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

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TubaTV remembers: ‘Freaks and geeks’

Freaks and geeks

Before Judd Apatow finally found commercial success re-hashing the same, tired loser-centric take on the romantic comedy genre; before Seth Rogen became the unlikeliest of Hollywood-by-way-of-Canada leading men since Mike Meyers; before Jason Segel took some comedic respite in How I met your mother‘s prime time laugh track; before James Franco was making out with Sean Penn; before Lizzy Caplan was tripping on V with Jason Stackhouse or serving hors d’oeuvres alongside Martin Starr; before Rashida Jones was an Office/Parks and Recreation regular; they were all involved in Paul Feig’s amazing, one-season-long Freaks and geeks.

I’ll concede the possibility that at least some of my affection for the show derives from the fact that it was set in suburban Detroit circa 1980, say, half a generation before I myself was a skinny, prepubescent high school student obliviously fascinated with Stars wars (not to mention its mid-nineties equivalent, Magic:The gathering).  Independently of my regional prejudice, however, I’ll maintain that Freaks and geeks was far and away the best teen drama ever to grace the small screen — beating out even that first spectacular season of Friday night lights FTW.

What made the show so exceptional, especially when compared to its more popular (populist?) peers, was the banality of its storylines, and its adamant refusal to be organized episodically (and ideologically) by adult-approved and/or Nielsen-whoring Teen Topics.  During the all-too-brief 18-episode series, we’re not subjected to a single untimely teen death — no Johnny falling drunk from a cliff, no Marissa getting killed in a drunken car chase (and consequently no angry teen cage fights).  There are no “diet pill” addictions.  There are no teacher-student romances.  There is no hot lesbian action.

The show’s minimalist approach to verisimilitude is nourished entirely by the kind of suburban teen microdrama that (I imagine) dominated the high school years of much of (lower) Middle (class) America through the 80s and 90s: the uncertainties of disassociating yourself from one group of friends in order to gain membership to another; boyfriends who kind of almost cheat on you with your best friend; the minor emasculations perpetrated by bullies, who in turn have their own emotional and familial problems; the physical confusions and insecurities associated with puberty, and with growing up more generally; the regimes of consumption that begin defining social groups after junior high; etc. etc. etc.

None of this is to say that teens don’t die in drunk driving accidents, or that there are no unprofessional student-teacher relationships in high school, or that teens can’t have hot lesbian sex — just that these sorts of storylines are cheap, easy, unfulfilling drama.  It takes a sensitive observer of adolescent strife to produce a successful narrative without resorting to soap opera storylines.  All the more disappointing, then, that homeboy Paul Feig hasn’t been able to direct that sensitivity toward equally successful analyses of young adulthood or beyond.

In closing, an incidental post-script, since I seem to have a thing for bashing P.T. Anderson lately: Freaks and geeks also deserves some serious respect for its very clever camerawork (showcased nicely in the clip above).  It actually succeeds — as a meaningful, communicative device — where Anderson’s gimmickry (both in Boogie nights and Magnolia) failed.

— J.C. Freñán