The Ben Stiller Show: How Did It Possibly ‘Fail’?

The Ben Stiller Show: How Did It Possibly ‘Fail’?

The history of TV comedy is written in the blood of spectacular shows that, for whatever reason, couldn’t pull in the ratings needed to stop networks from giving them the ax. Should-Have-Been-Hits like The Dana Carvey Show and Freaks and Geeks litter the highways of TV history, and it seems like there is no upper limit on how funny a show can be while still losing the faith of the suits upstairs.

One special sketch show holds the rare distinction of winning a posthumous Emmy after its network pulled the plug – The Ben Stiller Show stands as one of the greatest shows of the ‘90s to never make it to season two, and it deserves to be remembered not as a commercial failure, but as an incredible comedic success that was tragically struck down before its time.

The Ben Stiller Show began as a collaboration between Ben Stiller and his writing partner, Jeff Kahn. Ben and Jeff had been submitting one-off video sketches to MTV during the late ‘80s before the network decided that the duo was ready for the big stage in 1990, with Ben being their preferred star.

The original iteration of The Ben Stiller Show was a variety style show-within-a-show that lasted just six episodes on the hippest network of 1990, but it managed to pique the interests of executives at Fox who offered to shoot a pilot of a revamped, larger-scale version of the MTV mini show. 

The Fox series premiered in 1992 with a few absolute all-star additions, not the least of which was its executive producer, Judd Apatow. The creative team was a veritable who’s-who of ‘90s alt comics, with such sardonic stars as Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Dino Stamopolous, and Andy Dick all joining the project in the early stages of each of their ultimately successful careers.

The Ben Stiller Show was hip, fresh, and completely novel for an early ‘90s audience. Each episode featured Stiller wandering around Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood during intermissions between sketches as he made small talk with his castmates and interested passersby. It was the first ever sketch series on Fox not to use a laugh track, a trend that would thankfully continue when later sketch shows inspired by The Ben Stiller Show followed suit and eschewed the canned laughter.

The sketches were typically pop culture parodies with a uniquely playful point of view, such as a Cops parody set in ancient Egypt, a sketch called “The Grungies”, which was a mashup of the fledgling Seattle grunge scene with the band and TV show The Monkees. There was also about a hundred different skits poking fun at Bono and U2. The Ben Stiller Show soaked up early ‘90s pop culture like a sponge and squeezed it out onto a sketch canvas to create something akin to In Living Color, just with more – you know – white people.

The guest stars for The Ben Stiller Show were equally as impressive as its illustrious cast, with ‘90s comedy icons such as Bobcat Goldthwait, Dennis Miller, and Gary Shandling all making appearances on the program. They even got Flea on one episode, and if that doesn’t count as hitting the big time in the 90’s then I don’t know what does. The tone was light and electric, with a score set by Dweezil Zappa, who is the son of Frank Zappa and not a magical trickster from a Superman comic. The entire production was perfectly ‘90s, and watching it now feels like opening up a pristinely kept time capsule.

Ben Stiller and his writers saw the television age from a simultaneously cynical and wondrous point of view. They attacked the tackiness of then-modern pop culture, but celebrated the joy that could be wrought out of the garish present. But, more than anything, The Ben Stiller Show was a love letter to comedy. As Rotten Tomatoes puts it, "The Ben Stiller Show was a show for people who didn’t just love to laugh, but loved comedy. It was for people who saw comedy as a sacred tradition, an important history to be studied and savored, a sacred calling and a state of mind. It was for comedy geeks with the misfortune to arrive in a pre-comedy geek era."

Bad timing was the show’s downfall, as it arrived just a little too early to be appreciated the way the later sketch shows it inspired would be. Despite rave reviews from critics and adoration from the series’ handful of followers, the general public barely took notice during The Ben Stiller Show’s run on Fox, and the network didn’t know how to fix the popularity problem of their latest sketch experiment. After just thirteen episodes, Fox canceled The Ben Stiller Show, ending one of the most unique chapters in ‘90s television history. 

But that didn’t stop The Ben Stiller Show’s most devoted fans from singing its praises. The series won the 1993 Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program just a few months after cancellation, and the cult following for the show continued throughout the decade. The unique sketch format was revived for shows featuring The Ben Stiller Show alumni, with programs like The Andy Dick Show and Mr. Show following in its footsteps. There was even a cast reunion at the NY Comedy Festival twenty years after the program's cancellation, a rare occurrence for a single-season series.

The Ben Stiller Show was tragically premature, and possibly the ultimate “before its time” sketch series. Legendary music producer Brian Eno once said of the legendary experimental rock band The Velvet Underground’s debut, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band." Well, everyone who watched The Ben Stiller Show – not to mention, everyone who was on the show – went on to change the medium of comedy in some way, and its influence has lived on long past its own lifespan.

To send off the most underappreciated sketch comedy of the ‘90s, here’s a video of Bob Odenkirk playing Charles Manson as if he were in the show Lassie:

Top Image: HBO Independent Productions

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