Chris Elliott’s Action Family Preceded Kevin Can F–k Himself‘s Genre Mashup by 35 Years

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Chris Elliott’s Action Family Preceded Kevin Can F–k Himself‘s Genre Mashup by 35 Years

With its unusual, genre-hopping structure and pointed critique of misogynistic pop culture, Kevin Can F—k Himself has been one of 2021’s most fascinating TV shows. Starring Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy as a mistreated, gaslit, and emotionally abused housewife who decides to kill her oaf of a husband, Kevin Can F—k Himself uses the structure and tone of a traditional, multi-camera sitcom to underscore the toxic marriage she’s felt trapped in for the last decade. When husband Kevin is around, everything looks and feels like The King of Queens or According to Jim, complete with overly bright lighting, a constant laugh track, and a cartoonish husband who seems oblivious to his wife’s needs and desires and who disrespects her at every turn. When Murphy’s character Allison is out of Kevin’s orbit, the show immediately drops the sitcom façade and adopts the visual language of a prestige TV show or morose indie drama. The constant braying of the unseen audience makes Kevin’s toxic behavior even more grotesque, whereas the format change reflects Allison’s isolation, depression, and anger. It’s an ingenious device and the show’s defining feature.

It also immediately made me think of a brilliant one-off comedy special from 1986 that relies on the same genre-bending gimmick. Chris Elliott’s Action Family premiered on Cinemax that year, and although it doesn’t have Kevin Can F—K Himself’s crucial social commentary, great acting, or well-written characters, it is absolutely hilarious. It also felt truly innovative and groundbreaking at the time, at the height of the traditional sitcom’s TV reign, before The Simpsons, Seinfeld or Garry Shandling deconstructed the form.

When Chris Elliott’s character is at home, Action Family is a stereotypical sitcom, complete with laugh track. He has a loving, understanding wife, three cute kids (one played by a young Seth Green), and the kind of low stakes problems you’d see in a show like Growing Pains or Who’s the Boss. When Elliott goes to work, though—or when anybody leaves the house for any reason—the show immediately turns into a gritty detective drama, with Elliott investigating a series of murders. Action Family captures the aesthetic of both genres perfectly, switching from video to film when it jumps from sitcom to drama, and with the light-hearted music of the sitcom scenes turning into something that sounds like Mike Post could’ve written. Elliott and his team understood that they had to nail the details to really make this concept work.

Action Family doesn’t just alternate between the two worlds on a scene-by-scene basis. It will cut between them in the middle of a scene if a character leaves the house. When a bad guy goes flying out of a window after getting shot in the chest, we see him land on the lawn like a stuntman in a serious fight scene. When Elliott’s wife calls his secretary, Action Family does the old split-screen trick, with one on either side of the screen; a laugh track cackles maniacally on the audio’s left side whenever the wife speaks, and the secretary can only hear the laughter through the phone. Pretty much the only part of the show that doesn’t change from moment to moment to fit the current genre is Elliott himself; he plays the same kind of ignorant, inconsiderate fool that was pretty much already his stock in trade at the time, a precursor to his Get a Life character, only one who happens to be a detective with a family and who seamlessly lives in two different TV genres.

As I wrote above, Action Family doesn’t have anywhere near the depth or narrative ambition of Kevin Can F—k Himself. It’s purely a formal exercise, the kind of postmodern twist on TV stereotypes that Elliott employed on Late Night with David Letterman in the ‘80s and, later, in his timeless sitcom Get a Life. All it wants to do is make you laugh while breaking the rules of TV. And although it doesn’t quite reach the highs of Get a Life, and some of its (intentionally terrible) jokes would be rightfully considered insensitive today, Action Family is still a funny half-hour from one of the most singular and important comic minds of the last 40 years—and one that viral hit Too Many Cooks admittedly owes a huge debt to. If you’re at all enamored with how Kevin Can F—k Himself switches between genres, you might enjoy Action Family. Unfortunately it’s not officially streaming anywhere, and its only home release was on VHS over 30 years ago. (It’s collected together with another amazing Elliott special, 1987’s FDR: A One-Man Show.) You can find a low-quality copy on YouTube, though.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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