Comedy | Film

August 10, 2005

The Legend of Cabin Boy

The 1994 box-office bomb has gained a surprise cult following. Star Chris Elliott and director Adam Resnick reflect on their nautical misadventure.

Keith Huang

More than 10 years after cult-comedy flick Cabin Boy made its disastrous national debut, pockets of diehard-comedy fans have remained loyal to the box-office stink bomb and its creators, as evidenced by the turnout for a recent one-night-only screening. At a small movie theater in New York's East Village, more than 100 fans heartily applauded the opening credits, whooping wildly at Chris Elliott's first on-screen appearance, in which he sings blithely in a boys' choir.

video cover
When Cabin Boy was first released on video, the cover image included "Chris's head stuck on someone else's body," said director Adam Resnick. "It looks so goofy."
The film's premise is as simple as the protagonist: Spoiled "fancy lad" Nathaniel Mayweather (Elliott) mistakenly boards the seedy fishing boat The Filthy Whore instead of his father's yacht. During his ensuing Odyssey-like adventures, Mayweather befriends Chocki, a half-man/half-shark played by Russ Tamblyn; gets deflowered by a blue-skinned, six-armed siren named Calli (Ann Magnuson); and encounters a bevy of strange beings such as a walking iceberg and a flying cupcake that spits tobacco juice.

After the recent screening, hosted by satirical newspaper The Onion, Elliott and Cabin Boy director Adam Resnick participated in a Q&A session to discuss the film, their formative years as writers on Late Night With David Letterman (they won four Emmys), and their acclaimed television series Get a Life, which aired for nearly two seasons before it was cancelled in 1992.

"Just like Get a Life, Cabin Boy seems to have grown more of a cult following than we had any idea it would," Elliott told Gelf. He added, "But the weird thing was that we were so new to the business—at least to the movie business—that we didn't really have any kind of idea what a failure meant to our careers. ... So when the movie came out there wasn't this worry like 'What's going to happen to us?' "

Cabin Boy, which cost Disney about $10 million to produce, was a financial failure. In its opening weekend, the film grossed a paltry $1.5 million, ultimately earning just $3.66 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

"For years afterwards, Touchstone would send me these really thick envelopes that were just accounting on how much the movie lost and how much it continued to lose," Elliott told the audience, quickly quipping, "And then I would think, 'Are these bills?' "

The nearly 600 theaters that hosted the film for opening weekend must have quickly learned to cut bait. One fan at the screening described how he and a friend managed to miss the film's only screening in Scranton, Pa.

Even the weather boded ill: "Not that the movie would have made more money, but the weekend it came out on the east coast, starting on Friday night, there were ice storms—not snowstorms—that lasted the whole weekend, which made the movie's miniscule numbers more miniscule," Resnick told the audience.

The critics did their part to sink the film—many were almost sadistic in working the film's nautical theme into snarky headlines: "Elliott's Craftless 'Cabin Boy' Sinks Without a Trace" (Buffalo News), "Moronic 'Cabin Boy' Never Leaves Port" (Orlando Sentinel) or "'Cabin Boy' Gets Stranded on Comedic Shoals (Los Angeles Times). (See more review headlines here.)

"I couldn't read [the reviews]," Elliott said. "Once I knew that across-the-board they weren't favorable, I didn't go near them." But Resnick, who did read them, told the audience that "they weren't merely bad reviews—it was like we had committed a crime or something."

Elliott and Resnick aren't defensive. They readily admit that the film was bad, and they knew early on that Cabin Boy was going to tank at the box office.

"The best I can say is [Cabin Boy] is extremely uneven and spotty," Resnick told the audience. However, more than a decade after the film's disastrous debut, he expresses genuine befuddlement at how much the public continues to hate Cabin Boy. "There've been plenty of shitty movies made over the years, and a lot of them are allowed to die a peaceful death," Resnick said. "But here we have this $10 million movie—I knew it wasn't that good; it had maybe some quirky moments or had its own sort of weird personality—but, nonetheless, I didn't get why it made people so angry."

Elliott & Resnick
Keith Huang
Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick are the duo responsible for Cabin Boy and Get a Life. Here they can be seen answering a question about why their movie featured a flying cupcake that spits tobacco juice.
One explanation for the film's unexpected longevity involves David Letterman, the duo's mentor and a longtime supporter of their comedic works. Elliott and Resnick worked their way up from production assistants on Late Night to become staff writers. So when they approached Letterman to appear in Cabin Boy, he happily donned a tattered fisherman's outfit and cap to become "Old Salt in Fishing Village." (Right Turn Clyde). At one point in his semi-notorious scene, Letterman randomly shows a sock-puppet monkey to Elliott and asks him, "Hey, would you like to buy a monkey?"

For many years after his silver-screen debut, the self-deprecating Letterman cracked wise about his Cabin Boy cameo on the Late Show, sardonically working the film's title into Top Ten lists. (See examples here.)

Elliott and Resnick owe the bulk of their fan base to Get a Life, the goofysweet sitcom about 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson (portrayed by Elliott), who lives with his parents. "There's definitely still a lot of people who like Get a Life," Resnick told Gelf. "And there's definitely more Get a Life fans than Cabin Boy fans—Get a Life really works better than Cabin Boy worked."

Elliott and Resnick recently recorded commentary for the pending Get a Life DVD, which will feature music producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator, co-founders of Handsome Boy Modeling School, an eponymous "hip-hop project." Resnick says he plans to compose a real-life "Zoo Animals on Wheels" musical with the aid of Handsome Boy.

Even Cabin Boy owes its existence to Get a Life. The show caught the attention of director Tim Burton, who had earned big studio pull through his successful films Beetle Juice, Edward Scissorhands, and the first two Batmans. Burton met with Elliott and Resnick and asked them to write a screenplay. After numerous revisions and cutting, their idea, largely inspired by the 1937 production of Captain Courageous and Pee-wee's Big Adventure (also directed by Burton) would eventually become Cabin Boy. Despite backing out of the film very early in its production, Burton got a producer credit.

"Disney was sort of kissing [Burton's] ass at the time because they wanted him to make a deal there," Resnick explained. "So to show Tim a little good faith, they made all his weird shit for him." Elliott added, "The early scripts came out great. But then [Burton] didn't want to direct it." Resnick, who did direct it, quickly added, "And that's when the trouble started."

Headlines of Cabin Boy Reviews

Back in 1994, the critics didn't much care for the Elliott-Resnick production, but their newspapers did have fun writing headlines for the pans. A selection:

Moronic Cabin Boy Comes of Age

'Cabin Boy' Gets Stranded on Comedic Shoals
—Los Angeles Times

'Cabin Boy' Sinks on Screen
—Orange County Register

Elliott Loses Sea Legs in Witless 'Cabin Boy'
—Los Angeles Daily News

Sinking Silliness Drowns Wisecracking 'Cabin Boy'
—Boston Herald

'Cabin Boy' Humor Barely Stays Afloat
—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

An Adventure at Sea That Sinks Under Its Own Weight
—Cleveland Plain Dealer

A Few Laughs, but Irritating 'Cabin Boy' Should Be Fed to the Sharks
—Baltimore Sun

'Cabin Boy' a Shipwreck, and Elliott Is Steering
—Hartford Courant

'Cabin Boy': Ship of Fools
—Washington Post

'Cabin Boy' Is a Real Shipwreck of a Film
—Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Massachusetts)

A Sinking Parody // Chris Elliott's Full-Bodied Zaniness Isn't Enough to Keep 'Cabin Boy' Afloat
—Chicago Tribune

Quirky 'Cabin Boy' Quickly Sinks // Chris Elliot May Be Funny on TV But Not on the Big Screen
—Kansas City Star

'Cabin' a Leaky Ship of Fools // Myopic TV Vision Sinks Elliott Outing
—Chicago Sun-Times

A Television Skit That Goes Overboard
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

'Cabin Boy' Sinks in Moronic Pratfalls

'Cabin Boy' Is Not Seaworthy
—San Francisco Chronicle

'Cabin Boy' Drowns in Nonsense

Comedy Fails to Stay Afloat // Best Advice: Abandon Ship
—Harrisburg Patriot

'Cabin Boy' Overstays Its Welcome
—Rocky Mountain News

Elliott's Craftless 'Cabin Boy' Sinks Without a Trace
—Buffalo News

Moronic 'Cabin Boy' Never Leaves Port
—Orlando Sentinel

Seasick 'Cabin Boy'
—Boston Globe

Ugly 'Cabin Boy' Should Be Forced to Walk the Plank
—Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Bottom 10 Movie in Top 10 List

David Letterman rarely misses an opportunity to mention Cabin Boy in his nightly countdown:

•Top 10 Things Overheard at the Academy Awards (March 26, 1996)
No. 9: If this goes well, I hear they'll offer Whoopi Cabin Boy 2

•Top 10 Ways My Life Would Have Been Different If I Had Never Had a Show (February 7, 1997)
No. 6: My part in Cabin Boy would have gone to Howie Mandel

•Top 10 Surprises in Howard Stern's 'Private Parts' (March 7, 1997)
No. 3: The fact that I, David Letterman, got to be in another movie after Cabin Boy

•Top 10 Things Overheard at the Academy Awards (March 25, 1997)
No. 9: Nine Oscars for The English Patient—one more and they would have tied Cabin Boy

•Top 10 Cool Things About Winning an Academy Award (March 27, 1998)
No. 9: Might get offered the lead in the sequel to Cabin Boy

•Top 10 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Buying a Monkey (Oct. 1, 2001)
No. 1: Do I really want to buy a monkey from a guy who looks like this? [with video of Dave in Cabin Boy]

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- Film
- posted on Apr 19, 07

Yes, Cabin Boy is a movie that is easy for critics not to like. But come on, fish stick animals are funny!

- Film
- posted on Oct 17, 13 rewiew

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Article by Keith Huang

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