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Long before There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents and Zoolander, Ben Stiller was the star of a sketch comedy show that bore his name. It was his first major exposure in show business, and, although the show had some serious flashes of brilliance, it was cancelled unceremoniously after a mere twelve episodes. Warner Brothers has now released the entire series (including a completed but never aired thirteenth episode) in a two-disc set that chronicles not only the early work of Stiller, but also some other noted comedians as well.

The Series
Premiering in September of 1992, The Ben Stiller Show won critical praise (and an Emmy for writing) but few viewers (it came in dead last in the ratings that season). Stiller was at the time an unknown. The son of comedian Jerry Stiller and comedienne Ann Meara, Ben had appeared as an extra on a few episodes of the wildly popular late night sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live. Now he had a chance to show off his comedic skills.

The show itself is a mixture of mostly videotaped sketches interspersed with some filmed witty banter between Stiller and either a guest or other cast members. Stiller is a very likeable performer, and he has an ability to put the viewer quickly at ease. The other members of the cast used the show as launching pads for their own careers. Probably the most famous among them is Janeane Garofalo, who took the opposite road as Stiller and went from his show to the aforementioned Saturday Night Live. Also in the cast was Andy Dick, who would later have his own series on MTV and co-star in the comedy series Newsradio. Rounding out the performers was former SNL writer Bob Odenkirk, who would go on to co-create and star in the HBO series Mr. Show.

Ben Stiller Show, The
Unlike his movie roles, in which the stories and situations are the driving comedic forces, in his weekly sketch comedy show, the characters are the real comedy gems. If one had never seen this show, you would never know that Stiller is actually a very good impressionist, giving dead-on portrayals of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and U-2’s Bono. In addition, he has created such characters as “No, no, no man”, who badgers guest stars into coming to his restaurant table to impress his wife. One of his funniest characters is Hollywood agent Michael Pheret, who during meetings with B-list actors, takes phone calls and seems to be throwing out ideas at such breakneck speed that the guests find themselves agreeing to star in incredibly poor roles.

Stiller also has some recurring sketches which are seen here, such as different variations on the FOX-TV reality police program Cops. Ben takes the idea and transplants it into biblical times, the Middle Ages and the Salem witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Another is a take on situation comedies called “Skank”, in which the star is an obnoxious, insulting, dirty sock puppet married to a human woman with human children.

Ben Stiller Show, The
The short, filmed interludes are the weakest part of the programs, although some are quite funny. When Sarah Jessica Parker guest starred, her appearance was so short and the banter so inane that it seemed as though they went on much longer than they actually did. In contrast, the appearances by Garry Shandling and Dennis Miller were very humorous and you could tell that Stiller was enjoying their comedy as much as the audience.

It really is a shame that the show only aired twelve episodes. Part of the blame belongs to FOX, who scheduled the show on Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Not only is the time one of the toughest to draw an audience (going up against what was the number one show of the time, the newsmagazine 60 Minutes), but the time really did not suit the type of comedy the show displays, or cater to the target audience. Although the network later moved the show to a later timeslot, by then the show was already in its death throes.  

Video
The video of the package is a decent enough presentation. Shown in standard television full-frame, it is clear and crisp and devoid of any dust or grain. Be warned, the short vignettes between the sketches were filmed in such a way as that there is grain and certain amount of discoloration, and that is how it was meant to be. Otherwise, the colours are full and the video portions have been preserved well and duplicated in fine fashion. Overall, this is a very good video presentation.

Ben Stiller Show, The
Audio
The audio of this set is nothing special, and in many respects, it doesn’t need to be. There is nothing in the show that would be further improved by the use of Dolby or DTS 5.1. The English 2.0 Surround is a good enough presentation. All of the dialogue is clear and there is no hiss or background noise evident at any point. The music in the opening credits and in any of the sketches comes across very well but is not overpowering and the sound levels are done to perfection. For what the material calls for, the audio in the set is a winner.

Extras
The extras in the package are what truly make the whole set. In addition to a gracious helping of commentary (there is commentary of one sort or another on over half of the shows, plus the unaired sketches), there is a whole host of other goodies to keep the viewer entertained. As mentioned, there are a slew of unused sketches included, and for the most part, it is easy to see why they were never aired. In one, Stiller plays Ron Perlman (who starred in the early 90’s television show Beauty and the Beast) opposite Garofalo, who portrays United States Olympic Gymnast Mary Lou Retton. The two are judging a mascot contest. The sketch goes on far too long and is not nearly funny enough, which hopefully is what lead to it never being aired. In contrast, some of the unused material is clearly cut from the same comedic cloth as what was used on the air, and would have probably been included had any more shows been produced.

The aforementioned commentary is also done very well. All of the participants are very friendly and cordial but, as sometimes happens when too many individuals are gathered for commentary, on occasion too many of them are speaking at once and it is difficult to hear all of the interactions and anecdotes which are being relayed. In addition, there are times when it seems as though they are referring to inside jokes that the viewer would not understand. All of the main players are involved however, from Stiller to his co-creator Judd Apatow. One thing is obvious from the commentary. The entire group cared very much for this show, and it definitely comes through in the audio tracks.

Ben Stiller Show, The
Some of the other extras, while brief, are both funny and interesting. There is a group of approximately ten different outtake groups, which you can view separately. Here you get either what is truly an outtake, as one of the actors will blow their line or start to laugh, or you may get something which shows part of a sketch that never made it to the final cut. In either instance, they are a pleasure to watch. Also in the selection of extra features is a brief history of the show, which includes variations on the pilot episode. As the show was being formulated, the writers and producers had difficulty of how to put all the different sketches into a coherent half-hour show. Shown here are two different (and ultimately abandoned) alternate sequences on how the show tried to fill in the time between the sketches. It makes for not only funny viewing, but an interesting insight into exactly what decisions are made when creating a television show. In addition, within the history are clips from some work Ben did for MTV. These short sketches were really the genesis for what would later become The Ben Stiller Show on the FOX network, and, in an ironic twist, one of the sketches involves Ben trying to get hired by FOX.

The final extra included is a brief approximately ten minute clip of the E! Entertainment special Behind the Scenes: The Ben Stiller Show. Ben hosts this and takes the viewer on a tour of the offices, introducing us to writers, make-up artists, his co-creator Apatow and the main actors. We do get some background footage into how the show was created on a weekly basis, and it is from a view that few people ever get to see. It is an interesting piece.

Overall
The Ben Stiller Show came and went from the American television airwaves far too quickly. Whether it was a result of poor scheduling, a concept that was ahead of its time, or for some other reason, for the most part it doesn’t matter. What Warner Brothers have done here is given the show a respectable presentation, and given the viewer something that will entertain them for several hours. Some of the comedy may be lost on the viewer because many of the sketches are parodies of early 90’s culture, but enough the sketch material will leave the viewer laughing to this day. Overall a fine set.


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