Chris Elliott is too … too Chris Elliot, I guess, to be a superstar. Still – is the absurdist actor-writer known for his Letterman appearances, roles in “There’s Something About Mary” and “Groundhog Day,” his surprisingly witty cinematic belly-flop “Cabin Boy,” and his cult classic TV series “Get a Life” as funny as many of comedy’s brightest, shiniest stars?
The answer to that question is certainly yes. Everything that makes Elliott great, and everything that makes him so baffling to the Gods of Comedy, is on full display in “The Guy Under the Sheets,” his droll “unauthorized autobiography.”
The book comes at an interesting time for the blond-and-bearded, wide-eyed comedian. His daughter, Abby Elliott, who logged four seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” appeared on CBS hit “How I Met Your Mother” — a show which he himself appeared on, in a memorable role. And he is currently appearing on one of the most brilliant series on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block, “Eagleheart.” (It’s a “Walker, Texas Ranger” parody, and it’s predictably hysterical.)
But while in the midst of these TV appearances, Elliott has carved out a niche as a literary humorist. In 2007, he released his third book, a wonderful parody of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” titled, appropriately, “Into Hot Air,” and its greatest character — “Chris Elliott” — is back in “Under the Sheets.”
Here, he leaps between real events and characters and fictional creations with ease, resulting in a memoir that is wonderfully untrustworthy, and wildly entertaining.
If a tad too lengthy at more than 200 pages, “Sheets” is nevertheless hilarious, as Elliott becomes imprisoned on Marlon Brando’s island, saves the life of John Gotti, casts Bette Davis in a sitcom, and earns a role in “There’s Something About Mary” over Charlton Heston.
Of course, part of the fun comes when reality and fantasy collide. Is it possible Elliott really did meet David Letterman for the first time while leading a tour group through Rockefeller Center? I suppose. Maybe it’s funnier not to know.
The faux-creation of the notorious “Cabin Boy” leads to one of book’s most memorable chapters. It all seemed so promising, he writes:
“On paper, it looked like a guaranteed hit: the writing caliber of Elliott and [writer-director Adam] Resnick, two of the most innovative voices in comedy, combined with the visual genius of Tim Burton, a proven commercial commodity, and the raw talents of Aileen Wuornos, one of the most prolific serial killers of all time.”
Clearly, Elliott is aware “Cabin Boy” was always going to be a hard sell; he “quotes” Jeffrey Katzenberg at the film’s (fake) premier: “If somebody came up to you and said they needed $0 million to do a movie starring Chris Elliott lost at sea with a bunch of fat fisherman and a giant tobacco-spewing cupcake, wouldn’t you flip, too?”
The film was not a success — even in Elliott’s fantasy, it flops — but like much of his other works (especially “Get a Life”) has a fanbase. Depression follows … for a few pages.
Then, Elliott has success with a role in “Mary” and has Elton John dedicate a song to him. “Sheets” ends in appropriately absurd fashion, after “Eagleheart’s” Adult Swim premiere: “The night of March 10, Shelley Winters threw a big party at the Chateau Marmont in honor of Elliott’s 30 years in show business.”
Things do not go well, of course’ the ghostly apparitions of Peter Lawford and Bobby Kennedy appear, Dr. Ruth swears her undying love, and, eventually, Chris Elliott is down for the count. “Ten minutes later Dr. Conrad Murray arrived, accompanied by three strippers.” You can probably guess the end result.
The final line is brilliant in its subversion of the memoir genre’s usual triumphant close, and also another indicator at its author’s bracing self-awareness:
“As the body was brought out, one of the paramedics asked his partner, ‘Hey, who’s the guy under the sheets?’ ‘Oh, you know. What’s-his-name. The guy who wasn’t funny.”
He may not be a household name, but Chris Elliott has a following that is both loving and devoted. The cult of Chris will devour “The Guy Under the Sheets,” and they’ll be quick to tell you how wrong the teller of that last line is.
The Guy Under the Sheets
By Chris Elliott
Blue Rider Press
256 pages, $26.95
Christoper Schobert is a staff editor at Buffalo Spree and a frequent News freelance critic.