With "Zoo Animals on Wheels" Get a Life Perfectly Parodied Cats Nearly Three Decades Ago
When the trailer for the upcoming Cats movie was released to universal horror and mortification, and, I would imagine, arousal as well, the first thing I thought of was the legendary “Zoo Animals on Wheels” episode of Get a Life and how Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick’s cult classic sitcom perfectly captured what makes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s deathless, feline-themed musical so viscerally unsettling and unfathomably perverse.
I interviewed David Mirkin around the time the Get a Life box set was released and he said of the show’s inspiration, “the kernel of “Zoo Animal On Wheels” comes from [Chris Elliott’s father] Bob Elliott. It’s a fascinating start. Of all the great stories [Chris] would tell, one of our favorites was about when his father went to see Cats. Bob Elliott is very similar to Chris Elliott; Chris Elliott is like an extroverted version of Bob Elliott. Bob is like any comedian: He sees things as being funny and stupid. He sees the ridiculousness of the world. He went to see Cats and he was appalled, particularly when the characters came down off the stage and started to harass the audience, and he actually got up and walked out. [Laughs.] He said, “I’m not putting up with this bullshit.” He was out of there.
When Chris told this story, everybody was just falling down, and it was like, “Well that has to be an episode.”
Art imitated life. In “Zoo Animal on Wheels” Bob’s exquisitely sour patriarch Fred Peterson goes to see his son Chris (Chris Elliott) perform the lead role in Zoo Animals on Wheels, a pastiche of Cats, Starlight Express and every tacky, high concept musical extravaganza ever to dazzle the Great White Way with an insultingly gimmicky premise out of a grudging sense of parental obligation, and flees the madness long before the community theater production draws to a merciful close.
The look of soul-consuming horror on Fred Peterson’s face as he’s assaulted with the juvenile, maudlin idiocy of Zoo Animals on Wheels and its simultaneously pathetic and unintentionally scary anthropomorphic beasts was ubiquitous on online smartasses as they drank in the pure nightmare fuel that is the teaser for Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical institution.
In “Zoo Animals on Wheels” the titular play is less a traditional production than a weird cult with a bewildering dream logic all its own, a deeply unsettling realm where animals and talentless humans merge with roller skates and disco lighting to create something that promises to freak out even the most jaded audiences.
“Zoo Animals on Wheels” opens with delusional sociopath Chris Peterson (Chris Elliott) happily announcing auditions for the titular musical. When his mother politely points out that he's never expressed an interest in acting he cheerfully retorts, “I’m not interested in acting, ma. I just have the urge to perform onstage in an animal costume.”
The musical that gives him an opportunity to do that is Zoo Animals on Wheels. Hailed as “Andrew Todd Keller’s masterpiece”, it’s a musical with the audacity and vision to ask, “What would it be like if zoo animals put on roller skates and danced around and sang songs?”
Chris’ audition is a predictable trainwreck; he dances as if he has, legitimately, never danced before, as if he’s never even encountered the concept of dancing but moving even a little tires him out instantly.
Yet the eccentric small-town maestro directing the show sees something raw and pure and holy in the smug, talentless buffoon, something special and impossible to put into words that he can use to create his vision of Zoo Animals on Wheels.
When Chris scores the lead role of a smarmy roller-skating wildebeest, his rival Sharon, who has already been cast in the female lead of royal “Miss Stripes” protests to the director of Chris, “He’s turning a fine piece of theater into something silly and ridiculous” but of course you don’t have to turn musicals like Cats and Zoo Animals on Wheels into something silly and ridiculous because they’re already silly and ridiculous and appalling in ways that can be hard to even put into words.
Cats is as mainstream as it gets, one of the longest running and most successful musicals in theatrical history. Yet it, like Zoo Animals on Wheels, is nevertheless incontestably also bizarre and surreal,.
Zoo Animals on Wheels opens with voiceover from its director marveling, “Since the beginning of time, zoo animals have sat patiently in their cages while we humans stared, pointed and threw candy at them but oh what a day it would be if these confined beasts could leap from their cages, free to sing, free to frolic, free to—roller skate!”
The confined beasts then introduce themselves in what can very generally be considered song and dance and all of Fred Peterson’s worst fears are realized immediately. Get a Life did not need CGI technology to transform its cast into upsetting and just plain wrong mutations of beast and human being; it just needed perfectly hideous costumes and even more disturbing make-up.
Things reach a bleakly funny comic crescendo when the tacky theatrical monsters onstage interrogate the audience and asks them how THEY would feel about animals staring at them, then climb down into the audience so that they can make unbearable eye contact with the suffering souls who thought it would be a good idea to see a show like this.
Deep into the production of Zoo Animal on Wheels Chris’ lonely, lachrymose wildebeest hisses at a woman in the audience and she begin screaming in terror. Her response doesn’t seem like an over-reaction at all. This shit IS terrifying when it tries to be heartstrings-tugging.
Chris’ best friend and Sharon’s emasculated husband Larry (Sam Robards) tells his justifiably aghast children at the play’s blessed completion, “Clap, kids! Pretending to enjoy something you didn’t is an important adult skill.”
That’s certainly true of live theater, where the audience is expected to laugh and applaud no matter how terrible the show, lest they risk hurting the sensitive performers’ delicate feelings but that’s not true when it comes to movies or the internet.
On the internet, the important adult skill is roasting something people are guaranteed not to enjoy in the most entertaining, funny and consequently viral manner possible. Pretty much the entire internet has thrown itself into the joyful, exuberant process of making fun of Cats as a show and cultural institution and upcoming movie. But the best parody of Cats happened nearly three decades ago, when the technology that would bring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway smash to life in violent defiance of God’s Will hadn’t even been invented yet.
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