Cut a television show’s run short and you’ve more or less ensured its cult audience. Such was the case with Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and The Ben Stiller Show, which didn’t even make it through its first season. The still-fledgling Fox’s decision to air the Gen-X vaudeville act against 60 Minutes probably didn’t hurt its demographics much, so one has to assume that the show’s notoriously low ratings could be a product of Fox’s own homogenous programming. The network had built its reputation on sketch comedy (The Tracey Ullman Show—and, umm, where is that DVD?) and was already swollen with a glut of other, more established comic variety shows, including the arguably more influential In Living Color. As this was before Andy Dick, Janeane Garafalo or Bob Odenkirk went on to more successful endeavors, who could be blamed at the time for not being able to distinguish Stiller from The Edge or the Fractured Film Awards? Still, if it lacked the social incisiveness of In Living Color, and even if some of the sub-Mad Magazine parodies of Melrose Place and Die Hard don’t really pack much punch, The Ben Stiller Show reveals itself as a forerunner of the creatively surreal and anarchically mean-spirited high points of, say, MADtv. For starters, many of the skits are a great deal darker than anything you’ll find on the goofy frat-party going on over at SNL: placing Charles Manson in the role of Lassie; rethinking chuck-wagon restaurants through the lens of the Donner Party; letting uptight Christians’ worst fears about Ouija boards’ seemingly innocent fun reveal itself in an orgy of pagan evil; unfairly casting Andy Dick’s Political Children’s Theater with young Republicans who decide the line must be drawn with those damned homeless bums. In the same manner that In Living Color’s crowning achievements could be found in the skits dealing with the L.A. riots or the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Ben Stiller’s angriest moments were also the show’s high points. On the flip side, too often the show relied on campy cameo appearances from television’s dust bin (Gary Coleman, Herve Villechaize, Danny Bonaduce), though even this tired device is worth it when Stiller’s eerily accurate Bono reunites George and Wheezy on Late Night Zoo TV. But, with apologies to the writing staff (who won an Emmy for the show even after it had already been cancelled), a sketch show lives and dies by its cast, and The Ben Stiller Show’s small but potent troupe, including Bob “Mr. Show” Odenkirk, Andy Dick, and Janeane Garafalo, should ensure a continuing cult devotion to the show Fox callously aborted.
One of the more interesting innovations of the show was its use of multiple formats, from gritty 8mm interludes between sketches to the polished cinematography of the film parodies, with plenty of stops in between shot on regular video. So, while the transfer is about as good as can be expected, there are a few artifacts and video glitches here and there. The “in stereo (where available)” sound is a notch better, with no dropouts or muddiness at all.
The good news is that commentary tracks have been produced for this DVD edition. The bad news is that only half of the episodes have them, and still only half of those that come with commentary tracks include the always-entertaining Janeane Garafalo. Even still, the writers Rob Cohen, Brent Forrester, and series co-creator Judd Apatow bring comparable amounts of snark to the table. Though at one point Stiller makes cracks at other commentary tracks “where the director just kept repeating ‘Oh, I love this scene,’” the show’s cast and crew can barely contain their nostalgia throughout, even waxing fondly over an apparently ugly incident over who would get to play the Mummy Woody Allen. Also included is the brief history of The Ben Stiller Show, which is appropriately brief and includes clips from the MTV version of Ben Stiller’s show and alternate versions of the interstitial segments. The “Behind the Scenes” episode will have everyone remembering what a ghetto network E! used to be. And extensive outtakes and cut scenes feature a sadly cut segment of the “No, No, No Guy” and his wife arguing over a nice cut of fish.
Finally, the legion of yowling Ben Stiller Show fans can swallow this DVD and shut their stinking traps.