It may be hard to remember now, with hits like "American Idol" and "Glee," but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fox was a fledgling network trying to establish itself with comedies that pushed boundaries or buttons, depending on the viewer. There was the brash "In Living Color," the shrill "Married ... With Children" and that promising cartoon "The Simpsons." But "Get a Life," which made its debut in 1990, seemed to induce only uneasiness.
For some reason, a show about a self-deluding 30-year-old newspaper boy who still lives with his parents was not universally beloved, either by viewers or the executives who broadcast the series, which starred Chris Elliott.
"I remember Fox being very concerned about how responsible my character would be, and whether or not he would be perceived as an idiot," Elliott, now 52, recalled of the show's early prospects. "Which, of course, is exactly how Adam, Dave and I wanted him to be perceived."
Elliott was referring to the men who created the show with him: Adam Resnick, his writing partner from "Late Night With David Letterman," and the showrunner David Mirkin, a veteran of "Newhart." But as shown in a new Shout! Factory box set of all 35 episodes, the eventual cult favorite featured a model of arrested development, the kind of person who might result from being raised exclusively on other sitcoms.
When Fox approached Elliott, he was a hot comic property for his offbeat "Letterman" bits like the Guy Under the Seats. Chris Peterson, his character on "Get a Life," would become a showcase for a comic type Elliott had honed: the clueless simp who persists in misguided missions.
"Playing dumb always seemed like safe territory for me," Elliott said in an email. "As a kid, I loved the confident stupidity of Laurel and Hardy, but I was also obsessed with '70s detective shows and movies."
Fox, which had demonstrated a willingness to take chances, was intrigued. "I thought the idea was nuts," said Peter Chernin, president of entertainment for Fox at the time and the executive responsible for ordering the show. "It just felt like a shot worth taking and a way to get attention."
The pilot featured the feckless Peterson getting stuck upside-down in a roller coaster while playing hooky with his best friend (played by Sam Robards). Their easy sarcasm was hardly shocking, by design: The episode was intended to get executives on board before fully unleashing the weirdness.
"The pilot didn't really give a hint of the oddball, surreal nature of the show we wanted to do," Resnick said in a phone interview. "It was a little cute."
But the premise was in place, and Peterson's fed-up parents were cleverly cast. Bob Elliott, the droll co-star of the "Bob and Ray" radio show and Chris Elliott's real father, played Dad, and Elinor Donahue, from "Father Knows Best," was the cheerful Mom.
Today, the premise of "Get a Life" may not sound all that unusual, after years of man-children from Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, or the fanciful oblivion of "Arrested Development" and "The Sarah Silverman Show." But at the time "we heard the word 'pathetic' a lot," Resnick said, recalling the notes from executives.
Today Elliott stars in a cop-show spoof, "Eagleheart," on Adult Swim, and has a new book, "The Guy Under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography." Where would the irrepressible Chris Peterson be now, past age 50?
"I think Chris Peterson would be hanging out with Joe Biden a lot," Elliott wrote.