Monday, February 24, 2014

Retrospective: Ben Stiller

The Ben Stiller Show ran for 13 episodes in 1992. It won an Emmy for writing a few months following its cancellation by Fox. With Dylan McKay hair and a face whose clock had stopped at five o'clock, Stiller played the host of the sketch program, "Ben Stiller." In the interstitial segments, "Ben Stiller," a short, dark, and handsome young actor, addresses a handheld camera as he walks through hip LA locales, interacting with cast members (a young Andy Dick, a young Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk) and rubbing elbows with weekly guests (including Bobcat Goldthwait, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gary Coleman). It's the basic MTV format, jerky and grainy, off the cuff realism. But here's what's really going on: "Ben Stiller" is a pie-eyed schmuck trying and failing to be hip; his cast members don't seem to like him much and quietly insubordinate; often, the weekly "celebrity" guests aren't sure why they're there and are rankled by "Stiller." The sketches themselves established an odd, at times absurd tone of comedy that would go on to feed sketch shows like Mr. Show (David Cross wrote for the show), The State, and MADtv, but the brilliant self-deprecating tone of these bumpers between sketches really flies under the radar. You get the idea that Ben Stiller thinks "Ben Stiller" is a 90's tool: hip and edgy, while fundamentally having to kowtow to an affected idea of hip and edgy.

A 90's Ben Stiller character is essentially unlikable, delusional, and broken inside. Whatever sympathy the viewer might feel for these diminutive-but-muscular wrecks depends on the balance of these elements. Stiller is a good-enough looking guy that he probably could have started off on the romantic comedy foot that he's often hopped on throughout the 2000's, but instead he quickly started to use whatever looks he had and physique he was able to cut against himself. The son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Stiller comes from a Borscht Belt background--a Jewish strain of comedy where the joke is how pathetic the comedian is--and I'm sure there's a key stain of this in his cloth. 

Character-wise, the tooly sketch show host was followed by the yuppie executive in Stiller's directorial debut, the naval exploring Generation X love letter Reality Bites. Stiller's sell-out character was pitted against the dreamy, dirty, philosophical Ethan Hawke character for Winona Ryder's love. The movie is maybe the most earnest thing Stiller's done in his career, topped only by the recent The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but it's very telling that, in a film up to it's eyes with cool, young stars, he gave himself the role of the chump. It would be in 1995, though, with Judd Appatow's first major film, the fantastically dark Heavy Weights, that Stiller would land on a new type of schmuck that would define the strongest hemisphere of his career: the macho schmuck.

I can think of no other actor who can make being in shape seem absurd and pathetic. In Heavy Weights, Stiller plays "Uncle" Tony Perkis, an emotionally crippled faux fitness guru who commandeers a venerable weight loss camp for his maniacal means. It's a hyperbolic, one or two note character that Stiller will go on to don in ancillary roles throughout his career, but in Perkis' solipsistic dimness and Stiller's complete commitment to a certain brand of silliness, you'll find early shades of Derek Zoolander.

A buff Stiller (as Tony Perkins) at magic hour.
The Zoolander character began as a one-off sketch for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards. The archness of it's tone and the sharpness of it's teeth would land it perfectly in The Ben Stiller Show. A lot of the familiar Zoolander bells get rung in this initial few minutes--Blue Steel and Ferrari; the shared apartment with other male models; the trouble with left turns. The sketch is included so the fashion industry can have a laugh at itself, and it's mostly harmless. At a sustained movie length, though, the Zoolander lambast--thrumming under the comedy--can feel scathing; you may come to feel for the character, but his world of fashion orbited by celebrity remains essentially, unredeemingly vapid.


The Ben Stiller Show took frequent stabs at it's network, FOX. But that was common at the time, with shows like In Living Color, The Simpsons, and Married... With Children deriding their home and their fellow shows. Stiller would go on to be especially embraced by the late-90's MTV set, never mind that he'd been plenty critical of the values, quality, and worth of that network and the culture that surrounded it. It's fitting, then, that Zoolander was produced by VH1. Stiller's next scouring of Hollywood, it's blockbusters and it's star system, 2008's Tropic Thunder, was itself something of a Hollywood blockbuster.

It might sound odd to suggest that Ben Stiller doesn't get enough credit. I think most people would say he's overrated. But, considering the first decade of Stiller's career, I get the sense that he was often the smartest guy in the room, but, by casting himself as the dumbest guy in the room, you'd never know it unless you were paying close attention. Unfortunately, Hollywood (in the broadest, vaguest sense) is not great when it comes to subtly, can be like a dumb animal that doesn't know it's seeing itself in the mirror. In some ways, Stiller's relationship with Hollywood reminds me of that particular type of friendship where there's one slow guy in the group who doesn't really get that everyone's always making fun of him. In this case, however, that dim friend is the one with all the money--the one who can cancel you a few months before people get the joke and give you an award for it.

Stiller can't help but rely on the industries and fads he's critical of to support his critiques, but as the years have gone on the risk has been that that reliance will overwhelm the resistance. If you keep making the same joke to a person who doesn't really get it, that joke just becomes reality. His career post-Zoolander found Stiller in heaps of romantic comedies and family films that lack a sense of humour about themselves and it's become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Ben Stiller and "Ben Stiller."



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