The Cable Guy was not a hit. When it opened in June 1996, Jim Carrey was red-hot, riding a remarkable run of box-office smashes. (In the span of two years, he was part of five sizable successes: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.) So there was plenty of anticipation for The Cable Guy, in which he played Chip, a lonely, strange cable guy who befriends lonely nice guy Steven (Matthew Broderick). But audiences mostly stayed away, and reviews weren’t too glowing either. In interviews later, Ben Stiller, who directed The Cable Guy, would self-deprecatingly brag that he was the filmmaker to break Carrey’s streak of $100-million-plus-grossing movies.
But times changes, perceived bombs end up being rechristened cult classics and everything old gets turned into a Super Bowl commercial. As such, on Sunday Carrey will be reprising his role as Chip for a Verizon spot.
This week, Adweek ran a piece about the forthcoming commercial, noting that “Verizon CCO and SVP Andrew McKechnie said the carrier is hoping the ad will provide a big launchpad for a marketing campaign around Verizon’s new home and business 5G internet services that will continue in the coming year. Verizon has expanded availability of its Ultra Wideband 5G home and business plans to hundreds of cities across the U.S. in the last couple months as it seeks to chip away at cable’s dominance of the broadband market.”
Scintillating stuff, to be sure. In addition, McKechnie told the publication, “[Carrey] was pretty psyched to do this and felt like this was the right time — you can’t get a better moment than the Super Bowl to do something like this. Hopefully, when the viewers see it, it will feel like a great story both from a cultural standpoint and, in terms of 25 years later, what The Cable Guy ultimately represents.”
These are the sorts of bland things business executives always say to get us lowly consumers primed for whatever they’re trying to sell us, but what I found especially amusing was McKechnie’s notion that this ad will speak to “what The Cable Guy ultimately represents.” If that were truly the case, Verizon wouldn’t get anybody hooked on 5G internet. All these years later, it seems like the company doesn’t remember what that nervy, uneven, fascinating comedy was about: the corrosive effect of media on individuals. It’s a movie about how TV is destroying us.
It was also a film in which Carrey very clearly wanted to mess with people’s expectations. Sure, he’d played the Riddler in Batman Forever, but The Cable Guy would, in some ways, give him an even darker character to portray. “I always thought that the [original] script Lou Holtz Jr. wrote was great, and it’s what got us all very interested,” Cable Guy producer Judd Apatow would say later. “But Jim wanted to change it significantly and make it much more of a comedic version of Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Unlawful Entry, whereas the original draft was a little bit more like a What About Bob? annoying-friend movie. It had a light punch to it, and we wanted to turn it into a thriller.”
Carrey’s Chip was far creepier than Ace Ventura, who was an oddball but generally harmless. Not so with Chip: With his menacingly blank eyes and noticeable lisp, he insinuates himself into the recently dumped Steven’s life, at first seeming relatively friendly but soon developing a stalker-like personality.
These two strangers meet in a very mid-1990s way: Steven has moved into a new place, and he’s been told that if you bribe your cable guy, he’ll get you hooked up with free premium movie channels. But Steven will learn that there’s no such thing as free cable, feeling guilted into hanging out with the disturbed Chip, who starts doing “nice” things for his new best friend, like paying a sex worker to sleep with him. It’s not just that Chip seems slightly dangerous — it’s that his entire being seems shaped by pop culture. He’s television incarnate, utterly divorced from reality.
Where previous Carrey creations were endearingly bizarre, Chip was sick and twisted. The kinds of thrillers that The Cable Guy was spoofing involved an unsuspecting protagonist crossing paths with someone who turns out to be fairly sinister — the babysitter (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), the roommate (Single White Female) — and wants to destroy their life. The moral of all these movies was that you shouldn’t trust strangers — they may come across as innocent, but they have deadly intentions. Carrey enthusiastically pushed that paranoia to darkly comic extremes: Chip would do anything to protect Steven, going to such disturbing lengths that it was as if his Dumb and Dumber character came to life and grew a mean streak.
“We just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious to make one of those movies with Jim as the guy who torments you?,’” Apatow told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “I think the movie is much stranger and darker than we realized at the moment we were making it. Only years later do we watch it and think, ‘Wow that movie is really funny, but totally crazy.’ I think that is [what] people liked about it — it doesn’t feel watered down. It doesn’t feel like it was made by a committee. We had a very short post [production] period and there wasn’t any time to change anything, but that is also why the movie was so great — there wasn’t time to second-guess.”
The scary-funny concept carried over into a prickly subplot involving Sam Sweet (Stiller), who’s on trial for supposedly murdering his twin brother Stan (also Stiller). The characters in The Cable Guy watch the televised trial, which seems a callback to both the Mendenez brothers and O.J. Simpson murders — and there’s even a cheapo made-for-TV movie about the Sweet case, starring Eric Roberts in both roles, called Brother Sweet Brother: The Killing of Stanton Sweet. More so than Natural Born Killers, which had come out a couple years earlier, The Cable Guy satirized how scandal-driven television had turned us into idiots craving the tawdriest, bloodiest spectacles.
Positioning pop culture as the villain — which has warped the addicted Chip, as well as the rest of us — Stiller wanted, as he described it later, to create a cautionary tale about “a person who has seen way too much TV, seen way too many movies and is playing out his life as if it were a film.” One of the film’s final jokes is that, during a cable outage, a peripheral character is reduced to an unimaginable fate: having to read a book. The Cable Guy’s societal critique was blunt, but it was also pretty effective — and it’s only become truer in subsequent years considering that the movie was made before there was internet, streaming services, binge-watching… or Verizon 5G.
Even though The Cable Guy baffled a lot of viewers at the time, with critics admiring its daring but finding its tone inconsistent, it foreshadowed the risks Carrey would take going forward. After that movie, The Truman Show or Man in the Moon weren’t so surprising. The Cable Guy signaled that this newly minted comedy superstar would very happily challenge his audience, becoming the first actor to get $20 million for a movie — and then making a comedy this abrasive and edgy.
“We were really riding the line with tone in that movie, and it would have benefited from having more time,” Stiller admitted in 1999. “I doubt whether that would have made it more successful because it was a very experimental film, but I would have felt that it was the movie it should have been.”
“Experimental” might be pushing it. But what’s not in dispute is that it’s weird for Verizon to use The Cable Guy as a way to hype its latest service. If that movie taught us anything, it’s that we probably should turn off our devices — and definitely not trust the guy who shows up at our door to hook up our service.