Way, way back in the year of our lord 1986 Chris Elliott was working for David Letterman on the man’s chat show and slowly carving a career out for himself with the odd acting job. And though he’s certainly had his time in the sun and appeared in some much loved movies like There’s Something About Mary and sitcoms including Eagleheart and How I Met Your Mother, I’ve always felt he should have been much more famous and had his own massive hit of a tv show.
It turns out Action Family should have been that show too, as it’s pretty damn superb. Apparently an influence on Dan Harmon when he was making Community, it’s a genre busting, fourth wall breaking, extremely funny spoof of both family sitcoms and detective thrillers, as Chris stars as a Private Investigator investigating a murder while also having to attend to his wife and kids who have their own particular problems.
Starting with a theme tune where the kids (including a very young Seth Green as Danny) introduce the set up, we get to see exciting action scenes mixed in with family tedium in one Brady Bunch-esque grid, and it’s a fast and efficient way to let the audience know what’s going on but also that this is the kind of show which is prepared to be ridiculously idiotic if need be. The show’s mystery of the week is then introduced straight afterwards as a jazz musician called “No Brain” asks Chris for help, who Chris ignores and so “No Brain” is almost instantly killed afterwards, with a nice bit of over the top screaming of the word “No” twenty odd years before Darth Vader also made such a thing funny.
Rather that try and solve the murder straight away Elliott heads home and it’s here the show turns from a single camera comedy to a multi-camera one, complete with a baying studio audience who laugh loudly at even the most deliberately dodgy gag, like when Chris asks if anyone’s seen Grandpa every time the response is a toilet flush which the audience whoop and cheer. Chris’s wife Shirley (Beth Holland) then reminds him that their daughter Melissa (Gina Martin) is turning from a little girl in to a young woman and to treat her carefully, but surely no one could have been prepared for a twenty something to enter completely naked (with black bars covering her modesty), to which Chris can’t resist teasing her about her lack of sartorial choices.
Even worse is that she’s started dating Zack (Gary Klar), a guy fresh out of prison who might just be behind the murders of all of the jazz musicians, and even if he isn’t I’m not sure he’s the kind of man you want to date your daughter as he says things like “You know stirring fudge in the slammer for ten years really makes you appreciate real chicks”, which is a pretty grim way to describe the act of love between two men.
At this point if you thought the show was vaguely conventional despite it’s daft sense of humour, well that proves not to be the case in the slightest with the second half of the episode, where after having a dream where Abraham Lincoln is spanking him Chris sets out to solve the murders, though quickly gets distracted and ends up trying on clothes in a mall, kissing a random girl, and having a fight with a hot dog vendor due to the lack of ketchup (which is completely understandable, at least), and then David Letterman turns up to chat about the show, with him mocking Chris with the comment “Well they’ll put anything on cable”.
There’s even a quick diversion with a subplot involving a very young and very sweet Seth Green where it turns out he’s been doing badly at school because he’s caught the wrong school bus and so gone to a school where no one speaks English, before Chris wraps up the murder case by discovering who the murderer is while at home, and given it’s someone he loves he decides to frame Zack instead, shooting him dead without giving it a second thought. Which this twisted, perverse studio audience of course love.
Out of all of the sitcom pilots I’ve reviewed so far this is easily my favourite, and it’s up against some stiff competition from the likes of The New Big Ball With Neil Hamburger, Steve Carell and Tim Curry’s The Unbelievables, Paul Rose’s Biffovision and Ed and Joz’s Heist Movie. It feels fully formed from the get go and you can see how a full series would have been packed with inspired madness, unpredictable gags and a real sense of joy over how silly they’re getting to be.
The majority of sitcoms in 1986 were played pretty straight and the closest I could compare it to is the sublime It’s Garry Shandling’s Show which also had a lot of fourth wall breaking and mucking about with sitcom conventions. But given the anarchic sense of humour Chris Elliott brings to the show it could plausibly have been even better than Shandling’s classic series, it’s a fantastic slice of comedy and whoever decided against giving it a full series should be shamed to this day, placed in stocks for at least several months and booed at loudly whenever he leaves the house, the evil bastard that he no doubt is.
You can watch the full pilot here on youtube.