Inside the 30th Anniversary of ‘Sledge Hammer!’ and the State of Today’s TV Comedies with Alan Spencer

alan_spencerIt’s been 30 years since the short-lived Sledge Hammer! premiered on ABC, and to celebrate, SF Sketchfest has teamed up with creator Alan Spencer for a special anniversary show next Sunday, January 17th. In addition to his work on Sledge Hammer!, Spencer is also the creator of the 2012 IFC series Bullet in the Face and a longtime Hollywood script doctor who counts the late Andy Kaufman and Marty Feldman among his early comedy mentors. Ahead of Sledge Hammer’s anniversary event next week, I spoke with Spencer about the possibility of revisiting the series, his thoughts on the state of comedy today, and what ideas, risks, and pure weirdness he’d like to see on TV more.

So how did the Sledge Hammer! anniversary event come together? Did Sketchfest come to you with the idea, or did you approach them?

No! I don’t do anything with Sledge Hammer!, basically. When I finished the show in 1988, I thought it’d be forgotten about and I wasn’t prone to be thinking about it again, but it continued on, despite being over. It came out on VHS and then it came out on laserdisc, and then it was pirated for a long time when it wasn’t on the air. And people kept asking about where they could see it and where they could get it, and then it came out on DVD in 2005 and stayed on DVD ever since, and it’s on Hulu and all these things. So I don’t do anything, basically, with Sledge Hammer! — I do hear about the references sometimes. I think Daniel Tosh took a shot about it on his show and made some sarcastic remark about it — that it only ran two seasons — well, that’s fine, but I’ve sold more DVDs than him… [laughs] …so you know. I remember someone said “Did you see what Daniel Tosh said about you?” and I said “Is he a comedian?” and they said “Oh, you haven’t seen the show?” and I go “Yeah I have. Is he a comedian?”

So I don’t do anything on this; it just kind of happens and I hear about it. I got an email from Sketchfest saying “We want to honor the 30th anniversary of Sledge Hammer!” and that was the first time I realized there was a 30th anniversary. There have been some tributes — they screened some episodes before and had this pseudo-convention for fans, and I showed up for that. And I do remember, by the way, in Germany — where Sledge Hammer! is big — they wanted to have a convention there years ago, but you know, that scared me. The Germans are a little too intense about it, and Sledge is blonde and blue-eyed, and when you start calling a convention a “rally,” then I get nervous… [laughs] You wanna burn books and things?! I don’t know about that.

But you know, I really don’t expect any of this. I’m telling you honestly: I don’t go around with a cardboard sign going “Hey, let’s create Sledge Hammer! events!” I swear to God they insisted! [laughs] They came to me, and I’m in good company at Sketchfest — they have a reunion of Waiting for Guffman, and Jon Hamm is showing up — so I was surprised as anybody. Our star David Rasche is gonna be joining us as well as Harrison Page, who played Captain Trunk, and we’ll see who else shows up.

It’s very surreal, because technically this wasn’t a hit show — it was critically acclaimed and a cult hit, but other shows that were more popular at the time aren’t getting 30th anniversary tributes, so that’s just fascinating to me. But that’s the virtue of being a cult as opposed to mainstream; cult people cling to it tighter, and they look for any excuse — including three decades — to celebrate it. [laughs]

Now that it’s been 30 years, have you noticed things that Sledge Hammer! fans seem to have in common?

I don’t know…they’re interesting. They seem to be fans of other cult shows — they’re into Get Smart and X-Files and all that other stuff. They want to see more of it usually, and that’s where a lot of the cult shows come from; they’re things that have gotten killed before their time or didn’t get their due, and so they’re unrequited in some ways. There’s never gonna be a cult for 60 Minutes, you know? [laughs] But they seem very fervent; they seem to be into Get Smart and The Pink Panther and things like that.

The most prevalent thing that I notice is that a lot of the fans are legitimate gun nuts, and they want to know about the weaponry and the guns. If you go on Google, people sell replicas of the gun handle and everything like that, so sometimes I hear from fans in Vegas or something who want to invite me down to a shooting range because they assume I’ll enjoy that. And when the show was on the air I was given an honorary membership in the NRA…so I’d say a lot of people are toting — are packing. When I was in Texas for a while to shoot a movie, I got a hero’s welcome down there for being the creator of Sledge Hammer! [laughs] They wanted to bring me to the Alamo and do a re-creation where “We win!” or whatever…it was fascinating. A guy said “You created Sledge Hammer? I have a jalapeno pepper I want you to try, cause you can take it.” That’s what he said. And I did! It was like a grenade went off in my mouth. Because I was macho about it — I couldn’t drink water or anything like that — and my mouth burned for a month from that, so, uh…

No relief? Milk didn’t help?

No! Nothing! They have chili peppers down there that are so strong that you’d have to sign a waiver before you bought them that they were not liable if you had a health issue or had a heart attack or if it destroyed your taste buds. It was like a Molotov cocktail in your mouth. I can still taste it sometimes when I talk about it.

You mentioned a lot of the fans are gun nuts — it’s interesting timing that 2016 is the show’s 30th anniversary, considering how huge of an issue guns are right now.

Sledge Hammer! is kind of an inversion: “Comedy plus time equals tragedy.” [laughs] Particularly in America, things get bigger; small problems grow larger, and everything becomes more fervent. Patriotism gets taken to higher levels, and the seeds of this were planted during the Reagan era, and the stuff that you’re seeing now started then when you had the President of the United States quoting fictional characters about real-life problems. Reagan was the one going out there and saying “Go ahead, make my day” — saying this to foreign entities. Or he gave a speech where he said “I just saw the movie Rambo and now I know what to do in the Middle East” — the blur between fantasy and reality started then, and that kind of reaction and carry-a-big-stick attitude has mutated into what we’re having today. Today is a more paranoid time, and the reaction to it is to hunker down and to arm yourself and to be prepared, so instead of the Red Menace from a foreign country, we’re our own menace and our own crazy paranoia, and when people get paranoid they want a weapon in their hand, you know? In this case the pen is not mightier than the sword — you could be holding a pen and get stabbed, and so that just doesn’t make sense! [laughs] I’m sorry, I’d rather have a sword. Everybody would rather have a gun; given the choice between the gun and the pen, the gun works! And look, Star Wars is back; what’s in the title? Wars! I mean, lightsabers and Han Solo’s blaster and all that sort of thing…so all I can say is the gun has always been the weapon of choice in America. It’s just that more people are fervent about getting them, they’re easier to get, and people have more reasons to feel they want to be armed.

You know what it comes down to? The phrase “don’t be paranoid” — you don’t hear it as much now anymore. When you watch the nightly news they’re going “Okay, here’s a film about how to stay safe when you go to the post office!” or how, when you board an airplane, you almost have to have a gynecological exam. And now when you’re going to a relaxing evening at the movies, you’ve got to go through a metal detector and you’re getting primers before going in: “Be alert! Look for anything suspicious! Make sure to know where the exits are!” I want to concentrate on a movie — I just like to relax; I go to escape reality. But you can’t escape reality anymore. If you’re told to go into any environment and be alert about anything suspicious, that creates paranoia, and that creates a gun culture in some way. In one of the episodes of Sledge Hammer! a baby got kidnapped and Sledge said “Did he have any enemies?” and that would probably be a logical question today. But back then it was a joke, so… [laughs]

In recent years there have been a lot of old cult shows that got resurrected — or even newer shows that got canceled then got a second chance. With that in mind, are you interested in revisiting Sledge Hammer! in some way?

As long as it’s true to itself in its satirical nature and has something to say. I mean, I’ve gotten inquiries off and on — and now they’re more frequent — about rebooting Sledge Hammer! because the current climate of Hollywood is a big recycle bin, but when they talk about it they talk about a tone and a version of the show that has nothing to do with Sledge Hammer; they’ll say it’s like Naked Gun, and that wasn’t what I was doing. I wasn’t doing that style — it’s very, very different and had more verisimilitude. I mean, the comedy of a modern Sledge Hammer! is closer to Tarantino than anything like that — over-the-top violence played for laughs and everything.

But I am interested in it. There’s actually a studio I’d like to work with because it’s run by the original executive who fought for Sledge Hammer! back in the day, so I’m having very serious talks about doing it now. And also, you know…people don’t wanna hear new ideas, they just want to do reboots. I tried pitching something new at IFC and it wasn’t based on a podcast or anything like that, so it got mistreated. [laughs] It’s a very small network, so I was kind of surprised. The thing I bring up to people is that Sledge Hammer, in the ’80s, was considered a low-rated show with like 18 million viewers. And at one point I aired against Bill Cosby…another reason I think I do want to reboot Sledge Hammer! is because they can’t reboot The Cosby Show now, so that means I won. I think that means we finally prevailed. [laughs] The first time slot we were up against was Miami Vice and Dallas — they brought Dallas back and that’s canceled, they did a Miami Vice movie so that’s all done, and now Cosby is over, so…I think we’re safe to go back. I am inclined to do it as long as it’s true to itself and not just something in name only.

Whether it be a Sledge Hammer! reboot or a new project with total creative freedom, what kind of show would you love to bring to TV right now? And what do you want to see more of on TV?

The thing about Sledge Hammer! is I was a spoiled child. I was very young when I was doing it. I was in my early 20s, and I had complete creative autonomy on that show. I subsequently learned later that that was not the norm — that it was unusual — and that’s a very difficult thing to unlearn as you go around working for bureaucracies and conglomerates and dealing with massive amounts of interference. ABC was a major network then, and in the last few years I worked at the antithesis of a major network, which is a small cable channel — IFC — and there was a lot of interference there, even for a small audience. I mean, some of the shows on the network get 0 ratings, which I didn’t even know was possible. [laughs] It was like someone was just tuning the color on their set watching something and using it as a test pad. So creative autonomy on a show is something I’m accustomed to, and they’re celebrating it 30 years later, so I assume I knew what I was doing…so that would be a given.

In the last few years when I’d have discussions about possibly doing more Sledge Hammer! people would be telling me what they thought the show was, and they were all wrong. They’d be resistant to the violence and they’d say things like “Well you can’t have a character talk to his gun now” and I’d say “Why? That’s part of the character!” And I said Stephen Colbert was subsequently doing it later on his show and American Dad was imitating that as well; I said “Why are you saying that?” All of a sudden there were these sensitivity issues. So basically, the show was a satire, and satire comments on current events, and there’s still a lot more to say. There’s probably more to say now, and people are more savvy to it because of the headlines going on. Some of the things we were talking about then people didn’t really know about — rogue cops and all that craziness — so that’s why I’m seriously entertaining the idea of doing it today.

And as far as answering your other question, everyone’s playing it very safe right now on television, in general, because of the investment involved. What I’d like to see is people who dare to fail — that there’s a chance of failure for something, to stick your neck so way out that you’re gonna get the guillotine, or like a term Mel Brooks used, you hit notes so high only dogs can hear. And that comes from the Andy Kaufman school, because I knew Andy, and he dared so much. And Borat — it was so thrilling to see something like that because you hadn’t seen it before. One of the disappointments I feel about places like IFC is that they don’t take chances; they’re basically an SNL subchannel, and you don’t see new voices. Everything is based on a podcast or it’s talented SNL players coming back, but people daring to fail and daring to perplex people where people are turning off the TV going “What did I just see?!” …instead of trying to hit the bullseye, just trying to do collateral damage and to take a wacky shot that, even if you missed, people are talking about it or wondering what you did or missed.

I enjoyed that Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig did a Lifetime movie. That was a very bold thing, and a wonderful thing. And they really made a Lifetime movie, so people were wondering “Is this funny or not? What is this?!” I mean, that’s pretty thrilling, and that was a great thing to see happen, but to reach new comedy you have to roll the dice and you have to dare to fail — you have to do some experimentation — and everything is so risk-adverse right now. It’s part of the PC climate, because you’re not allowed to offend anybody and everyone is apologizing all the time for the jokes they make, and you hear Mel Brooks say that you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today, yet you can still show the movie today and people laugh at it and it’s still prescient. But you can’t make that movie today…and that’s really a problem, because you can’t do comedy with handcuffs on. I think if the Three Stooges were working today they’d take them off the air because they’d say they’re championing domestic abuse. And Sledge Hammer! wouldn’t make it on a network today — it wouldn’t get past the pilot stage.

But ABC had to roll the dice, and all those shows of that era that were on then — the mainstream shows that were on at the same time that I was — aren’t referenced that much anymore…well, except for Cosby, but it’s not referenced for the show. But you know — Twin Peaks and Moonlighting and Max Headroom and The Wonder Years and all those sorts of things — they were rolling the dice and experimenting. They weren’t looking at what else was there; they were looking at what wasn’t there. And that’s the downside of this reboot/remake culture, which is really driven by marketing. We’re going with the safe bets instead of betting the farm and putting all the chips on one number and just going with it.

The thing about Sledge Hammer! was it was a big risk — it’s easy to see how that could’ve not worked from the pilot form, but it did. Executives right now are just trying to keep their jobs, and the way they keep their jobs is not to make a mistake: “Who greenlit this!?” [laughs] You know? That’s why we see lots of zombies and why CBS should’ve changed their name to CSI at one point — everything was procedurals and that sort of thing. You know the show I miss the most and wish was still on and wish the actor was still around? Columbo. That’s what I miss actually. But the Andy Kaufman spirit…that needs to prevail. To confound an audience and to dare not to get a laugh — to dare that your laugh will come later, after you’re done with your work and people then realize what you’ve done — that’s interesting to me.

That kind of comedy — the “weirder” kind, I guess — always seems to have more of a lasting influence too. It’s more timeless.

Yeah. And the British sensibility versus the American comedy…Marty Feldman was a friend and mentor to me, and I asked him, “Marty, what’s the difference, you feel, between British and American comedy?” And he said, “In British comedy, you can make fun of literature and history and art and world events as well as movies and television. In American comedy, you can only make fun of the last two weeks.” [laughs] I just thought that was brilliant, and that’s kind of where we’re at: We want to make sure we get the joke and everything’s a topical reference, or recent reference, and 30 years from now people will look at it going “Well that’s outdated.” But strange and bizarre and demented never grows old.

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For more info on next week’s “30th Hammerversary” event, head over to the SF Sketchfest website.

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