At this point, we’re well into the cult critical resurrection of Cabin Boy, Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick’s bizarre and frequently prescient attempt to translate the anti-comedy threads of their work together on Late Night With David Letterman and Get A Life into a parody of semi-mainstream adventure movies. Watching it now, the 1994 bomb feels like a blueprint for any number of celebrated sketch or Adult Swim shows, trading heavily on intentionally unlikable characters (especially Elliott as the shorts-wearing, squeaky-voiced “fancy lad” lead) and brilliantly conceived non-sequiturs.
That’s very little comfort, though, to Resnick and Elliott, who have spent much of their careers trying to recover from creating one of the most critically hated movies of the mid-’90s, a stock punchline for pundits searching for a stereotypically derided film to mock. Resnick, especially—who never directed again, having only taken the job in the first place because producer Tim Burton pressured him into it—seems continually traumatized by it, waving off modern-day compliments and dwelling on how much opprobrium the movie he didn’t even want to make in the first place received.
That’s the major takeaway from a new history of Cabin Boy, published this week in The Ringer. Written by Michael Tedder, the piece talks to both Elliott and Resnick, charting their friendship from their time together on Letterman, to the set of Get A Life—a series that apparently provoked Fox to just sort of grimly give up on even trying to give them notes—to the moment when Burton decided not to direct the movie they’d written for him, handing it off to Resnick instead. (As Resnick says in the piece—and similarly told us in an interview back in 2014—that was especially frustrating because he and Elliott had written the movie to match the celebrated director’s sensibilities, not necessarily their own.)
Resnick is still trying to work out why the movie didn’t fade from the public consciousness like so many other flops, and what he could have done to fix things. “If we could do it over again, but only change a couple of things, I think we’d lose the helium accent and maybe Chris wouldn’t wear shorts,” he notes at one point. Meanwhile, the film’s enduring reputation probably wasn’t helped by the pair’s old hero/mentor/monkey salesman David Letterman, who mocked his own cameo in it during his infamous stint as host of the Oscars in 1995, even roping in Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton, Albert Brooks, and more to mercilessly mock the poor thing.
The saddest part of The Ringer’s piece comes at the end, though, when Elliott and Resnick both note that, while they’re still close friends (and reasonably successful in their chosen fields), they both refuse to professionally collaborate ever again. “That’s our punishment,” Elliott says. “I think Adam is the funniest writer in the world and I’m still learning things from him. I still can get on the phone with him and we can talk about the guy who danced weird in the wedding sequence of The Godfather and laugh about that. But I think we would be too insecure to try to work together again.”