They say working in the entertainment industry requires one to sacrifice both their privacy and their scruples, but Alan Spencer is the rare exception. Big in the 80s with the hillarious cult cop comedy Sledge Hammer!, Spencer retreated to the comfort of script doctoring for years prior to IFC’s new action-comedy Bullet in the Face.
Spencer talks about his time as a script writer, his vow to do original work, the sad state of violence in our society, and the comedy legends that shaped his career.
It’s been about 15 years since you had your name on something — what was it about Bullet in the Face that drew you back into the spotlight? Its the interviews right? You missed those most of all right?
Alan Spencer: Yes, I do miss talking about myself incessantly… Well you know, it’s very difficult to get TV shows on the air. It’s really difficult to get anything on TV unless you do crime, but then you have to aim high.
Or reality TV…
Spencer: Yeah that’s just it. I had success in the 80s with an unconventional show and I was being told to think more conventional, and even though a network will develop unconventional things or even shoot the pilot, when it comes time to put it on the air it’s a real passive aggressive experience. Its like Jekyll and Hyde basically because Mr. Hyde shows up and tells you how terirble you are and they beat you — it’s very bizarre, it’s very bizarre that they will make something and spend the money to shoot it and then say we don’t have a place for this.
I never understood that part of the process anyhow — because a studio can make a number of films — some of them are great, some of them are terrible — but invariably they come out, invariably they get released. Where a network can make a lot of pilots and some of them are marvelous and some of them are outright fantastic and they never see the light of day — and now they kind of wind up on YouTube. It’s a very, very strange process so I retreated into a simpler life of being a script doctor and being behind the scenes because I was just tired of that constant rejection. If I want rejection, I’ll go to a bar…
This came to me and it was unexpected. IFC came to me — you know when Sledge Hammer! came out on DVD and sold so well world wide, networks were coming back to me and asking me to develop for them and I said no and when you say no they come after you all the more. Jim Abrahams and I teamed up and we wrote the most devastating satire on a procedural that Jim was goona direct and the networks still said no while they were admitting it was hilarious. So, you know, I just didn’t care anymore and IFC came to me and they wanted to do an action comedy. They’d begun developing something that didn’t work and had the kernel of something so I wound up writing it as a lark and I didn’t expect it to get shot and I thought it wasnt going to be. Then I get a call from IFC saying we’re not goona make this pilot — and I assumed as much because I made it real self indulgent — and then they said were goona go straight to series and we’re goona need you to write them all and I was thrown. You can’t plan your life, you know what I mean Jason? The last thing I expected was a six episode order but their operating like the BBC does — limited orders, the creative writing involved. They operate more like the BBC at IFC because they can read too, which is helpful.
I hear it’s fundamental or something…
Spencer: Yeah, yeah it is.
The word controversial is practically a part of the title — everything I read about it is “The controversial Bullet in the Face” and that was a label applied to it prior to this recent run of gun related tragedies. If you were starting the script today, would you approach it any differently, and if so how?
Spencer: No. No, I wouldn’t. I anticipate this.
Well yeah, its not like these things aren’t always happening.
Spencer: Yeah Jason, this is the truth, this is the world we live in. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — when random acts of violence start happening with greater frequency they’re no longer random and they become our way of life. We’re not shocked. We’re not as shocked when we hear about the shootings. What we react to is the new location that was chosen. You know, because then it’s a new place that we’re no longer safe, that we have anxiety and trepidation about. We’ve had our schools, we’ve had post offices, we’ve had workplaces, but now a venue where we’re supposed to relax and escape was chosen. It was only a matter of time because I know people… of law enforcement are my friends, both from doing my series which they enjoyed — I have a good relationship with the cops because during the day they would request scenes from Sledge Hammer! for training videos because they would use it as examples of what not to do…
That’s true, and I would give permission for that. So I have friends in the FBI and law enforcement and they said that their two greatest fears were a movie theater and a hotel because they have lax security. Either you buy a ticket and go in or you get a room and check in. They don’t frisk you, they assume. But now the movie going experience is goona be different and there is some precedence for this. In the 60s there was a murder that was inspired by Psycho and they asked Alfred Hitchcock “How do you feel about this? Do you feel responsible?” and he didn’t. He said no, the person should be tried for murder and plagariasm. Some people didn’t know that Psycho was based on a real life serial killer or a real life killer, but I’m sure that you knew that…
Don’t… don’t over estimate my intelligence… I did not know that actually.
Spencer: Well okay, well it’s all fine. If you don’t know about someone that mumifies people you’re allowed. It’s not one of the best things in life to be well versed on, but when I shot a movie, when I directed a movie in Texas in 1991 there was the Luby’s Massacre in a cafeteria there where somebody just showed up and shot 23 people. So these happen a lot and the third episode of Bullet in the Face touches upon this stuff.
Spencer: And so I wouldn’t change anything at all about doing it, if anything I would just… it’s disturbing because people automatically assume somebody is evil or a young person is evil or mentally ill — which they could be — but a lot of times they blame their influences. They point fingers at the wrong things whether its The Matrix or… The New York Times wrote a story blaming Warner Bros. saying that they had a history of violent films from the 30’s gangster movies [to] Dirty Harry and The Wild Bunch, which are wonderful movies, which are morality plays. I don’t know anybody that walked out of The Wild Bunch and said “hey let’s go shoot up a bar”. So these are very intelligent movies, and certainly Christopher Nolan has raised the bar with his stuff but I contend that people are going to do this anyhow. If it’s a movie that draws them to assuming a persona… you know if that movie didn’t exist they’d find something else because they do it all the time, because it’s a very sad state of the world.
I hate being so paranoid late at night but I’ve always been. If I’m in a coffee shop late at night I’m always looking around. There was a 7-Eleven, I walked in once and I was reaching for a pen and I felt the clerk get nervous and I had to realize, you know, it’s three in the morning: “Oh he thinks I’m this” and then he certainly calmed down.
It was a horrible tragedy, I’m sorry people lost lives, I’m sorry that it couldn’t have been prevented. It’s a sad statement about going to the movies, America’s past time that now you have to hear reports on the news about how to be prepared.
You spoke before about the script doctoring; is it hard to remove ego from the process and be at peace with writing something that you’re not goona get credit for?
Spencer: No because it didn’t start with me and I don’t have any emotional investment in it. It’s more detached so it’s — to me it’s like a plumber coming in. You don’t get emotionally involved in those pipes. So whatever happens, good for you. If anything it was a defense against being more emotionally invovled in my own projects.
Speaking of something that you did have an emotional attachment with: Sledge Hammer! — there’s been talk about some kind of movie. Does the low quality of some 80’s remakes or other remakes, does that kind of scare you off of doing a Sledge Hammer! film? That maybe if someone else tries to get their hands on it they’re goona wreck it?
Spencer: Well I wouldn’t let them do it. I’ve been offered many, many times to revive it for TV or movies and I just don’t do it. It was what it should have been. It came close at one point, I was negotiating with a major studio and I was goona write it and then they said that their ideal casting was Larry the Cable Guy and I said no. And people assumed that I wouldnt recast the role because I cast David Rasche and I said I was open to someone else but it would have to be someone like Russell Crowe or something like that. I’m just not a fan of these redos all the time.
Doing research for this, I was really floored by some of the things that you’ve experienced — going on The Gong Show, sneaking onto the set of Young Frankenstein, being mentored by Marty Feldman and befriending Andy Kaufman — Is there a chance that you’ll write an autobiography?
Spencer: People ask me whether I’d write a book or something, you know I’m still living my life so I don’t think about revisiting it. You know, you don’t necessarily evaluate your life as unusual because it’s the only life that you know, so I didn’t realize until later how people viewed what was going on with me or how interesting they felt it was, because I had an unconventional life. But to you it’s the only life you know, so you don’t know its unconventional.
I also read — and I don’t know if this is true or not — but you had made a commitment to yourself after the passing of Andy Kaufman and Marty Feldman that you would focus on non-standard stuff. Is that true, and if so has that commitment been tested?
Spencer: Yes and it is absolutely true Jason, Marty and Andy both worked together in a movie called In God We Tru$t which I was around for, but both Marty and Andy died within quick succession of each other and it was devastating to me. I can remember telling Larry Wilmore, who was also in the pilot of Sledge Hammer!, “God, I’m sorry Marty isn’t here to see this” and I was kind of emotional. It hit me pretty hard, to meet Marty Feldman’s mother at her son’s funeral was nothing that I ever imagined happening and it was bizarre Marty went away on location and it was like he never returned and Andy, to this day people still think that he faked that.
But you know I wrote an episode of Facts of Life — it was a very special episode to add insult to injury — and not a word of it really was mine. It was this preachy treacle about high school literacy, and to bring a live audience for that was self important and I was ashamed because people were watching who knew I was funny. It had no reflection of me in there or my sensibilities, and you and I both have a kinship with Get Smart, that to me was what a normal sitcom was, that to me was what a half hour comedy was. You know, you laughed out loud at action — I was spoiled by that, so anything where people were just sitting around a kitchen table I just couldnt get into. So it hit me pretty hard to have something out on TV that I wasn’t proud of and you know, its no fault of Facts of Life, its a very nice show, but anyone could have written that. I didn’t want that to be my path in life. I wanted my name on things that were a reflection of my own sensibilities. To me thats the succes of a writer, even if people fail with their movies or tv shows… if it has a singular style to them, an identifiable voice, I think that’s — to me — whats successful about it as long as people can read it and know who wrote this and it doesn’t sound like anyone else you know — that’s what i was more going for.
It’s true, losing both of those wonderful men who were both really nice people… I mean Marty was just — he’s like a real life ET, Marty was just amazing. Andy was a gentle soul too, hes never been properly represented and theyre both incredibly brave fearless voices. So I pretty much vowed to myself that I was just goona try to do shows that aren’t like anything else and… that’s why it’s also meant gaps in production, because I’ve been pressured to conform and I’m not interested in doing that. I didn’t want to do things that other people could do.
Do you think thats a minority view?
Spencer: Well there’s a lot of people that approach TV for the money and I’m sure movies as well. It can turn into that, it’s an easier path but I mean, you know Get Smart faced a lot of rejection to get going. I mean, it’s a harder path but you know what happens for a lot of people, they treat the arts like a day job and they define it by the amount of money they make and the house that they live in and everything but the work itself. And also some people boast about not working hard. There was a producer who said that he had the “no headlights on” rule, I said what does that mean? “It means that when we leave it’s still day, we don’t have our headlights on” — so they were proud of that. Meanwhile when I was working on Sledge Hammer! Id work all night, I’d see the dawn, and [it was] the same with Bullet in the Face.
Is that a view that was instilled in you by people that you’ve been around? [People] like Mel Brooks, people that you kind of… cause I mean you started doing this when you were really young, what was it 16 when you had your first script written?
Spencer: I suppose, yeah I started writing proffesionally at 15. I was writing jokes for Rodney Dangerfield and with Rodney Dangerfield it was a science — he took it very, very seriously. He would work these jokes from the syllable to get the rhythms and everything right. Yeah I don’t know, I’ve been around people that phone it in, we dont like that. Of course Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman and Andy Kaufman with their full commitments set fine examples and that’s how it should be and if you take the arts and apply it to anything else, would you want a brain surgeon that phones it in or is lazy? I don’t think so, but that’s just how I was taught and raised and the examples that I saw and it also helps when you have passion for what youre doing because thats the killer.
When you lose passion for what you’re doing it’s readily apparent and very sad. That was something Malcolm McDowell said that was very interesting about why people like his character in the Clockwork Orange, he said you always have to admire somebody that’s lived their life to the fullest. You’re always going to envy them, no matter what they’re doing — you look at that and you go, “well they’re not part of the 99%.” Look at this, look at what theyre doing — this gusto and flare for what they’re doing. We always admre those people and have envy versus being a non entity. So that’s just always the way it’s goona be. Jim Abrahams, those guys the same thing 100%, putting both feet and a lot of commitment into what you’re doing. It’s a little exhausting but that’s as it should be. You know Mel Brooks said something once that I never forgot, about one of his kids, it was something like: “you should crawl into bed with nothing left, just already falling asleep by the time that you crawl into bed, because you spent your day fully” and that’s how I certainly look at life.
Bullet in the Face premiers on IFC Thursday August 16th and continues on Friday August 17th.