Five things we learned at…the Ben Stiller Show reunion in the New York Comedy Festival
Cast and crew of a legendary sketch comedy show share memories of Vegas marriages, Bob Odenkirk's barbs and an infamous "Woody Allen–off"
Mon Nov 12 2012
Sketch comedy paragon The Ben Stiller Show ran for just 12 episodes before Fox pulled the plug in 1993. On November 10, the Paley Center for Media reunited stars Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo and (via Skype) Bob Odenkirk, as well as writers Rob Cohen, Jeff Kahn and Judd Apatow (who moderated). Five things we learned, of many:
Janeane Garofalo and Rob Cohen ended their 20-year marriage an hour before walking onstage. In 1992, a still-drinking Garofalo wed then-boyfriend Cohen as a joke, at a drive-through chapel in Vegas—and then forgot all about it. During the panel discussion, Garofalo marveled, “Who knew that we were married?” Turns out the state did: When Cohen decided to tie the knot for real this year, his lawyer dug up the old nuptials—and the necessary divorce papers, which Garofalo dutifully signed in front of a midtown notary minutes before heading to the Paley. Judd Apatow quickly congratulated the pair on lasting 20 years. Quipped Garofalo: “We’re like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward!”
Ben Stiller owes his career to Jon Lovitz. In 1986, Stiller poured all his money into making a short film parody of The Color of Money. One night Saturday Night Live cast member Lovitz came to see the Broadway show Stiller was appearing in, The House of Blue Leaves. “I gave him a call,” said Stiller. “I didn’t really know him that well, but I had met him backstage, and I asked him if he would possibly run the film up to Lorne Michaels.” Lovitz did so on a Friday, and Stiller’s parody played on SNL Saturday night. The exposure led to Stiller’s short writing stint on SNL and, eventually, The Ben Stiller Show.
No one has forgotten the “Woody Allen–off.” Producer Jeff Kahn wrote the sketch “Woody Allen’s Bride of Frankenstein,” intending to star as Mummy Woody Allen; Bob Odenkirk wanted cast member Andy Dick in the role. Eventually, Kahn and Dick engaged in an impression contest that escalated to a real argument—with neither actor abandoning his impression. The imbroglio ended with Kahn punching a wall rather than Dick (because Allen himself “was so nonviolent”). In the end, Dick did the sketch, and he and Kahn made up—“the better choice was made,” Kahn said graciously.
Better call Saul. In the Stiller writers’ room, Bob Odenkirk was known as “the professor.” Stiller, Apatow and Cohen all deferred to his experience—maybe because he was coming off five years of writing for SNL, or maybe he’s just a badass. Among the stories: Apatow remembers Odenkirk asking a writer, “Who wrote that, your crazy, unfunny uncle?” And Garofalo has a vivid memory of Odenkirk walking out of his office barking, “Something smells like shit. Must be this script!”
Fox was painting by the numbers. Early on, In Living Color producer Eric Gold advised Apatow not to give in to the network on artistic issues. “I didn’t understand that meant that you’re supposed to be political with them,” he laughed. “So I would say, ‘Well, I’m not going to do it. What happens now?’ [pause] And usually I was crying.” Soon, Fox threw its support behind its other sketch show, the early Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Edge. “We knew it was over when we tried to get money for craft services,” said Cohen, “and they sent one tub of purple Twizzlers.” Nine months after cancellation, The Ben Stiller Show won an Emmy for writing. “We were friends having a great time, doing exactly what we loved to do,” summed up Kahn. “So of course it had to be canceled before we even finished the last episode.”