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Cracking Up aired from March until April 2004 on Fox.
Ben ( Jason Schwartzman) was a college psychology student who took a part-time job as a live-in male nanny for a wealthy but certifiably nutty family in Beverly Hills. One of his professors had suggested he move in with them to counsel their ostensibly introverted 9 year old , but Tanner wasn't the problem. The family consisted of Ted ( Christopher McDonald), a manic borderline-sociopath executive for a big pharmaceutical company; Leslie ( Molly Shannon), his bipoler, alcoholic wife; and their 3 children ; Chloe ( Caitlin Wachs), a popular high school cheerleader and closed exhibitionist; Preston ( Jake Sandvig), an obsessive-compulsive jock with homosexual tendencies and Tanner(Brett Loehr), supposedly the troubled child but in reality the most rational of the bunch. Dorsa ( Lilian Hurst), the Shackleton's ' Cuban maid was an illegal alien who had been trying to leave them for years but couldn't because Ted and Leslie threatened to tell the INS and have her deported.
Ben moved into the guesthouse on the Shackleton property and was given full access to the pool and other facilities, which delighted his buddy Liam ( David Walton), a party animal with minimal interest in his studdies. Ben and , to a lesser extent Liam, tried to help the Shackleton's , both kids and parents, deal with their emotional problems. They had minimal success.
A Review from USA TODAY
'Cracking Up': Crazy like a Fox exec's worst brainstorm
By Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
How much insanity can one sitcom stand?
Not as much, I fear, as has been forced into Fox's Cracking Up. Cleverly conceived by School of Rock's Mike White, this sitcom has been fixed and fiddled with by the network until it no longer works, which happens more often than you'd like to think.
Think of it as proof, as if more were needed, that TV can drive you crazy.
At the center of the show and the problem is cult film star Jason Schwartzman as Ben, a psychology graduate student who serves as a live-in therapist for a rich, wacky family. Schwartzman was substituted for the show's original star in an attempt to make the role more broadly comic, which turns out to be a fatal combination of bad idea and wrong actor.
What you're left with is a show that has no center and a star who seems to have no idea what he's doing and so compensates by overdoing. Though some of Schwartzman's film work has been well-regarded, almost every choice he makes as an actor here is wrong, from his line readings to his reactions.
It might help, for a start, if a director would tell him to stop pointing to his head every time he says someone is crazy. Really, we get it.
His flaws are amplified because Schwartzman is trying to keep up with two actors who do have a natural gift for soaring comically over the top: Molly Shannon and Chris McDonald.
A Review from The New York Times
TELEVISION; He's That Guy From 'Rushmore.' And More.
By ALEXANDRA JACOBS
Published: March 7, 2004
AMOEBA MUSIC on Sunset Boulevard had sold out of the latest Sebadoh album, so though it was one of this city's rare dark and stormy nights, and though his black Toyota Prius was parked just up the hill, Jason Schwartzman did the unthinkable: he walked through the rain to the Borders bookstore a few blocks east.
''Hey, are you that guy from 'Rushmore'?'' a security guard asked as he entered.
''No, man,'' Mr. Schwartzman lied, half waggishly, half modestly, before relenting and shaking hands. His slightly simian 5-foot-5 frame was tucked into a furry-hooded blue parka, an orange sweatshirt, jeans and New Balance sneakers.
A winsome, curious young man with no qualms about playing the fool, Mr. Schwartzman was perfectly cast as the slightly nerdy, somewhat off-center student Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's 1998 film, and despite fairly steady work since, he's had trouble finding another part that suits him as well. Tonight, he will make his television debut as the star of ''Cracking Up,'' a midseason replacement sitcom on Fox.
The show was created, written and executive-produced by Mike White, best known for coltish material about slightly nerdy, somewhat off-center young people (the series ''Freaks and Geeks,'' the films ''Chuck and Buck'' and ''School of Rock''). This time, however, Mr. Schwartzman plays a bulwark of emotional stability: Ben, a graduate student in psychology assigned to counsel a wealthy, dysfunctional Beverly Hills family into whose guest house he moves. The peerless ''Saturday Night Live'' alumna Molly Shannon portrays the family's matriarch, Lesley, a onetime aspiring singer who married a pharmaceutical executive and bore him three children. ''There's still a fire that never got to burn inside of her,'' Mr. Schwartzman said, thumping his chest.
He described the comedy as broad and wordy all at once. ''You can watch it with the sound on or off,'' he said. ''It's quick banter, very physical -- a lot of 'uh oh.' People getting locked in the wrong room at the wrong time, falling down stairs, bumping into walls.''
Playing a shrink felt like clumsy business intellectually as well. ''I'm not as versed in the literature as I need to be,'' confessed Mr. Schwartzman, whose current reading material is ''Songwriters on Songwriting.'' ''I haven't read all the books that my character has read.''
Has he ever been to see a psychotherapist?
''Uh, they've seen me,'' he said. His reedy voice became quiet. ''No, just kidding. I've never dabbled in psychotherapy.''
That's surprising if true, since Mr. Schwartzman is an odd little sprig off one of Hollywood's hardiest oaks, the Coppola family, and a little precocious dysfunction would therefore seem to be his birthright. His mother is the actress Talia Shire, Francis Ford Coppola's sister; his father, Jack Schwartzman, was a producer. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. ''I'd rather not talk about that,'' said Mr. Schwartzman, who turned 14 that year. ''It was not a long story, but it's not a short one. It is part of my life. And I try to incorporate life and death at all times. Sorry if that sounds cheesy.''
He claims he had a relatively normal upbringing, fortified by morning cartoons ('' 'Smurfs,' 'Jetsons,' 'Transformers,' '' he boomed), library visits and Little League games. But he was buffered by the uncommonly close-knit, cosmopolitan Coppola family. One cousin is the actor Nicolas Cage. ''I looked up to him as a kid; he was a big influence on me,'' Mr. Schwartzman said. ''But ooph, I love them all. It really is a clan. We were all encouraged to pursue what made us happy, and it just so happens that this is what makes me happy. It's a circus family, you know what I mean? The flying trapeze.''
Another cousin is the director Sofia Coppola, who in a phone interview fondly remembered young Jason dressing in pint-size tuxedos for informal family dinners. Ms. Coppola recalled one of the regular ''creativity camps'' that her father, Francis Ford Coppola -- apparently a one-man Montessori school -- held to enrich their brood. She cast Jason as 16-year-old Otis Ormonde in a play based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story ''Bernice Bobs Her Hair.'' ''He totally stole the show,'' she said. ''Hysterically funny. That was the only time I directed Jason. But I want to, more. I'm planning on it.''
It was a casual remark from Ms. Coppola to a friend of hers, a casting director, that led to Mr. Schwartzman's successful audition for ''Rushmore.'' ''Brrr -- that was scary,'' he said. He'd never had formal acting lessons. ''I kind of just keep my eyes open, and my ears open, and my body open. I watch a lot of movies. I listen to a lot of music. I just try to let things pass through and what stays, stays.''
After the film's release, he became, at 17, the sudden darling of the bespectacled indie set. ''I was a minor,'' he said. Now 23, he jokes, ''I'm a major, major, major!''
Well, not quite that major. Despite Mr. Schwartzman's formidable family connections, his career has taken a while to bloom. After the early hit, he returned to high school in Mar Vista, Calif., and worked furiously recording and touring with the semi-successful rock band Phantom Planet, for which he was the drummer. He skipped college -- ''U. of Life, baby!'' he said. ''U. of L.!''
A string of cinematic clinkers followed, including ''CQ'' (directed by Sofia Coppola's brother, Roman); and the sibilant but mediocre troika ''Slackers,'' ''Simone'' and ''Spun.'' Mr. Schwartzman maintains he learned valuable lessons from each of these projects. ''Wonderful and amazing things happened to me during the making of them,'' he said. ''Obviously, when not as many people see your movie as you hoped, it's sad -- but at the same time, that doesn't strip the meaning from you. No matter what, I still have these tiny little treasures inside of me that no one can take away.'' It's hard to keep a remark like that from sounding like precious show-biz cant, but he somehow pulled it off.
Ms. Coppola said that in spite of her young cousin's penchant for arch one-liners (''I don't have a pet -- I have pet peeves,'' he joked about his current living situation, alone in a Westwood one-bedroom) he is one of the most ''enthusiastic'' and ''sincere'' people she knows. ''The way he tells me about a band or something -- he's just so into it,'' she said.
As he sat in Borders' deserted outdoor ''cafe area,'' he talked a good deal about bands. About Phantom Planet, which he quit last May, and about his musical influences -- Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Alex Chilton, Neil Young, Smokey Robinson, Leiber and Stoller. He also talked, somewhat more tentatively, about the inchoate songs he's been writing since going solo. ''I'm still in the collage phase,'' he said. ''I haven't named them. I just number them. They're all really rough right now.''
Crouching suddenly in his chair, as if about to pounce, Mr. Schwartzman was once again effusive about his next film project, playing opposite Claire Danes and Steve Martin in ''Shopgirl,'' based on Mr. Martin's novella of the same name. He'll play Jeremy, a slacker who spends his days stenciling amplifiers -- a fictional occupation that ruffled his sense of rock 'n' roll authenticity. ''I was like: 'Steve Martin, what? There's no amp stenciler!' '' he said. ''I don't know if he heard me.''
Mr. Schwartzman seems pretty adept at getting himself heard, and he intends to keep making noise -- one way or another. Later that rainy evening, he would head off to the recording studio: besides acting in ''Cracking Up,'' he also composed its theme song. ''I told them I could do different versions -- like, a quiet acoustic version, and one with piano,'' he said. ''I'm just giving them different options.'' He hummed a snatch of it, and giggled. ''I love to make music, and I love to act,'' he said. ''I like getting my little hands on something.''
Correction: March 7, 2004, Sunday An article on Page 22 of Arts & Leisure today about the actor Jason Schwartzman misstates the day of his television debut as the star of the Fox sitcom ''Cracking Up.'' It is Tuesday, not today.
A Review from The Tuffs Daily
New show won't make you crack up
Poor writing and unoriginal characters make
Tom McMillan (Contributing Writer)
It isn't enough these days for a sitcom to have a few sensible characters trapped in a house of maniacs and let the comedy run its course. FOX's new show, "Cracking Up," is proof that even the most outrageous slapstick can't survive if it isn't backed up with strong characters and writing.
The premise of "Cracking Up" is that psychology graduate student Ben Baxter (Jason Schwartzman) is assigned to live with the Shackletons, a rich Beverly Hills family, in order to treat their "troubled" youngest son, Tanner (Brett Loehr). By the time Ben soon discovers that in fact, it is nine-year-old Tanner who is the only sane person in the house, he is already too tangled in the hysteria to free himself from the Shackleton family.
The form of this show is a tried and true: a rational straight man trapped in an irrational world. Ideally, the nutty characters play off the straight man for comic effect by confiding in, asking favors of, and revealing their schemes to him. This form falls apart in "Cracking Up," however, for lack of a compelling and effective straight man
Jason Schwartzman is a terrific actor, but he's ill-suited for this role. He is too much the determined and bizarre personality he played in "Rushmore" to have any success as the straight-man. No doubt he's a genius in his own right, but "Cracking Up" is a bad fit. A straight-man needs to be utterly plain and unremarkable, which is not something Schwartzman can (or should try to) pull off.
Sadly, the only other possible straight-man, Tanner, is nine and can't act his way out of a wet paper bag, though he can probably still fit in one. If the success of "Cracking Up" rests on his shoulders, the show is up a creek without a paddle.
Liam, Ben's best friend, is the next closest thing. As an almost straight-man who hits on everybody for comic effect instead of dead-panning, he brings the essential one-liner aspect to the show, essentially spiking the punch. Liam even tries to enlist female clients for Ben, yelling to them, "Hey ladies, are you in trouble? ... Do you want to be?"
The head of this family of lunatics of the family are presented as follows: Ted (Chris McDonald), the father, is an unfaithful husband and sociopath. Lesley (Molly Shannon), his wife, is a bipolar alcoholic in need of attention. Preston, the oldest son, shaves his body as an obsessive compulsion and exhibits "homosexual tendencies." Chloe, the daughter, broadcasts her cheerleading routines over the Internet from a webcam in her bedroom.
Chloe and Preston are funny enough to stir up the action and keep the story moving, but Ted and Lesley are the comedic ringleaders of this motley crew. McDonald revives his trademark glossy-eyed red face for Ted. This shouldn't still be funny, but it is. If you don't remember, think villain in "Happy Gilmore."
McDonald's character Ted is even a little better than usual in "Cracking Up." Among the Shackletons, Ted is deserving of some sympathy, which gives him a little moral wiggle-room with the audience. Though Ted is having an affair with his secretary, he says to Ben, "I'm tired of people accusing me of things they're not sure I did!" Fair enough, Ted.
Lesley holds her own as the loveable and erratic housewife, but without the support of other actors who know how to set up Shannon, she's not as funny as she could be. As Lesley employs Ben to help her break open the liquor cabinet with a crow bar, there is that familiar sensation of Mary Catherine Gallagher about to lose control and flip backwards into the set. Somebody should review "SNL" tapes with Schwartzman and show him how to play it because in scenes with Shannon, he looks like he's doing improv at the repertory theatre.
"Cracking Up" may be worth watching, but don't expect much from Schwartzman. "Cracking Up" isn't "Rushmore" and in the former, Schwartzman exists more for overall appeal than anything else. It's that "close, but no cigar" feeling. If anything, watch for Shannon and McDonald, who prove that they can still get a laugh even when the odds are against them.
An Article from Entertainment Weekly
Thoroughly Modern Molly
Lovable ''SNL'' alum Molly Shannon on her new show. The comic relief actor graduates from armpit sniffing to boozing in the hopes of ''Cracking Up'' TV viewers again
By Jessica Shaw
Molly Shannon is explaining death. On the set of Cracking Up, Fox's latest dysfunctional-family sitcom, Shannon is discussing the pool man's untimely demise. ''He had a good life,'' she tells her 10-year-old TV son (Bret Loehr) in comforting tones. ''He toured with Aerosmith.'' Shannon asks to try the line again. He toured with Aerosmith. Again. He toured with Aerosmith. And again. He toured with Aerosmith.
Every time Shannon delivers the line, the cameraman and a slew of headphoned set dwellers start, well, cracking up.
''It's difficult without a live audience to know when you've got it,'' says Shannon, who stars with Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore) in the comedy about a psychology grad student (Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman) who bunks with a deceptively normal Beverly Hills family as a research project. ''But I like to play comedy very truthfully. I don't think you should try to act wacky. The truth is much more subtle and quiet, but that's what's funny.''
Subtle? Quiet? Are these words really coming from the creator of Mary Katherine Gallagher and joyologist Helen Madden? Three years after leaving Saturday Night Live, Shannon insists her armpit-sniffing, I-love-it-I-love-it-I-love-it! alter egos are history. ''When I first left SNL, I missed it so much it was like a bad breakup with somebody you love. But now I'm over it.''
Being a Molly Shannon fan hasn't been easy these past few years, unless you enjoy watching lame supporting roles in even lamer movies like The Santa Clause 2 and Osmosis Jones. ''My goal was to try to do movies, but I had a hard time. I was always getting offered the best friend and sometimes not even that,'' sighs Shannon, 38. ''I would have loved to have done [The Molly Shannon Show], but I saw a lot of women trying to do that and not doing so well. I thought, 'Ugh, you could really take a hard fall.''' It seemed Shannon was destined to succumb to the career perils that afflicted other notable SNL funnywomen (Jan Hooks, Cheri Oteri), while peers like Will Ferrell transitioned into actual superstardom. Explains SNL exec producer Lorne Michaels: ''Most comedies for women tend to be softer and romantic, and Molly's characters are strong. She's not going to play the timid housewife.''
Her Lesley on Cracking Up is the kind of endearingly insane character Shannon excels at playing: childish, undersexed, vodka-swilling, boundary-free, prone to breaking out into musical numbers at inappropriate times (Lesley will bust out ''Where Have All the Flowers Gone'' later in this episode). Considering that this season she builds a panic room and downs a pot-filled cake, Lesley may end up making Mary Katherine Gallagher one of the more normal personas in Shannon's unstable stable. ''I like how she can be a happy Stepford wife but can also go to these really bizarro places in a split second,'' says creator Mike White (School of Rock). White was such a fan that he had only one reservation about casting Shannon: ''I thought she was too young, but I remembered I was working in the world of Fox television, where anyone over 30 is able to have full-grown kids.''
In between scenes (up next: the grieving family hires a new hottie pool boy), Shannon gets a makeup-trailer visit from 5-month-old daughter Stella (with her fiance, artist Fritz Chesnut). ''I have changed,'' says Shannon, whose own mother died in a car accident when she was 4. ''I used to feel like I had to go-go-go-go-go, and now I don't feel that way so much.'' As Stella plays with brushes in her mother's lap, Shannon looks over her lines. ''You have to take chances in this business,'' she says. ''It's a crapshoot, but you try knowing sometimes you'll fail.'' The good news is that like Mary Katherine Gallagher, Shannon is irresistible even when falling on her face
For a review of Cracking Up go to http://www.entertainyourbrain.com/crackinguprev.htm
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Keywords: Cracking Up Cast