“I appreciate your interest in a 22-year-old show,” snarks David Mirkin, co-creator and chief director of Get a Life, a show ahead of its time—and maybe even a little ahead of ours. The complete series, which ran from 1990 to 1992 on Fox, comes out this week on DVD. It stars Chris Elliott as a deranged 30-year-old newspaper boy who travels through time, and dies at the end of multiple episodes. Though it had a cult following, and even inspired a hip-hop album, music rights kept it off DVD. Now the question is whether audiences have finally caught up with a sitcom about insanity and death.
Mirkin has learned that it takes awhile for people to get accustomed to this kind of humour. “For an American audience, you have to kind of ease them into that,” explains the Philadelphia native. “Starting at full speed with a surreal, dark, violent show was never going to get past the American testing system, which is incredibly flawed and stupid.” With Get a Life, he began with a relatively conventional pilot and then introduced bizarre elements, like a story where Elliott is transported to a ’40s movie world. The process paved the way for recent shows like 30 Rock and Community, which also started semi-realistic and wound up as live-action cartoons.
Get a Life was also ahead of its time with its ambiguous attitude toward sitcoms. Mirkin says they deliberately dressed a character “in the outfits you saw Jane Wyatt wearing on Father Knows Best,” and many of the plots were sarcastic takes on the old plots the writers grew up with; one episode has the old story of two characters getting trapped in a meat locker, except the meat locker is inexplicably in the middle of a suburban living room. “The feeling,” Mirkin says, “was that you seem to be watching an episode of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, but something horribly wrong has happened to it.”
This postmodern take has become a familiar part of TV shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Louie, but another innovation may have prevented Get a Life from catching on at the time: the lead character wasn’t a hero but a complete sociopath. Most episodes revolve around Elliott’s character being unable to understand what’s going on around him, including one where he believes an evil alien is actually a cute, cuddly friend like E.T. “American sitcoms like to focus on winners,” Mirkin says, and the Fox network was “concerned that a guy living at home with his parents would be perceived as a loser. We said: ‘He’s not a loser, he’s insane!’ Which didn’t make them feel any better.” Destructive comedy heroes are common now, from Family Guy to Two and a Half Men, and Elliott’s Chris Peterson seems sweet by comparison.
That shift in TV comedy came about in part because of Get a Life, but also because of The Simpsons. Based partly on his Get a Life work, Mirkin was chosen to take over as executive producer for the fifth and sixth seasons of The Simpsons, where he pushed it in some darker directions, including an exploding-head gag. “Why should I think of new things when I can do the same old crap?” he jokes. But with The Simpsons in syndication, and Get a Life unavailable, fans aren’t aware how much that dark humour stems from the earlier show. “The Simpsons has overshadowed it a bit,” says Mirkin, now a consultant for the show.
Now that the complete series is out, Mirkin hopes more people will discover the show, and how much of modern comedy it anticipates. At the time, it seemed unusual to play to what Mirkin calls “an audience that doesn’t mind if the main character is killed and then returns, à la Bugs Bunny,” but he’s seen live-action shows become more surreal in the wake of Get a Life and “more comfortable with flexible reality.” But he can’t give too many specific examples of its influence. “People are afraid to tell me that they have been influenced by it, because I instantly sue.”