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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Chris Elliott (“Eagleheart”)

Chris Elliott has comedy in his genes, courtesy of his father, Bob Elliott (of the legendary comedy team Bob & Ray), and he’s passed his abilities on to the next generation, as his daughter Abby Elliott proves week after week on “Saturday Night Live,” but, geez, enough about his dad and kid already. Surely it’s time to shine the spotlight solely on Chris Elliott himself, who first won our hearts with his decidedly unique characters on “Late Night with David Letterman,” completely blew the minds of a generation of moviegoers with his film “Cabin Boy,” and has since gone on to appear in everything from “Manhunter” to “Everybody Loves Raymond.” On April 12, his current endeavor – Adult Swim’s “Eagleheart” – returns for its second season, just over a week after the DVD release of Season One, which hit stores on Tuesday. Bullz-Eye chatted with him…okay, fine, we geeked out…about the more eccentric side of his comedy, including his seminal TV series “Get A Life,” which, as you may have read elsewhere first (although it came from this interview), is coming to DVD in a complete-series set at long last.

Bullz-Eye: First off, let me just tell you what a pleasure it is to talk to you. I’ve been a fan for many years.

Chris Elliott: Oh, well, thank you. I just don’t hear that enough. [Laughs.]

BE: In my case, it’s no exaggeration: when I was in high school, I sent off for tickets for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Granted, I had graduated by the time I actually got them, but, hey, at least I got them.

CE: Oh, my gosh. That’s pretty funny. So did you actually wait four years for tickets?

BE: No, but it was more than a year: I sent them off during my senior year, and it was well after graduation when they finally arrived.

CE: Wow, that’s pretty amazing. But it proves that you were a hardcore fan. Do you remember who was on the show when you went?

BE: Absolutely: it was Jane Pauley and Bruno Kirby. I also remember that they did Shoe Removal Races that night, with a podiatrist squaring off against a shoe salesman.

CE: Ah, yes, that was an excellent episode. [Laughs.]

BE: You were actually just on Letterman’s show a few nights ago. It sounded like you may have taken a bit of flour into your lungs.

CE: [Laughs.] I started to smell like cookies after I was under the lights for a little while. But I thought it came off all right. It’s always fun to go back there, and I hate coming back on there as myself in any form. This interview is okay because I can’t see you. [Laughs.] But I don’t like coming on and just talking as myself, so I always come on with something.

BE: The “Downton Abbey” thing was great, too.

CE: Yeah, I thought that came out great.

BE: So let’s talk “Eagleheart.” One of the most surprising things about the series, at least to me, is that you don’t actually get a writing credit on the show. Not that you don’t have some input, given that you’re a consulting producer, but…

CE: I’d say these guys have my voice down. I knew that when I met with them. They were huge fans of mine, and, honestly, I didn’t want the extra work. [Laughs.] And at the same time, y’know, they changed the pilot quite a bit to suit me, and what I do – and Adam Resnick does this, also – is sort of take a pass at the scripts when they’re done with them and change a couple of jokes here and there, and if something’s not quite in my voice, I just kind of paraphrase what I would be saying, and that sort of thing. I’m sort of at the point in my career where writers that are working in the business sort of grew up knowing about me. At least the ones that are fans of mine, anyway. And they’re really capable of writing for me. It wasn’t always that case. Early on in my career, it was pretty much Adam and me just trying to establish this voice.

BE: Of course, it makes me wonder if people sometimes come to you with something utterly off the wall, saying, “Well, ‘Cabin Boy’ was so nuts that I figured you’d be into this.’

CE: Yeah, I think I get that a lot. It’s interesting: some people put anything weird in the “weird” category and think, “Oh, Chris’ll do that because it’s so weird.” But you’re right. Certain people, like yourself, get why certain things are funny-weird as opposed to just being strange. That’s a different breed. I think I do get lumped in a lot with “he’s just off the wall, he’s crazy.”

BE: On paper, “Eagleheart” would seem to be more or less just a “Walker: Texas Ranger” parody, but it’s definitely been evolving into something more.

CE: Yeah, it was sort of that when it first started. That’s what the pilot was like. It was gonna be this half-hour show…you probably already know this, Will, but it was gonna be a show within a show, like “Walker: Texas Ranger,” and then behind the scenes of that show. We shot that pilot, and then within it were also examples of what the actual show we were doing was like…and Adult Swim actually liked the fake show better than all the behind-the-scenes stuff. [Laughs.] So that’s what they picked up: the fake show.

BE: Have you been happy with the show’s evolution?

CE: I’ve been very happy. I mean, right from the start, I thought it was gonna be fun, but it really did sort of evolve into this very surreal and very comfortable place for me to work. I mean, like you said, it seems like I’m a writer on it because it’s all my kind of humor. Jason Woliner, who directs all of them, gives the shows a very film-like look to them, which makes them stand apart, and then Andrew Weinberg and Michael Koman, the writers, along with Jason, are a cut above, I think. We all came from kind of the same background to a degree. Andrew and Michael were “Conan” writers. So the sensibility was always the same.

BE: Speaking of Mr. O’Brien, I haven’t actually seen the Season 2 episodes yet, but I understand he has deigned to make a cameo.

CE: Yeah. He was really hard to get. [Laughs.] A lot of contractual obligations for that one. Basically, there was one sticking point that was really hard to get over, which was that he didn’t want to do it. But once they got through that…

BE: Bud Cort apparently turns up as well.

CE: Yes! Bud Cort, Conan O’Brien, Ben Stiller makes an appearance. It’s a star-studded cast this year.

BE: As a “Breaking Bad” fan, I’m thrilled to see that Dean Norris is going to be appearing as well.

CE: And he’s really funny. Really, really funny. And a great guy, too.

BE: How did Mickey Rooney find his way into Season One?

CE: Uh, I wasn’t in that meeting. [Laughs.] It kind of happened without my knowledge. That was an episode where they needed an actor who had a good wattle underneath his chin. An older actor, because the premise was that there were all these older people who were doing sound effects on television, and apparently the sound effects were made by the neck wattles. And Mickey Rooney…we had a lot of people come in and audition for that, and apparently Mickey Rooney had the best wattle. Apparently. [Laughs.]

BE: As an old-school Letterman fan, I could ask you about dozens of things about “Late Night,” but first and foremost has to be your Marlon Brando impression. To my mind, the banana dance is nothing short of iconic.

CE: Well, that’s nice to hear. And you’re not alone. Yeah, it was pretty popular back in the ‘80s. I think that and the Truffle Shuffle were the big dances back then. [Laughs.]

BE: Being that Brando was as eccentric as he was, did you ever actually hear from him about the impression?

CE: No, but we actually did… I think I got his phone number at one point, and I remember actually calling and getting to a maid or somebody… [Starts to laugh.] I asked to speak to him and said who I was, and the line went dead after that. So I never actually spoke with him. And then I do remember him doing an interview, I think with Connie Chung, and she asked him…not specifically about the Brando impersonation, but she asked him, “What do you think about David Letterman?” And he didn’t answer. He just made a grotesque face. That may have been a reaction to my doing him on the show. I don’t know. I like to think that it was.

BE: Is it strange to find yourself now the middle Elliott, generationally speaking, given that your daughter (Abby Elliott) is now on “Saturday Night Live”?

CE: It’s really nice, but it is odd. Anyone at 51, I think, is starting to look back a little bit with a bit of astonishment at how fast time goes, so it is odd. I think it would be odd if… Both of my daughters are in the business, and I think it would be odd if they were doing anything else. I now have a 24-year-old and a 21-year-old, but the fact that they’re actually doing what I did when I was at their age is even weirder. And it must’ve been weird for my dad, too.

BE: And how is your dad doing?

CE: He’s doing well, thanks. He just turned 89 a couple of days ago.

BE: It’s fun being able to look on YouTube and see clips of some of the “Bob & Ray” stuff.

CE: It is. I do that every now and then myself. [Laughs.] It’s amazing to me how much I have in common with my dad and our comedy, because on the surface it does not look the same at all. But especially when Bob and Ray were starting out, some of the stuff they did was pretty bizarre and off the wall, and I realize that, yeah, that’s obviously where I got it from. I was thinking the other day that…I think if I worked at a radio station when they were first starting out, I would’ve been drawn to their sense of humor right away. I would’ve tried to be on their staff. And they probably would’ve been drawn to me in some way. They would’ve made me the goofy record-puller in the studio. [Laughs.]

BE: Abby’s obviously doing very well on “SNL,” but given that you had the chance to work with your father on “Get A Life,” were you disappointed when the pilot you did with her, “You’ve Reached the Elliots,” didn’t take off?

CE: Yeah, I mean, I actually thought that was a good pilot. It’s…ever since “Get A Life,” it’s been hard for any network to sort of see me doing anything but what I did on “Get a Life.” And at the same time, they don’t want me to do what I did on “Get A Life.” [Laughs.] So that’s doubly hard for me. I mean, back then, six years ago, the idea of playing a dad but playing him like a grown-up Chris Peterson, seemed like, “Okay, this is the best of both worlds.” But ultimately I think it’s hard to imagine that guy from “Get A Life” having kids. [Laughs.]

BE: Speaking of “Get A Life,” has there been any movement on seeing it released as a complete series on DVD?

CE: It is going to be coming out. I’m not entirely sure when. I think probably in the fall…? But, yeah, it will be actually coming out…finally!

BE: Do you know who’s putting it out? Is it Shout Factory?

CE: It is Shout Factory.

BE: I knew it had to be. [Laughs.] That’s awesome. Now if we can just get “FDR: A One-Man Show” back out there…

CE: That was out there once upon a time. I think it was on tape when it came out. I don’t think it ever went to DVD at any point, unfortunately. But, of course, I continue to travel the country performing it… [Laughs.]

BE: Of course. Have you done any special features for the “Get A Life” set yet?

CE: We’re going to. I guess the end of April we’re going to go out and do those. Commentaries and that sort of thing.

BE: As you can tell, I’m a little psyched.

CE: Oh, good. No, I’m glad! I think it’s time that fans like yourself can get it. I don’t know why, really, that it’s taken so long.

BE: To touch on “Cabin Boy,” I also must tell you that I’ve got my daughter to the point where, whenever she sees a sock monkey, she asks, “Would you like to buy a monkey?” And she’s only six, so she’s clearly damaged for life.

CE: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s one of those catchphrases that’s entered our culture, thanks to “Cabin Boy.”

BE: I also write for the Onion AV Club, and we just had a piece on there where the film was inducted into the New Cult Canon.

CE: I saw that! Yeah, that was nice to see. I’ve always said that I stand by that movie. I think Adam did a great job directing it. Every time I see it on TV, I’m amazed at how interesting it looks and how bizarre it is. At the time it came out, it was just vilified, but it seems to have grown on people.

BE: Setting aside the obvious answers of “Cabin Boy” and “Get A Life,” is there any other project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

CE: Oh, that’s a good question. You mean something that actually was made that then was not appreciated as much?

BE: Right.

CE: Just about everything. [Laughs.] I know that sounds like a broad answer, but just about anything that’s been initiated by me or by people close to me for me…it’s not that it hasn’t been appreciated. I always feel like I’ve been very lucky, and I have a hardcore following, but I think that most of…just about everything I do is met with a certain amount of bafflement by the general public. [Laughs.] And I think that’s a good place, actually, for me to be: just slightly on the outside of the mainstream. And I’m perfectly comfortable being there.

BE: To get really obscure for a moment, I talked with Stephen Collins last year…

CE: Oh, yeah!

BE: …and we talked briefly about your work on the series “Tattinger’s.”

CE: That’s funny. Geez, that’s going way back. That was, like, my first outside television gig other than working for Dave. Yeah, he was in that, and…who else was in that? Blythe Danner! And I remember that Gwyneth Paltrow was a little kid, and she was running around on the set when we were shooting “Tattinger’s.” [Laughs.] But that was really fun. Those guys were fans of mine from what I was doing on “Letterman,” and they let me be this goofy character. I think in general that’s where I’ve fit in the best: when I’m the odd next-door neighbor or the odd brother or something like that. “Get A Life,” actually, was always kind of…the concept of that show, essentially, was that it was built around a bizarre secondary character from any other normal, more or less mainstream sitcom. In the real world, that character would’ve been on, like, the old “Newhart” show or something. With our show, we followed him home and saw him living with his parents.

BE: I know we’re up against the wall, but, lastly, I just wanted to touch on your voice work over the years. You said in an AV Club interview a few years ago that you were never fond of the work you did on “Dilbert,” but is there anything you’ve done that you’ve been particularly proud of?

CE: Um…I’ve never liked my voice. [Laughs.] Unlike my dad, who has this beautiful radio voice, I’ve always thought that I had a whiny, adenoidal voice, and it’s really hard for me to listen to it on its own. So I don’t enjoy doing voiceover-type stuff. Also, I don’t think I’m any good at it. I don’t think that’s where my expertise lies…if I’m even an expert at anything. [Laughs.]

BE: Well, you’ve doing very well with “Eagleheart.”

CE: Well, thanks. Again, this is my comfort zone: playing a complete moron in a really crazy, violent show. [Laughs.] It’s what I was born to do.