Jim Carrey as Chip in The Cable Guy (1996)

Jim Carrey got famous fast. Like a grown man birthed from the anus of a robotic rhinoceros, he emerged fully formed—an instant movie star. There are overnight success stories, and then there’s appearing in three consecutive smashes in one calendar year, despite having no major starring roles on your resumé before that. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb And Dumber rocketed the rubber-limbed stand-up comedian from his regular gig on In Living Color to the top of Hollywood’s A-list. And if 1994 established his stardom, 1995 solidified it, as Carrey appeared in the year’s biggest hit (Batman Forever) and a sequel to his big breakthrough (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). In just two years, he went from working actor—playing small parts in big movies and big parts in very small movies—to one of the industry’s most bankable attractions. Not bad for a guy whose claim to sudden fame was talking out of his ass.

But even the biggest stars have a few misses between hits, and Carrey’s first one arrived in the summer of 1996, when he headlined a deranged knee-slapper about a possessive leech of a man and the poor sap he latches onto. The Cable Guy, released on this day 20 years ago, was no flop: Though it made less than Carrey’s previous starring vehicles, the film still doubled its $47 million budget after foreign ticket sales were tallied. And the reviews were mixed, not across-the-board toxic. Somehow, though, The Cable Guy took on the reputation of a flop—an industry punchline, lambasted for years afterward, its title synonymous with bad Hollywood judgment. How did a modestly successful summer comedy become Carrey’s Ishtar, his Hudson Hawk?

High expectations may be the culprit. Carrey netted $20 million to appear in the film, more than any actor before him had ever been paid for a single role. Given the size of that check—and the potency of his two-year winning streak—anything less than a box-office juggernaut was probably going to look like a colossal disappointment. But there’s a simpler, less monetary explanation for the film’s bad rep, its lingering stench of failure: Audiences were freaked out by it. Directed by Ben Stiller and produced by a young Judd Apatow, The Cable Guy peeled away Carrey’s high-energy, lowbrow goofball routine to reveal something weirder and meaner underneath, a streak of psychosis much more intense than anything he exhibited as The Riddler. This just wasn’t what paying customers signed up for when they went to see a Jim Carrey movie.

Of course, it’s that very shattering of expectations—that abuse of them, even—that makes The Cable Guy so much more fascinating, so much better, than its detractors have always insisted. At the height of his popularity, Carrey took a risk on a dark, alienating stalker comedy. And according to Apatow, the comedian played a very active role in the subversion of his own star power, the pushing of his character in increasingly unsympathetic directions. A cruelly hilarious experiment in audience agitation, The Cable Guy was also the first sign that there was more to its in-demand leading man than rubbery features and a brave, almost pathological willingness to look foolish.

Carrey doesn’t even technically play the main character, which counts as a bold career choice in its own right, at least for a comedic star of his stature. Protagonist duties belong instead to Matthew Broderick, who stars as wimpy, suddenly single everydude Steven Kovacs. In one of first-time screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr.’s most distinctive twists on studio-comedy convention, Steven spends most of the movie not trying to woo the love interest, but to win her back: Girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) has recently rejected his marriage proposal and sent him packing—and Steven, still licking his wounds, has moved into a one-bedroom at the start of the film. This is where he first meets the lisping, clingy, plainly unstable title character (Carrey), who shows up to install our hero’s cable and promptly begins invading his life and privacy. Carrey, acting through the caveman jut of his jaw, plays The Cable Guy as a maladjusted spaz with little self-awareness and even less respect for boundaries. What if Jim Carrey, at his most unreservedly manic, desperately wanted to be your friend and wouldn’t take no for an answer?

That’s enough of a hook to hang a movie on, but The Cable Guy also fancies itself a satire, taking aim at a culture unhealthily obsessed with (and a generation raised on) the warm glow of the idiot box. Chip, as Carrey’s character (initially) calls himself, borrows aliases from his favorite sitcoms, regurgitates talk-show wisdom, and compares everything to something he’s seen on TV. He’s a proto-Abed, complete with meta nods to the audience—or, for a more contemporaneous point of reference, a relative to the pop-culture-savvy menace from Scream, which would hit theaters just a few months after The Cable Guy. The character’s also a kind of analog hacker, and the film’s vision of technology-abetted nerd rage feels both dated (everyone crowds around their television for information) and oddly prescient (Chip delivers a big speech about interconnectivity that’s basically a prophecy of our now). Stiller, in his second turn behind the camera after the much more low-key Reality Bites, even finds time for a funny subplot skewering the O.J. media circus, the filmmaker casting himself as a former child star on trial for killing his twin brother.

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All told, it probably remains Stiller’s most ambitious work as a director; though he’d move on to bigger, more star-studded takedowns of fashion culture and Hollywood ego, The Cable Guy has the most ideas. And yet the film is less successful as satire than as pure cringe comedy, built on the social minefield of trying to weasel out of an unwanted new friendship. Steven’s too nice or maybe just too chickenshit to simply tell Chip to leave him alone, and there’s some sly irony in a character who came on a little too strong with his significant other having the intensity of his feelings mirrored back at him by a stranger. You can actually see the exact moment that Steven critically missteps, as Chip gives his new victim an out at the end of their first encounter (“I crossed the line, didn’t I?”) and Steven fails to take it, mostly because—as someone who’s just been rejected himself—he’s supremely uncomfortable with doing the same to someone else.

If all of this sounds vaguely like a story of unrequited affection, that’s no accident: Maybe the biggest reason The Cable Guy rubbed audiences the wrong way is that there’s a not-so-subtle romantic dimension to the film’s antagonistic central pairing. What was originally conceived as a cousin to the more innocuous pest-comedy of What About Bob? gradually transformed, through a series of rewrites, into a twisted parody of Fatal Attraction and its “erotic,” yuppie-in-peril offspring. Carrey, in the Glenn Close role, is really playing one of these creeps who won’t take a hint. Chip showers Steven with extravagant gifts and takes him on a de facto first date to a giant satellite dish; this is, for all intents and purposes, a romantic pursuit—something the film acknowledges when Chip shows up unannounced to the gym where Steven and his guy friends are playing basketball, embarrassing his new buddy by claiming that he feels like he’s “known him his whole life.” Likewise, when Steven eventually finds the nerve to “break up” with his stalker, Chip responds like a jilted lover, tilting the movie into revenge-of-the-scorned thriller territory.

There’s a fine line between testing audiences’ comfort zones and playing to their prejudices, and The Cable Guy crosses that line at least once, during an uncomfortably crass jailhouse scene. (This week, especially, the last thing any of us need is another homophobic comedy.) Thankfully, the film doesn’t code Carrey’s character as a gay predator; if anything, it’s making Broderick a proxy for every woman who’s tried to politely sidestep the persistent advances of someone she’s not interested in. If The Cable Guy does apply a sexual subtext to a platonic relationship, it’s to lend itself an extra charge of tension. One could go all day cataloging these suggestive touches: the way Steven first answers the door to Chip while half-naked, having run straight from the shower; the smash cut from the Medieval Times skirmish (a physical consummation of friendship, most definitely) to Steven cracking Chip’s back; Chip tricking Steven into sleeping with a prostitute he “tried out last week,” essentially creating an intimate encounter through a surrogate. And, of course, there’s the film’s most disturbing sequence, in which a disguised Chip assaults Robin’s douchebag date (a young Owen Wilson) in the bathroom of a restaurant, at one point forcing him to suck the phallic nozzle of an air dryer.

This moment, more than any other, demonstrates just how sick and unlikable Carrey was willing to go, how intent he was on mucking with his own marquee appeal. The Cable Guy is very much a Jim Carrey comedy; it provides plenty of opportunities for this human cartoon to get typically, hilariously physical. But even the big slapstick set-pieces—the Medieval Times duel; the full-contact basketball game; the karaoke performance of “Somebody To Love,” with the star gyrating like a fire-and-brimstone country preacher—have an aggressive, confrontational edge. At the same time, the actor makes Chip an uncomfortably pathetic villain: The scene where he switches off the cable, threatening to thwart Steven’s romantic movie date with Robin if he doesn’t agree to hang out with him the following evening, is almost painfully sad. Carrey, who would later open up about his real-life struggles with depression, lets some very authentic darkness into this broad performance.

The film’s ending, to be honest, is a letdown. Instead of taking Chip’s desperation to some strange new depths, The Cable Guy settles for the conventional damsel-in-distress, mano-a-mano climax—a clichéd finale not entirely mitigated by Carrey’s meta lamp-shading. (Chip’s direct commentary on the action puts him in on the joke—a big miscalculation.) Likewise, Stiller and company foreground the satirical, this-is-your-brain-on-TV component, which is again much less interesting than the comedy of awkward social obligation they’ve otherwise engineered—which is to say, The Cable Guy works best as a movie about how damn hard it is tell someone that you’re really not interested in getting to know them better. And for as bleak as the film gets, it totally cops out at the last minute, manufacturing a happy ending and a too-clever-by-half final twist that could set up a potential sequel, if The Cable Guy did well enough to earn one.

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It didn’t, of course, though again that’s more of a matter of entertainment-industry revisionism than raw commercial performance. Carrey would bounce back, career-wise, in the following year’s Liar Liar—a sentimental crowd-pleaser that helped wash the bold taste of his first supposed misfire out of confused fans’ mouths. From there, he’d make his first big foray into “serious” acting with The Truman Show, a film with a fourth-wall-breaking finale not so different than the one that closes The Cable Guy. In truth, it was Stiller’s intentionally abrasive yukfest that officially (if stealthily) announced the comedian’s artistic ambitions. By playing Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon three years later, was Carrey paying tribute to the anti-comedy icon whose audience-pranking stunts may have inspired his own? And can’t the melancholy he’d later exhibit in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind be traced back to a film that first dared to show the lonely side of the clown, the sad-sack inside the cutup? With The Cable Guy, Carrey confronted his own overexposure, his inescapability, with a grotesque perversion of it. And he exploded his star image to reveal the gifted, uncompromising actor lurking beneath. More “flops” should be this adventurous.