Reviewing Ben Stiller’s Brief as an SNL Cast member

Photo: NBC

Photo: NBC

When we think of Ben Stiller’s early career, we tend to think of The Ben Stiller Show and Reality Bites, two critically acclaimed works before he completely broke into the mainstream. The next 25 years of a career – from There’s something about Mary arrive the Fockersthe Tenenbaumsand Night(S) at the museum – get caught up in the collective unconscious of anyone breathing on the same amount of time. But aside from a few guest appearances, Ben Stiller has been in a slump since he directed Escape from Dannemora four years ago. That drought ends this week when Quit, a limited series horror film directed by Stiller for six of nine episodes, premiering on Apple TV+. Looking back at his career, very few corners can be considered unexplored…except for one. To celebrate Stiller’s return to television, let’s take a look back at his brief stint as an actor on TV. Saturday night live.

Before Stiller got his own sketch show, he joined Not Ready for Prime Time Players as a featured player in the second half of the show’s 14th season in the spring of 1989. That includes Dana Carvey, Jon Lovitz, Jan Hooks, and Phil Hartman. Mike Myers is a freshman. The opportunity was there to do it, and Stiller had a track record of airing success. Two years earlier, he had self-produced and starred in a parody of Tom Cruise/Paul Newman’s swimming shark movie. Money color; Lorne Michaels loved it and put it in the program. Some people seize such airtime their entire career and never achieve it. What happened next is somewhat surprising.

Stiller was asked to join the cast as a featured player, but it only lasted four episodes. His time on Saturday night live so succinctly, it warrants only one mention Live from New York, the full oral history of the show by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. The said mention is part of a longer story about Stiller taking part in a scheduled archival gig in the wake of the September 11 attacks. (It’s on page 535 of the paperback, if you want to find out. More about that.)

In retrospect, some of the things that originally made Stiller famous were present during his brief time on the show. Admittedly, most of Stiller’s appearances are minor installments, and so it’s hard to find a few sketches where Stiller appears unless you subscribe to Peacock, where all four episodes are from May 25. 3 to 22 April 1989 were all available to stream. One sketch, titled “Famous Restaurant” (below) appeared on Youtube because for a brief second you could see Stiller, Conan O’Brien, Dana Carvey and Bob Odenkirk in the same frame, a sort of ’90s comedy’s elegant stoneworker’s Mount Rushmore. Stiller’s character seems arrogant and depraved, a real jackal in a suit – a role he’ll reprise 5 next year, in Actual effects.

Stiller also shared a brief on-screen stint with another comedy legend, Mary Tyler Moore. In a sketch called “Customs,” she plays a customs officer whose open-minded attitude makes everyone she meets admit to what they are smuggling into the country. Phil Hartman didn’t want to pay his wife’s bracelet duty, Kevin Nealon was a spy, and Dana Carvey admitted to smuggling a ton of cocaine. By comparison, Stiller’s crime was minor – he cut the line – and didn’t claim any real jokes with Moore. They will reunite seven years later, in David O’Russell’s Flirting with disasterin which Moore played Stiller’s mother.

Stiller also appeared in the first Sprockets sketch, which would become a huge recurring hit for Mike Myers. In the end, both men became certified movie stars, and beyond the show, they were effective A-list comedians. But only Myers is backed by Broadway Video. He’s still figuring out the Sprockets formula here – Dieter isn’t shouting anything, in fact, it’s all very conservative compared to what the character is going to be. The same goes for Stiller. He introduced his Eddie Munster impression in this sketch, then took it with him Performances by Ben Stiller, where it has become a periodic bit. It was like a crossover sketch of the Comedy Extended Universe, but at the time, neither the guy nor the character was popular. This sketch existed on the internet at one point, but now we will have to deal with this problem 45 minutes super speed someone created the appearance of Eddie Munster on Performances by Ben Stiller.

Stiller’s most enduring contribution to SNL is probably what originally got him on the show: his impression of Tom Cruise. When he joined the cast, it only took two episodes before he exploded once more, this time playing Cruise’s character from Man in the rain (above). It might be strange to see a young Stiller play such a fierce and unlikable person. His Cruise impression is closer to White Goodman, the villain from Dodgeballversus Greg Focker or Ted from There’s something about Mary. Of course, Stiller would carry that impression on him as well – by all means to a famous sketch with Cruise himself for the 2000 MTV Movie Awards.

Stiller’s desire to direct led to his synopsis SNL performance contract. When he joined, he wanted to make short films like Albert Brooks did in the first place Saturday night live. After all, that’s what got him on the show in the first place. When he realized he was just a sketch performer, he broke away.

It’s interesting to think about what might have happened if Stiller had stayed – Sandler, Rock, Farley, Meadows, Schneider, and Spade joined the show just a few years later. Will he grow and become famous with them, or decline? Will we lose his friendship with Owen Wilson? What if Ben Stiller played opposite Farley in Tommy Boy instead of Spade? We’ll never know, but it’s clear that it works well for everyone involved.

Connor Simpson writes occasionally, but more often. He knows how curling works and loves chilled reds. You can follow him on Twitter @connorsimpson.

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Jake Nichol

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