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BARNHART

25 Years Ago Steve Carell Earned the Worst, Most Hilarious Review of His Career

As a bit player on an ABC sitcom, Carell was roasted by a reviewer — but he got the last laugh.
  • Steve Carell played a Greek chef named Yorgo in 1997's Over the Top. (Photo: ABC/Everett Collection)
    Steve Carell played a Greek chef named Yorgo in 1997's Over the Top. (Photo: ABC/Everett Collection)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    In the fall of 1997, a sitcom appeared on the ABC prime-time lineup called Over the Top. It lasted three episodes before network executives pulled it off the schedule. We at Primetimer are saluting the 25th anniversary of Over the Top because it marked the TV acting debut of one Steve Carell, who stars in FX’s The Patient, bowing this week on Hulu.

    Years before he landed his gig on The Daily Show, Carell played a mad Greek chef named Yorgo. And the performance was so objectively awful that it earned him the worst review of his career, one so scathing, so — dare we say? — over the top, that Carell would later turn the recital of that review into performance art. We'll get to that shortly. But first, into the wayback machine.

    Network TV: Schedule Insanity

    Pretty soon we're going to have to explain to our grandchildren that there was a time when 15 million people all watched a TV show at the same time, and it still got cancelled. But that was how network TV operated from its inception in 1947. A handful of networks spent ungodly amounts of cash developing shows for a mass audience, and it was all but certain that several of those shows wouldn't make it to Halloween before being was yanked off the air for what were considered “low ratings.”

    It was before DVRs, back when people over the age of 12 had trouble programming VCRs, which meant most of us watched TV live. Hit shows, therefore, were partly determined by when they aired. And that fall ABC was getting murdered in several key time slots, including the Tuesday-night time period where Over the Top had been scheduled for broadcast.

    On Thursdays at 8, ABC had a show called Nothing Sacred as the sacrificial lamb going up against NBC’s murderers’ row of comedies. Besides being a thoughtful and well-written series from David Manson (who would go on to write and produce Ozark), Nothing Sacred was the first show in which Ann Dowd would work as a regular, playing — yes! — a nun. A right-wing Catholic group ginned up a lot of press that fall when it called for a boycott of Nothing Sacred. Normally this would be a godsend for a TV show, but you couldn't have gotten people to tune in ABC on Thursday nights if they'd promised to raise Marilyn Monroe from the grave. After its 15th episode, aptly titled “The Coldest Night of the Year,” ABC took Nothing Sacred off the schedule for good.

    Who's the Caboose? It's Yorgo!

    Steve Carell, Tim Curry, Luke Tarsitano, Annie Pott, and Marla Sokoloff in a 1997 promotional photo for Over the Top. (Photo: Columbia TriStar Television/Everett Collection)

    Over the Top starred Annie Potts as the owner of a hotel who is surprised when her English ex-husband appears at her front step desperately in need of work. So of course she hires him as the hotel manager, and Fawlty Towers-like comedy ensues. Well, that was the idea, anyway.

    In 1997 Annie Potts was an established TV star, having successfully transitioned from the movies to TV, back when that was a big deal. She had made her successful transition at CBS, where she appeared on Designing Women, one of the many, many hit comedies that CBS aired on Monday nights over three decades. CBS owned Mondays. ABC, by contrast, did not own Mondays, except when it aired Monday Night Football.

    In 1996 Potts agreed to play the Michelle Pfeiffer role in ABC's adaptation of the hit film Dangerous Minds, about an inner-city school teacher. Dangerous Minds was scheduled for Mondays just before football. It lasted 17 episodes before ABC took it off the air in March 1997. This gave Annie Potts’s agent just enough time to sign her up for her second lead balloon on ABC, Over the Top.

    Her co-star on the show was Tim Curry, who played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, reprising his role from the stage version. Curry has three Tony nominations to his credit, but in the 1990s TV liked his voice better than his face. He had voice roles in animated shows Duckman, The Wild Thornberrys and something called Fish Police, an attempt by CBS to do animation in prime time. (The network reeled it in after three episodes.)

    Famously late bloomer Steve Carell was 35 years old when he made his series debut on the Over the Top. The former postman had begun acting in the late 1980s, gotten some TV commercial work and was teaching at The Second City in Chicago, where his understudies included Stephen Colbert. The future Daily Show correspondents were both cast to be in the company of The Dana Carvey Show, an ambitious sketch-comedy series led by the former SNL star. It was a pretty good show with a bunch of talented people working on it. But … it was on ABC in a terrible time slot. Also, as a wonderful Hulu documentary noted, America probably wasn't ready for it.

    So Carell was on the market in 1997 when they were casting Over the Top, and he got the part of Yorgo, the cook at Annie Potts' high-class hotel. Yorgo was Greek and kind of a lunatic. The role seemed inspired by Andy Kaufman's character on Taxi, maybe by way of John Belushi's "chee-boigah!" character. Anyway, it was a thankless part to play, as is evident from this cold open to Episode 8, which like all the other episodes after #3 of Over the Top, never aired:

    The Review That Was Funnier Than the Show

    Back in the 1990s, many of us wrote about TV for our friends on the Internet, and money rarely changed hands. We did it because we had something to say and, pre-Y2K, saying it online was a surprisingly effective way to do it. Everyone at the Letterman show, it seemed, read my late-night TV newsletter. And lots of industry folks read TeeVee.org, a collective effort led by my friend Jason Snell, who is now the co-publisher of the excellent Apple review site Six Colors.

    TeeVee did things like an annual Dead Pool, where various contributors guessed which three TV shows would be killed off first. Again, these were not shows that were necessarily bad, but shows that were given impossible assignments — like going up against Seinfeld on Thursday nights.

    But in the case of Over the Top, you had bad show and terrible time slot. This proved an irresistible combination for TeeVee contributor Peter Ko. He's a powerful U.S. attorney today, but back then Peter Ko was just another smartass with time on his hands and the pilot of Over the Top on his VCR. Ko penned a fantastic 1,500-word takedown of the show, most of it devoted to its hitherto unknown bit player:

    “Much in the way that young Adolf had his Heinrich Himmler, Tim Curry has his Steve Carell. It’s rare for a relatively unknown actor in a supporting role to steal the show from its much higher paid leads, to send audiences and critics alike diving over their ottomans, fumbling for the TV Guide, screaming ‘Who the hell is that!?!’ …

    “Now you can add Steve Carell to that list—in the sense that his performance as what appeared to be a deaf-mute European chef caused anyone watching the show with a modicum of taste to start tearing at their hair while screeching, “Get it off my TV! Get it off my TV! Take it away! Oh god, what have we done to the kids” …

    “I wish I could say that Carell is bad—but that would imply that I have some frame of reference to judge him against. The truth is I have never seen anything like what I saw last Tuesday night. I have stood in a freezer full of dead people at the morgue. I have seen a man’s scalp pulled back over his nose. I’ve even seen 35 minutes of Ellen DeGeneres’s Mr. Wrong. But I can now honestly say that until Steve Carell’s turn in the premiere of Over the Top, I have never known true horror. Carell screeches, wheezes, his eyes bulge, and that’s while he’s standing still. Trust me when I say this is not a road you wish to travel.”

    Nine years later, the Television Critics Association honored NBC's The Office with its award for best comedy series and gave Carell its award for individual achievement. The TCA prides itself in honoring shows and stars before anyone else notices how good they are, and The Office, then in its second season, was a case in point.

    A grateful Carell took to the stage, and, after a few obligatory thank-yous, pulled Peter Ko's review out of his suit jacket and read it to the audience, starting with the line, "I have stood in a freezer full of dead people…” It brought down the house.

    And nine years after that, Carell — not one to waste good material — read the review again in his final appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

    The Aftermath

    Over the Top aired its third episode with guest star John Ritter — who had starred in two different hit comedies for ABC, which means he would seemingly be a surefire ratings-getter for the low-rated show. But the needle barely moved, and ABC took the show off the air for good. It eventually replaced Over the Top with a new season of Grace Under Fire, starring an occasionally sober Brett Butler and created by an up-and-coming producer named Chuck Lorre.

    The next year Annie Potts landed on a quite good Lifetime drama called Any Day Now, opposite Lorraine Toussaint. Tim Curry went back to voice acting. Steve Carell eventually landed on his feet. And the unaired episodes of Over the Top landed on YouTube, where commenters over the years have routinely praised the show, saying they find it hilarious.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Steve Carell, ABC, YouTube, Designing Women, Over the Top, Annie Potts, Tim Curry