The best new series that few people in America are likely to watch is The Ben Stiller Show. Hidden away on the Fox network during the second half of CBS’ 60 Minutes, the Stiller Show’s frequently brilliant pop-culture satires don’t even get as much exposure as lesser Fox efforts like the brain-dead Herman’s Head.
This is little short of a national tragedy; no proper citizen should miss Stiller’s exhilaratingly meanspirited parodies. At least Fox’s other new sketch-comedy showcase, The Edge, has the advantage of being opposite a troika of network mediocrity (ABC’s Crossroads, CBS’ Raven, and NBC’s Nurses) and might appeal to Saturday Night Live’s fans who turn on their sets early.
The Edge features an ensemble cast with at least a few familiar faces, including Julie Brown (singer-writer of the 1984 cult hit single ”The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” and star of MTV’s Just Say Julie) and Wayne Knight, who has a recurring role as Kramer’s wonderfully malicious friend Newman on Seinfeld. The Edge caused a media ripple at the time of its Sept. 19 debut, when it offered a sensationally surreal tableau: Brown made up as a gigantic Delta Burke, ripping the roof off the Designing Women house, scooping up a few quivering cast members of that show, popping them into her mouth, and munching down hard. This was much funnier than anything on either the new season of DW or Burke’s new show, Delta.
The Edge was equally edgy in its takeoff on Mariah Carey videos — Brown once again, this time as Carey, making bystanders’ ears bleed as she shrieked through a bit of pop schlock. But the series already shows signs of dull derivativeness: A regular sketch, ”The Armed Family,” about a sitcom clan that’s always firing guns, looks like an SNL reject, and the between-sketch cartoons of Bill Plympton too closely recall Terry Gilliam’s animation for Monty Python’s Flying Circus to be amusing.
A direct comparison in quality could be made when, in the same week, both Ben Stiller and The Edge offered parodies of another Fox show, Beverly Hills, 90210. To be sure, The Edge’s effort was clever and in astutely bad taste when it took the absurdly overplayed hotness of 90210’s Brenda and her brother, Brandon, to its all-too-logical extreme: incest. But Stiller’s spoof displayed more wit, combining characters from 90210 with Fox’s recent raft of 90210 rip-off shows in a bit entitled “Melrose Heights 90210-40204”: ”It’s Fox-eriffic!” exulted a fatuous announcer. (Stiller seems to reserve his greatest sarcasm for his own network; another fake commercial was for Skank, a sort of cross between Fox’s Married…With Children and NBC’s ALF, about a foul-talking sock puppet. The announcer burbles, ”Entertainment Weekly calls Skank, ‘Archie Bunker with pink hair!”’ Ouch.)
Stiller and his small cast of writer-players — Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk — don’t make fun of one thing at a time: They combine their subjects, creating rich layers of ridicule. Thus the Stiller Show’s ”Cape Munster,” a remarkably intricate parody of the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, with Stiller playing The Munsters’ Eddie Munster in the Robert De Niro psycho role. (Garofalo did a definitive Juliette Lewis impersonation in that one; this comedian can also be seen weekly in far too small a role in HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, and her novel stand-up act, reeking of dank hostility, is well worth catching on talk shows.)
The Ben Stiller Show is as cutting about pop music as it is TV and movies. You’ll never be able to hear U2 the same way after you’ve seen “U2: The Early Years,” a “rockumentary” that speculates that lead singer Bono (played by Stiller) spent his early years being typically pretentious and self-important while performing at bar mitzvahs. Stiller is the son of comic actor-writers Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara; as the snappy, subtle comedy team of Stiller and Meara, they’ve always been a quintessential New York act. But their handsome boy Ben is an El-Lay kind of guy — laid-back in his soft-voiced manner, his dreamy gaze a typical West Coast way of disguising his knowledgeable, cynical views of show biz.
The Stiller Show also features a skittering hard-rock theme song courtesy of another L.A. celebrity son, Dweezil Zappa, and the host fills time between sketches by chattering with friends on the skanky streets of Hollywood. Entertainment Weekly calls Stiller’s show SCTV with better hair. The Ben Stiller Show: A The Edge: B-