Why Audiences in 1996 Weren’t Ready for ‘The Cable Guy’

     December 17, 2019

The much-maligned 1996 black comedy The Cable Guy was viewed by critics as the first misfire in Jim Carrey’s career, after a series of mega hits including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, Dumb & Dumber, Batman Forever, and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Carrey was paid a then-record salary of $20 million to star as the eponymous Cable Guy, a deranged cable repairman who becomes obsessed with one of his customers, Steven M. Kovacs (Matthew Broderick), and begins systematically ruining his life.

The film performed below expectations, earning just $60 million in the U.S. and a little over $40 million worldwide against a budget of $47 million. Considering nearly half of that budget was entirely Carrey’s salary, I’m sure Columbia and Sony were expecting a much bigger hit. It wound up on several “worst of the year” lists, including Roger Ebert’s, who called The Cable Guy “an exercise in hatefulness” and essentially told Carrey to stay in his lane of “playing likeable nuts in funny comedies.”

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

And the movie does have an admittedly weird tone. Carrey’s character Chip (although we later discover that “Chip” is a pseudonym and we never actually learn his real name) is a real piece of shit. He engages in casual acts of violence, harassment, and extortion to force Steven to be his friend, ultimately kidnapping Steven’s girlfriend Robin (Leslie Mann) and dragging her to the top of a massive satellite dish while holding a staple gun to her head. But Carrey plays Chip with the energy of Jim Carrey in 1996, which comes off as a bizarrely sinister combination of Ace Ventura and Dumb & Dumber‘s Lloyd Christmas. His performance is inconsistent with his actions, which probably left audiences confused. 13-year-old me was definitely confused, especially when the film ends with Chip throwing himself off of the satellite tower and falling to what should have been his death. (I’ve read unconfirmed rumors that an earlier version of the film did in fact have Chip die at the end, but that the ending was changed after studio pressure.)

But Carrey does deliver moments of real pathos in between all the silliness, and he succeeds at being creepy and off-putting. While Ace Ventura and Lloyd Christmas are ultimately likeable, Chip is always unpleasant, and we are never on his side. It’s a better performance than his version of the Riddler, although there are moments in both Batman Forever and The Cable Guy wherein Carrey gives us a glimpse of the kind of genuinely chilling villain he could play if he ever decided to.

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Also, the movie is legitimately funny. Carrey’s oddball performance works thanks to the honest reactions it elicits from everyone around him. Broderick’s “too nice for his own good” portrayal of Steven results in some solid exchanges with Carrey, particularly as Steven begins losing his patience with Chip in the film’s second act. Steven’s friend Rick (Jack Black) never trusts Chip, immediately calling attention to his strange and antisocial behavior. And Ben Stiller absolutely kills it in a brief cameo as Sam Sweet, a Menendez Brothers surrogate currently on trial for murdering his twin brother. (Which leads to an even more delightful cameo by Eric Roberts.) Plus, there are a bunch of stand-out sequences, including a jousting match at Medieval Times, a basketball game in which Chip is just an unrepentant asshole, and a karaoke party at Steven’s apartment inexplicably crowded with senior citizens.

If Ebert’s review quotes are any indication, I suspect part of the reason The Cable Guy was judged so harshly is because audiences weren’t ready to see Jim Carrey in a movie like this. It’s dark and it’s weird and it requires Carrey to be repellent, and in 1996 everyone just wanted to see him play likeable oddballs. Evidently watching Jim Carrey play a creep was just a bridge too far for a world that was only too excited to watch him run around in a skin-tight green bodysock asking the Batman riddles a year before.

But beyond merely being a worthy film that was treated unfairly in its time, The Cable Guy was arguably the flashpoint for the next big generation of comedy. First of all, it was directed by Ben Stiller, who had made Reality Bites and The Ben Stiller Show at that point but was far from a household name. And it was the first movie produced by Judd Apatow, one of the heavyweights of modern comedy. (Apatow met his wife and frequent collaborator Leslie Mann during production, and hey, that’s neat!) Apatow was instrumental in the film careers of Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, Kristen Wiig, and several others.

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Plus, do yourself a favor and check out The Cable Guy’s cast list. Stiller put every single one of his friends from The Ben Stiller Show into the movie, including Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, and Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk’s later Mr. Show collaborator David Cross is also in there as a boardroom executive who doesn’t say a single word. In addition to being a major early role for Jack Black, the film also features Black’s Tenacious D parter Kyle Gass, who contributes the most quietly over-the-top performance I think I’ve ever seen. And frequent Stiller sidekick Owen Wilson has a brief but thoroughly incredible role as an utter douchebiscuit who takes Robin out on a date only to get the living shit kicked out of him by Chip. Every one of these performers would go on to reshape the landscape of comedy over the next 20 years, and here they all are, acting in The Cable Guy.

Trust me, if you haven’t seen The Cable Guy since the 90s, or have never seen it at all because you heard how terrible it was, give the movie a chance. It was a legitimately bold choice for Carrey to make at that point in his career, and it was a major starting point for several influential comedians and comedic actors. It’s a dark little oddity that’s occasionally surreal (particularly during its ending), but it’s legitimately funny, and, in my opinion, a pretty good film. As Chip himself says about the Kevin Costner film Waterworld in a moment of eerie prescience, “I don’t know what the big fuss is about. I saw that movie nine times. It rules!”

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