Audiences didn’t know what to make of a new & deeply unsettling Jim Carrey in Ben Stiller’s dark comedy.
It can’t be overstated how much the mid-90s belonged to Jim Carrey. Largely a stand-up comedian and supporting actor at first, Carrey shot to stardom thanks to In Living Color, and the grotesque characters he played on it, including the disfigured Fire Marshall Bill, and ponytailed lady bodybuilder Vera de Milo. His leap to leading roles in comedy features was swift and wildly successful, with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber all released the same year. There hadn’t been a comic actor much like Carrey before, someone who did childish things like pretend to talk out of his butt, but also had a wild look in his eyes that suggested a hint of danger with the body contorting nonsense.
Described by The Onion as a “rubber-faced fartsmith,” Carrey amped up the danger in 1996’s The Cable Guy, Ben Stiller’s pitch black comedy about pop culture obsession and toxic friendships. It seemed to be a scathing response to Stiller’s previous directorial effort, Reality Bites, in which the characters identified themselves solely by the media they consumed in their youth. In The Cable Guy, however, that kind of overreliance on nostalgia in lieu of a personality isn’t cute and relatable, but rather deeply disturbing.
Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) is moving into a new apartment after his girlfriend, Robin (Leslie Mann) not only turns down his marriage proposal, but kicks him out. At the suggestion of his friend Rick (Jack Black, in one of his first major film roles), Steven bribes cable installer Chip Douglas (Jim Carrey) to upgrade his new customer package free of charge. Chip takes this as an invitation to aggressively pursue Steven for friendship, insinuating himself into and interfering in every aspect of Steven’s life.
If the name “Chip Douglas” sounds vaguely familiar (he was one of the sons on My Three Sons), you’re the target audience for The Cable Guy, and perhaps the kind of person Stiller and screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr. are skewering. Chip, whose real name we never learn, seems to have been raised in a windowless room with only a television to keep him company. Possessing a breathtaking lack of social skills, he’s like a pathological version of that one person every member of Gen X knows who speaks mostly in old movie and TV quotes. That would be irritating enough on its own, but Chip also has no boundaries, no filter and no ability to tell when he’s not wanted. His neediness has metastasized into something dark and ugly, and it destroys the lives of anyone who dares to be even slightly friendly towards him. If this movie came out fifteen years later, he’d be the final boss of reply guys.
Just on paper Chip is an unsettling character, but it’s Carrey who really brings him to horrifying life. Combining a maniacal, meant-to-be-friendly grin with threatening body language, Chip seems to loom a full foot over meek milquetoast Steven, who can’t say no to him either because he doesn’t want to be rude, or is afraid of him, or both. His antics are funny only because they’re not happening to us, but even then they become gradually less so, particularly after Steven has a nightmare of a demon-eyed Chip breaking down his apartment door and chasing after him, shrieking like he’s arrived directly from Hell. You can’t help but laugh, because he’s still kind of a goofball, but your stomach clenches at the same time, because he’s a goofball who might possibly murder you.
Steven is in an impossible situation, one that reflects real-life stalker situations. Politely declining Chip’s friendly gestures results in him only trying harder. Going along with him also results in him only trying harder, with the added complication of never being able to show enough gratitude for Chip’s satisfaction. None of the “favors” Chip does for Steven, other than upgrading his cable, are anything Steven asks for, and yet Steven never stops paying for them. There’s no saying “no” or “yes” to Chip, just quiet acquiescence as he moves into your life and takes it over, because that’s how he thinks “friendship” works.
Just on paper Chip is an unsettling character, but it’s Carrey who really brings him to horrifying life.
Toning down the bleakness of The Cable Guy in trailers already set it up to be Carrey’s first stumble after a string of hits. Audiences who went to see it with hopes that he would continue with the Ace Ventura-style bumbling comedy were disappointed at how unexpectedly weird and dark The Cable Guy turned out to be, and though it did reasonably well at the box office, mixed reviews and baffled viewer word of mouth kept it from rising to the same level of popularity as The Mask and Dumb and Dumber. Nobody knew what to make of this new and creepy Carrey, and not many people liked it at the time.
Now, of course, it’s become a cult classic, beloved by audiences who appreciated its barbed and oddly prescient humor. In addition to making fun of Generation X’s near-compulsive need to substitute actual human conversation with trivia, a running gag in the film is the ongoing trial of Sam Sweet (Ben Stiller), accused of murdering his twin brother, which always seems to be playing on every television (and results in its own movie, starring Eric Roberts). It’s obviously a jab at the Menendez Brothers trial, but also predicts how we’ve turned true crime into another pop culture obsession, much like Chip’s obsession with old TV shows.
Chip himself seems to sense how the power of the internet, still not widely available at the time, is on the horizon, telling Steven, “The future is now! Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!” What he doesn’t seem to realize is that within 25 years cable television will be almost entirely replaced by streaming channels, but there’s a good chance Chip survives that, lying his way to the next opportunity, insinuating himself into another nice sap’s life, sucking it dry and trying to convince them that they’re “friends.”