Retreading the information superhighway: “The Cable Guy” at 25

Ben Stiller’s densely divisive cult film is a satirical commentary on Gen-X media culture, but it has now become a memorable cultural moment in itself. ️

Ben Stiller’s densely divisive cult film is a satirical commentary on Gen-X media culture, but it has now become a memorable cultural moment in itself. ️

At what point did Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy (1996) stop being a guilty pleasure and start becoming something more culturally and aesthetically significant? This commercial enigma split critical and audience opinion in the ’90s, then receded into the subconscious of the ’00s. As Judd Apatow’s star rose as director during the early ’10s, his connections as the film’s producer and script editor retroactively gave The Cable Guy a little extra prestige. A quarter-century since its theatrical premiere this week, there’s even more to this dark satire than meets the boob-tube-glued eye that’s currently streaming on HBO Max.

The film’s portrayal of self-referential media delusion recalls Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), but The Cable Guy is also a multi-faceted parody. Stiller and screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr. construct it around a cavalcade of movie- and television-inspired set pieces that increasingly heighten the stakes in the labored, subtextually queer bromance between repressed Everyman Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) and overly clingy and cunning titular character, or “Chip Douglas” as he calls himself (played with rubber-faced glee by Jim Carrey). The film both predates and transcends all the now-dead stitched-up spoof properties of its era, like Scary Movie (2000), that waded in the kiddie pool of cultural send-up.

Studied readings of the film reveal a general over-reliance on ascertaining a situation’s truth purely through screen media manipulation. Stiller throws himself into the most extensive running gag involving twin brothers Sam and Stan Sweet, as he takes a shot at the impatience of TV news and public fixation during the trial of the Menéndez Brothers, which is complete with a bit of fabricated racist blame. In the conspiratorial sludge of 2021, the film’s account seems redundantly tame, but it’s nonetheless a surprising masterclass of peripheral storytelling.

Stiller further augments this satire by dipping into the illusory aspects of the broadcast universe, including a Tony Robbins infomercial, Nora Ephron’s heralded Sleepless In Seattle (1993)—an in-film ploy to win back the confidence of Steven’s ex Robin Harris (Leslie Mann)—and a staticky montage of daytime talk shows and sitcom reruns rolling over the opening apartment scene. These preliminary inserts of scenes and characters foreshadow the central dynamic between Steven and Chip, which is sketched out less like an identifiable friendship and more like a bit of casual blackmail. But it’s a kind of hyperbolically performative blackmail. Chip “just wants to hang out. No big deal!”

Even compared to Carrey’s usual hyperactive schtick and oft-imitated, lanky silliness, his commitment to this role is almost analogous to Heath Ledger as the Joker—Carrey-as-Chip is truly a force of nature. Chip uninhibitedly, and somehow reverently, channels various characters and personalities he’s seen on television since he was a boy. Chip’s amalgamation of identities becomes inescapable, just like the film’s media landscape. Carrey also brings to the role an overarching tragic desperation that feels cuttingly real and divorced from the antics and ploys that Chip thinks will facilitate a memorable bonding experience with Steven.

Chip Douglas first presents himself as a nosy, touchy-feely cable guy (from the hilariously anonymous “The Cable Co.”), borrowing his mask from My Three Sons characters. On his first date with Steven, he adopts the mannerisms of a proto-TED Talk presenter or talk show guru when he introduces Steven to his Internet futures at the central satellite dish. But there is a hidden closet full of costumes. Chip appears in an outmoded 1970s gym uniform at an indoor basketball game with Steven and friends, then hosts a karaoke jam as a hippie dude in garish country-western attire before turning into a mentor, a frat roommate, a bathroom attendant who’s stepped out of a DB Cooper sketch, a mock lawyer from Midnight Express (1978), a Fred Rogers-dressed pseudo-brother, an Evelyn-esque stalker à la Play Misty For Me (1972) who transforms into a green-eyed Mod Squad-themed nightmare, a poor man’s GoldenEye (1995) villain, and the sympathetic anti-villain. Is there a core person here, or simply a series of extroverted disguises that mask introverted trauma?

Carrey sells his character’s unique TV- and movie-fueled delusion with intriguing psychological detail throughout the film (including strange hints at a Stonecutters-like cabal of “preferred customers” who are bonded by illegal cable hookups rather than blood). Chip attempts to conclude conversations as one would turn off the idiot box, miming the pressing of the power button on a remote with a click. This extends into the film’s more action-oriented scenes with some shrewd screenwriting from Holtz and ingenious audio editing that integrate Chip’s flair for vocalizing musical cues that layer with nondiegetic orchestration.

Chip’s idea of a fun hang is attempting to recreate a memorable or significant moment from screen days past, just disconnected from all formal safety perimeters of an actual production set. The most madcap example from The Cable Guy is the Medieval Times battle-axe and jousting duel between Chip and Steven, which incorporates Gerald Fried’s music from the original ’60s Star Trek series. However, Chip also reprises the fantastical idea in the final act’s central satellite dish chase and confrontation that loosely pays homage to The Fugitive (1993), as he ascends the scaffolding while touting that the trouble with real life is “there’s no danger music.” Here, he’s essentially verbally conducting the film’s score by John Ottman to put himself back into a comfortably familiar mental space when he sat hypnotized by the glow of the tube even when he’s physically throwing himself into mortal peril.

While it may have been completely clouded by the film’s more overt and aforementioned commentaries, a queer reading has always been lurking, at least of the triangular dynamic between the men that includes odd man out Rick Legatos (Jack Black), Steven’s friend from a local TV station, who initially pressures him into pursuing an illegal cable hookup from the Cable Guy in the first place. In the film’s surrealistic set piece construction, seeing Chip as a manifestation of Steven’s subconscious desire for male companionship isn’t a stretch. (“Free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Chip declares, psychologically connecting one definition of hookup to another.)

In addition to the pervasive media presence, Stiller litters the film with comically sexual innuendos, both verbal and physical. After their near-fatal melee at Medieval Times, Steven cradles Chip and thrusts forcefully to realign his back. The film’s sharp edit from the restaurant arena’s swarming, celebratory thrills only magnifies this kind of joking, yet subtly serious, eroticism that Chip effuses in his clinging to Steven as a prized confidant. Rick’s peculiar jealousy over Chip’s sudden presence in Steven’s life also extends beyond an innate suspicion of his character. The brief but standoffish encounter between Rick and Chip at the karaoke jam has the dynamic of an ex-partner interrogating a new flame, as Rick insists on investigating his “story.” Later, when Rick’s Soundgarden concert plans with Steven are broken, his reaction is less incredulous than it is genuinely pouty, which suggests his interactions with Steven have naturally developed into something amorous.

In the film’s final act and climactic chase sequence, the Cable Guy pleas for genuine commiseration in rebelling against the media overload that made him. But in the very same minute, he confesses into a police helicopter’s floodlight as if it were a divine mother finally embracing him, and the film devolves into the sort of screen-obsessed turmoil that has infected his on-screen behavior throughout. The Cable Guy “understands his purpose,” choosing to jump to his death and “kill the babysitter,” smashing the satellite dish, and severing the TV signal’s hold on collective consciousness. Has his desire for a Hollywood ending merely come to fruition in his own head? Or has his life actually become a Hollywood story where there’s a way out of certain death and he can become a sort of ludicrous, momentary hero? As Chip is airlifted away, critically injured but very much alive and awaiting another potential buddy, a brass-driven fanfare swells triumphantly in all its razor-edged irony. Steven is reunited with Robin. “Let’s go home,” she says before a dramatically framed kiss that seems as scripted as any of the Cable Guy’s antics.

Audiences who left theaters a quarter-century ago (perhaps at Westgate Art Cinemas) were likely perplexed after going down film’s pitch-black and tortuous avenues with Carrey, the poster-face for ’90s mainstream comedy. What Stiller directed, though, was antithetical to breezy entertainment. The Cable Guy has become a memorable and culturally significant moment in itself, like those lodged in the Cable Guy’s memory bank—just more darkly shaded. The Cable Guy addressed everything from the influence of movies and television themselves, to personality disorder, loneliness, and media addiction that has only been exacerbated by social media. With all the notable references, cameos, and star-studded bit parts aiding its case (including Janeane Garofalo, Owen Wilson, and the late George Segal), it’s no wonder it remains one of the most strikingly strange and predictive works pre- and post-millennium.

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