The 1990s were the golden age of comedy films, churning out one classic, genre-defining masterpiece after another. It was also the moment of Jim Carrey’s rise to comedy superstardom.
For a kid in the 1990s, Jim Carrey was a demigod. His films were hilarious, cartoonish, madcap, irreverent, ribald, raunchy—and all must-sees. Jim Carrey could do no wrong.
Then, in 1996—when yours portly was at the ripe old age of eleven—Jim Carrey made his first career misstep with The Cable Guy. It still had all the great Carrey-esque antics we’d come to love, but the film’s dark comedy threw audiences and critics alike a curveball, and they weren’t quite sure what to make of it. The flick was panned at the time, and the consensus is that it was a potential career-killer for Carrey. Even The Simpsons decried the film as the one that “nearly ruined Jim Carrey’s career”:
But as is often the case—like with wearing masks in elementary schools and forcing toddlers to take experimental gene therapy injections—the general consensus was deadly wrong. The Cable Guy (1996) was the best film of Jim Carrey’s 1990s output, and it’s my pick for my #4 best film.
The story follows the unsettling, largely one-way relationship between Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) and his overly-excited cable installer, Ernie “Chip” Douglas (Jim Carrey). Soon Chip becomes an unwelcome and intrusive presence in Steven’s life, causing him much embarrassment and reputational risk. As the film unfolds, Chip’s excessive generosity turns sinister, and he ultimately takes Steven’s girlfriend, Robin, hostage at the cable company’s massive satellite dish.
Even as a kid, I could tell there was something sinister about Jim Carrey’s character. As an adult, the profile of a stalker is much more recognizable, but the dark undertone of the film was already there, and I think that sense of unsettling weirdness is what confused audiences. They were expecting a wacky Jim Carrey caper, not a violent, deranged Jim Carrey character study.
The film is ultimately about friendship and obsession: the nameless “Cable Guy”—his names are taken from popular television show characters—inserts himself into Steven’s life, and Steven doesn’t have much recourse. How easy would it be for your cable installer—or your plumber, or your kids’ babysitter, or any number of the other service people we allow into our lives and our homes without a second thought—to start surveilling you? What happened if he popped up for your poker night, or family movie night? We all trust and hope that our service providers are disinterested professionals, engaged just enough to solve our problems, but not so engaged they become one.
So it is that Steven actually apologizes to Chip/The Cable Guy at the end of the film, saying he was a bad friend, taking from Chip when it was convenient, then recoiling at his often unhinged behavior. Is this apology sincere, or a way of comforting Chip as the cops close in (and thereby protecting his girlfriend a bit longer)? Chip lets himself fall backwards into the satellite dish, knocking out television all over town, but not quite killing himself.
The film also deals with issues of mass media and the all-too-frequent practice of using television as a free “babysitter.” Chip himself grew up in a single-parent home with a mostly-absent mother, and admits he was raised on television. That was a Generation X phenomenon, but it happened to my generation, too. My brothers and I used to entertain ourselves on long, lonely summer mornings while our parents were working by watching a few hours of Three’s Company (before wrestling in the living room and generally getting into the kind of mischief three bored boys will get into when left alone). One of my friends became quite obese spending his summers watching TV and eating pizza pockets while his parents worked. A former colleague of mine used to (and may still) thinks about his life in terms of episodes, seasons, and even series (much like another excellent Jim Carrey film, 1998’s The Truman Show). What happens to a generation-and-a-half raised on the boob tube?
All that heavy commentary aside, the film is also hilarious, and my brothers and I still quote memorable scenes to this day. I’ve included a cornucopia of great scenes for your amusement.
For example, who forget the memorable visit to Medieval Times?
… and the battle between Steven and Chip (inspired by an episode of Star Trek):
For an eleven-year old boy, the best scene was Chip’s massive dunk—with an assist from Jack Black:
When making breakfast, my brothers and I still call scrambled eggs “scrambie eggs,” and will usually meekly and mewlingly say, “but I made scrambie eggs!”:
To get a sense for Chip’s brutality—and his misguided sense of “helping” Steven—here’s the iconic bathroom scene, in which he beats Owen Wilson’s character senseless for moving in on Steven’s girl:
If you watched this back in the 1990s and wrote it off, give it another chance. Just accept the film for what it is—a dark comedy stalker parody with pick-up basketball and scrambie eggs.