Chris Elliot is nobody’s idea of a leading man, but for an ever so brief moment in the ‘90s he was just that. Having cut his teeth as a writer and performer on Late Night with David Letterman, Elliot was able to secure the lead in his own sitcom at the emerging Fox Network with Get a Life. Though it was never a ratings smash, Get a Life amassed a cult following over its two season on the air and it wasn’t long before Elliot was fielding other offers. Elliot and his writing partner Adam Resnick penned Cabin Boy and the film opened in January 1994 to disastrous results. It was a commercial and critical flop, an infamous bomb that David Letterman himself often mocked on his show (mainly for his cameo and not the film itself). Like so many infamous flops of their era, Cabin Boy had a cult following slowly emerge over the years and finally it lands on Blu-ray with an extensive special edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. With the current state of physical media in flux, it’s amazing that Cabin Boy not only secured a Blu-ray release but one as comprehensive as this edition with new interviews and commentary that should tickle the fancy of any number of fancy lads out there.
Nathaniel Mayweather (Elliot) has just graduated from an illustrious prep school. He comes from immense wealth and it has spoiled him to the point that he treats anyone beneath him, who in his eyes is everyone, like dirt. Nathaniel is set to board the Queen Catherine for a luxurious cruise to Hawaii but is set off course by a drunken sailor who just “hate[s] those fancy lads.” So the snobbish Nathaniel boards the decrepit fishing vessel The Filthy Whore. Captain Greybar (Ritch Brinkley) refuses Nathaniel’s demands that he change course to Hawaii, and the fancy lad finds himself surrounded by a rugged crew of sailors – including Skunk (Brian-Doyle Murray), Big Teddy (Brion James), and Paps (James Gammon) along with their cabin boy Kenny (Andy Richter) – with no time for the childish demands of their entitled stowaway. When Kenny is killed in a storm, Nathaniel is recruited as the cabin boy of The Filthy Whore, meaning he’s left with an array of menial tasks that he sees beneath him. While mopping the deck one day, Nathaniel finds himself meeting Trina (Melora Walters), whom he inadvertently stops from breaking her world record for swimming across the ocean. In this aquatic adventure, Nathaniel must prove himself to his shipmates as well as to the uninterested Trina.
Watching Cabin Boy in 2018, it’s not hard to see why the film wasn’t a hit. It’s an aggressively bizarre movie, a mash-up of conflicting sensibilities that would only work for a niche audience. The screenplay by Resnick and Elliot finds a lot of humor in the crude, entitled behavior of its protagonist which can obviously be off-putting for many viewers. He’s not a likeable character. He’s arrogant and ignorant. He’s incapable of thinking of others. He has all the dopey qualities of Chris Peterson, Elliot’s character from Get a Life, but none of his endearing, underdog qualities (though, to be clear, Chris Peterson is psychotic). But the film works and works brilliantly for those on its wavelength because it injects this entitled brat into a story that is akin to the fantastical stories brought to the screen by Ray Harryhausen. There’s nothing in Cabin Boy that resembles reality in any form, which is why so many people could reject it outright upon its initial release. But a movie that’s bold enough to consist of so many non-sequiturs and feature the great Russ Tamblyn as a half-man half-shark character named Chocki can’t be anything less than an underground classic.
But how does a movie with such a warped sensibility come to the screen with a budget near 20 million dollars and a first-time director? The answer is Tim Burton. In the special features on the new disc, Elliot and Resnick are quite candid in saying that they never would’ve written Cabin Boy as a feature for Elliot to star and Resnick to direct. They wrote it after meetings with Tim Burton who expressed an interest in the project. At the time, Tim Burton was as hot of a director in Hollywood as anyone with the success of Batman and Batman Returns, and The Nightmare Before Christmas was in the midst of production as Cabin Boy was in development. Burton soon left the director’s chair of Cabin Boy to take on Ed Wood. Elliot and Resnick assumed that Cabin Boy was dead in the water, but Burton kept the project alive by staying on as a producer with his producing partner Denise Di Novi. It was Tim Burton who convinced Adam Resnick to take on directing duties even though, as he’s quite quick to admit, he had no experience as a director. Resnick is very honest in how his lack of experience hindered him on the set, and how he was ill-equipped to direct a film featuring special effects sequences.
In the extended interview with Elliot and Resnick or the audio commentary with the two moderated by writer Mike Sacks, there’s a sense of pride and sorrow. They’re obviously proud to have made such a weird, unique movie that has built up a strong cult following over the years. The sorrow is rooted in the fact that the film was such a failure at the box office that it had a seriously detrimental effect on each of their careers. Resnick never directed again though he’d continue to work as a writer and Elliot’s short-lived days as a leading man ended. One particularly heartbreaking story that the two recount is coming out of a pitch meeting that went well. The team behind Get a Life had just sold another television show. The executives at the meeting loved it and picked it up on the spot. There was just one executive who wasn’t there – the one who had heard of Cabin Boy. With a couple of short calls, the show that the two thought would rehabilitate their careers was dead. It’s the bittersweet honesty to the new special features on this edition of Cabin Boy that makes it something special, because all too often these retrospective features look back at the film, its production and reception with rose-colored glasses.
The new edition of Cabin Boy from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is truly something special, and evidence for how physical media companies can continue to survive in the streaming era. Take a movie with a dedicated audience and deliver the movie in crisp HD with new special features and you have a must-own for anyone devoted to that film. I’m just incredibly overjoyed that these resources went to something so gloriously bizarre, a cult comedy oddity that is so singular that nobody would dare consider replicating it. I don’t think there’s an era where Cabin Boy would’ve wound up a smash hit, but there was an era where a studio would take a risk on it. Cabin Boy is, to repurpose an old Hunter S. Thompson quote, too weird to live, too rare to die.
An aggressively bizarre comedy from the warped minds behind the cult classic sitcom Get a Life, Cabin Boy arrives on Blu-ray in an extensive special edition that looks at the film’s complicated legacy from infamous flop to cult classic.