Usually, looking at a work of art from the past, no matter how innovative it might have been at the time it was made, is like visiting a museum. It’s easy to understand why works like Citizen Kane or The White Album were big steps forward, but that doesn’t make them fresh; that doesn’t give them the sparkle and transgressive allure of something truly new. But Get a Life, perhaps because it took so long for imitators to arrive, doesn’t have that problem. If anything it still feels too ahead of its time to find anything more than cult success. To call it revolutionary would be an overstatement, but if Get a Life premiered this season on Adult Swim, it would still be one of the weirdest programs on television.
After a somewhat dull pilot that promises a completely different show than what creators Chris Elliott, Adam Resnick and David Mirkin had in mind, Get a Life immediately hits its stride with “The Prettiest Week of My Life,” in which the show’s starring character, Chris Peterson (Chris Elliott), becomes a male model because, well, no reason in particular, and that the show is willing to immediately alienate much of the audience by having an overweight manchild pose without clothes signaled early on that the show wasn’t going to let anyone get comfortable. Like with its contemporary The Simpsons, stories in Get a Life just sort of happen, usually in a manner that parodies the classic sitcoms that were still being produced while it was on the air. The difference here being that Chris himself is completely unlikeable, if not completely psychotic, and everyone on the show knows this and hates him for it. Chris dies at the end of about a dozen of the show’s 35 episodes, one time with his head kicked back and forth by his friends like a soccer ball, and when this occurs Get a Life inserts a canned laugh-track to signal to the audience that they should be overjoyed at this display of ultraviolence and cynicism. Despite the show’s pretenses of looking like a classic three-camera sitcom, it’s not in remotely the same universe as The Cosby Show or even Seinfeld.
Much of how the show somehow pulls all of its insanity off is Chris Elliott himself, who pre-Cabin Boy was completely confident and fearless as an entertainer. The show’s writing staff certainly lifts its share of Get a Life’s weight, but Elliott was a peerless physical performer and it’s his performance that’s the most electric part of the show. Able to spontaneously change moods in a flash, Elliott completely embodies the show’s schizophrenic tone and is the engine that drives its cynical machine, making Peterson into a one-man wrecking ball with a bigger presence than Will Ferrell and more stupidity than Homer Simpson.
Not everything in Get a Life works, but that’s kind of the point. After somehow convincing Fox to fund the show, its creators and writers—including Bob Odenkirk and Charlie Kaufman—seemed more concerned with giving their strange psyches free reign than in creating plots and jokes that are classically funny. It’s no surprise that the show, while decently popular, antagonized just as many as it entertained. But however abrasive its humor became, there’s no denying the show’s creativity. There are certainly lengthy periods of the show that fall completely flat, but this is more than made up for by the audacity of what’s on display in what was probably the most bizarre and dark comedy ever to be made for network television.