The Ben Stiller Show wasn’t just ahead of its time, it was a total anomaly. Back in 1992, Fox made the bold if not dubious decision to air the incredibly dark and macabre sketch show on Sundays at 7:30 p.m. EST. In other words, while the sun was still dwindling across parts of America and families were getting ready to sit down for dinner, there was Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and Bob Odenkirk doing cynical parodies of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, or tongue-in-cheek takedowns of sitcoms with a foul-mouthed sock puppet named Skank, or, you know, chummy skits involving a Pavlovian Charles Manson.
Naturally, that latter bit comes to mind this morning, on a day when we’re no longer living in a world where Charles Manson exists. For over half a century, the spooky son of a bitch has haunted pop culture, from rummaging around California with his “family” to seething from behind the bars where he finally passed away. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves (and why not), the stupid asshole hasn’t been threatening in ages, and namely because of inspired parodies such as Odenkirk’s. In a sense, it was pop culture that finally did him in, the one area that he desperately wanted to break into, and that’s reassuring.
It’s also just downright funny. Sure, there have been countless Manson parodies and references over the years — from South Park‘s “Merry Christmas Charles Manson!” to Jay Duplass’ recent Manson Family Vacation — but none of them are as original and incisive as Odenkirk’s portrayal from The Ben Stiller Show. Of course, it makes it even better that the idea is so simple: Manson as Lassie. It’s a classic subversion — he simply took one of America’s purest television past times and matched it with one of its most horrific names — but the execution is flawless. The way he grovels and snaps at his owners is brilliant.
“Ribbit, ribbit, I was raised in a prison,” Odenkirk’s Manson tells young Timmy, shortly before the boy’s bitten by a snake in this “harrowing” episode. “I don’t know any other way. Prison’s my mother!” Like, well, pretty much every episode of Lassie, Manson is predictably called on by his owner to save the day, which he does reluctantly, and it’s all just as hammy and sentimental as the iconic CBS series. It helps that The Ben Stiller Show rarely spared any expense with their sketches, reconstructing all the sets and accoutrements with Fincher-like precision. This skit was no exception and it only embellishes the subversion.
Odenkirk would reprise the role a handful of times throughout the series’ single-season run, most notably through his “Ask Manson” confessionals that were also similarly hilarious, but nothing would ever top this. How could it, though? By distilling Manson’s whole mumbling, whack-a-doo schtick into what’s ostensibly a role for a well-trained Collie, Odenkirk crafted something both wholly amusing and incredibly biting. To keep with the doggy imagery, he essentially neutered Manson, taking his crazy and turning it on its head, revealing him for what he’s always been: a total and complete nutbar.
And we’re still slurping it up like a bowl of brain stew.