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.
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.
AR: I was devastated when I heard Tim wasn't going to do it. But he really liked the script, and he suggested that I do it. Chris was nice enough to convince me to direct it. And I sort of got into it, because everyone was really positive and saying, “This is gonna be great!”
CE: You really had your hands full, not only being a first-time director but directing this movie, which wasn't that small of a movie when Tim Burton was going to direct it. He was going to have a 50 or 40 million dollar budget for this thing. When you became the director it went down to a 9 million dollar budget, but the script never changed. So you had to do all these special effects. And by the way, Tim Burton, who went on to do Ed Wood instead of Cabin Boy, took the top special effects people that were in his corral.
AR: Yeah, his set designer that I was gonna use went on to do Ed Wood instead. I don't like to disparage the people that were involved...
CE: But the odds were stacked against you for directing your first feature.
AR: There were a lot of technical details and I'm not good with that stuff. We had a lot of long, to me dull meetings about “What is the scale of the ice monster?” I hate stuff like that and have no fascination with special effects. Ultimately I feel like a writer.
And despite these limitations, the film has aged gracefully. The artifice is endearing. There's not a lot of CGI in it, the effects are more retro—there's stop-motion in a few sequences, and chromakeying, which makes it look more like a Thief of Bagdad homage. It's like a haunted playground.
AR: We did go for that look, but sometimes it was cheesier-looking than we would have liked.
CE: People always say, “It's so funny, there's a scene with you on the raft where you can see the seam in the backdrop.” [laughs]
AR: Yeah, that kind of stuff happened all the time.
CE: I never quite understood why we couldn't use rear-screen projection. They explained it to us, “No, no, you can't do that, because the boat's gonna be rocking in the foreground...”
AR: We were told “no” on just about everything. I heard that when one of the producers—the hands-on producer—read the script he just hated it, and did it as a favor to Disney. That's the guy that was the No-Man to everything. And Chris and I were so un-savvy about things that when he'd say, “No, no, can't do it,” we'd just say, “Oh, man, that's a drag.” I was also trying to be too nice as a director. I wanted everyone to like me. I learned later that you can be nice, but you have to have command of the set. That slipped away from me.
AR: Jim Gammon. These were great character actors. Imagine today trying to cast a movie like that. Look at those fishermen. They're old, ugly guys. We were, in a way, our own worst enemies. I'm sure women don't like Cabin Boy, I mean—what is there to look at?
CE: We never even had a discussion, like, "We should get some good looking people in this movie."
AR: But we never had a discussion about keeping out good-looking people. We were just casting it and doing it in the way that would make us laugh. It became this peculiar thing that will never happen again and probably should never happen again. Neither of us were plugged into any youth culture at the time that was starting to flourish with Dave...
CE: No, not like now. Now we're all over it.
You might be joking, but in some ways I think Cabin Boy resembles what you might find on certain TV shows or in certain movies today. The internet has made vintage content a lot more accessible—nostalgia goes back a lot further. Cabin Boy has character actors and no straight man, it has moments of unabashed anarchy (like the flying cupcake who spits tobacco), it has running gags that change context (pipe-cleaning), and it has a Twin Peaks alum. That's... practically the Adult Swim formula.
AR: It's true. Some of Adult Swim's weird humor, some of that oddness... Cabin Boy did have some of that.
CE: Maybe the connection to Adult Swim is part of [its appeal], that there's this nostalgic element. But the fact that the film has a following is a surprise, and a gratifying one. I am proud of the movie. I think it's a flawed movie, but it's a funny movie.
AR: And even if I see a psychiatrist every day for the rest of my life I don't think I'll be able to figure out why it was so reviled when it came out, and the damage it did to Chris and I mentally and creatively. Now, sure, there are some people who like it. I'm not about to pretend that it's considered this huge cult classic. But at the time it was really reviled, and became synonymous with “bad movie”. That's a mystery that Chris and I will never understand. It was a little 9 million dollar movie that should have just disappeared like all the other bad comedies.
If it's any consolation, I remember my parents seeing it in theaters and really liking it.
CE: That's really cool. I hear that sometimes, people come up to me and say “I went opening night and loved Cabin Boy.” But they usually add “I was the only one in the theater.” It did really scar us and screw up our careers for a really long time. It was the first, time that literally the phone stopped ringing for work. I was just naïve. I assumed that this was our first chance out of the gate and that the next time would be better. I didn't realize that no, it's gotta be perfect the first time or you don't get a next time. I thought it was like schoolwork. I'll get a D this time but they'll give me another shot.
AR: The movie is far from perfect and I'm not saying that if Chris and I could've done it exactly the way we wanted it would have been a masterpiece, but it would have been much better. So much stuff is cut out of it. I saw it for the first time recently in a long time...it was on cable...and I was really surprised. I thought “Hey, it's like this weird, little movie.” But the scenes move way too fast. Chris, especially the scene with your dad breaks my heart. He went on and on and had this funny speech...the edict from Disney was “Just get the movie over. We want it to end.”
CE: It's a pretty short movie, isn't it?
AR: 80 minutes. By the way, that's with credits. It's a really short movie. I think it could have been 6 minutes longer.