Jerry Stiller died yesterday, and for many, this is a surreal event because like so many things in American culture, permanence is assumed, irrationally, in situations, like death, where the outcome is always ineveitably sad.
What made Jerry Stiller so singular at what he did is that the sublimation of being a specific type of comedian channeled outwards in his characterization of characters like Frank Costanza; the kind of character that lends itself to comiseration over a broad swatch of cultures— everyone knows a Frank Costanza, a Maury Ballstein, a Harvey Bushkin.
However, just like the fact that these characters were iconic because they could only have been brought to life by the mind of Jerry Stiller, the characters of Ben Stiller could only have come from his:
I say this with a deep respect for the work— only someone raised by the mind capable of becoming Frank Costanza could produce characters like Tony Perkis, Derek Zoolander, Tony Wonder, and his more recent work, which takes this embodiment of sublimated rage into absolute brilliance, commercially successful, but intellectually underrated, in the form of characters like Josh from Noah Baumbach’s 2014 movie While We’re Young.
I point to this latest one because, I think, it explains a lot about Ben Stiller, from the vantage point of the audience; to be Ben Stiller is to always be overshadowed, but achieving more and more, to be a vehicle for others to eventually surpass, but he languishes. Sure, he’s done fine, but at what point do we acknowledge that he may be the closest thing to the astral projection of Andy Kaufman’s dark side?
If you have not seen the film, skip the next paragraph (or don’t, if you don’t care about spoilers)
In the film, he’s a documentarian, who has created a documentary on the Power Elite, and has long been agonizing over his follow up for over a decade; the problem, partly, is that he feels he will never surpass the influence of, or be perceived apart from, his mentor, who is also his father-in-law. He ends up being grifted by a young documentarian who does not share his ethics, and ultimately, his father-in-law sides with the young man in his deceit in service of the film’s narrative— Ben Stiller as Josh has a very iconic moment in the film that I feel sums up his entire ethos
He comes to the table with all the evidence he needs to prove himself as an honest, ethical documentarian, only to realize nobody cares.
But this is only part of Stiller’s history with this sort of character, and I like to look no further than his appearance in Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here; a brilliant mockumentary about Phoenix’s mental decline while pursuing a new art-form, the issue is that Stiller was the tortured genius Phoenix thought he was, and the backstory for his appearance in the film, and how he reacts to it in public, I think, corroborates this:
In the film, Stiller asks Joaquin over to discuss a role, and while doing the bit, Stiller becomes frustrated, starts ranting about “wearing a stupid hat” and being mumbly, it’s jarring as cinema, and apparently became so intense during the filming that they had to have Phoenix break character to let Ben in on the bit. That’d have been the end of it, normally; Ben, however, in appearances impersonating Joaquin, just simmer with this residual, iconic bitterness about the run-in, as if he knows how this will be received, and he, again, is a vehicle.
Even his own directorial debut, Reality Bites, Stiller casts himself in the role of someone with a case for being a fundamentally normal person, only to be set-up to fail ethically, and set apart from the rest of his generation, thriving without any real reason why they were any more pure; something telegraphed early on by depicting him as having a stable job, only for him to prove opportunistic— a metaphor for the missed opportunity of his career to do the same.
In Plato’s Republic, it’s suggested that the son of the Philosopher King becomes a tyrant. Jerry Stiller was the master of the kind of character acting that he did, comedically, and Ben is the rare inversion of that philosophical theory— arguably an amplification of what made Jerry so powerful, but with a motivation that sets him apart from his peers in a way that, I believe, will mean that we gain an appreciation for this talent later than we might have.
Sometimes, I revisit The Ben Stiller Show, and think about how a market saturated with sketch comedy shows at the time, with very few standouts, with a cast this universally beloved then as they are now, why is it that this singular energy manifests in a comedic style of the terminally frustrated, actively exhausted mannerisms of Ben Stiller?
Rarely do I hear Ben Stiller mentioned among these peers, Bob Odenkirk, even Andy Dick seems to be remembered for his abilities, while Ben must seemingly prove himself each time he is on camera— is this a self-fulfilling prophecy for him?
I believe he’ll be remembered fondly— I like the idea of some kid 15 years from now finding a Heavyweights VHS tape at Goodwill and hearing the phrase “Mother Earth, Father Sky, and dear, old Uncle Tony” and realizing we were being looked down upon by an underappreciated talent.
Can we free Ben Stiller from the supermax prison of his own mind and neuroses? I believe he has it within himself.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
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