Abby Elliott on cover of Sky Magazine
Sky Magazine July 2012
The Family Funny Business
by Steve Marsh
photographed by Aaron Warkov
Though their comic styles may differ, father/daughter comedians Chris and Abby Elliott can both make you snort your beer through your nose. Not surprising—as they learned from one of the best in the biz; father/grandfather Bob Elliott, one-half of the legendary radio duo Bob and Ray.
It is a dreary day in DUMBO. Or is this lower DUMBO? Because it feels about as low as you can go. We are (D)own (U)nder the (M)anhattan (B)ridge (O)verpass, and it’s raining on the stars of our photo shoot: father and daughter comedians Chris and Abby Elliott. It's raining on all of us, and the bridge isn’t providing much cover. In fact, the bridge is making it worse. Each time the rain lets up -- and it does, here and there -- a train rumbles over our heads, and the massive dark bridge shakes like a big wet dog.
But Chris and Abby are playing the part. They soft-shoe through puddles, beam for the cameras and ham it up with rainy-day props that have been procured at the last minute: umbrellas and wellies. They're both show business pros: Chris has been on television for almost 30 years, since he made his debut on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983. And Abby was the youngest female cast member ever when she started on Saturday Night Live in 2008 at age 21, and she just wrapped her fourth season this past weekend. Dad came down from Connecticut to see the finale. "I got to meet Mick Jagger," Chris reports back in their trailer between set-ups. "At the party afterward, he played three songs with the Foo Fighters. Something off Some Girls. It was magical. I marvel at that guy's energy."
As Abby consults with a few stylists in the back, Chris holds court in a chair toward the trailer's cockpit. He seems affable, proud of his daughter and happy to be here with her in DUMBO, despite the gray Brooklyn sulk outdoors. "You look nice, honey," he coos when Abby emerges in a pretty green dress. This seems like unusual behavior coming from a guy who used to famously out-prickle Letterman on his own show. He does inform me that his dog is miserable, though. "Yeah, my wife and I own a King Cavalier spaniel and this trip she stayed at Abby's apartment," he says. "They're funny dogs—they were bred to sit on laps in portraits. So he gets depressed in the city."
Abby is asked if she would wear the green dress on a bicycle in the rain. "Um, I feel like that might be too much of a look for me," she says. It's explained to her that wearing dresses on bicycles is more popular than ever. "I know," she says. "But I do a sketch on SNL that makes fun of that, so ..."
The moment speaks to a real difference in comic sensibility between father and daughter. The SNL sketch Abby is referring to is "Bein' Quirky With Zooey Deschanel," where she portrays the actress/mandolin-plucker in all her be-true-to-thine-self insufferability. It's the funniest thing she's done on SNL yet -- a perfect, on-the-pulse parody -- and Abby obviously takes the character seriously. Whereas throughout Chris Elliott's entire career, whether it was his half-assed impression of Marv Albert on Letterman in 1986 or his crazy-loose parody of Chuck Norris on Adult Swim's Eagleheart in 2012, he has never taken any of this stuff seriously. I ask him about the genesis of this approach. Did his comic disposition emerge from a certain time and place?
"That was Dave," he says. "I lucked out in getting the job working with Dave because he had the same sensibility, even more so than me. Dave had a real cynical view of show business. And working on his show, at 30 Rock up on the 14th floor, you're in this ivory tower. You could make fun of show business and it wasn't going to hurt you." At least it wouldn't hurt you unless you bombed out with your own paean to quirkiness, 1994's Cabin Boy, flunking out of a season of SNL that same year (his style didn't fit and he hated the late nights) and ended up spending a decade and a half wandering through a string of supporting roles (everything from There's Something About Mary to Nutty Professor II: The Klumps). "I realized: Oh, this is the business I chose," he says. "I can't sit up there and make fun of it—I'm part of it."
His daughter is watching him and listening to him, and he notices and it's kind of a sweet moment. He decides to make it a teachable one. "I mean, it's good to take the business seriously, it's your livelihood," he says. "But it's also healthy to have that cynicism about what it is—it's show business. And it's fleeting at best and superficial at worst. It's not an ideal situation. But you get to make people laugh and show off your talent and get paid for it."
Abby recognizes the beat, "That's the best part."
After the soggy, four-hour shoot, the three of us are back in the trailer sipping hot coffee. It's obvious that of all their respective characters, when they’re together the two of them are best as father and daughter. And it quickly becomes clear that their comedy is informed by a third Elliott who isn't here—89-year-old Bob Elliott at home in Maine. Bob Elliott is Chris' father, Abby's grandfather and one-half of the legendary comedy duo Bob and Ray. On air, Bob and Ray's delivery was dry while their material was completely absurd. They played themselves and a million other characters hilariously. In addition to the next two generations of Elliotts, they influenced a generation of comedians: guys such as Letterman and Bill Murray and Lorne Michaels himself.
From the beginning, Chris knew how funny his dad was. "That style was all I knew," he says. And although he's consciously avoided doing radio, he's adapted his dad's tone for television, the movies, even books: dry, absurd, always meta. So meta that some people miss it completely. "The joke [on Letterman] was always that I'm really playing myself," he says. His books parody Kitty Kelley-style tabloid journalism (Daddy's Boy) and celeb tell-all (an upcoming unauthorized autobiography), but they're actually just him playing himself again.
It's harder to draw a bead on Abby's style, she's less meta than her dad or her granddad, but she's a student of the game. Her first show biz memory is a 1979 VHS of a special produced by her now-boss Lorne Michaels: Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine & Gilda. "I remember doing plays and dressing up and we would improvise things," she says. "My sister, Bridey, and I. And dad would film us doing things and dressing up. But I always loved Gilda. Gilda and Lucille Ball."
Initially, Abby wanted to be a serious actress. After spending most of her childhood in Connecticut, she studied acting at Marymount Manhattan College in Manhattan before dropping out after a semester and moving to LA, where she caught on at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, taking its sketch-writing classes and going to improv school. "UCB was all about premise and finding what's interesting in something," she says. "All the stuff that's big on Funny or Die right now. It's much less character driven than what we do on SNL."
Abby has made her bones on SNL as an expert impressionist: In addition to Deschanel, she’s nailed Angelina Jolie and Rachel Maddow. Her dad loves her as Meryl Streep. "That thing you did with her reading glasses," he says. "That wasn't broad impersonation. It wasn't a cartoon. It was an actress portraying an actress. I loved it." I tell him he sounds a little in awe of his daughter. Does he lack his daughter's acting ability?
Abby interjects. "You definitely do not."
"No, I do, honey," he says. "It's not that I ..."
"You're a great actor."
"Noooo," he says. "I don't think I'm bad at what I do, but I think what I do is narrow. I think I do something very specific."
Does Abby have a favorite Chris Elliott character? After both of them take turns joking that she hasn't seen any of her dad's work ("She's not a fan"), she picks his cult-classic, early '90s sitcom, Get a Life, in which he played a 30-year-old paperboy who lives in his dad's (portrayed by his real-life dad, Bob) garage. She wasn’t allowed to see much of it growing up ("It's gotta be confusing for my kids to watch me making out with some actress on this show," Chris says), but she's now able to gush, "It was so ahead of its time. All my friends at UCB have all the DVDs, and I think a lot of the shows now, whether on Adult Swim or Comedy Central, are descendents of it."
Chris takes the compliment as graciously as he can. "It's funny to hear you say that," he says. "Because it's like when I started working, just meeting Dave and finding out that Dave was a huge Bob and Ray fan. I mean, I knew my dad had this cult following, but I didn't know how influential he was comedy-wise. Not that I am, but ..."
I tell him I agree with his daughter -- I think there is genius in what he does, no matter how narrow or specific. "Well, the jury's out [on me]," he says. "But my dad was. And these guys that maybe know me from <i>Get a Life</i> and are too young to know my dad, if they knew my dad's work they would go: That's amazing.
"I think the thing with my dad and me, which is a little different than Abby, is that if you didn't like Bob and Ray you really didn't like them. And if you don't like me, you really don't like me. I think Abby has a more universal appeal—it's people across the board. How can you watch the Zooey Deschanel thing and not enjoy it?"