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The Cable Guy at 20: The Premiere Latchkey Kid Thriller?

This dark comedy may also be the scariest film about Gen Xers

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    “You were never there for me were you, mother? You expected Mike and Carol Brady to raise me! I’m the bastard son of Claire Huxtable! I am a Lost Cunningham! I learned the facts of life from watching The Facts of Life! Oh God!”

    –Chip Douglas, on the verge of killing his new best bud Steven, in The Cable Guy.

    There was always something curiously off about The Cable Guy. Pitched as a riff on the edgier side of “friendship,” few comedies go this black. Forget odd couples and Jim Carrey talking behind some green mask: this is the comedy of paranoid delusions, bad TV, and the specter of death as a grand punchline. Whatever’s going on in the mind of Jim Carrey’s titular psycho Chip Douglas, the picture’s really dim. Chip’s a man just looking for a friend, with zero emotional development beyond quips and catchphrases.

    The Cable Guy is 20 years old today. While lambasted by some as cynical drivel allowing star power to run gritty and mean, the film has maintained a healthy second life as a strange and intense cult item in the careers of Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller. And now its best self has slowly started to emerge: a dark thriller about the nasty side of friendship, television, and the arrested development and cultural identification of the Latchkey Generation. It’s a secretly profound work of lingering sadness and stunted emotions, sold by a then-overpowered Jim Carrey looking for a vehicle that didn’t require him to talk out of his ass, even if his shtick is a lisp in this case.

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    Basically, this is the scariest film about Gen Xers:

    To get a handle on Carrey’s channel-surfing psychosis, it’s perhaps best to look at Cable Guy’s genesis, or rather its deformities.

    Back up to the early ‘90s. You think the Comcast service of today is crappy? Cable has always been the subject of dorky stand-up degradation revolving around lousy service and odd-bird characters that somehow manage to make their way into our homes to give us HBO for a few extra dollars. Case in point: Lou Holtz, The Cable Guy’s screenwriter, was an LA prosecutor inspired by the midnight wanderings of a cable operator in his mother’s home. One thing led to another, and Holtz had a light comedy on his hands that became the subject of a bidding war. Holtz nabbed a million-dollar payday from Columbia Pictures for his spec script. Judd Apatow, already a name TV producer with stuff like The Larry Sanders Show, The Ben Stiller Show, and The Critic on his resume, was tasked with producing the film. Apatow initially saw the film as an “annoying friend” comedy in the vein of What About Bob?

    After Chris Farley passed on the role, Carrey was hired for a still-obscene $20 million. Apatow was refused the chance to direct, but Ben Stiller came aboard with Reality Bites and The Ben Stiller Show under his belt. The original script was supposedly never threatening, but playful. Then, something organically happened to Holtz’s script and the overall tone and direction of the film. From the sounds of it, Carrey, Stiller, and Apatow got together and turned it ghoulish. The Cable Guy became less about a pest and more about a Travis Bickle with a van and an eerie relationship with the boob tube. Dark, creepy, subversive comedy was nothing new in 1996, but from such name talents? Death to Smoochy and Fight Club have long since proven that stars + dark comedy + high concept = a collective “huh?” from audiences, but The Cable Guy was a massive buy-in with a guaranteed top actor, positioned for a summer tentpole release. To think of the nerve required to film a comedy with referential, twitchy tendencies and then release it among mass-appeal actioners like The Rock and Independence Day? Who’d do such a thing today, let alone be able to get it through a test screening?

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    The creative trio of Apatow, Carrey, and Stiller became inspired by the creepiness and invasive qualities of modern technology, altered the script to have more of a Hand That Rocks the Cradle feel, and adjusted the Chip Douglas character to fit Carrey’s style. Holtz wrote four subsequent drafts before leaving, and Apatow took over writing without being credited. Carrey had cachet and Apatow and Stiller took the opportunity to do literally anything they wanted. Were they in a bad mood, ranting about the oddities of cable and cost? Maybe. Columbia came back with notes, but never any specific requests over cuts. In the end, critics winced, and the film broke even financially. As in the scene that features Carrey wailing to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” out of nowhere, the question stands: How does one react to that?

    Why has it endured in its strange way? As a comedy, Stiller’s aesthetic and tone is satiric. He crams in allusions to tons of ‘70s TV, the kind of stuff that kids of his generation likely latched on to. Chip speaks in very general platitudes, with a consistent grin that reads like a Miller commercial, or a learning moment in sitcoms. His newfound obsession is Steven (a beleaguered Matthew Broderick), the model of a “meh” kind of man. Steven has a nuclear family that annoys him, a girlfriend (Leslie Mann) who asked him to leave, and a bachelor pad with nothing but his incoming cable to show off. A dud, for all intents and purposes, but Chip wants it all. Chip has literally nothing and affectionately clings to Steven. Right from the get-go, The Cable Guy leans on comedy when it’s just being creepy, and it’s an effective tone.

    When Steven pursues a rumor that he can get the dirty channels for $50, Chip rattles off the FBI warnings so common on VHS tapes of the time. Chip scares the hell out of Steven, talking about prison “facililllullies” (that lisp), then cackles it off and states with an uncomfortable arm around the shoulder: “I’ll juice you up.” Chip’s that guy who thinks he’s being funny but leaves you genuinely ill at ease.

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    And then Chip just starts showing up, uninvited, over and over. Chip takes Steven out to a corporate satellite in upstate New York to see the stars, bragging about “information superhighways” and such, like an ad. When Steven suggests something simple like contact information for a speech therapist, Chip palls, and resorts back to memes and one-liners. When Chip bursts in on a basketball game between Steven and his normal friends, Chip sounds like a bad play: “We met a week ago on a routine installation, but I feel like I’ve known him my whole life.” Who talks like that? Well, a guy forcing bold statements like one might on a show.

    Chip invades Steven’s home and family life, gets Steven thrown in the slammer, and even kicks the crap out of a young Owen Wilson for taking Steven’s girlfriend out on a date. Yet Stiller’s direction succeeds for its arch nastiness and giddy propulsion and will to push the jokes a little too far every time. Chip’s idea of a fun time? Going to Medieval Times, putting some chicken skin on his face, and dressing up like a knight to try and kill his best friend while “jokingly” referencing Star Trek’s “Amok Time.” It’s a very nervous kind of laughter, start to finish.

    Between the Medieval Times stuff and Carrey’s scary personality, The Cable Guy has earned its cult status. The film still works because, frankly, it’s haunting. It gives clarity to the panic of the era over what might happen to a kid left alone to be raised by the TV. Chip’s backstory is plainly articulated: Mama had to head out to try and meet a man while a 10-year-old Chip was left behind to watch My Three Sons. For Chip, his pop culturally-developed brain can barely conceal his loneliness.

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    That loneliness leads to jealousy toward everyday people like Steven. Jealousy turns into obsession, obsession to anger, and then to delusional rage. Chip’s m.o. is hardly like anything else Carrey did in the ‘90s. The Cable Guy represents one of Carrey’s more fully-developed characters, an unhinged and sad man. The TV references almost feel like a knowing subversion of Carrey’s years of catchphrases. Add in the subplot about a case that recalls the Menendez brothers and Stiller’s propensity for using references as Chip’s safeguard, and there’s something deeply scary about this film’s perception of kids of the time.

    What happens to a kid raised on sassy lines and no emotional substance? Sociopathy? That’s an extreme, but The Cable Guy ponders Chip’s emotions and sanity from the second Stiller puts a power drill in Carrey’s hands and shoots him at canted angles. This film reads more like Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler or Tom Ripley looking to assume the life of another man.

    The scariest thing about The Cable Guy isn’t that $20 million payday for Carrey. It’s the erratic behavior nervously presenting itself. It’s the pop cultural identification and subsequent eccentricity in lieu of normal, genuine human interactions. It’s the technophobic notion that television – teacher, mother, secret lover – is raising our children now. My god, the panic, right? But The Cable Guy, in its roundabout way, has something deeper to say, often obscured and hidden beneath Carrey’s typical mania. But as Chip puts it, he just wants to hang out. No big deal.

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    This concludes our broadcast day.

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