In his long career as a giant smartass pretending to be a know-it-all idiot, Chris Elliott has pissed off many, many people, including directors Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Jonathan Demme. His autobio The Guy Under the Sheets relates those tales in detail, and is well worth the time, but I was bummed that the book contained only a passing (and utterly bullshitfull) mention of one of my favorites of the many stunts he pulled on Late Night with David Letterman in the ‘80s—the time he gigantically took the piss out of the justly venerated Swiss mime troupe Mummenschanz.
Mummenschanz have been around for over four decades—I drove six hours to catch a show on their 40th anniversary tour in 2012, totally worth it as it was founding member Bernie Schürch’s final tour. Their performances conceal the artists’ identities, as they revolve largely around heavy costumery and mask play, sometimes downright pugilistic mask play, actually. A old post by my DM colleague Amber Frost does them justice, and I’d encourage you to have a look at it. (And I had to chuckle when I saw a commenter on that post had mentioned and posted the video I embedded below. Who says you should never read the comments?) They came to attention in the US during the ‘70s with appearances on TV variety shows, including a career-making guest spot on The Muppet Show, and their popularity grew to the point that they could enjoy a Broadway run from 1977-1980.
But it was during a later Broadway run, at the Helen Hayes theater in 1986, that Chris Elliott had his fun with them.
Now, I’m sure there was no mean intent in this jab, but it’s pretty audacious to make such a complete buffoonery of such wonderful and broadly-appealing artists with a golden international reputation. On Sep 30, 1986, David Letterman, brandishing a copy of Mummenschanz’s then-new book, introduced the troupe. In no time flat, it was clear that something was amiss, as the spotlight illuminated only a cheap costume-shop hot dog suit. Then came a fork and a spoon, not even really dancing, just sort of jogging in place and waving their arms like idiot children. Then out came a final dancer—later revealed as Elliott—in a mask of toilet paper rolls, which was a direct shot, as Mummenschanz actually used toilet paper roll masks. The audience is silent save for a few titters as it dawned on them that they’d been had. Someone started shouting “MORE, MORE” at the end—obviously that guy got it—and if a 2008 Rolling Stone article is to be believed, that guy was Screw magazine’s Al Goldstien. If you’re salty with me for spoiling, don’t be, the GOOD stuff is in the interview segment. Enjoy.
34 episodes of Elliott’s amazing and preposterous Adult Swim series Eagleheart recently turned up for streaming on HuluPlus. If you’re a fan of Elliott’s and a Hulu subscriber, I’d vigorously encourage you to dive straight on into that ASAP.