One of boyhood’s sublime thrills is telling a joke that cracks up your father. But since his old man is a professional comic—specifically, Bob of the legendary Bob and Ray duo—Chris Elliott had special reason to savor his first quip off the old block. The vacationing Elliott family was stuck in a hopeless traffic jam on Atlantic City’s Michigan Avenue when 7-year-old Chris suddenly proclaimed the clogged street “Michigan Impossible!”
Nowadays the younger Elliott’s audience has grown from a carload of relatives to the 3.1 million viewers of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman. Besides writing routines, Chris, 24, makes frequent, fleeting appearances portraying bizarre characters and demonstrating products that are useful for absolutely nothing except laughs. Says his father, 61, who often stays up to watch: “Chris is very devoted to this. I’m thrilled at what he has done.”
The comic resemblance between father and son is striking to those who have followed Bob and Ray’s 38-year comedy career featuring their trademark wacko talk show interviews. Chris inherited his dad’s droll delivery as well as his receding hairline and fatigued-looking eyes. Says Letterman: “Chris has some of his father’s deadpan, wry touches, which everybody seems to enjoy.” That’s not surprising, because Chris and Bob are close: They proudly hang each other’s watercolors in their apartments, go on father-son shopping trips and have dinner together at least once a week with Bob’s other partner, Chris’ mother, Lee. Comic duets are not part of the routine, though. Bob Elliott so completely shuns performing at home that, says his son, “until I was 11, I didn’t know what he did. I thought he was in some kind of business.”
After a childhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Chris got his first taste of topical comedy as a high school senior in an improvisational group called the Five and Dime Comedy Troupe. After that he decided to skip college. Like his father, who once worked as an NBC usher, Elliott got a job as a tour guide in the RCA building with the hope of making show business contacts. Before long Letterman, one of his idols, walked up to buy a ticket to the observation deck. Chris gave the star a kiddie-price ticket and then cracked jokes with other customers to impress him. “I told one tourist, ‘It’s $2.50, and it’s even more if you want to breathe the air up there.’ ” Two years later Letterman remembered the eager guide when he was hiring a staff for Late Night. Recalls producer Barry Sand: “A friend told me, ‘Don’t let the fact that his father is famous throw you. The kid is terrific’ ”
Hired as a gofer, Chris earned a promotion to auditioning dogs, cats and other animals for a Late Night segment called Stupid Pet Tricks. But Letterman also put him to work in bit parts. Elliott appeared on the very first Late Night show in February 1982 as a stein-hoisting Oktoberfest celebrator. That led to some 60 other appearances in such roles as the body laid out in a product called the whoopee casket and as the model of turtleneck trousers. But Elliott is most frequently recognized for his portrayal of weird members of the studio audience. A favorite is the Panicky Guy, who flees (“Let me out of here! I don’t want to die!”) at the slightest provocation from Letterman. The Panicky Guy recently died of a mysterious disease but came back as a ghost a few weeks later. In another episode he somehow got married in midflight to a bystander played by Chris’ girlfriend, Paula Niedert, 29, an assistant talent coordinator for the show.
Elliott joined the show’s staff of nine writers a year ago, now earns a weekly salary of $1,448 and spends much of his 12-hour workday in a cramped office with 22-year-old partner Matt Wickline. Says Wickline: “Around here he’s funny because he antagonizes—no, he frightens you a little by doing the unexpected.” Totally unexpected was his idea for a custom-made show, in which the audience selected a new theme song (they picked the tune from Gilligan’s Island) and Letterman’s attire (a T-shirt and jeans). For that inspiration Elliott and the eight other writers have just won an Emmy.
The youngest of five children, Chris claims that his brother, Bob Jr., and three sisters all crack wiser than he does. But none of them has entered show business. Their father, on the other hand, shows no sign of ever leaving it. He and Ray Goulding are still together, nearly four decades after their start in radio on Boston’s WHDH, and are scheduled to appear this fall in Boston and Washington, D.C. So far the elder Elliott has collaborated with his son only at parties. But Bob and Ray have appeared four times on Letterman’s show, which always makes Chris a little nervous. “It’s like having your father suddenly show up at school,” he says.