The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Alan Spencer (‘Bullet in the Face’)

I’ve said before – if not in this column, then certainly elsewhere on the ‘net – how a great deal of my long-term tastes were established during my teen years in the ’80s, and one of the shows that was must-see TV for 16-year-old me was the ABC sitcom Sledge Hammer!, created by Alan Spencer. As a result, my eyebrows shot skyward when I first learned about the IFC series Bullet in the Face, since the press release prominently featured Spencer’s previous credits. Too bad the network’s programming and promotional departments weren’t quite as enthused as I was: the show’s six-episode season was noticed by precious few, resulting in a quick departure from the airwaves.

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Thank goodness for Shout Factory, then, a company who knows a future cult classic when they see one: they released Bullet in the Face on DVD a few weeks back – sorry, I was at the TCA tour at the time, or I would’ve been able to promote it more heavily right as it hit the shelves – and were kind enough to set me up with an interview with the aforementioned Mr. Spencer.

After discussing his most recent endeavor in considerable detail, you will be unsurprised to learn that I took a bit of time to geek out as well, enjoying the opportunity to learn more about his friendships with Marty Feldman, Andy Kaufman, and Anthony Perkins, and to find out if we’re likely to ever see Sledge Hammer! return.

Bullz-Eye: How did Bullet in the Face originally come about? It seems to owe at least a spiritual debt to Sledge Hammer!, but from what I can tell, it appears that the project existed in some form – if only as a vague concept – before you ever came aboard.

Alan Spencer: Well, first of all, there’s nothing spiritual about Sledge Hammer! [Laughs.] Basically, the IFC network… An executive I knew at the IFC network said they had a concept in development that wasn’t working. It was called Dieter Horn in Night Port, and if you Google it or use any search engine, I think you can see information about it. They had made a two-minute trailer – kind of a sizzle reel, as people are wont to do – and a Canadian production company was behind it. The trailer shows a spoof of ‘80s tropes about a German cop called Dieter Horn, who was apparently a bad guy who became a cop, and it’s heavily rooted in the ‘80s. It’s never explained why it was German, by the way. I couldn’t figure that out. But it’s a spoof of a Miami Vice sort of city, and it was…  A lot of people are doing ‘80s parodies – MacGruber, and there’s a miniseries now (The Spoils of Babylon) – and it was an ‘80s spoof, and…that didn’t interest me. And I guess they developed scripts for it and it didn’t work, so it was a piece of… The term is “broken development.”

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Since I’m one of the few people that had done and sustained a successful half-hour action comedy, they came to me and asked if I’d be willing to supervise the writers and retool this. It was basically… I was given, like, carte blanche for whatever I could come up with to fix this. So, anyway, I took the one kernel, one idea from it, and threw everything else out. And the only kernel from it was the German, formerly a bad guy, turning into a cop. So that was it. I threw everything out, re-titled it, and came up with all new characters, an all new milieu, and the kind of a graphic-novel city I set it in.

I also threw out the ‘80s baby with the ‘80s bathwater, because a lot of people can’t reference the ‘80s. I lived through the ‘80s already, and that didn’t interest me to go through it again. I don’t have that hair anymore, I don’t wear the pastels, I wear socks… [Laughs.] So I didn’t want to deal with that at all. I wanted something new and fresh. Also, since I had some creative freedom, I really wanted to go for it, so they were kind of thrilled when I decided to write it myself. I just said, “Let me write it,” as opposed to going through the machinations that we would’ve to find some writers. So they were surprised and happy, but I think that was their agenda all along, to have me write it myself.

So I indulged myself. I didn’t imagine this getting made, so I wrote something very, very extreme, and going further than the restraints that I was used to working on in network television. And then, lo and behold, I was surprised. I got a call from the network saying, “We’re not going to make a pilot for this.” I said, “Oh, all right.” They said, “We’re going to go straight to series!” So it was a six-episode order with the contingency that I write them all. I knew something was up before I got that call, because on Facebook all of a sudden I was being getting friended by IFC executives. [Laughs.] That was kind of the hint that something was in the works. That’s how social media works now, right? If social media was existing during World War II, and if all my Japanese friends were unfriending me, I think I would’ve anticipated Pearl Harbor. That’s sort of how it works.

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Portlandia ”Feminist Bookstore” Compilation

If you like this, check out “Portlandia” on IFC.

  

The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Kathleen Robertson (“Boss”)

Although I get plenty of opportunities to do in-person interviews when I’m out on the west coast for the Television Critics Association press tours, I very rarely get the chance while I’m here at Virginia, so when I was offered the chance to meet Kathleen Robertson for coffee, one of the stars of a show I already have a lot of love for (“Boss”), you can imagine that I didn’t have to think twice before answering, “Absolutely!” Indeed, I didn’t even blink an eye when it was casually mentioned that it might be nice if I managed to find a way to bring up Starz’s new app for Cox subscribers, Starz Play, because, what, like it’s such a bad thing to hype something that helps more people see some of my favorite series? (As you hopefully recall, I’m a big “Magic City” fan, too.) As I was assured in advance, Kathleen was a total sweetheart, and as we chatted over the course of a half-hour, the topics included the series that brought us together in the first place, of course, but also “Maniac Mansion,” “90210,” “Tin Man,” and even the hilarious-but-underrated IFC series, “The Business.” Read on…but don’t forget that the “Boss” Season 2 finale airs Friday night on Starz!

Bullz-Eye: So the second season of “Boss” is coming to a close…

Kathleen Robertson: Yep!

BE: Your character, Kitty O’Neill, had a decidedly different dynamic in Season 2 than she did in Season 1. How much forewarning did you have about how Kitty’s storyline was going to play out during this season? Did you know from the get-go, or was it only doled out to you on an episode-by-episode basis?

KR: I knew from the get-go. I sat down with the writers at the very beginning of the season, and they sort of explained to me what the storyline was for her. With the exception of the finale. They were very secretive about the finale, and I didn’t know what was going to happen until the week before we shot it and I read the script. Have you seen the finale?

BE: I have not yet.

KR: [Tries and fails to disguise her giddiness.] It’s so good. It’s so good. They kept saying to me all through the year, “Just be patient. Just be patient and wait for (episode)10.” I said, “What does that mean, though? Like, am I gonna get killed? What are you…what happens in 10?” “Just be patient.” And then they’d say, “10 is your episode, and you’re gonna be really happy with it.” So I was. And I am really happy with 10. It’s amazing.

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BE: 10 may be “your episode,” but it’s arguable that you’ve had a lot of episodes. Kitty’s evolved throughout the season, at least in a certain sense. At the same time, though, she also ends up making it pretty clear that she doesn’t really know who she is unless she has someone to serve.

KR: Yeah, that’s true.

BE: Did you see that as being a part of her character from the very beginning, or was that something you discovered as time went on?

KR: Well, with Season 1… [Hesitates.] Farhad (Safinia) said to me at the beginning of the series, “For Season 1, Kitty almost has a reverse arc.” She kind of starts here… [Holds hand up and then begins lowering it.] …and ends here. And it’s kind of like that in Season 2 as well, because from the moment we meet her in this season, she’s pregnant, she’s sort of deciding if she even wants to be in politics anymore…she’s deciding who she is. So the journey for her over Season 2 was a much more internal one, and it was much more a case of asking, “Who am I without my identity?” And for her, the identity isn’t just working for Kane. It’s being in this whole world that she’s sacrificed everything for. So she sort of flirts with the idea of trying to be an alternate Kitty throughout the season, and by the end… [Smiles knowingly.] When you see the finale, I think she ends up where she belongs.

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Weekly Web Series Review: Behind the Pen

Fans of the excellent satirical newspaper The Onion should be familiar with the name Stan Kelly. A fictional editorial cartoonist whose reactionary views on current events and the way things used to be in the “good old days” (he supposedly began working for the paper in 1957) are expressed with hacky, obvious writing and a crude, simplistic drawing style. I remember when I first saw his work in the pages of “America’s Finest News Source” years ago, I totally fell for it, believing it to be a real strip The Onion had picked up to display ironically, like when they used to run Cathy Guisewite‘s “Cathy” in Spanish. Eventually, though, I realized how unlikely it was that any newspaper anywhere would seriously run strips celebrating the deaths of beloved celebrities like James Brown, for example, and that Kelly’s political cartoons were a joke from the start.

The Onion recently confirmed this all over again with the new web series “Behind the Pen,” in which “Kelly” describes his artistic process and explains the thought process behind his awful, out-of-touch jokes, as if anyone who can read would have trouble understanding his points. In the first episode, “How Marriage Works,” he explains that he’s doing it “to reach the youngsters” with his message. These hypothetical young people are illustrated by archive photographs of at-risk teens, and even one African child holding an assault rifle. He then proceeds to explain his cartoon, “Holy Matri-Money,” complete with an absurdly unnecessary explication of his “last word,” in which his self-portrait alter-ego delivers the punchline. This is a feature of all Kelly’s cartoons, and each episode correspondingly features a “Last Word” segment.

The second episode, “Collective Wisdom,” features another segment entitled “Tips for Young Artists,” in which Kelly hilariously explains the subtlety of his technique: “If you wanna show somebody’s in love with somebody, you put a little heart next to ‘em.” Each subsequent episode (there are five so far, uploaded within the last two months) is better than the last, with Kelly increasingly going into angry tirades about his own family, especially his darkly comic explanation of his cartoon “Nanny State, Ninny State,” in which he skewers the Big Brother program by saying, “A kid’s heart oughta be calloused, it oughta be weathered.”

Kelly’s voice is wonderfully grizzled and mean-spirited – not unlike another brilliant Onion creation, the politician Joad Cressbeckler, who now has his own segment on the Onion News Network television series on IFC – and “Behind the Pen” shows great promise in continuing to develop this fascinating character. The more unhinged and apoplectic he becomes, the funnier he is and the more his character is revealed, so hopefully the series will continue in this direction, as it already seems to be doing.


Behind The Pen: ‘High’ Ideals

  

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