TubaTV remembers: ‘The Ben Stiller show’

The Ben Stiller show

I’m a member of a pretty downmarket gym here in Mexico City; a gym so downmarket that its sound system — when not eclipsed by Telehit, Mexico’s answer to MTV — rotates daily through the same two scratched up CD-Rs of salsa music and High NRG megamixes.  Imagine my delight, early yesterday morning, when one of the gym’s owners regaled her clientele with a new acquisition.  It began innocently enough, with a few choice Gorillaz tracks.  Inexplicably, though, (before we got to Mellon Collie era Smashing Pumpkins) the CD veered off into Jim Carrey’s rendition of “Somebody to love” from the movie Cable guy.  For anyone who may have forgotten, the almost unanimously underappreciated film was Ben Stiller’s directorial debut way back in 1996, years before his fling with Cameron Diaz and her comely hair.  (I maintain, despite a decade of vehement protests to the contrary from certain otherwise friendly quarters, that Cable guy is actually just short of brilliant.  It is also without a doubt the best performance* Jim Carrey has ever contributed to anglophone popular culture.  And that includes Eternal sunshine, Gondryfans.)

*Note to Thumbu and Emily V: which of you wants to sign up for a ‘TubaTV remembers: In living color‘ post?

I decided to take this freak occurrence as a sign: it’s high time TubaTV pay homage to a similarly underappreciated televisual gem, The Ben Stiller show.  In spite of his post-Mary oeuvre, I suspect that Ben Stiller is actually a very funny dude.  Anyone who doubts me need only check his pedigree: The Ben Stiller show combined the talents of Bob Odenkirk (whose genius is indisputable), Judd Apatow (whose talents frankly hit or miss), Andy Dick (whom I always thought was really funny, freakouts and all) and Janeane Garofalo (whose ill-advised semi-dramatic turn on 24 has admittedly tarnished what might otherwise have been fonder memories of her early 90s prime).

While the show parodied pop cultural artifacts that were very much of a particular moment in time, it also tended to require a certain pop culture competency that comparable sketches on SNL or early MADTV didn’t.  Here’s a classic example:

With this sketch, the show’s aesthetic choices — appropriating the ubiquitous 90s-era MTV camera angles, the jagged, calculatedly “accidental” edits — buttress a critique that aims to demystify or demythologize pop culture heroism.  Stiller & co. are not simply making fun of pop culture for its own sake; in this case they’re also calling Bono a sellout.  (Yes, Thumbu, I’m baiting you.)  The set of subversions at work operates on an almost subcultural level from within the machinery of 20th Century Fox.  Of course the show could only ever have been short-lived, but the 13 episodes Stiller managed to produce are all fine examples of the political charge that any good satire should carry.

In lieu of further interpretation, I’ll instead offer a sketch for TubaTV’s least prolific and yet most popular contributor…

… as well as an early cameo of a young David Cross (in what has to be the show’s most bizarre sketch, and also a possible source of inspiration for Armen Meiwes)…

… and finally my all time favorite Ben Stiller moment:

The GOLs abound.

— J.C. Freñán

Aristotle in Albuquerque

Ending well.
In full, satisfying color!

My one complaint with the otherwise spectacular second season of Breaking bad has been its insistence on prefacing each episode with cryptic, desaturated images of the Whites’ suburban residence, littered with the wreckage of some unforeseeable disaster and crawling with figures in haz-mat suits: i.e., the much-maligned Gratuitous Flash Forward.  Last night we finally learned that — unlike with, say, the overwrought chronological acrobatics of Damages — the mystery behind the pre-title sequences plays an almost co(s)mically accidental part in what will surely be Walter White’s main logistical hurdle for the first part of the recently greenlit third season.

What would have made the flash-forward device (in its usual, “x hours/days/months earlier” formula) particularly unsuited to Breaking bad is also what constitutes the show’s greatest narrative strength.  Its principal appeal, that is, lies in creator Vince Gilligan’s use of the techniques of classical, Aristotelian tragedy.  The structure of great tragedies, in ancient Greece as well as Shakespeare, is such that their protagonists’ fate is always a product of their own free will.  White and Pinkman have each had opportunities to change their ways, but they have both repeatedly chosen to plod unceasingly toward their own unhappy endings.

Misdirection 101.
Misdirection 101.

So, deliberately misleading images of a pair of body bags from some undetermined time in the future were never necessary for us to suspect that White and Pinkman were already well along their dual roads to Hell.  Had the outcome of last night’s season closer not genuinely surprised me, I would be using this space to bemoan the superfluousness of that particular image.  But, I should have had a little more faith in Gilligan’s vision: he has been an exceptionally savvy storyteller for a full two seasons now.

A couple details from last night’s finale merit special mention.  First is the climactic collapse of Walter’s fragile economy of lies, prompted by the innocent, anesthetized slur of two simple words.  Before Walt goes into surgery, he responds to a question from Skylar with another question — “Which one?” — and suddenly all the scaffolding he has erected around his secret labors finally falls out from beneath him.  The second detail is the truly inspired monologue that closes out the episode’s final minutes: “Life Guard 4-6, cleared direct Albuquerque.  Climb and maintain 1-7000.  Juliet Mike 2-1, turn left heading 1-1-5.  Way Fair 5-1-5, traffic 3 o’clock.  King Air, turn left heading 0-8-5.  Sierra Alpha, Alpha contact Albuquerque Center 1-3-4.6…”  If there is an opposite of expository dialogue, this is it.

Breaking bad‘s casting has also been visionary: the cameos this season have rivaled Tim and Eric‘s, which is no easy feat for a dramatic serial.  We’ve been treated to appearances by Dr. Schweiber from Freaks and geeks (reprising his justifiably typecast bedside manner) and Giancarlo Esposito (most notably from the final season of Homicide) as the American Southwest’s unassuming meth mastermind.  And of course, who could forget Bob Odenkirk as TV lawyer Saul Goodman?  A stroke of pure, unqualified casting genius.  Season three can’t get here soon enough.

— J.C. Freñán