The Unrelenting Cable Guy


By Andrew Sheldon

I was eight years old when I first heard Jim Carrey proclaim, «The future is now!» in Ben Stiller’s 1996 comedy The Cable Guy. Certainly, I didn’t quite get it: I watched cable everyday, but integrating my television, phone, and computer seemed like Science Fiction. Anyone with a basic understanding of smartphones can now attest to the validity of this misunderstood film’s predictions. Since the release of The Cable Guy, it would seem there has been an onslaught of films that take a magnifying glass to our increasingly technological world.

Closing out the NYFF, Her is one of the most anticipated films of the upcoming year, carrying the flag of «social relevance» as its central character falls in love with a computer program. «What is reality/humanity in the digital age?» is a question filmmakers have grasped onto since The Matrix exploded into theaters at the precipice of a new millennium. A lot of the focus seems to be on what new technology does to our relationships in a wired world, but few dig deep enough to examine what happens at the core of a person when the Mobius Strip of Psychology and Sociology turn everyday life into entertainment.

There’s a moment in The Cable Guy, during the denouement, where the title character submerges the protagonist in a shallow pool of water then recites, “Dry land is not a myth. I’ve seen it!” He suddenly breaks character before citing the quote as, “Kevin Costner, Water World,” and then exclaiming, “I don’t know what all the fuss was about. I saw the movie six times. It ruled!”

I can’t say I have much of an opinion on Water World, but when it comes to Ben Stiller’s darkly comic and surprisingly poignant 1996 satire, I too don’t know what all of the fuss is about.

I’ve seen the movie way more than six times, and it still induces belly laughs with every viewing.

Still, as I find myself discussing movies with fellow cinephiles, I feel a strong sense of self-consciousness when I list The Cable Guy as one of my favorite “all-time” films. This is not just because any armchair film critic can list me ten films from the last year more “artfully” directed than this particular movie or that its name has been tarnished with bad press since its release more than sixteen years ago.

My feelings of inadequacy stem solely from the look of disappointment in the eyes of my loved ones when they hear my enthusiastic endorsement for what has been branded a lost opportunity of promising comedy.

The easiest defense for this is to proceed with a quick shuffling of the title to the “guilty pleasures” list: “It’s just fun,” I could say.  “Simple entertainment made to pleasurably pass the time, not to stimulate the brain!” Unfortunately, that just won’t cut it with The Cable Guy. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the film is a sharp cultural commentary that has a lot to say.

I can hear you nay-sayers yelling at your screens, so let me start from the top…

It’s easy to miss the first details of a film. As a viewerm there’s no real orientation to prepare you for the world you’re about to inhabit. The result is a series of sensory stimulation that leaves your head almost immediately as soon as the narrative begins. This is one of the key benefits of repeat viewings. In The Cable Guy, the viewer is introduced to the film’s world as the Columbia Pictures logo is obscured by television static before the channel is changed.

There’s something interesting about the choices Stiller makes in when it comes to the protagonist’s channel surfing decisions: it’s all garbage, toeing the line of grotesque. Most startling is a game show contestant screaming shrilly after winning a major prize. Taken as a snippet, removed from any sort of emotional investment in the contestant, the audience is confronted with how primal and inhuman such excitement over material things truly is. More dominant in the cable collage is an erotic massage, care of The Jerry Springer Show. The kicker? The masseuse used to be a man.

Through a series of ellipses, little time is wasted introducing the titular character. This brings up one point so obvious it’s easy to miss its true importance: there is no other name for Carrey’s character. He is simply that. Throughout the movie, he offers various aliases (Larry Tate, Chip Douglas), all characters from the television shows of his childhood. Even after the conclusion of the story, when our protagonist, full of sympathy, asks for his name, Cable Guy offers only, “Ricky Ricardo.”

He is lost for good.

Not that there was ever much hope for him. This might be one of the issues broad audiences face with this movie: no one wants to see a film about hopelessness, especially with this level of reflexivity. From the very onset, we see Carrey’s Cable Guy in constant performance: he arrives four hours late to Steven Kovack’s (Matthew Broderick) apartment and is confronted by Steven’s frustration. The Cable Guy shouts, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t have come at all, jerk off!” causing Steven to recoil. A switch is flipped immediately with the Cable Guy’s laughter, during which he explains, “I’m just messin’ with ya. Let’s do this.”

The performance doesn’t stop there. Immediately inside the apartment, Cable Guy starts looking around, inspecting the place.

“The Old McNair place. Never thought they’d get the floors clean after what happened here,” he says as though suddenly inhabiting a horror movie.

“What happened?” Steven replies with a sincere concern.

“They had a lot of cats.”

Finally inside the living room, the Cable Guy assumes the role of best friend, assessing the apartment’s potential. This is the trapeze act that continues for the next ninety minutes as the Cable Guy swings from role to role, fitting the purposes he sees for himself, those that he has learned from a lifetime of television consumption.

Sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of Dramaturgy in his 1959 book in which he argued that human interactions are entirely based on time, place and the surrounding “audience.” To Goffman, the goal of this performance is acceptance from the audience. In this light, Cable Guy becomes exemplary of Goffman’s theories.

“I just wanted to be your friend,” he laments to Steven. “But I screwed it up.”

Stiller gives us a slight insight to the character’s motivation in the form of a flashback where we see Cable Guy’s absentee mother applying hairspray to the red mane on her head.

“When am I going to have a brother to play with. You said you’d get me a brother to play with,” whines the child as he sits in front of the TV. Already at this young age, all the Cable Guy wants is a friend.

“That’s why Mommy’s going to happy hour,” She responds as she walks out the door, leaving her child alone with the television, or, “Mr. Babysitter.” Regarding the television as “Mr. Babysitter” gives cable the presence of a character in the film, which is not off-base at all, considering the relationship everyone has with it, including Stiller’s audience.

As the main events of the story unfold, Stiller provides us with a second narrative involving the trial of Sam Sweet, the child television star accused of murdering his costar and twin brother Stan Sweet. Such a plot point concocts layers of post-modern absurdist humor wrapped in social satire: the twins who came of age on a hugely popular sitcom were, “chewed up and spit out” by Hollywood. Now, as a result of Stan Sweet’s murder, their real lives have become the entertainment.

In 2000, writer Neal Gabler explored this phenomenon in his book Life: The Movie. Gabler asserts an understanding of our modern “escapist” entertainment, stating, “we escape from life by escaping into the neat narrative formulas in which most entertainments are packaged. Still… at the end of the film one had to leave the theater and reenter the maelstrom of real life.”  But what happens when life becomes the entertainment? What is made of peoples’ actual troubles when it is melted down and processed into fodder for the enjoyment of a mass-media culture?

For Gabler this means, “by conflating the two…we need never leave the theater’s comfort. We can remain constantly distracted…we have finally learned how to escape from life into life.»  Again, in this context, the Cable Guy shows us something of our hidden selves: though he’s obviously a heightened, magnified example, we escape into our realities through vicarious entertainment the same way the Cable Guy assumes the roles in his life. When The Cable Guy was released, mass culture had yet to be exposed to Survivor, arguably the first major reality TV phenomenon. Stiller, however, got his start on MTV back in the early 90’s as The Real World and Road Rules were introducing vicarious living through a “real life” setting.

Carrey’s character represents the other side of the Venn diagram. The Cable Guy is what happens when we act on these infringements of entertainment in our real lives. Again, he is not alone. Every character is in fact complicit in the donning of learned personas. One of the biggest “phonies” of the film is Steven’s boss, Hal – a hopelessly inept, self-serving and fraudulent human being. Following an apparently impressive business presentation by Steven, Hal approaches him about a romantic “discord,” concerned it might interfere with his work. Hal plays the momentary role with an utter lack of conviction. The subsequent shot-reverse-shot pants back to Steven’s disgusted reaction, but the key detail is Hal’s face as he turns: the vague concern becomes equal disgust. He has no time for Steven’s real problems, just enough to fake concern for a few seconds.

One of the problems many viewers have with The Cable Guy is the unlikable qualities of Steven, the supposed protagonist; even he is smarmy and fraudulent. While discussing his relationship troubles, Cable Guy offers the following advice: “I don’t think you listen to her. I think you tell her what she wants to hear. She wants you to thirst for knowledge about who she is, all the complicated splendor that is woman.” Steven is shocked by the apparent insightful qualities of the advice until Cable Guy reveals, “It was Jerry Springer’s final thought on Friday’s show.”

Despite its insincerity, the words themselves are good enough for Steven. In the next scene, we find him face to face with Robin, the object of his desire, reciting Cable Guy’s (Springer’s) words verbatim. After dangling the hook in the water, using Sleepless in Seattle as bait (“It’s showing on cable.”), he plays the tough guy role with nonchalance when she agrees to come over and see his new apartment, responding coolly, “Whatever.”

Ultimately, that’s The Cable Guy’s only failing: it’s too unrelenting for everyone involved, from its protagonist to its audience. We’re all complicit. We all have so much to learn. And while the title character is utterly hopeless, “there are still a lot of cable boys and girls out that that still have a chance. Don’t you see?

“Someone’s gotta kill the babysitter.”

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