staff pick

Why Chris Elliott's Cabin Boy Feels Exactly Right Today

By Nick Nadel


Late Night with David Letterman had a seismic effect on modern comedy, influencing everyone from snarky talk show hosts like John Oliver and Conan O’Brien to absurdist pranksters Eric Andre and Sacha Baron Cohen. Letterman’s penchant for showcasing quirky members of his staff also introduced bleary-eyed viewers to Chris Elliott, the comedic force behind the cult hit series Get a Life and the underrated big-screen fantasy comedy Cabin Boy.

Elliott cut his teeth as a writer/performer on Late Night, presenting oddball characters like “The Guy Under the Seats” and “Fugitive Guy.” Comedy specials followed, including Cinemax’s FDR: A One Man Show, and in 1990, Get a Life debuted on the still-nascent Fox network. The show, created with Elliott’s Late Night cohort Adam Resnick, caught of the eye of Tim Burton, who recruited the pair to develop a wacky spoof of Captains Courageous, in the way Pee-wee’s Big Adventure reimagined the road movie.

As Resnick told the Chicago Tribune, Burton dropped out in order to make Ed Wood, thus leaving the rookie Resnick to helm the offbeat comedy that had ballooned to the scale of a blockbuster. Burton retained a producer credit and his influence is visible from the bizarre stop-motion creations (including a talking floating cupcake) to the lavish costumes by Colleen Atwood (Edward Scissorhands).

While Cabin Boy infamously stank up the box office like rotting cod left out in the sun, Elliott and Resnick’s film has since achieved cult status thanks largely to its ensemble of veteran actors and burgeoning comedic talent. Conan O’Brien’s sidekick Andy Richter showed off his knack for poker-faced comedy as Kenny, a dimwitted sailor who memorably demonstrates how harem girls dance to Elliott’s spoiled “fancy lad” Nathanial Mayweather. Melora Walters (Boogie Nights, Big Love) turns up as Nathanial’s erstwhile love interest, while Twin Peaks fans will enjoy seeing Dr. Jacoby himself Russ Tamblyn as half-man/half-shark Chocki. Brian Doyle-Murray (Groundhog Day), Ann Magnuson, and Bob Elliott, deadpan comedy master and dad to Chris, round out the cast of off-the-wall characters.

David Letterman himself makes a cameo, popping up as “Old Salt in the Fishing Village,” and memorably asks Nathanial if he’d like to buy a stuffed monkey. In typical Letterman fashion, the gap-toothed funnyman both lends the film comedy cred (he was the king of late night when Cabin Boy hit theaters in 1994) and subtly pokes fun at the proceedings through his pointed delivery.

Two decades removed from its D.O.A. debut, Cabin Boy is a natural extension of Chris Elliott’s sitcom and Late Night with David Letterman persona. The film’s mix of fantasy tropes and absurd, go-for-broke comedic set pieces wouldn’t be out of place on most cable and streaming networks. In perhaps the oddest twist of all, the world has finally caught up to Cabin Boy.