Netflix’s Unstable Joins the Canon of Real-Life Father-Son Comedy
This week sees the premiere of Unstable on Netflix. In this half-hour comedy, Ellis Dragon is a brilliant scientist and the head of a biotechnology company focused on environmental solutions. His signature achievement, “creating an enzyme that turns sugarcane into a plastic-like material,” has made him one of the most respected entrepreneurs in the world. Ellis is also — as the series title suggests — teetering on the edge of sanity. He’s just lost his beloved wife in a fatal accident, and though he’s taken several months off from work to grieve, he still isn’t quite functional, and living in his gigantic mansion all alone isn’t helping. His CFO decides the solution is to bring in the only person, absent Ellis’s late wife, who could ground him: Ellis’ semi-estranged son, Jackson, who — despite an engineering degree from an Ivy League school — has rejected his father’s vocation to become a flutist.
“So what: Netflix puts out a couple dozen sitcoms like this every year,” you may be thinking. “What makes this one special?” Well, what if I told you that Ellis and Jackson are played by Rob Lowe and John Owen Lowe, an actual, real-life father and son? WHAT THEN?
Unstable may not be one of the year’s breakout comedy hits; it borrows elements of Better Off Ted, Never Have I Ever and Lowe’s last sitcom The Grinder — all good shows, but it never quite comes together. However, it is notable as an addition to the canon of comedy by real-life father-son duos.
Herewith: Our list of other notable pairs, and some of the work they did together that you can stream right now, with or without your dad. (Let’s be real: If he’s over 40, some of these will not be to his taste.)
Bob and Chris Elliott
In the 1980s, Chris Elliott broke out on Late Night with David Letterman as a writer and occasional sketch performer — as, for instance, The Guy Under the Seats.
What Letterman’s fans may not have known is that Elliott is second-generation comedy royalty. His father Bob, was, with Ray Goulding, half of the comedy duo Bob & Ray.
The connection became a bit clearer in 1990, when Bob played Chris’ long-suffering dad on the short-lived Fox sitcom Get A Life. Though the show was produced by Tri-Star — later Sony Pictures Television — somehow not even Sony’s own platform Crackle has bothered to make Get A Life available for streaming legitimately; fortunately, a fan has put the entire series run on YouTube. No one tell the cops!
Eugene and Dan Levy
When his son Dan was born in 1983, Eugene Levy had already established himself as a Canadian comedy legend as a cast member on SCTV, playing characters like news anchor Earl Camembert.
As an adult, Dan spent a few years as a host on MTV Canada — yes, Canada has its own cable networks and everything! — before he and Eugene joined forces to co-create Schitt’s Creek. A little show that became a monster success story, Schitt’s Creek didn’t just win nine Emmys over the course of its run; it won nine Emmys in one year, including running the table on all four comedy acting categories as well as writing, directing and Outstanding Comedy Series. All six seasons are streaming on Hulu, but here’s a representative clip of Dan and Eugene’s characters David and Johnny Rose, as Johnny tries to explain finance to his confused son. (The show also featured Chris Elliott, but NOT Bob, who had retired by the time the series started.)
Jerry and Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller is descended from not one but two notable comedy stars: Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who performed sketch comedy together in the 1960s (and in radio ads for Blue Nun wine!). When Ben became a comedy actor and director, they worked together a lot: Ben played Jerry’s character, Arthur, in flashbacks on Jerry’s show, The King of Queens; Jerry popped up opposite Ben in the Farrelly brothers’ 2007 remake of The Heartbreak Kid.
But their most triumphant collaboration is probably Zoolander, which starred Jerry as Maury Ballstein, agent to Ben’s titular model, the ridiculously good-looking Derek Zoolander.
We lost Jerry in 2020, so he’s fighting with his prostate in heaven now.
Damon Wayans Sr. and Jr.
Everyone knows the Wayans dynasty of comedy stars: Keenen Ivory created the Fox sketch show In Living Color, most episodes of which are, like Get A Life, illicitly streaming on YouTube. One of the show’s more successful alumni is Keenen’s brother Damon Wayans. After making his family into comedy with the sitcom My Wife and Kids, one of his actual kids went into comedy himself: Damon Wayans Jr. was an original cast member on New Girl for the pilot, then left to play Brad on Happy Endings, then came back to New Girl after Happy Endings got canceled. But during Happy Endings’ short run, Brad’s father appeared in one episode — and who better to play him than Jr.’s real-life dad?
It worked out so well that father and son reunited again on Jr.’s CBS sitcom, Happy Together.
Sadly, room apparently could not be made for Sr. when Jr. co-hosted the Peacock game show Frogger.
Michael and Jack Whitehall / Alan and Ike Barinholtz
Though nepotism’s more traditional path is from parent to child, sometimes a child will blaze the trail for a parent to follow. Two recent examples: the Whitehalls and the Barinholtzes.
Michael Whitehall’s primary career was in show business, though not as a performer. A producer and theatrical agent, he had a side career appearing on panel shows, a less common genre stateside that continues to thrive in the U.K. Then Michael’s son Jack broke out as a comic and actor, most famously on the sitcom Fresh Meat (opposite future You star Charlotte Ritchie, among many others). Having used the nearly 50-year age gap between himself and his dad in his comedy, Jack created Travels With My Father, an unscripted comedy show that delivers exactly what the title would lead you to expect; the show has given Michael a whole new late-in-life career resurgence.
Speaking of which: Alan Barinholtz! After retiring from practicing law in Chicago, Alan has followed his son Ike into the field of acting. So far, all his most recent projects — such as History of the World, Part II — have co-starred Ike, but he’s about to break out as the sole Barinholtz in the Freevee sitcom Jury Duty.
Here’s Ike discussing his “nepo parent” in a recent Late Night with Seth Meyers appearance:
Worth noting: Alan has another son, Jon, who’s also an actor. Presumably if he doesn’t help Alan book a guest shot on American Auto soon, Jon’s out of the will.