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Former Letterman Star's 'Unauthorized Autobiography'

This article is more than 10 years old.
Chris Elliott's latest book is "The Guy Under The Sheets." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Chris Elliott's latest book is "The Guy Under The Sheets." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Comedian Chris Elliott first sprung to fame playing characters including "The Guy Under The Seats" on "Late Night with David Letterman." He's also appeared in such films as "There's Something About Mary" and "Groundhog Day," created and starred in "Cabin Boy," and the cult favorite TV show "Get a Life."

But in his new "(Practically) True!" memoir, "The Guy Under The Sheets" Chris goes deep into his roots and reveals his secrets.

It turns out that he's not the son of radio icon Bob Elliott, but rather the love child of Bette Davis and Sam Elliott, and that he spent time on a desert island with Marlon Brando.

And as for his comic talent, Chris Elliott tells Here & Now's Robin Young: "I'm somewhat of a Chauncy Gardiner character, um, in real life I'm kind of like a Forrest Gump, um, pretty much a moron."

But seriously! Robin asked Elliot if he had to put a fantastical spin on his memoirs.

He told her, though it is possible for him to write a factual account of his life: "I would never ever think to do that... I have been approached to write a real autobiography and uh, it' s not me being too humble here, I just don't think what I've done warrants a book."

Book Excerpt: 'The Guy under the Sheets: The Unauthorized Autobiography'

By: Chris Elliott

It was November 10, 1982, and Studio 6A was the place to be. That night as usual it was packed to capacity, the audience bubbling with the kind of antsy anticipation usually reserved for NBC megastars like Willard Scott. A comic revolution was in the air, and back then the fans who got it, and the curious who wanted to get it, as well as those who thought they got it but were afraid of being caught not getting it, all flocked to Rockefeller Center to experience a live taping of the new hit show Late Night with David Letterman. (Or at least the ones who couldn’t get tickets to Saturday Night Live, or the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, or the Roller Derby, or pretty much anything else.)

Fidgeting nervously in their seats, the crowd desperately searched the stage for a glimpse of the man they had come to see—the man whose midwestern charm, irreverent style, and cool Girbaud snap-ankle pants were causing more than just a little stir in the stodgy middle-of-the-road clam chowder called “network television.” David Braumstein Letterman was a mere fifty-nine years old at the time, but already a megastar. Late Night had premiered only a few months before but was already one of NBC’s top raters, bettered only by the controversial prime-time talk show The Truman Capote Kiss My Sweet White Ass Hour—in which, predictably, the drunken host would invite his weary guests to do just that.

On this night, Dave waited backstage, savoring the moment. He had come a long way from the plywood shed in Indianapolis, where he’d spent his days “noodling” catfish and feeling up soft-serve operators behind the old Piggly Wiggly. Primping before a full-length mirror, he straightened his tie, scuffed up his wrestling shoes, and replaced his bridge with the same gap-toothed character teeth that had made the kids shriek when he appeared at 4H events as the dimwitted Horseface Willie, back in his summer-job days.

“Everybody had some sort of gimmick back then,” Letterman told Dental World magazine in 1990. “Minnie Pearl had her ‘How-dee’ thing, Skelton crossed his eyes, and my pal Brokaw always delivered the news with a bunch of marbles in his mouth, so I figured I needed a gimmick, too. And by golly, but those smelly kids on the farms sure loved my funny fake teeth. Why, they would just howl at the mere sight of them. Land o’ Goshen, how they would howl!”

Elliott kisses his latest book, "The Guy Under The Sheets." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Elliott kisses his latest book, "The Guy Under The Sheets." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By now the audience was stamping its feet. Bill Wendell, a tall man with an equally tall hairpiece (which played host to a frightful assemblage of chiggers, ticks, and cracker crumbs), stood at the ready in front of his trusty NBC microphone. He narrowed his eyes on the restless audience and stuck his fingers in his ears to block out the cacophony. A veteran of television and radio, Wendell thought he had seen it all, but tonight he was forced to admit that something different was in the air. Late Night had struck a nerve with the disillusioned youth of America—who were especially disillusioned at the time, mainly because there wasn’t anything much to be disillusioned about (except for their realization that sitcoms weren’t real?).

Dave had cast himself as the master of ceremonies for a wacky circus of eccentric guests, cutting-edge comedy, and stupid pet tricks, but he especially enjoyed showcasing the occasional ham-headed staff member in comedy bits that were uncomfortable and humiliating. Dave and his audience took perverse pleasure in watching these novice entertainers squirm and stumble their way through inept performances. Yet, ironically, some of these neophytes were beginning to garner followings of their own. Tonight, in fact, Dave would surrender the spotlight to one especially ham-headed young staff member — a certain bald, bearded ne’er-do-well from the tough neighborhoods of the posh Upper East Side, whose special brand of ineptness was about to launch him into a career more uncomfortable and humiliating than anything in his wildest dreams.

Stage manager Biff Henderson strolled into the studio looking slightly skittish. He was shaking off another Pleiku " ashback—this one involving a bamboo cage, Russian roulette, and the capuchin monkeys he claimed held him captive for ten years in Nam. He raised his hand and began to count down, “Five, four, three, two, one.” Paul Shaffer hit the first chords of the opening theme and the crowd went crazy. You could barely hear Wendell announce: “It’s Late Night with David Letterman! Tonight, Dave’s guests include Brother Theodore, comedian Gary Mule Deer, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, money guru Matthew Lesko, the curator of the Tissue Paper Museum, plus stupid pet tricks, elevator races, and... a new running character starring our own Chris Elliott!”

At that moment something unusual, perhaps even magical, happened. In response to hearing Elliott’s name, the audience exploded with yelps and screams, and one woman fainted straightaway. Then the crowd went positively berserk. The bleachers shook and the catwalk above rattled so violently that one of the obese grips lost his balance and fell forty feet to his death—killing another obese grip who was standing below him. (Their names have been lost to history, but who cares? They were obese.)

And although it turned out later that this was all just because some nutcase had let his pet squirrel loose in the audience, at the time it seemed that the words “Chris Elliott” had suddenly acquired star power. Backstage, the writers and producers who were gathered around the monitor pricked up their ears and exchanged baffled looks. In terms of hierarchy, twenty-one-year-old Elliott was a low man on the totem pole, to say the least (and also not the swiftest mop in the mudroom). Up in the offices, he was just a guy Friday, spending most of his time running numbers, hitting on chicks, and pissing in the coffeemaker. He’d been on the show several times before — once as a talking pile of garbage — and he even had a few underdog-loving fans of his own, including this one priest who kept calling NBC to offer his services as an exorcist, but at this point, honestly, Dave’s desk was getting more fan mail.

Letterman, slightly baffled, made his entrance and shot off a couple of winners about canned hams and after-dinner mints, and then sat down and proceeded with the show. Everything went as planned. The audience responded warmly, if a tad moderately, to the grab bag of off-the-wall guests and stunt comedy... until it came time for Elliott’s appearance. Reading from one of his ubiquitous blue cards, Dave said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the first episode of a new running character starring our own—”

Suddenly it happened again. The audience went absolutely insane, and a woman in the back screamed, “I think it ran up my leg!”

“Seriously?” Dave muttered to himself. “For that chucklehead? The hell with this. Let’s just bring him out. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Guy Under the Seats!”

Below the bleachers, only Elliott was oblivious to the mayhem above. He was in the midst of attempting another “knee-knocker” — his nickname for stand-up sex, which he regularly indulged in before any appearance on the show, even if no one was handy to do it with him. He was superstitious that way, and the show was so popular that there was usually some faceless groupie or nameless industry girl or especially attractive mop head hanging around backstage who was more than happy to oblige him in the hopes of getting an official Late Night collapsible cup or a facial blotter, or just a chance to meet Dave’s desk.

“Please welcome the Guy Under the Seats,” Dave repeated, now visibly competing with the crowd’s deafening squeals.

Biff Henderson ran under the bleachers. “That’s your cue!” he shouted. “Don’t you hear the audience? They’re going crazy for you! Now get out there! That’s your cue, damn it!” He yanked Elliott off the groupie—whom he immediately recognized. “Oh, excuse me,” he said.

“Vot in hell is a ‘facial blotter’?” asked Dr. Ruth Westheimer, steadying herself on wobbly legs. (She may have been a bit confused, but she would have been totally satisfied had Biff not interrupted.)

Elliott snapped at Biff, “How dare you! You know this is my private time!” Then he threw a hard right at the stage manager’s jaw, which would have sent the man " ying, had Chris possessed anything resembling strength or coordination. (As it was, Biff just thought Elliott was having some kind of arm spasm.) Chris turned back to Westheimer. “Sorry, baby,” he purred, and stuffed a facial blotter in her blazer pocket. “We’ll have to continue our interesting discussion about those pesky fallopian tubes some other time. Right now, I have to go dazzle the folks with some of my other talents.” Then he gallantly kissed her hand, gave her his best Jack Lord wink, and disappeared up a ladder, while Dr. Ruth stormed off shouting, “Vo ist mine lawyer?”

Up above, a hatch blew open and a blast of confetti shot up to the rafters. When it cleared, Elliott was standing there in all his glory. “Hello, all,” he said in a sultry, come-hither-and-tell-me-all-your-deepest-darkest-desires voice, which was almost lost in the noise of the hyped-up throng.

In 1991, Elliott’s first biographer (who committed suicide halfway through the process) recounted the moment as follows:

It was sheer pandemonium. Elliott just stood there motionless soaking it all in—his initial look of erotic defiance replaced with a dopey, wide-eyed mystification that seemed to say, “What did I do this time?” Shirtless, exuding raw, unadulterated middle-aged masculinity (although he was only twenty-one at the time and not particularly masculine), the light danced on his fake beard, and the mangy wisps of blond hair on top of his egg-shaped head fluttered in the breeze like insect antennae. His sinewy muscles—virtually nonexistent—hung from his arms like melting white chocolate, and his round pectorals bounced about like big bags of pudding. He was covered in clammy perspiration, which made him appear even sexier—to himself... Oh, what the hell is the point in going on with this shit? I thought writing a biography would be a nice change of pace, but I can’t take this moron anymore. I’m going to put myself to sleep now
for a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.
—Jerzy Kosinski, 1991

A viewing of one of the few surviving grainy Kinescopes of the show confirms Kosinski’s observations. In it one sees ghostly images of a frenzied mob, clambering wildly on top of one another, crisscrossing in front of the cameras, and in some cases even being bodily restrained and beaten by NBC security guards.

What followed was classic Letterman–Elliott repartee, although you can barely hear it over the pops and clicks on the old telerecording:

DAVE: Hi, Chris, we haven’t seen you for a while. Where have you been?
CHRIS: I’ve been living under the seats, Dave. It’s my new running character.
DAVE: Oh, great, and what exactly happens with the character?
CHRIS: What?
DAVE: I say, what exactly happens with this character?
CHRIS: Oh, well, I climb out from under the seats and I say, “Hi, Dave,” and then I climb back down until the next time.
DAVE: That’s it?
CHRIS: Essentially.
DAVE: Okay, well, thanks.
CHRIS: What?
DAVE: I said, thanks.
CHRIS: Okay.

As Whitney Balliett so aptly wrote in The New Yorker: “When the two were in sync it was like sweet jazz.” He was talking about Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, but the same could be said of Elliott and Letterman, theoretically. At their best they were like Nichols and May, or Burns and Allen, and at their worst they were still moderately better than the Hudson Brothers (remember them, folks?).

Then Chris went back below the seats, the squirrel made another break for it, and the crowd went wild again. Authentic or not, the reaction was contagious. Those nowhere near the epicenter just assumed
they weren’t getting the joke and cheered even louder to cover for it. Within moments Chris had a pack of newly minted diehard fans, all chanting, “El-liott! El-liott!”

“I just don’t get it,” said Biff to Wendell. “Is there something in the water?”

“Maybe it’s the beard,” Wendell replied, picking a grub out of his hairpiece. “Do you think I should grow one?”

“I guess he was funny in some way I’m too old to get,” Biff postulated.

“Nah, what’s funny is that it’s not funny. It’s the new thing. Like you know with that guy... what’s-his-name, from Taxi.”

“Whatever the reason, they love him now,” Letterman said, returning backstage and spitting his buck teeth into a glass of soda water. “Which means, from now on I’m going to have to find some other stooge to clean my bidet, tee-hee-hee.”

Dave could not have been more right. (At least about the audience loving Chris, but Chris would actually retain all bidet-related responsibilities until 1985, when Dave finally shelled out for one of the new Japanese self-cleaning models.) “The Guy Under the Seats” was in fact destined to become one of the most beloved running characters performed by a relative unknown on a TV show watched mostly by socially isolated insomniacs in our nation’s history. Elliott had touched a nerve with his audience and showed them something they could relate to, a working-class schlub with no talent and no chin, struggling against the man for his own little piece of the limelight.

As Frank Rich would later write in The New York Times (during one of those Augusts when nothing else was happening): “Elliott has finally broken through. No longer will he be viewed as a mere idiot, but as a blue-collar idiot, the kind of idiot that America loves — and fears... He’s leading his own one-man insurgency against the avant-garde, nailing a message to the door of those so-called ‘conceptual comedians,’ a message that says, ‘I don’t need your stupid concepts. I don’t even need to bathe regularly....’ Clearly that snob Andy Kaufman could learn a thing or two from him.”

Exactly what Andy Kaufman—then the reigning king of “not-funny funny” — thought of all this has long been a subject of debate. He rarely deigned to speak of Elliott in interviews, though he once offered to wrestle him, but only if it could be to the death. “In fact,” as he told Big Bulging Eyes magazine, “I may just hire someone to have that sellout killed.... You can’t tell if I’m joking, can you? That’s how clever I am!”

He wasn’t alone in his animosity. For every person who adored Elliott, there were at least two more who would have liked to see him floating belly-up in the fishbowl of fame. Partly this was the inevitable result of having finally made it into the spotlight, but mostly it was just him. Although all his characters were weirdly human, or weird humans, and thus relatable to most everybody, especially shutins, there was something of himself in all of them, something of his most true and hidden nature—and that was the problem. No one was sure exactly what that nature was, because very little he did actually made any sense. Was “The Panicky Guy” an expression of the dislocation felt by modern man in a world without any clear social or moral landmarks, or had Chris just been popping too many pep pills that morning? Was “The Fugitive Guy” a polished pearl of a postmodern pièce de résistance, or had he just been up all night watching Quinn Martin reruns desperately looking for something to steal? (To say nothing of his beloved “Marlon,” which many have speculated was just the result of an allergic reaction to bananas.) In short, was he a Chauncey Gardiner (or a Forrest Gump, for our younger readers), an innocent simpleton stumbling through the corrupt and decadent world of televised entertainment, reflecting its contradictions while remaining mysteriously untouched... or was he just a spoiled kid desperate to capture the tiniest piece of our collective attention by any — and I do mean any — means necessary?

In order to attempt to answer these questions, we must go through his life chronologically and in excruciating detail, at least for long enough to fill about two hundred pages, most of which will have to be padded with a lot of childhood anecdotes and pop-psych speculation. (I’ve hired an expert.) But first we should probably just finish the teaser.

After the show that night, Chris stumbled through a gauntlet of writers, producers, and dangerously obsessed fans, now all suddenly eager to congratulate or stalk him: “Right on, brother,” said Biff. “Fabulous,” cooed Paul Shaffer, knuckling him on the chin. Dave threw an arm around his shoulder and said, “I got to hand it to you, kid, you’ve got chutzpah. You give me great nachas.” Even Dr. Ruth—who had been playing it so coy earlier—seemed to suddenly warm up to him. “Perhaps I von’t be pressing charges, after all,” she said, kissing him on the cheek, then adding under her breath, “Was für ein Mann. I swear, if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to make him mine.”

Needless to say, Chris was baffled, mainly because he was baffled by just about everything, even the inner workings of a paper cup, but also because he had no idea what he’d done to make people like him—and, more importantly, no idea how to do it again. If he’d been smart (he wasn’t, but if he had been), he would have been terrified of blowing it, of being revealed as a phony, a fake, a charlatan, a fraud—of living the rest of his life plagued by the knowledge that he was pretending to be something he was not. But, knowing him, he was probably just thinking about his extensive collection of Gobots.

He retreated from the throng, blowing kisses, bowing, winking, mouthing, “I love you all,” until he made it to the relative safety of the mop closet that doubled as his dressing room. He closed the door behind him, kicked aside the wheelie bucket, and made room for himself on the mud sink in front of his makeshift makeup mirror. “What the hell just happened?” he said to himself, then added, “Maybe I should get a chin implant.”

Suddenly there was a knock at his door. “Special delivery,” said a voice. Chris opened the door to reveal a courier who handed him a bouquet of lilies and a large box with a glitzy star-shaped bow. “A congratulations gift!” he cried. “How nice! This must be what it’s like to be famous now. Maybe there’s a pretty girl inside.” He untied the beautiful tulle ribbon and opened the box. Inside, wrapped unceremoniously in some old newspaper, he found a boiled lobster with a card attached to it. He froze. His eyes glazed over, and he began to shake uncontrollably. He didn’t have to read the card. He knew all too well the terrifying implications of the dead-shellfishgram and from whom the message had been sent. Nevertheless, slowly... sheepishly... and wishing he had the strength to stop himself, he opened the card and read:

Congratulations, faker!

Your loving mother,
Bette Davis

Excerpted from the book THE GUY UNDER THE SHEETS by Chris Elliott. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Elliott. Reprinted with permission of Blue Rider Press.


  • Chris Elliott, author of 'The Guy Under The Sheets."

This segment aired on October 23, 2012.


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