MANBOY GROWS UP
Chris Elliott Talks Turning Down SNL and Why He Cried When Letterman Retired
Chris Elliott, who stars with his entire family in his daughter’s directorial debut ‘Clara’s Ghost,’ goes deep on his career as a comedy ‘oddity.’
HOLLYWOOD, California—Chris Elliott still does not consider himself a famous person.
“It has to be someone who is a fan of mine who wants to put me in their movie,” he tells me of a film career that has included major roles in comedy classics like Groundhog Day and There’s Something About Mary.
Or it could be his daughter.
This month, 28-year-old Bridey Elliott’s directorial debut Clara’s Ghost premiered in theaters (and on demand). The deliberately cringe-inducing comedy, with just a touch of horror thrown in, stars the entire Elliott family as exaggerated versions of themselves.
In addition to Chris and Bridey, the film features Abby Elliott, best known for her four seasons on Saturday Night Live, and matriarch Paula Niedert Elliott, who had never acted on screen before taking on the role of Clara, who starts seeing a spirit her celebrity family members are too self-absorbed to notice. Clara’s Ghost was shot in Chris and Paula’s real-life (possibly haunted) Connecticut house and also features horror veteran Haley Joel Osment as a weed-procuring friend of the family.
It’s a small, funny and ultimately affecting film that caps off a resurgence of sorts for Chris Elliott, the most famous member of his famous family, who got his start making deeply silly appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in the early ’80s. More recently, he starred in the short-lived Adult Swim series Eagleheart and plays the aptly named Mayor Roland Schitt in the hilarious Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek, another family affair created by Eugene Levy and his son Dan Levy.
His daughter Abby originally played the daughter of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s characters in the show’s pilot, but by the time it got picked up she had committed to another project. Schitt’s Creek has been steadily attracting more viewers ahead of its fifth season now that it’s on Netflix. Of the semi-obscure cable network that airs new episodes in the U.S., Elliott admits, “I didn’t even know where Pop was.”
All of this has helped put Elliott, who also spent one unhappy season in the cast of SNL during the mid-’90s, back in the public eye just as he’s thinking it might be time for him to get out.
Did you have any trepidations taking on this project where it’s your whole family, in your real house, with your daughter directing?
No, that actually was all the comfort factor involved with it. When Bridey was writing it I think I was a little concerned as to whether it would be made, whether she could raise the money for it and that kind of thing. But working with the family, that’s something I’ve done in the past. I’ve worked with my dad [Bob Elliott of the comedy duo Bob and Ray]. I’ve worked with Paula. You know, she used to work at Letterman and she would come on and do bits with me every now and then. I had worked with my daughters on things before. It was interesting to see Bridey direct, to see her with a headset on, standing at a monitor, intensely looking to see if she was getting what she wanted out of the scene. Those were the moments that I was the most proud. It was like, you actually have an intrinsic talent for this. This isn’t a game.
The dynamic in the film is that you and your two daughters are all in show business and your wife is not. How much does that parallel the real dynamic in your family?
There’s a similarity in the sense that, and this may be in many families, that the mother is always kind of the brunt of the humor. And that definitely is true. I think that Paula often bears the brunt of the three of us goofing around at her expense. We’re not as asshole-ic as we are in Clara’s Ghost. The dynamics are all similar to my real family, but everything is turned up. The negativity, the dark side, everything is turned up. We’re not that mean to each other, we’re not that critical on each other. But there is a dynamic there. You know, Abby went to Saturday Night Live when she was very young. She was 21 when she got that job. And Bridey was a freshman at Providence in Rhode Island, away from everything. And all of that was happening in New York. There were SNL parties that she couldn’t go to because she was in this place that she had just kind decided, OK, I’ll go there, it’s near where we live in Old Lyme [Connecticut]. That sort of feeling of, OK, I need to establish myself now, that’s in the movie, and I think that’s true.
It struck me that the tone of this film is very different from a lot of the work that you’re known for, which is often silly or absurdist. There’s something very grounded about this movie, even though it can be very funny at times too. Was that something you were excited to explore? I know that you’ve talked about wanting to do your version of what Bill Murray did in Lost in Translation. Is this a step in that direction in some way?
Possibly. I think it’s a step after Lost in Translation. It’s almost like I would have done Lost in Translation and then this movie. Because this movie to me, I feel totally naked in. I feel totally stripped down and here is the worst part of me, everyone. That is partially the way it was written and partly the way I was acting in it. If I had done a Lost in Translation I think I’d be doing a different character. But this is a version of me. I don’t call it a character, it’s just me. And I think it’s the same for Abby and for Bridey. For Paula, I think she’s the one doing the heavy lifting acting-wise in the movie. This is her Lost in Translation.
There is also a throughline from your earlier work in terms of making yourself ugly and unappealing. Do you see that connection?
Absolutely. That’s been sort of a hallmark of whatever persona I do, whether it’s a sitcom or somebody else’s movie. Whether I was on Letterman or on my series Get a Life, there was something funny—people like the obnoxiousness of who I am. In this movie, I really am obnoxious. And it’s not something that I think people are going to like or empathize with. I think they could empathize with a production assistant on Letterman who desperately wants to be famous but is underneath seethingly jealous of David Letterman. People could almost identify with that. With this guy in Clara’s Ghost there really isn’t a moment where you go, “Oh, he’s not so bad.” He’s a bitter, narcissistic guy, who is—unlike my other characters—maybe more intelligent. The comedy with this comes out of how egotistical I actually am. And I didn’t totally realize that until I saw the first screening with an audience. There’s the scene where I’m bitching out my agent but also painting something and then at the end you realize I’m painting a portrait of myself.
Was that something you could relate to in terms of conversations with your agent? Have you had those moments in your career where you’ve felt like the opportunities are going to other people?
Yeah, in this movie I think it’s more of an age thing than what it was in my career. In my career I was, and still am, just an oddity. It has to be someone who is a fan of mine who wants to put me in their movie or TV show or whatever. But in Clara’s Ghost, it’s more like he’s in the last third of his life and his career is winding down and his daughters’ careers are ratcheting up and he’s jealous of them. They don’t really have much respect for their dad’s career. When he finds out about his daughter’s audition, he asks, “Well, did you tell them that you’re my kid?” And they say, well that doesn’t really come up in conversation, dad. Because they’re further along in their careers. They don’t have to tell a director that they’re my kid.
You had a father who was successful in comedy. When Abby was cast on SNL, the headlines were all some version of “Chris Elliott’s Daughter to Join Cast of Saturday Night Live.” What kind of conversations did you have with her about those issues?
I told her, you’re going to get a shitstorm of nepotism bullshit online and all that kind of stuff. And I also told her, which my dad never told me but I always inferred it, I told her she didn’t have to do it. That’s a very sort of Dave Letterman bit of advice and something maybe he taught me. I remember telling her, it’s so great you got this job, you got this offer, it’s all wonderful. But you don’t have to do it. Of course she wanted to do it and of course she was going to do it, but that’s really the only advice I’ve ever given her. And Bridey too. My experience in the business is different. They’re women, which… it’s way harder in the business for women. But my dad never gave me advice either, because he knew what I was doing was totally different than what he did, so he couldn’t really give me advice. And I felt the same way with the girls and still do. They know better what they want to do and how to do it than I could ever tell them.
In terms of SNL, how much of you saying “you don’t have to do this” stemmed from your own admittedly negative experience there?
It didn’t come from that at all. If it been some other job, if it had been playing Michael Corleone’s daughter in Godfather Part 4, I would have said, “OK, but you can say no. There isn’t a gun to your head to do this.” I went with her to the audition, not to 30 Rock, but they put her up at a hotel and she showed me what she was going to audition with and I didn’t give her any advice, I just said, great. I told her what I did years earlier.
You auditioned twice, about 10 years apart, right?
Well, the first time I auditioned I got offered the show and I didn’t go. I stayed with Dave. I think it was the year Lorne [Michaels] came back after being away [Season 11, 1985-1986]. So it was the Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr. year.
So they offered it to you and you said no? Why did you make that decision?
I said no. I think part of it was to show Dave how loyal I am to him, in retrospect. At the time, I think the spin on it was, well Dave is giving me my own little spotlight every week, he’s calling me by name, Chris Elliott, and I’m getting recognition because my name is out there every week. That’s what I told people. But I think the real reason was maybe fear of SNL, but then also knowing that Dave will appreciate that I’m staying. And he did. When I finally went [for Season 20, 1994-1995], I had already left working for Dave. At that point, [SNL] was at a very low point and they just offered me the job. I was in L.A. and I was desperate to get back to New York so I took it. But yeah, it was the totally wrong thing for me to do. Everybody was very sweet, Lorne has always been very supportive of me and I met really nice people who worked there and all that, but that totally wrong for me to go there.
And was leaving after one year your decision?
Well, I think they asked me if I wanted to come back and do like a bit every week on “Update” and I thought, nah, if I come back I’d rather come back as a cast member and try it again. So that was their offer to me, I didn’t like that. They didn’t want me back as a cast member so it was sort of a mutual thing to walk away. And then Lorne called me before he hired Abby and he said, “I just want you to know we’re going to offer this to Abby, is that OK with you?” I said, of course, she’s going to do everything I couldn’t do on that show. And I don’t want to speak for Abby, but I know she had a rough four years there too. Because, you know, performers go there, they have to write their own stuff. People aren’t sitting there going, “We need a bit for Chris this week.”
You have to advocate for yourself.
You have to advocate for yourself and you have to compete with your fellow actors. I think that was the worst part of it for me and I think probably for Abby too. Because you want camaraderie and you want to be friends, but at the same time you’re vying for airtime. When I finally went there, I had had my own show, which failed. I had my own movie, which failed, but they were all my own and it felt wrong for me to have to hustle to get on the air. I still got the paycheck whether I was in five sketches or not even in one.
Yeah, I mean there are so many stories about people who are brilliant but for whatever reason aren’t able to thrive on that show, like Larry David, who I think got one sketch on the whole time he was a writer there.
I think also it has to be your first job. I think you have to be really, really hungry and willing to stay up until three in the morning trying to come up with a bit for the table read that starts at 10 in the morning the next day. I, at that point in my career, was not. And also, everything I developed for myself before SNL was not only making fun of myself, but you always knew it was Chris Elliott doing this. And you can’t do that there. Andy Kaufman could not have been a cast member there doing characters. Not that I’m comparing myself to him—I’m not in any way—I just know that you have to commit to the impersonations. When I did impersonations, some of them not bad, on Letterman, I was always introduced as Chris Elliott. Except for maybe Marlon Brando. But the joke was always that it was Chris Elliott doing this impersonation.
What did it mean for you when Letterman finally stepped down from The Late Show a few years ago?
That’s the first time anybody has asked me this question. And I will give you an absolute, 100 percent honest answer. I was in Toronto shooting I think the first season of Schitt’s Creek. And I was in my hotel room and I heard it on the news and I swear to god I cried. Because it was the end of an era for me. I met my wife at Letterman, I started my career there, I met my best friend [and writing partner] Adam Resnick there. Dave gave me the job, gave me the income to, at a very young age, to set up a household, to own a home, to get married, to have kids. I was in my mid-20s. When Dave announced that, I knew that eventually that would happen, but it really hit me emotionally. I just felt like, wow, all those years there and everything that he’s done for me is over. And it’s not, really. When my dad died, Dave and I were emailing and texting back and forth. He had me down in D.C. when he got his Mark Twain award. So I know he’s still there and he’s certainly there in my mind and that if I ever—and I don’t know what it would be—but if I ever needed him, for advice or something, I know I could count on him. I know as long as he’s alive—when he dies that’s going to be even more devastating. Adam and I, everything we do, we wonder, would Dave think that’s good? Would Dave laugh at that? Would Dave be in approval of that? I think most people who start young in the business and have a mentor like that feel the same way.
Where do you see yourself going next?
I’m honestly thinking about retirement. I’m honestly thinking that I’m a little old to do the man-boy character. I’m 58. By the time I’m 60, I think I should be leaving Chris Elliott—that persona—behind. I’m never going to do a Netflix show where I interview somebody, but I think I need to take a rest and that maybe that rest will be for the rest of my life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.