Talking with Alan Spencer about ‘Bullet in the Face,’ Andy Kaufman, ‘Sledge Hammer,’ and Life as a Hollywood Script Doctor
After spending his teenage years sneaking on to movie studio lots and befriending talented, offbeat folks like Marty Feldman and Andy Kaufman, Alan Spencer became one of the youngest-ever members of the Writers Guild at age 15. The first show he created, Sledge Hammer!, made him the youngest-ever creator of a network TV series at the time at 26, and the program earned a great deal of critical acclaim and inspired a devoted cult following after its criminally short, two-season run. Frustrated with how hard it is to get a show on the air, Alan Spencer then began working as a Hollywood script doctor, fixing other people’s movies and becoming one of the most sought-after script doctors in the industry.
Spencer’s latest series, Bullet in the Face, sees him returning to TV and to the action-comedy well that’s brought so much success in the past. The show, starring Max Williams, Neil Napier, Kate Kelton, Jessica Steen, Eddie Izzard, and Eric Roberts, debuts tomorrow on IFC, and sees the network continuing to make a name for itself by working with unconventional, edgy auteurs and handing them the kind of creative freedom not found on many other networks. Bullet in the Face‘s entire six-episode first season airs as a two-night-event tomorrow and Friday at 10/9c on IFC.
I recently had the chance to talk with the delightful Alan Spencer about Bullet in the Face, why the British model of short TV seasons is the right one, a meeting he turned down about Glenn Beck’s animated series, and how his friend Andy Kaufman inspired him to be more daring in his work.
So, how did Bullet in the Face come about?
IFC approached me [for] a short presentation. It was like five minutes, and they wanted to do an action comedy. Initially, I was gonna supervise some writers to do it, and various permutations came through. It was based from a Canadian company they were involved with. So, eventually, I agreed to write it myself, kind of as a lark and to be very self-indulgent and as a favor to an executive there named Dan Pasternack. Lo and behold, they came to me and said, “We’re not gonna make a pilot to this.” And I’m used to hearing that. I went, “Okay, fine.” He says, “If you’re willing to write them all, we’ll go straight to series.” So, that’s how it happened, and I wrote all six episodes. We never made a pilot, we did it all in one quote-unquote shebang.
You just did one straight shot? Almost like a film?
It was exactly like a feature film. Since I wrote them all, I was rewriting them during the production, you know, block shooting, doing the scenes out of context. It was shot like a feature, and it does look like a feature film. You know, it’s in focus, like most feature films are. But it’s not in IMAX, unless you have that in your living room, which we haven’t done yet. I have been to homes here in Hollywood where people have larger screens than the movie theater in their home. I mean, there’s some theaters here in L.A., if you cross your legs, you kick a hole in the screen.
[Laughs] What inspired the idea for the premise of the show? Was this an idea you’ve had for years, or was this something you came up with after IFC approached you to do a show?
I’m known for doing action comedy, crime comedies. Since I did a show in the 80s called Sledge Hammer!, which at the time raised some ires for mixing violence and comedy, even though it was a mainstream network show [with] a large amount of constraint from broadcast standards. Hammer could shoot at everything on Earth, but he couldn’t kill anybody. Just like real life. So, this is a logical extension ‘cause Sledge Hammer! was originally written for HBO, and if they had done that show back then, it would look more like this. It was more like an R-rated kind of comedy, pushing the violence quotient to the extreme.
I don’t know what it says about me as a person, I probably shouldn’t say it in public, but I think like this all the time. This is the stuff I think about, so I do admit it. I have a lot of violent thoughts. [Laughs] Instead of writing a manifesto, I write six episodes, so I think that’s better for society, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s definitely safer.
It takes a lot of time to cut up the little letters from the newspaper, even though the Internet makes it faster. I’d rather write six scripts. And since it was for cable, this was my first experience working in that, you’re allowed to have more of a personal touch. You can even be esoteric and everything like that. So, it was very unique. It was more like filmmaking than TV.
It seems like throughout your career, you’ve been drawn to lead characters like this who are kind of sociopathic.
My friend Josh Olson, who wrote A History of Violence, when he heard I was doing a show about a sociopathic criminal, he said, “Well, write what you know.” I do like extreme characters. I do write sociopaths. I’ve been called a sociopath before, but I think I’m an accessible one with a good heart, so it kind of balances out… This isn’t the first sitcom about a sociopath. I think Two and a Half Men qualifies, doesn’t it? … But I’m drawn to extreme characters. Characters who aren’t bland and characters who represent the id and don’t censor themselves, but I think everyone’s drawn to those sorts of characters.
I like anti-heroes, as well, too. Anything anti… My big thing is I think the highest compliment of writing that I’ve always felt is if you watch a movie or a TV show and you feel like you got to know something about the people that made it, then it’s personalized and then it’s good. Whether you liked it or hated it, as long as it has a personal touch and it isn’t generic, then I always show up for that.
Have you ever tried to sell out and do a more mainstream show? Is that something you’ve ever attempted in your career or even considered?
I did do it for a while. I wrote an episode of The Facts of Life. I was tempted to show a scene from it this Saturday at a live event. I wrote a very special episode of Facts of Life. It was humiliating because Andy Kaufman called me. You know, I’d known him for years and we were friends from the Paramount lot. [He] just was mystified by it. He said, “Alan, why is that called a comedy? It wasn’t funny.” I said, “Well, it was a very special episode. It was serious.” He goes, “Yes, but the audience was laughing during it.” “Well,” I said, “it’s still a sitcom, so they’re laughing.” He said, “But what they’re laughing at wasn’t funny.” He just was so perplexed about why anyone would make a serious episode of a sitcom. He was perplexed by sitcoms [in general], as well.
[The episode] was preachy. It was about high school illiteracy. It had a message that was beaten into your head for 22 minutes. It was heavily rewritten, so I think the only things that remained was the character’s name was Tootie. I just looked at it and it just didn’t make any sense to be a comedy writer and to be doing very special episodes. And they all would do it. Mr. Belvedere did an episode about child molestation. You know, that’s exactly where I want to go about that serious topic: Mr. Belvedere. The lead character seemed like a pedophile.
I was humiliated by this episode airing amongst my friends. I just vowed from that point on, I just said, “I’m not gonna put my name on anything that anyone else can write.” That’s been my legacy. I get tempted… yeah, I was told to be more conventional, and networks were telling me, “We’d love you to do a conventional show or multi-camera show.” I just can’t bring myself to do it. What’s the point? I don’t want to do anything I wouldn’t personally watch.
That’s noble, that makes sense.
Well it’s noble but also means that you have a gap in your career, even though I’ve been one of the top script doctors for a long time. But I got lucky going in. My first pilot that I wrote for a network got shot, went to series, and was a critically-acclaimed offbeat show. When you get a taste of that, it’s hard to go away from it. But I’d rather be known for a show that ran two seasons that was different and people respect and have fondness for, than something that ran 10 years and was mediocre. Everyone from Mel Brooks to the Monty Pythons respects Sledge Hammer.
And television is ephemeral. I think the highest compliment a TV show can get is to be remembered. One of my favorite TV shows is The Prisoner, and that’s only a handful of episodes, but they’re memorable. I don’t care that there’s not a Prisoner Christmas Reunion Special. The British sensibility about TV is the correct one. You know, limited orders and taking their time to get the episodes right, but America’s more in the volume business. You know, they talk about long-running and they’ll talk about how many years that they ran, but they don’t talk about how many of those episodes are good. I’d rather do six great episodes for IFC than the alternative.
A morning show would be an easy gig, one of those they do every day. All you do is show up and sample dishes and just kinda talk on a sofa. That’s a good paycheck, isn’t it? Interview people. They sample a lot of dishes. I watch the morning shows, they’re always eating food. They read the headlines, but who’s gonna remember that? I always thought that anything you do should have a degree of permanence to it, don’t you?
Yeah, absolutely. Nobody’s gonna be watching boxsets of The Today Show.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. Or anything else. I can’t imagine 20 years from now people watching Survivor or America’s Most Wanted. I never considered TV like a day job. You should do everything you do with gusto. If you’re making hot dogs at Wienerschnitzel, those should be masterpieces. I mean it.
You mentioned working as a script doctor for a long time. I’m curious as to what that process is like and how you got brought into that world.
Well, I was being brought in to punch up scripts and to do roundtable punch-ups, where they bring in comedy writers and comedians to add laughs to a script. A lot of the comedy talent that you know and interview and love, I’ve met at those tables. So, you have seasoned writers sitting alongside stand-up comics, people like that. Jim Abrahams brought me in on one that was particularly fun. Because I was tired of getting rejected with my material, pilots not being shot and things like that, it was a stress-free life. And the studio put me under contract for a while. They pay you well and you basically fix things for a living. You rewrite movies. Besides just writing, you’re brought in to re-edit and retool movies that aren’t working. You’re brought in for the preview process, and it’s very lucrative.
This magazine Creative Screenwriting listed me amongst one of the top people in the field, but I was the only one who was doing his own development. But part of the reason I didn’t do it was I got tired of being lectured and rejected by network executives for doing the thing you’re supposed to do, which is to try original stuff. So, it proved to be very lucrative because there’s a lot of movies that need fixing. And I was also emotionally detached from the process. So, here was a director literally vomiting in the bathroom after a preview screening of his movie that didn’t go well, and I’m just sitting there going, “Hey, it’ll be okay.” And then I go back home and watch Jimmy Kimmel. I’m not on the line. The studio pats you on the head because anything you do is an improvement. I would get a fruit basket a week. It’s almost like you’re some sort of anonymous assassin. You’re like a hit man trying to make a hit. You’re not killing anyone; you’re trying to make a hit movie.
It became very comfortable, but when the DVDs of Sledge Hammer! came out, it sold really really well and then sold well globally. I was being beckoned back to do my own development and so that’s why there’s stuff that has my name on it officially again…
Are you allowed to talk about movies you’ve rewritten, or is it a thing where you’ve signed all sorts of confidentiality papers?
There’s a lot of confidentiality, though, some people know what I’ve done and they’ve guessed it, but basically, it’s confidentiality. But some people boast and brag about such things. I tend not to because it’s not my work. Unless I incepted it, I don’t really consider it mine. And the degree of difficulty and the degree of commitment varies. There’s some movies where I came in and did the whole post-production and there are others where I spent a couple of weeks on set, literally writing on set. Those are instances where a couple of big-name stars would bring me in to do their dialogue. There’s so many fingerprints on every movie and TV show these days. Everyone is grabbing credits for things. I just tend not to. Unless I wrote everything 100%, I wouldn’t put my name on it nor want my name on it. Bullet in the Face, I wrote every episode, and it was not rewritten by anyone else. That’s a rarity in Hollywood. I don’t know if that’s a rarity in Canada, that’s where we shot it. That’s a rarity, that’s kind of how I roll.
So, do you want to talk about the controversy that Bullet in the Face has courted? I saw a website refer to it as “the most violent comedy in TV history.” Is that something you agree with?
Probably for a half-hour, I guess? But most sitcoms don’t feature violence at all. I mean, they don’t really have shootings and things like that. Two and a Half Men had violence, but it was off-screen. I suppose so. I don’t really know. I don’t gage it by this. It was action, the effort goes into violence. Hopefully, there’s more to it than that. It doesn’t have canned laughter, which I appreciate, because we killed the audience. [Laughs] It has something to say about violence. The third episode, it deals with recent headlines because, unfortunately, when random acts of violence start happening with more frequency, they’re no longer random, so all the headlines and all the tragedies that have been going on, you can pretty much anticipate because they happen on a regular cycle, whether it’s two years, every year, six months. They happen and happen with more consistency, and that’s a concern. So, the third episode actually deals with some of that. But I like satire and I like ideas and reflecting the state of the world. The world is a very violent place right now. I don’t know. That’s for you to interpret, what it says. Most of our entertainments are pretty violent, and we enjoy them. I’m going to go see The Expendables because I like seeing anyone over 60 wreaking havoc.
Sledge Hammer! was a commentary on violence at the time too, but it was a double-edged sword because a lot of people thought that that was a serious message and embraced it. Eddie Izzard accurately described it as “Stephen Colbert as an action hero.” A lot of people took it very seriously and agreed with what the character of Sledge Hammer was saying… I got an honorary membership from the NRA when the show went on, and you don’t refuse something like that. You don’t refuse their gift. [Laughs] There are some people who will view it as a criticism or a satire and other people will embrace it, going “Hey this is great. This is a dream come true.” We’ll see how people interpret it. I have no idea how anyone will react.
I find that surprising and troubling that anyone would identify with Sledge Hammer or say, the hero of this show also.
Well, you’d be surprised. Glenn Beck’s people contacted me and wanted me to come in for a meeting. When I shot a movie in Texas, I was a hero there for creating the character. Everybody wanted to give me tequila and jalapenos. It was very bizarre because they had just shot the movie JFK. They were touring me around, going “JFK was shot here” and they were showing me a Taco Bell. I said, “I thought he was shot by a book depository.” They meant the movie. “I know it was a conspiracy. I didn’t know he was shot over half the city.” But yeah, somebody said, “You created Sledge Hammer!, can I hug you?” The guy showed me his rifle rack.
I’m glad you find it troubling, but it had an Archie Bunker Syndrome. There are people who laughed at him because they thought he was an idiot and people who laughed with him because they agreed with him. That’s what happens whenever you put out a warped statement, I suppose. There’s always somebody who will salute it. A lot of people like Hannibal Lecter too, you know what I mean?
You know what? You never need to correct his grammar… Very intelligent. If you just listen to Hannibal Lecter, he’s actually a pretty good role model for kids. Diction, intelligence…
Yeah, see? Very good, Bradford. Consistency.
He has a very clear idea of what he wants.
That’s right. He’s a type-A personality. He takes a bite out of life… Everybody doesn’t want to be Willy Loman. When Bullet in the Face is airing, one of the movies they’re showing is Fight Club. Tyler Durden and this wish fulfillment. People are so repressed and frustrated and they feel out of control. They vote for politicians and it’s all a joke because they take office and whether you vote for either party, they all wind up being as equally ineffective. So, there’s kind of a wish fulfillment to be able to do whatever you want – to be reckless and say whatever you want and live life to the fullest. Villains and anti-heroes tend to do that. I think writing a character like that, invariably, anyone that writes Hannibal Lecter or Dracula or Tyler Durden or Alex the droog from Clockwork Orange or the characters I wrote, it’s basically wish fulfillment and you’re kind of unleashing your id in a way. That stuff comes from somewhere. You can’t just say, “Oh, I made this up.” It’s something you’ve thought about. But it’s better to write about it than to act on it. [Laughs].
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. IFC is doing a public service by hiring you.
Yes, they did. They kept me off the streets. They made the world safer by giving me a series, and I appreciate that.
What was your meeting with Glenn Beck’s people about?
I didn’t do the meeting. His people contacted [me]. They said he wanted to do an animated show, and he was gonna do the voices. I just said, “Well, that would take talent.” So, I just passed on the meeting.
So, this was recently?
It was a couple years back, but I hear it’s going. I hear he’s trying to get it together. But yeah, his people requested for me to come in… No thanks.
That’s probably a good call.
A Rush Limbaugh animated series would probably be the last thing anybody would want to see too. That’s a great way to reach kids, isn’t it? [Laughs] I’ve had a lot of people who are surprised about my politics. They were shocked. A cop heard my DVD commentary on Sledge Hammer! season one, and I got this hostile email going “You’re a lib.” It was like three pages, just going off. Thankfully, it wasn’t a cop in the city, otherwise there’d be camcorder footage of me being beaten. He felt betrayed.
It does seem very similar to that Archie Bunker thing.
Yeah, which is fine. There were contrary voices in the mix of it. Look, you know, basically, a TV show’s supposed to appeal to everybody. The best of all possible worlds is that there’s a debate going on within there and [you can] have an internal dialogue. Bullet in the Face is a little different because most stories are about Good vs. Evil, this is about Evil vs. Evil. Whoever wins, we’re screwed. [Laughs]
I think some people would say that’s accurate to the world we live in.
Yeah, I would say so. With an election year, Evil vs. Evil makes logic—no, evil has more energy. I think there’s more apathy. This is more Ineffective vs. Ineffective.
All six episodes of Bullet in the Face air in two three-episode blocks this Thursday and Friday, August 16-17, at 10/9c on IFC.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.