Just as nothing serves a legend quite like an early death, few cult TV series have the mystique of those cut down in their infancy. The Ben Stiller Show, whose first and only season on Fox has just been released on DVD along with unaired sketches, audio commentaries, outtakes, and more, holds a prominent place in the "Too Good For TV" pantheon, thanks to its scathing pop-culture satire and the auspicious careers of its gifted ensemble. Janeane Garofalo went on to become the poster girl for Gen-X neuroses, Bob Odenkirk co-created, wrote, and starred in HBO's glorious Mr. Show, and Andy Dick was funny enough on The Ben Stiller Show to excuse the years of druggy excess and tabloid exhibitionism that followed its cancellation. Ben Stiller, of course, went on to become a movie star and feature filmmaker, but The Ben Stiller Show nevertheless represents an apex in his career: The gulf between its best moments and, say, Zoolander is the difference between a marksman hitting a target 300 feet away and a clown lobbing a cream pie at an 800-pound man. Masters of comic juxtaposition, the show's writers cross-pollinated deviant strands of entertainment to create hybrids that were often both funny and genuinely satirical. "The Grungies," for example, crossed the Seattle grunge scene of the early '90s with the exuberant pop idiocy of The Monkees to comment on the way mass culture sells pseudo-rebellion back to the discontented at a hefty profit. With his enormous white teeth and half-hunky/half-simian good looks, Stiller excelled at mocking the cocky arrogance of alpha-males like Tom Cruise, Tony Robbins, Bruce Willis, and Oliver Stone, whose take on the seamy underbelly of American life is skewered in a mock commercial for the conspiracy theorist's answer to Disneyland. At its weakest, The Ben Stiller Show feels a little like Gen-X Madlibs (U2 meets The Tonight Show by way of The Jeffersons!), but for the most part, the show lives up to its considerable reputation. Much of the pop-culture ephemera the show so adroitly satirizes has come and gone, but the DVD release suggests that the show itself is one for the ages. Upright Citizens Brigade, whose first season has also recently been released on DVD, occupies a strange place among sketch shows: It lasted too long to qualify for TV martyrdom, but it was never popular enough to become a hit. Another talented foursome, The Upright Citizens Brigade (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh) specializes in spinning mundane situations into surreal, absurdist scenarios, as when a drunken one-night stand between college students morphs into a desperate demand for assistance with Spanish coursework. Upright Citizens Brigade occasionally pitches gags to the rafters, but the less a skit relies on mugging, a funny voice, or a silly costume, the funnier it usually is. This is underlined by the set's most fascinating feature, an unaired pilot shot largely in front of a live studio audience, which cackles with the creepy over-enthusiasm of a hyperactive laugh track, feigning merriment where none is warranted. Many of the pilot's skits were recycled in different forms throughout the first season, and it's startling how much funnier they are when not subjected to queasy sitcom lighting and staging, as well as pauses for braying laughter. Thankfully, UCB scuttled the live audience and the hackneyed elements of its original pilot, setting the tone for a wonderfully quirky show whose unabashed weirdness proved a magnet for hardcore fans even as it jeopardized its chance to reach a mass audience.
More from The A.V. Club