Comedy writer Adam Resnick met performer and satire scion Chris Elliott while interning for David Letterman’s groundbreaking late-night program in the mid-80s. The two struck up a friendship and creative partnership that would produce, most notably, the now-classic anti-sitcom Get A Life and the 1994 sea-faring film-oddity Cabin Boy—the latter of which has grown in popularity since its initial, less-than-enthusiastic reception. Indeed, during the first few test screenings audience members fled from their seats confused at the 20-minute mark; Chris and Adam’s names were met with silence as the premiere’s end credits played. Cabin Boy has since been christened into the AV Club’s New Cult Canon, and will be showing on Friday, May 25th at 92Y Tribeca‘s screening room. Both Chris and Adam will be in attendance for a Q&A between the evening’s two screenings—the second added after the first sold out, a month in advance—and can likely expect more applause during the titles.
Speaking to Chris and Adam over the phone about the film, I felt somewhat superfluous—their years as friends are evident in their lissome conversation, and I could tell that they’d chewed over Cabin Boy before with the help of more than a few drinks. But I had to interject several times to insist how well the film has aged for an early-90s comedy. It dreamy, dada aesthetic, through which Chris’s powder-wigged “Fancy Lad” literally sails, and the obstreperous lack of pop culture references in favor of tobacco-spitting-cupcake weirdness have proved prescient—especially considering Adult Swim’s brand of surreal nostalgia. Chris and Adam are reluctant to accept the film’s cult following, having been, in their own words, “trained” to hate their own creation, but they’ve slowly come around to acknowledging the movie’s merits. Our conversation traced the outline of their collaborative efforts, which were gathering hilarious, critically-acclaimed steam until the Cabin Boy debacle.
You two met, of course, in the early days of Late Night with David Letterman. Was there a matching comedic sensibility right away?
Chris Elliott: Definitely. Adam was raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I was raised in New York City, but it was like we’d gone to school together.
Adam Resnick: It was an instant connection, and I could tell immediately that we were also meant to be good friends. All the other writers were, like, Harvard boys, and Chris and I were poor students. And a lot of the really irreverent stuff that Chris did I was a huge fan of before I even got to the show. “Guy Under the Seats,” and stuff like that.
CE: Yeah, Matt Wickline and Sandy Frank and I started doing those sketches to make fun of recurring characters, the way they were done on Saturday Night Live more than anything else. And the idea was that I have absolutely no talent and I’m coming out with these really lame ideas just to get my face on television every week. And there was some amount of truth to that. My stuff changed quite a bit when I started to work with Adam. It evolved with Adam to the point where I could come out basically as myself. And I knew that whether or not the audience laughed, it was still gonna be funny. And Dave was still gonna like it.
AR: We did some running characters together—like Marlon Brando—but our collaborations were less character-related, Chris would just come out and do something different every week. Dave gave us such incredible freedom. Dave was so cool he’d pretty much let you do anything you wanted.
CE: And still pretty much does.
It seems like the material you two were producing was satirical from the start, but it always had an unpredictable edge. Chris always had this oblivious earnestness to him—he didn’t have the standard self-aware attitude that you see in parody actors. And that continued into Get A Life, which poked fun at sitcom tropes while maintaining this surreal tone with non sequiturs. Did this style develop organically?
CE: Definitely organically. I just work best when the surroundings of the show are making fun of itself the way I make fun of myself. I think I actually stand out like a sore thumb when I’m… well, some comedies take themselves more seriously than others. Unless there’s an acknowledgement that this whole thing is stupid then I don’t really fit it.
AR: Chris was one of the first people to do the modern incarnation of the arrogant idiot, which is now a comedy staple. But back in the Late Night days, people didn’t get that, and people thought that Chris would just come out and talk to Dave, and those segments weren’t even scripted, that he was just this over-confident guy who had no sense of what he was saying.
CE: That’s very nice, kid…
AR: The run-on sentence?
CE: Was it a run-on? I wasn’t really listening.
I’ve read that when you were making Get A Life you were fighting with FOX the entire time, which must have been a shift from being able to do anything on-air that would make Letterman laugh. And yet the subversiveness continued to deepen, and it kind of explodes with Cabin Boy. How much freedom did you guys have when making the movie?
AR: Tim Burton blessed the project, and that was the only reason it was made. Disney was trying to make a deal with him at the time. Tim wasn’t super involved, but his power got the project going.
CE: I don’t remember much about the creative freedom we had. I remember Tim Burton trying to talk me out of wearing shorts because the audience wouldn’t get that. There was some discussion about my accent, too…
AR: We talked about that a lot.
CE: I kinda wish I’d gone with the people who were saying, “Don’t do it.”
AR: That was a mistake on our part. We wanted to do something different, something that wasn’t exactly the Chris Elliott character.
CE: We were trying tip our hats to Captains Courageous and Freddie Bartholomew…
AR: …because people were clamoring for that!
CE: The original idea—Adam had written this brilliant Get a Life script which had me enamored with a bunch of construction workers. And I think the idea grew out of that. Me and a bunch of fat-ass sailors. And Ritch Brinkley was even in that Get A Life episode. But Tim Burton’s involvement… we had to add something Tim Burton-esque to it, which is how the whole Ray Harryhausen-creature section got added. I remember originally wanting to doing something—and this is the way I always work—start with stuff that’s more straightforward and then it gets weirder as it goes along. So I was thinking of taking a Young Frankenstein approach to Captains Courageous. Even doing it in black and white.
AR: We would have done it differently if we had written it for ourselves to direct. Tim didn’t have a lot to do with the [script], but we were aware of trying to make it a part of Tim’s wheelhouse. It was written for him to direct, and if he had directed it, a lot of people would have been going “Oooh, I’d like to see that movie”. And Chris and I would have loved to see it as well.