Cautionary Tales from TV Land

Part 1: “The Ben Stiller Show”

The history of television is replete with stories of good shows that went nowhere. Sometimes this is because network executives don’t give the show enough time or support; other times, it’s because established competitors in the same time slot keep the potential audience from noticing the newcomer. Sometimes advertisers don’t see the point of continuing to sponsor a wobbly program; sometimes staffing changes at the network doom a show that a former executive had nurtured.

And sometimes all of these things happen together. Case in point: “The Ben Stiller Show.” It was one of those wonderful concentrations of talent that happen rarely and are seized upon even more rarely. All four of its cast members — Ben Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk — have since done excellent work (and received a great deal of critical acclaim) in television, film and standup comedy. The same holds true of many of its writers, most notably David Cross, who (among other projects) collaborated with Odenkirk for several years to produce, write, and act in “Mr. Show” for HBO. Writer/producer Judd Apatow has worked on critical favorites such as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Critic” and “Freaks and Geeks.”

These talented writers and actors had excellent chemistry and created 13 clever, funny half-hours of television. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to keep it from being canceled after half a season. The recently released complete two-DVD set of “The Ben Stiller Show,” however, helps prevent it from sinking into obscurity, as well as giving some insight into what went wrong. The DVD’s plentiful extras (most notably the commentary tracks on eight of the episodes) help clear up just exactly what doomed the show, as well as celebrating what they were able to accomplish during its short life.

“The Ben Stiller Show” premiered in 1992 after two years of pre-production. Stiller had made a maskeshift version of the show for MTV in 1990, and he and Apatow eventually convinced executives at HBO to take on a similar project. If it had stayed there, it might have had a longer run. But HBO was interested in expanding into production for other networks, so the show was eventually sold to Fox. As luck would have it, the executives who had bought the show had been replaced by the time the program finally made it to air, and the new crew had little interest in Stiller. It was initially scheduled outside prime time, competing against “60 Minutes” (at the time, the highest-rated program on Sunday nights). After several weeks near the bottom of the ratings, it was moved to a Time Slot of Death (Sunday at 10:30 p.m.), and finally canceled after only 12 episodes had aired. (The 13th episode didn’t air until Comedy Central reran all of the episodes late in the ’90s.)

Although this history shows up in bits and pieces on the commentary tracks, most of the commentary is devoted to talking about the episodes themselves and the cast and crew’s memories of the production. (The commentator list varies by episode, but Stiller is present for all of them, and the other cast members for most.) The quality of the commentary is above average compared to many other DVDs; the memories of the cast and crew are generally quite sharp and their analyses insightful. Other extras include a number of sketches that were (wisely) cut and some excellent outtakes that present the show’s good use of improvisation. (Garofalo has remarked both here and elsewhere that it was an unpleasant shock to discover that the show’s supportive, collaborative work environment was a rarity in the industry.)

At times, the commentators seem mystified by how some of their ideas succeeded. Take, for example, Episode 9’s Husbands and Wives parody, “Woody Allen’s Bride of Frankenstein.” While it plays, the writers list all the reasons why it shouldn’t work: a strange, obscurantist concept (famous movie monsters as Woody Allen characters); a premise that requires the viewer to have seen Husbands and Wives; and a downer ending. And yet it does work. Though I think that in this case the writers sell themselves short. 1992 had been the year of the great Soon-Yi scandal, and a lot of people had seen Husbands and Wives or were familiar with it because of reviews and news coverage. The concept was admittedly odd (and had in fact come about by accident), but fell into place quite nicely: Woody Allen could play the Mummy any day, and Sydney Pollack has an uncanny resemblance to Frankenstein (sorry, Frankenstein’s monster).

The fact that the writers were free to explore oddball ideas like this one, and others such as “Manson” (“Lassie” with Charles Manson in the dog’s role), is what helps keep it fresh today. Ironically, that artistic success may have resulted in part from the show’s commercial failure. The participants knew early on in its run that the show was almost certainly doomed (the source of quite a few jokes in the episodes), and this removed much of the pressure to conform to the usual standards of mediocrity. And although it is tempting to wonder what might have been, perhaps the best thing to do is simply to enjoy what they were able to produce.