Chris Elliott may have been born with a funny spoon in his mouth -- he's the son of Bob Elliott, the more deadpan half of the famous comedy duo Bob and Ray -- but he's developed his own offbeat brand of humor and gained his own substantial cult following.
Elliott began his show business career as a standup comic, but he first gained public attention as a writer and performer on Late Night With David Letterman, helping that show define a new age of ironic comedy, and winning two Emmys as part of Letterman's writing team. Elliott played the sarcastic firebrand to Letterman's perturbable Midwestern reserve. He starred in sketches as the Panicky Guy, the Fugitive Guy, and the Guy Under the Seats, a character who lived in a cramped passageway underneath the audience, and would occasionally interrupt the show to chat with Letterman. As a result of Elliott's growing popularity on Late Night, his acting career took off. Or, to be more precise, he got bit parts in Michael Mann's Manhunter, James Cameron's The Abyss, and the Francis Ford Coppola segment of New York Stories.
Elliott also went on to star in two hilarious, but little-seen half-hour comedy shows for Cinemax. FDR -- A One Man Show featured Elliott playing Chris Elliott, a pompous egomaniacal actor portraying FDR in a one-man show of tremendous historical inaccuracy, while Action Family economically combined satire of TV police dramas with a satire of a typical living room family sitcom.
Around this time, Elliott published a Mommy Dearest-style mock exposé about his childhood, Daddy's Boy: A Son's Shocking Account of Life With a Famous Father, which featured chapter-by-chapter rebuttals from his father, Bob, and a foreword by David Letterman.
In 1990, Elliott, with help from talented collaborators like David Mirkin, Bob Odenkirk, and Adam Resnick, starred in a bizarrely funny sitcom, Get a Life. The character Elliott played, Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy, was not a far cry from his previous television personae. Peterson was a dimwitted, balding, doughy, sarcastic, celebrity-worshipping dolt, with a hilariously high degree of self-regard. He was an utter failure who somehow convinced himself he was doing great. Bob Elliott played Chris Peterson's father on the show. The mucky mucks at the fledgling Fox network didn't understand the show, and were hoping Peterson would be cuddlier. Elliott would later remember a network exec optimistically comparing the character to "Tom Hanks in Big." The show had disastrous ratings. Despite support from savvier TV critics, Fox gave up on the show quickly, and canceled Get a Life after two seasons. The show had gained a passionate cult following and some episodes were eventually released on DVD and syndicated briefly on the USA Network. Get a Life was later recognized for its influence on other, more successful programs, including The Simpsons and South Park.
Elliott also had key supporting roles in the smash hit Groundhog Day, opposite Bill Murray, and in the unsuccessful rap mockumentary CB4 with Chris Rock. In 1994, he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. Despite the addition of other talented comic actors (Randy Quaid, Michael McKean, and Janeane Garofalo), it was a dismal season, and Elliott was put off by the lack of collaborative spirit among some of the long-term cast members. He moved on after one season.
This was also the period of Elliott's greatest professional disappointment -- the failure of the feature film he co-wrote and starred in, Cabin Boy. His frequent collaborator Adam Resnick co-wrote the film, and, at the urging of producer Tim Burton, also directed it. Letterman makes a brief, but very funny cameo appearance. The film has developed a small cult following, particularly among devotees of Get a Life, but it was a box-office flop. While the filmmakers themselves have acknowledged that Cabin Boy fell short of their expectations, Elliott was stung by the viciousness of the reviews.
Elliott went through a creative dry spell after this, appearing in a recurring role in the Tea Leoni sitcom Flying Blind, and gaining more national visibility as a spokesman for Tostitos snack chips. He also continued making guest appearances on a variety of sitcoms.
Since then, Elliott has appeared in supporting roles in a number of silly comedies (Snow Day, sequels to The Nutty Professor, and Scary Movie) and has developed a fruitful relationship with the Farrelly brothers, appearing in Kingpin, Osmosis Jones, and, most notably, in their smash hit, There's Something About Mary. He was also heard as the voice of Dogbert on the short-lived animated series, Dilbert, and he was a regular on the appropriately named, ill-fated Steven Weber series, Cursed.