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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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Bernie Kopell

Some TV series are so profoundly unique that they make a permanent impression no matter how little of them you’ve seen. Such is the case for me and “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp,” an early ’70s spy spoof which featured live monkeys playing the parts of the secret agents and their nemeses. It’s an utterly ridiculous show, one which may not cause your kids to blink an eye (sadly, they won’t care that it’s real chimps rather than CGI or animatronic creatures, they just know that it could’ve been accomplished that way, so they won’t care), but if you grew up in the ’70s and remember seeing the show, then you’ll be thrilled to learn that it’s finally getting a proper DVD release. Better yet, there’s a charitable element involved in picking up a copy…but rather than tell you about it myself, I’ll let one of the gentlemen who gave voice to some of the monkeys do the job, since TV legend Bernie Kopell – you’ll know his face from “The Love Boat” and “Get Smart,” among other shows – was kind enough to do a bit of press for the series.

Bullz-Eye: So who would’ve thought that you’d be doing press for “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp” in 2012?

Bernie Kopell: [Laughs.] You never know. Lancelot Link…this is one of those things that happens where it starts with James Bond, then they go to “The Man with UNCLE,“ then the satire of “Get Smart,” where I was very happily playing nasty, contemptuous  Siegfried. And then the writers – Mike Marmer and Stan Burns – and I were sitting around, saying, “Well, what are we going to do now?” And Mike said, “Let’s do it with monkeys!” And they got these brilliant…choreographers, I would call them, to get the chimpanzees to behave as if they were human. And also to move their mouths. Some preferred peanut butter to go up and down with the jaw, some preferred gum, some liked a little piece of banana. And they didn’t mind the costumes. They liked the attention. And so we got them to move their mouths up and down and be the good guys and the bad guys. So it was more fun that you can even imagine.

BE: When it came time to do the voice of Baron von Butcher, did they specifically say, “Can you kind of put a spin on Siegfried?”

BK: Oh, absolutely.

BE: When the cast recorded the voices for the show, did you do them independently or together?

BK: We did it together. First they had the chimpanzees do their choreography and mouth movements and get that from various angles, and then Joan Gerber, Dayton Allen, who worked with Steve Allen years ago, and myself did all the voices. So you have good chimpanzees and bad chimpanzees, and the biggest problem was just not laughing our silly faces off. [Laughs.] Because it was just so much fun to do!

You know, what I’m excited about in particular is that there is a woman by the name of Martine Collette, and she runs Wildlife Waystation, and believe it or not, the chimpanzee that played Lancelot Link is still alive and enjoying his later life, or his retired years, in this facility that she has made for animals. For example, say someone has said, “Hey, here’s a great idea: let’s get a miniature bear!” And just for the safe side, without thinking, they cruelly pull out the bear’s teeth and claws so that the bear doesn’t destroy anything or hurt anybody. Then they realize that they made a mistake and it’s way too much trouble, and they give the bear up. This happens with all kinds of animals. And Martine being the saintly person that she is, she accepts these animals, and her organization, Wildlife Waystation, gets no support from anybody. It’s all volunteers and donations. And here’s the good news: 10% of the profits of “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp”  – which is now out on DVD, re-mastered, through Film Chest – go to Martine Collette and her terrific work with the animals that nobody cares about anymore. I’m very excited about that. I’ve known her for…oh, years and years and years. She’s been doing this for 36 years, and she’s just an amazing human being. She’s the Mother Teresa of animals.

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