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MTV's Ben Stiller Tests a New Brand of Humor: Scion Fiction

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The scene: a family therapy session, in which everyone in the family happens to be an actor. “Your father always paid more attention to work than to me,” complains the mother. “Excuse me, Mom, that’s great,” says the son, intent on upstaging her, “but could we go straight to one of my problems and come back to that?” The family rants and squabbles, with escalating histrionics, until the son unleashes the ultimate you-loved-your-career-more-than-me put-down: “Remember that time in Las Vegas when you left me locked up in a room with Siegfried and Roy?”

Welcome to the not-quite-real, not-quite-fictional world of The Ben Stiller Show, a new half-hour weekly comedy offering on MTV. Stiller, 24—the son of veteran comedians Jerry Stiller, 60, and Anne Meara, 58—plays an egomaniacal TV-show host who divides his time between drop-kicking writers’ egos and locking horns with his all-star family.

Both themes are reality-based. For the former, Stiller, a New Yorker, drew on his experiences during a six-week stint last year as a writer-performer on Saturday Night Live. “You worked, like, 48 hours on stuff, and nobody even said, ‘Good piece,’ ” Stiller says. “It thickened my skin a lot.” For the family material, he had only to look homeward. Growing up with Stiller & Meara “wasn’t, like, coat hangers in the closet or anything,” he says, but both he and his sister, Amy, now 26 and an actress, often felt lonely when their parents were on the road. “It’s weird to be little and see your parents on TV,” Ben says. “I remember my sister going up to the TV and trying to talk to them.” On the other hand, Ben’s situation brought him experiences foreign to many children. “I remember Tony Randall at the Chateau Marmont pool in L.A.,” he says, “pointing out a woman sunbathing topless.” Concedes Meara, who, like her husband, will occasionally appear on Ben’s show: “We tried to give our kids a normal upbringing, but we didn’t always succeed.”

They can take solace from the fact that they have raised, apparently, a refreshingly candid son. While many celeb kids would rather swear off Spago forever than admit that their parents helped their careers, Ben, who struggled as an actor for two years in New York City, says he used a family connection to help win a role in a 1986 revival of The House of Blue Leaves. “I had never done that,” he says. “But I was very frustrated.” His performance earned good reviews, and he soon landed small roles in Empire of the Sun, Fresh Horses and other movies.

Along with that one assist, his parents contributed, early on, to Ben’s motivation. “I grew up with people saying hello to my parents on the street every day,” he says. “Deep down, I’ve always wanted people to say hello to me too.”