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After Letterman, Comedian Chris Elliott Decided to Get a Life—and Then Got His Dad to Play a Part He Knows by Heart

updated 11/05/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/05/1990 01:00AM

When he was about 6, writer-comedian Chris Elliott made his first public appearance, a moment that still gives him shudders. Dining with his family at a Manhattan restaurant, Chris was selected at random to receive a free toy. "I was terrified." recalls the 30-year-old comic, who had to go to the front of the crowded room to collect his prize. "I started crying, ran up and grabbed something and ran right back."

Can this be the same guy who regularly growled, "I'm going to make your life a living hell!" at the host of Late Night with David Letterman? The same guy who taste-tested dog food, hawked a whoopee casket and has appeared, clad in a diaper, cuddled in the bearish arms of writer Gerard Mulligan? One and the same. It seems Elliott has outgrown his embarrassment—but not much else—to become one of the most original writers and performers on television. In that, he is carrying on the family tradition. His father, Bob, was half of Bob and Ray, the deadpan duo that cracked up radio listeners for four decades with characters like blustering ace newsman Wally Ballou and Harlow P. Whitcomb of the Slow Talkers of America. Now Chris is happily courting prime-time laughs as writer, producer and star of the promising Fox network sitcom Get a Life (Sunday, 8:30 P.M. ET).

In Life, Elliott portrays a character close to home: 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson, an ambitionless Dennis the Menace who lives over his parents' garage and dabbles disastrously in everything from male modeling to breaking the world record for having things piled on top of him. Chris has cast a natural to play his father—paterfamilias Bob himself. Elliott the Elder underplays the paperboy's dad with commendable drollness, and veteran Elinor (Father Knows Best) Donahue is perpetually cheery as his ditzy mother, Gladys. Chris, who has inherited Bob's receding hairline and morning-after bags under the eyes, says that the paperboy is an extension of his Letterman creations. "Basically," says Chris, "he's a jerk."

Performing on the small screen in any guise, even as a jerk, seemed a remote possibility for a kid who grew up in the staid Elliott home in Manhattan. There was no push for Chris or any of his four siblings to follow in their father's footsteps. "As a child, Chris wanted to be an astronaut and an ice hockey player," remembers his dad.

But Chris had the biz in his blood and began his transformation into global-village idiot during the run of Bob and Ray: The Two and Only, the duo's 1970 Broadway show. Chris went to the show every weekend and, at Bob and Ray's studio, became enchanted with the sound effects machine. "We could put in three seconds of the Wolfman howling," says Chris, "and then two seconds of a fight sequence. It was really fun."

Influenced by the generation of comics that came out of Saturday Night Live, Chris forsook college to perform in improvisational theater and summer stock. As a tour guide at NBC, he met Letterman, then a Tonight Show guest host. After Chris blurted out who his father was, Letterman said that he'd like to have Bob on Tonight. Responded Chris: "My dad doesn't do the Tonight Show...unless Johnny hosts."

Despite the barb, or perhaps because of it, Chris wound up not long after on Late Night, auditioning animals for the show's Stupid Pet Tricks. He was soon elevated to a position as one of Letter-man's Emmy-winning writers and logged countless appearances during his eight years on the show. His dada-esque routines weren't confined to the stage; during one period, he amused the staff by doing a nonstop Marlon Brando impression. Even his courtship of Paula Niedert, then a Late Night talent booker, was in character. Despite the fact that he did telling public impressions of Paula and taped embarrassing caricatures to her office door, the couple were married in 1986. Devoted to daughters Abby, 3, and 3-month-old Bridget, they share a spacious rented house in the Hollywood Hills.

On the Life set, Bob, whose partner Ray Goulding died last spring, has a calming effect on his effervescent son. Says executive producer David Mirkin: "You can see that Chris has an awful lot of respect for him." Agrees Chris: "I do tend to pull an Eddie Haskell whenever he's around.... Then I shove him off into his dressing room and go at it again." Chris feels confident that the '90s will be good to him. "This will be the decade," he says, "when I completely lose my hair." Will it be the decade when he finally grows up? Probably not.

—J.D. Reed, Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles

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