Lorne Michaels has said that everyone’s favorite era of Saturday Night Live is whichever one was taking place while they were in high school. That may very well be true. Similarly, I think it may be possible that everyone’s favorite competing sketch comedy program (or troupe) first came into being while they were in college or shortly thereafter, when the standard SNL approach suddenly seemed staid, hokey, and redundant. With it’s over-dependence on recurring characters delivering roughly the same jokes with only the slightest variations, celebrity impressions without anything creative built into the surrounding sketches, and other material that relies on recognition rather than surprise, the institution on NBC invariably starts to look like the opposite of daring. And there’s a certain pride–even necessity–in liking daring pop culture in one’s twenties. For me, the show that provided that thrilling sense of constant discovery for me was The Ben Stiller Show.
The Ben Stiller Show debuted on Fox in the fall of 1992, and it was a miracle I found it. Still only around five years old as a network, it was a little bit of miracle that anyone found anything on Fox. The sketch comedy series shared Sunday nights with mildly buzzy shows like In Living Color and Married…with Children, but it also debuted with Great Scott! as a lead-in. Herman’s Head was one of the more successful shows on the network, entering season two. There was no YouTube helping Stiller’s sketches go viral (but oh, they certainly would have) nor internet social media raving about the show. Skank never got a hashtag. But there was enough praise dispersed in the traditional media that it eventually tickled my interest. And once I watched it, I quickly realized why media writers were interested in Stiller’s show. It was basically all about the media and pop culture, and brilliantly so.
The crack writing team (which besides Stiller and fellow cast member Bob Odenkirk included future Starburns Dino Stamatopoulos, David Cross, and producer Judd Apatow) was deeply tuned into what was happening in pop culture and found wildly creative, sideways approaches to satirizing it. Ice-T was the subject of a lot of discussion (and target of dueling waves of ire and defense) for the song “Cop Killer,” but nothing exposed the ludicrousness of the rapper’s “Who me?” plea of innocence under the guise of artistry quite like The Ben Stiller Show‘s satiric reworking of the situation to depict a performer provoking fans to take out his next door neighbor, a mildly careless spreader of lawn clippings named Doug Szathkey. MTV alone provided plenty of fodder, with spot-on parodies of Metallica and U2, always with the intent of deflating the more pompous traits of the acts.
The sharpest comedic daggers were reserved for movies and the filmmakers who made their names with especially incendiary, provocative efforts. Probably the most notable was the expert demolition of the oeuvre of Oliver Stone, then at his absolute height, with a sketch that imagined what a theme park based on his films would look like.
Every one of Stone’s creative tics and sensationalized indulgences, then celebrated to the tune of two Best Director Academy Awards in less than ten years, was up for insightful mockery. The writing was especially strong, not just in the base realization of the concept but in the actual language used to describe the various attractions (my favorite was the description of the Born on the Fourth of July Bumper Carts as “90 solid seconds of clanking metal and bitter regret”). The inside Hollywood story at the time (which, admittedly, may be apocryphal) was that the crew on the film Stone was working on got ahold of a copy of the sketch and watched it with the director looking on, gamely proving he could take a joke. His mood supposedly shifted when his collaborators kept rewatching it all through the afternoon, laughing harder each time.
I knew the series wasn’t long for our undeserving media landscape when I saw the parody of the then-current A Few Good Men trailer that opened one of the episodes. This was presumably what would be used to grab television audiences who were slow on the remote after laughing their way through Flying Blind, and it was a take-off so specific that it was hard to imagine anyone but the most pathologically committed moviegoers responding to it. I was working at a movie theater where we’d attached the trailer to just about every mildly prestigious feature, so I knew it inside-out. For me, the sketch worked like the smell of a roasting steak works on a famished pooch.
This was the only season for The Ben Stiller Show. In fact, it did’t technically last a whole season. Only twelve of the thirteen produced episodes aired, and it was off the air by January. There was a touch of mild vindication a few months later when it won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program (a celebratory circumstance that contributed to an especially messy morning show appearance the next day). Stiller used his immediate cult hero status to leverage his way into the movie directing career he really wanted, though he of course had greater commercial success starring in pandering, audience-friendly fare. The other members of the small, gifted Ben Stiller Show troupe enjoyed varying levels of post-series success.
When I look at it now, I can admit that The Ben Stiller Show doesn’t always hold up all that well. It was ultimately too precisely tuned in to its era to be truly timeless. Without a sense of how many cheapo horror anthologies peppered late night cable at the time, something like “Low Budget Tales of Cliched Horrors” simply doesn’t work as well. But I believe my variation on the Lorne Michaels Theorem of Sketch Comedy Preference Carbon Dating remains sound. Saturday Night Live may have been there for me when I was a kid moving towards adulthood, but The Ben Stiller Show helped my comedic sensibility grow up.