how I am withhis with his notes, he had all these notes. And I started from cupping brushes pants for an hour beforehe came on the show.What was it like that because you have worked in so many different shows and film sets since then?Has it always been have you ever been on that sort of set where, it was really about a relationshipwith making one guy laugh and you could do this strangest stuff and it would get on air. You know,what I am saying.Yeah you mean in terms of movies, and stuff like thatYeah.- or in terms of I mean TV the closest thing was Get a Life, and you know we didn't do that in frontof an audience. So, we but I had nights there we shot two nights, two days, but we would shoot lateinto the night and there was one night where we had we had to finish the episode you know,otherwise they were going to shut us down and it took us till five in the morning because my dad and Icould not stop fucking laughing. We were laughing -.Your dad who played your dad on the show.My dad played my dad not my first choice. But yeah we could not stop laughing and it was justbecause I knew what was going through his mind and he knew what was going through my mind whichwas basically that you know, can you believe we were doing this shit.Do you remember what that was?Yeah I think it was some camping camping show. I think I was supposed to sing something to andlike Cats in the Cradle or something like that and it just it just wasn't working. Every time I lookedat him I just saw that face you know, and kind of the bleared eyes as it got later and later at night, butyou know. Letterman you know, we there had been times when you know, Dave has made me laughas as you know, as loose as those things looked with him in the they were fairly scripted, you know,I had to write up what I wanted to do. And back in the old days not anymore, but back in the olddays, you actually rehearsed to. You actually came out and rehearsed the interview, you know, andhow it was going to go. And but there you know, Dave would try to throw me things every now andthen and it was easy to handle it when I was in character you know, like Brando or something like that.But you know when I was myself I would started cracking up. I remember Dave like, Brando Daveloved the Brando character and hated it at the same time. He hated it because it took a lot of time forme to do to do those moments you know, and I can remember you know, I remember many a timeyou know, like leaning over and talking to I mean talking to the Paul and doing these takes and stuffand then then just looking over and seeing his hand underneath the table going like this. And andactually like as Brando just going "huh?" And that you know that cracked him up. Brando waslike one of those weird things that Adam Resnick who is my best friend in the world and I never seewe talked to each other on the phone nonstop, but we never see each other. But he was a writer thereand we were in the greenroom once and we both loved The Godfather and we are talking about Brandoand at the time Brando had not made his come back yet, which I guess he did, you know, after TheFormula, after his big swansong. And we were we knew he was on an island and he was kind of nutsat this point and all that we just had this idea well what if Brando showed up at the studio and hungout and bugged Dave, you know, which just kind of sleeping in the airlock which means the studio andthe hall way. And and what would he do on the show? And we are talking about the Godfather and inthe wedding sequence in the movie, The Godfather there is there is this one guy when every oneis dancing, who is standing to the side with a cocktail kind of watching them dance and it was kind ofstanding there like this doing this weird like little thing you know, and we that's how like sort ofthe Marlon Brando banana dance came about. It was just like you know, we figured, okay well, hecome out and he would just be kind of like doing that kind of thing. Then if you watch the movie youwill see it that the camera pans by this guy and I don't know I don't know if that was like supposed tobe like a dance from the 40s or something that they did. But he is standing there with the cocktail anddoing . And yeah so then we must, yeah we figured that Brando would come out and he would youknow, make ruthless fun of Paul Shaffer and I remember coming out and Paul was not crazy about it,I don't think as I I can't remember coming out as Brando and you know, just saying that Paul, Ibrought you something. And then I I pulled out you know, a little cow boy outfit for Paul Shaffer youknow, with little boots and I said, isn't darling you know. And Hal Gurnee just cut to a shot of Pauljust like shaking his head now its fun.When you pitched to Get a Life to, what was that pitch. What was going on in sort of comedy at the time?Well, Fox had approached me to do a series and oddly enough, I think the first thing I pitched to themwas an idea where Marlon Brando goes goes out west and becomes a house keeper for some familyand I think I said, it's going to be kind of like the fugitive because his agents is going to be like chasinghim around the country and and they rightly turned that one down. And and then they kept tellingme and I you know, this was early on at Fox and they kept telling me that they wanted a really kindof family oriented show, you know, why they wanted me for that, I have no idea. But I I came upwith this idea of well I went in and I pitched them this idea that Big Tom Hanks's movie had beenout. And I I said it's kind of like a Peter Pan story. It's you know, an adult with the mind of a child.And you know and they said, oh that's wonderful. That's great, some things that come out of thismouth means something. And I said yes, teaches every one a lesson and what they got was you know,an insane guy living at home with his parents who are also insane you know, and they were not happyat all about that, you know, because they are hoping for Big.Well, at what point did they know? Yeah.Well, they were you know, right from the pilot on, I think they you know, and even the pilot weactually if you if you ever watch that show, the pilot actually has a lot of it's you know, has a lotof the network notes in it. You know, because everybody kept saying, you have to do their notes atleast on the pilot, so you get picked up. So you know, the pilot is not as edgy as the show the firstepisode out of the game was called The Prettiest Week of My Life, which was me becoming a malemodel. And they knew right away, "What the hell is this?" You know, I think that was the note. I thinkthat was actually a note from that, just like would you like to explain yourselvesAnd did that air as it is?It aired as it is. But you know they would send us down notes to they were constantly wanting amoment you know, between me and my dad or something you know, human somethingrecognizable. And we just could not bring ourselves to do that. We would I mean we would write in ajoke for them you know, or they would suggest you know, some lame joke and we go wonderful, yes,we will put that in. That's that's what my character would say. And then you know, either you know,write some sort of you know, other joke that would mainly totally nullify that joke completely or takeit out in editing all together you know. That was the nice thing about not having to do it in front of anaudience you know, it's we could go in and edit it edit out all the bad network notes.Now on DVD Now this show you can get it and then you can get it with a laugh track and we saw afew clips with the laugh track. And then you can watch .You can get it without the laugh track too.Yeah you can do with out the oh I am sorry I didn't tell you that yeah you can do it with out thelaugh track and you will hear a few crew members laughing.Really are you serious I thought you were just joking.No no it's really raw it's totally .Wow, I didn't realize that. Jesus.But what's that like, because it was a very quite place.It was very quite but you had to be quite because we had to be quite for the laugh track.Oh really.That we were going to put in. It was it was a little strange I guess in that sense not doing in front ofan audience, but it was better because we did a lot of things that we are kind of you know, film like,you know, and that took a lot of time to set up and that every show was huge you know, whether itwas me becoming a male model and having to build this whole you know, theater for me to youknow, walk down the runway on or you know getting stacked you know, breaking the world's recordhaving crap stacked on top of me. I mean these were huge sets that they they built. So you know,there was no way really to do it in front of an audience. But you know I am you are asking me youknow, how well was it like to perform without laughter?I guess it just -.I am pretty much used to that.Yet, there were some people laughing you know, it always an odd crew member.Well, there was another show taping down with the other end of the hall like that was a little odd. Itwas always I don't know I remember you know, because it was my real dad, and my mom came towatch a taping once and look it was it just oh so humiliating just to see her, like sitting there ohokay. Yeah.At what point did the did the Fox people, did they give up and ?You know, there was a guy there there was a guy there who was not in development, was not head ofthe current, I guess his what the thing was he was in charge of promos for Fox and did not have anykind of sense of humor whatsoever. And I remember he called once. He called to pitch some promoideas for the show before it was aired. And I was so cocky and such an idiot, I was like hey, everybodyget on the line, you don't want to listen to this and you know, he was you know, pitching like youknow, these keystone cops ideas you know, for speeding up the footage and doing all the stupid stuff.And I was just making fart noises into the phone the whole time, and just going oh no, that's a greatidea. What was that idea? Yeah, go on with that you know. And everybody was laughing. About sixmonths into the show that guy was promoted to being in charge of current and in charge of our show.And if we just had bad luck with right from the start with that guy and he was not a fan to the showobviously. So that's part of it you know, as if getting I think we have the same exact rug, this is akarastan.I get it from North Carolina cheaper, go ahead.When did you - when did you start when was the idea to kill yourself off on the show so oftenwhen did that occur?That was more or less the second season, you know, we we did a full first season that I thought wasgreat and we were cancelled. And then suddenly you know, they they somebody called and said that Iwas devastated and crying and really not taking it well. So they said, all right, we will give you a fewmore and they picked us up for a second season. But like they picked us up for like nine episodes andhalfway through that nine, they cancelled us completely but we still had to deliver the rest of the showsand at that point I was looking at the scripts ahead of time and just like going I am not going to comein and get in a big vat of chili. I am sorry, I am not going to do it you know. And so we just endedup you know, tearing my head off and kicking it down the street and you know, finishing off the showsthat way. It was really kind of a just our way of just like not wanting to stay late, coming up a goodending. I think it was just about every every episode towards the end of the second season I am dead, I die.And was that bit of must have been sort of fine in a way, freeing, knowing that there wasn't reallyanything in stake; it's just going to .I guess it was. I mean it was a little I think during the second season, I started to hear rumblings thatthere were people that actually were fans of the first season. You know, while we were doing the firstshow, the first season, it didn't seem like anybody was watching the show and that the people that werewatching had hated it that's what it seemed like.Were you right after "In Living Color"?We were and and I remember, but that was great for us and I remember you know, walking down thestreet in Santa Monica with my daughter, who was I think like three at the time, and there was awoman coming with a person coming close to us and I could tell she had recognized me and Ithought, oh this would be cool for me daughter, to see me get recognized and as she passed by, shesaid, oh there is that guy from that show I hate. You know and my daughter was like "What did shesay daddy?" You know, and I just said. "Well, nothing honey, come on, let's move along." But butthe fact that you know, there weren't really ratings that you could you could - you know, that meantanything at that point because Fox was so new, you know, that the ratings were always you know, atthe bottom there you know, even for their hit shows. So you couldn't really tell that. That compoundedby the fact the network hated the show and you know, we just thought you know, our work wewere just doing crap here just horrible, horrible crap. And then the second season, you know, thereseem to be the slight little resurgence, like may be if we stayed on it would have done something. Butso I guess I was you asked if it was freeing to be able to tear my head off and kick it down the street,and and it was, but it was bittersweet, because I was a little, you know, I was already a little sad abouthaving to say good bye to it, because that you know, and this sounds I guess like a weird you know,window into my psyche, but you know, my whole career has sort of been still in my mind you know,what what makes Dave laugh and what not you, sorry, but what makes Dave Letterman laugh andhow and would he be proud of me or would he be happy that I am doing that. And I knew that heloved Get a Life, you know. He had told me, oh that that's perfect. That is just the perfect thing andhe had wished that he had actually we had actually done something together before I left there. Hisproduction company wasn't up and running at the time. So I you know, when it when it went downI think that was part of it too. I felt like a failure like you know, oh shit, okay Dave you know Ifailed. But then I did "Cabin Boy." And I I sort of I got his respect back with that.