Interview: SLEDGE HAMMER! Creator Alan Spencer

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Alan Spencer is the comic genius behind the much loved cult television show Sledge Hammer! A smart pastiche of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films, the show starred David Rasche as Detective Sledge Hammer!, the tough no nonsense cop who talked to his gun.

Spencer was a child when he first discovered the work of Mel Brooks through the television show Get Smart (a film version is due out Next Year with Steve Carrell,). Fascinated by Brooks’ style of comedy, Spencer snuck onto the set of Brooks’ comedy masterpiece Young Frankenstein and met his idol.

Despite only lasting two series Spencer’s Sledge Hammer! has had an enduring appeal and the show has been a huge hit on DVD around the world. I interviewed the witty, intelligent and, let’s be honest – writing mastermind Spencer, to discuss topics ranging from his inspirations to the chances of a Sledge Hammer! film.

Throughout the interview he was frank, funny and open, and he gave his opinions on such hot topics as American politics and the state of television comedy today. He let me know what ideas he’s working on, so we can expect a lot more from this acid witted wonder in the future.

There is only one thing that we really need to do, and that is ‘Trust him, he knows what he’s doing’.

It’s well known that Mel brooks had a huge impact on your career. How did you first discover his work and what do you find appealing about it?

When I was five years old, I happened upon the television series that Mel Brooks co-created with Buck Henry called ‘Get Smart!’ At the time, my parents worked nights so I was what was commonly called a latchkey kid… meaning I came home every day to an empty house. I guess you could say I was the same as Norman Bates… except he had a much closer relationship with his mother than I did.

Being a ‘Home Alone’ child meant I spent a lot of time by myself. I tried to make imaginary friends, but they were all hanging around with more popular kids. It was a pretty lonely existence… and television became very important to me. In many ways, it was my window to the outside world. To this day, I expect my life to be interrupted by commercials.

The prevailing sitcoms of the time all revolved around families and domestic situations… but ‘Get Smart!’ was different. This was the story of a guy who lived alone, much like I did, and even though he was a supposedly suave spy… the character of Maxwell Smart had a very childlike innocence about him. He possessed a lot of naïveté which would naturally explain his appeal for children.

The character of Maxwell was also a bit of a screw-up, so that’s something I could relate to as well. Still, I was inspired by the fact that despite all the obstacles that stood in his way, mostly himself, Max would always save the day. It gave screw-ups like yours truly some much-needed hope.

Clearly there was a lot of satirical intent going on with ‘Smart,’ with its lampooning of government agencies and espionage during the height of the Cold War, but I was pretty much relating to Maxwell as my personal hero. I took the show seriously. I knew I could never be James Bond, John Drake, Harry Palmer, Napoleon Solo or Derek Flint… but I always felt Maxwell Smart was well within my grasp.

I suppose five year olds right now watching George W. Bush feel exactly the same way… as he clearly deals from a five year olds intelligence level.

Anyhow, a few years later my father took me to a double bill at a local movie theater. The main feature was ‘The Dirty Dozen’ starring Lee Marvin. It was fairly exhilarating watching Marvin & Co. wipe out the Nazis. It was also exhilarating to see Trini Lopez break his neck while parachuting so we wouldn’t have to hear him sing again.

The second movie on the double bill was ‘The Producers,’ and I instantly perked up when I recognized the name of the writer and director: Mel Brooks. I knew a treat was in store since this was the man who co-created my favorite TV show. What I didn’t expect was Mel Brooks to decimate Nazis just like ‘The Dirty Dozen’ did; except his weapon of choice wasn’t a machine gun… it was satire. To date, the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard in a movie theater was the overhead Busby Berkley shot with dancers forming a swastika in the infamous ‘Springtime for Hitler’ musical number. To take images associated with evil and spin them into hilarity not only took genius… but guts.

It also wound up having a positive after effect. As a child I remember we had a local wax museum which featured a very lifelike statue of Adolf Hitler. It emanated a dark energy and I was always scared to go near it. After seeing ‘The Producers’ and watching Mel tar and feather the Fuehrer… he took my fear away. I marched right up and stuck my tongue out at Hitler’s visage.

Afterwards, I ran… I mean, I didn’t want to take any chances and have a ‘Westworld’ thing happen with that statue coming life.

How do you think his work has inspired you?

Mel Brooks has a very strategic anarchy. He often chooses targets that deserve to have the Mickey taken out of them. He tends to mock society’s hypocrisies and turn sacred cows into hamburger like he did in ‘Blazing Saddles.’ No one objected to the racial epithets that were hurled around by characters in that movie because it was crystal clear he was making an impassioned statement against racism. He ridiculed it. Today, I think the PC police would be up in arms and stage protests. Mel Brooks will do anything for a laugh… and isn’t that the point? After all, a comedian like Andy Dick is willing to do anything NOT to make you laugh.

I suppose Mel inspired me to see humor in things that aren’t necessarily funny at first glance, which is the core of satire. After all, nuclear war isn’t a laugh riot… but ‘Dr. Strangelove’ certainly made it seem like one.

As a kid, I’d watch ‘Dirty Harry’ perforating miscreants with his Magnum and spouting fascist homilies and see the humor in it while others were horrified. I found the movie ‘Patton’ pretty funny too. What can I say?

I find sociopaths carrying guns to be endearing… unless they work in a post office.

What other writers or comedians are you a fan of? Past or present.

I loved W.C. Fields, who was actually an influence on the character of Sledge Hammer in that he had a cantankerous streak and didn’t give a damn about being loved. The Marx Brothers were great. Laurel and Hardy. Harold Lloyd for sheer inventiveness. Phil Silvers, once again a rogue character that appealed to me. All the Pythons… but Marty Feldman was my favorite. Not just as a comedian, but as a human being.

When I first met Marty I told him that he had the power to ‘kill me,’ because literally that’s how hard he would make me laugh. He smiled and said: ‘I promise never to use it, luv.’ Marty was well known for his large eyes… and they grew even wider when I told him what a fan I was of not just his performing, but his writing. Most Americans during that time, the seventies, didn’t realize what an accomplished scribe he was, so he was fairly amazed to hear a fourteen year old referencing ‘Round The Horne’ and ‘At Last The 1948 Show.’

After that, he took me under his wing… and fed me live worms.

A writer named Norman Steinberg, who wrote ‘My Favorite Year,’ was the first to help me with hands on training and employment. He’s pretty awesome. The executive producer of ‘Get Smart!’ taught me a lot too, Leonard Stern…. not just about writing, but table manners.

Andy Kaufman was my friend and I loved his comedy. I see a lot of his spirit now in Sasha Baron Cohen, who’s about the best we’ve got at the moment.

Is the rumour of you sneaking onto the set of Young Frankenstein true? If so, what was it like being on the set of one of the greatest comedy films ever made?

It was thrilling. What was really memorable was that Mel was very aware of a teenage interloper hanging around and could have easily bounced me off the set, but instead gave me some quick advice: ‘Be inconspicuous, kid.’

Trust me, any other director would have thrown me out of there and would have had every right too… but Mel’s a mensch who also seems to never forget what it’s like to have to barge your way into the business, to be on the outside looking in… desperate to get in. Sounds like I’m describing a first date, doesn’t it?

When I was directing my own movie years later, I never forgot Mel’s kindness and how unusual it was for him to let a young kid just hang out… so when I saw a teenage boy who’d snuck onto my set I smiled, thought back… and had security escort him away.

A lot of Mel’s work is being turned into musicals; maybe you could create a Sledge Hammer! Musical- you must surely have many possibilities for songs?

Sledge would probably point his gun at people and force them to sing… and if he didn’t like what he heard, there’d be no encore.

Did you think when you first created Sledge Hammer! that it would still be popular today?

I created something I personally wanted to see and wished was on the air. I read that George Lucas made ‘Star Wars’ because it was a film no one else was making and he personally wanted to see it. Truth be told, as much as I love ‘Sledge,’ I would have preferred to created ‘Star Wars.’

Actually, I had a notion very similar to ‘Star Wars’ but instead of Imperial Storm-troopers the bad guys were all Republicans. They dressed the same.

Times are cyclical, so a lot of the attitudes that were around when I did ‘Sledge’ have returned with a vengeance. There are actual episodes were Sledge wistfully talks about invading Iraq and Afghanistan… so go figure.

There’s a cartoon on right now called ‘American Dad’ which duplicates some of our gags, their main character is trigger happy and shoots at toasters and on one occasion even spoke to his gun. I took it as a compliment. Then again, I got robbed at gunpoint and felt flattered by that too.

What do you think the appeal of the show is?

That it’s funny. That it’s in color. You can adjust your monitor to it.

I also feel the character of Sledge Hammer is able to do and say a lot of things that people wish they could… and can’t. He’s somewhat of an ‘id’ in the sense that deep down people have crazy, violent tendencies but can’t act on them… unless they’re Britney Spears.

Is it true that you still hold the rights to the show? You must have a great agent in order for you to negotiate a deal like that. How did you manage it?

No one wanted them. Actually, I was essential to the show and very high profile at the time… so I was able to ask for a lot of things and get them. It also helped that I kept speaking in Esperanto, so the executives had no idea what I was demanding.

The casting for the show was impeccable. I mean David Rasche is Sledge Hammer! What made you so sure that he was the right person for the part?

Instinct. Precognition. He was blonde.

It’s odd. I’d read about David’s performances and had never seen him, but I’d ask people about him and they kept saying he was amazing. The sort of roles he kept doing on TV, stage and film all sounded like ‘Sledge Hammer!’ characters so I was mentally filing his name in case the script ever got realized. After I got a ‘go’ to make the pilot, I sat down to look at his performance in the movie ‘Best Defense’ and wasn’t surprised at all that he was right for the part. I sensed it all along.

I suppose I use the Nostradamus method of casting.

Was he your only choice for the role?

Yes, especially since I don’t think Clint Eastwood was available.

There are so many good episodes that stand out. My personal favourite is Witless, what is yours and why?

One that I wrote called ‘The Last of the Red Hot Vampires’ because it dealt with subject matter that meant something to me… the dismissal of older people by Hollywood. Long before the wonderful ‘Ed Wood’ came out, the story of Bela Lugosi haunted me also. I dedicated the episodes to Mr. Lugosi.

Ageism in Hollywood, and everywhere else in my country, is fairly disgusting. It’s blatant and done without excuses. All the time, I see people lying about their age, getting botox, rubbing wrinkle cream around their eyes. I have a friend who just turned thirty eight… for the fifth time.

My other favorite episode is ‘Haven’t Gun, Will Travel’ wherein Hammer’s Magnum was stolen which rendered him impotent. I enjoyed that the writer of it, Gerald Gardner, explored some of the psychological aspects of being a nihilistic man of violence. David’s acting was particularly strong in that episode.

Every time I watch a Dirty Harry film I think of Hammer! You do realise that you ruined the Dirty Harry films for an entire generation of people. How do you feel about that?

I don’t feel I’ve ruined anything except my own reputation. I’m a big fan of the ‘Dirty Harry’ films, specifically the first three films, and my show was actually considered very affectionate towards the inspiration.

I have a lot of respect for Clint Eastwood and was a devotee of his long before the man’s oeuvre became ‘respectable’ and recognized by Oscars. From everything I’ve heard, he liked ‘Sledge Hammer!’ and recognized that it was a homage.

You had a difficult time with the network when making the show, what was your biggest challenge?
Take your pick. Staying on budget. Keeping up the quality of the scripts.
Making sure the plots were interesting and the mysteries stayed logical, despite the fact that they were a half hour in length.

I actually didn’t have as many troubles as you’d think because the network was supportive and pleased with the reviews and ratings for the show. They were proud of it. It also helped that I was dating an executive from the network who asked me out long before we debuted. As long as I could satisfy her in bed, then I’d get script approval for everything. If I’d had too much to drink and was too tired, then there was trouble.

What is your opinion on the current state of television comedy, or feature comedy for that matter?

TV comedy in my country is at a nadir. We have a cable channel called ‘Comedy Central’ that airs ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘The Colbert Report’ and ‘South Park,’ so they literally only have ninety minutes of actual good comedy and the rest of the week’s programming is absolute crap. Also, unlike someone like Sasha Baron Cohen, not everyone was meant to improvise their TV show or movie. There’s a cop comedy on television called ‘Reno 911!’ which is improvised and they made a feature film that was equally unscripted and it showed. I felt like I was watching a high school play where people had profit participation. It made me think of how hard John Cleese labored over his screenplay for ‘A Fish Called Wanda,’ toiling over that material for years to get it right. There’s a reason why that film is a classic. Cleese is a genius who works incredibly hard.

What type of comedy shows/ films do you watch today?

I love Judd Apatow’s work, who’s a nice guy. I’m fond of ‘Hot Fuzz’ as well as ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ so I hope that Pegg, Wright and Frost keep working together. Pegg’s a very strong performer. I see anything Johnny Depp does… as well as Michael Caine. I’m looking forward to the new Indiana Jones movie. Oh, and I used to watch ‘Van Helsing’ every night for awhile because I found it to be a crazed anti-classic. After half a bottle of Chardonnay and a six pack of Stellas… it’s a real laugh riot.

As far as other stuff I watch, I’ve become addicted to You Tube. I love all the backyard videos posted there and it’s refreshing to see how nuts the average person is. For a time, I got addicted to porn… but I gave that up after I went out with an adult film actress. Most men fantasize about seeing the woman they’re dating naked for the first time… but I’d already seen that in her films. I’d also seen her share a bed with three men at the same time. Her definition of someone being good in bed meant they didn’t fall out.

Have the DVD sets of the show sold well? There are quite a few fans out there so I can imagine they were big sellers?

‘Sledge Hammer!’ on DVD was a big hit around the world. I think they showed the episodes to the prisoners in Abu Ghraib which explains all the outrage.

If the show had gone on for another season or two, what direction would it have went ?

Downhill. Actually I would have been forced to deal more and more with Hammer’s relationship with Doreau and would have gotten deeper into his psyche, so that the show wouldn’t become redundant. The reason the current spoof genre went into decline is because it no longer relied on character or even basic story structure, just a potpourri of jokes shotgunned at the audience. They also don’t exist on their own terms or have verisimilitude ‘Young Frankenstein’ isn’t a sketch, but an actual part of the Frankenstein canon.

Despite having gags and absurd concepts, ‘Sledge Hammer!’ was first and foremost a character comedy. I wanted the characters to evolve over the course of the series and I’m particularly fond of the final episode. That was the one where Sledge came to the realization that maybe he wasn’t just a loner… but lonely. A lot of people took issue when he hurled his beloved gun across the room in frustration, but people don’t always behave consistently when they’re having personal problems. Ask O.J. Simpson.

Over the years there have been many rumours of a Sledge Hammer! Film, what is the progress?

I’ve declined the offers, mostly because I wouldn’t be afforded the same level of creative control I had on the series. I’ve already had one studio executive tell me that a movie version of Sledge shouldn’t talk to his gun… so that meeting ended with me pistol whipping the guy. Most of the meetings were with people who wanted something called ‘Sledge Hammer!’ but not representative of what the show was all about. I’d want a movie version to deal with the current world climate, and not just global warming, and be satirical. Hammer would love to be part of homeland security and would feel everyday is 9/11.

Actually, I’m supposed to meet with one of the producers of ‘The Departed’ to talk about the concept of ‘Sledge Hammer!’ as a movie again… so we’ll see.

Would you be writing the film if it came to fruition?

Yep. The character and I are a lot alike. He uses a gun and I use a computer mouse. With both, you just point and click.

Like I said before David Rasche is Sledge. What casting ideas do you have, if the film happened, who would your ideal Sledge be?

It would still be David… but Will Farrell could do it really well. I loved him in ‘Anchorman.’

During my research I read that you have been a script doctor on a few films. Can you give any more information on this?

For many years, I was under contract to a studio and I would either rewrite or ‘punch up’ a lot of feature films. It was unaccredited work, but I learned a lot and was well compensated for it. It was also a way of hiding out as toiling on someone else’s project is an easy way not to get emotionally involved. I tend to be passionate about my own stuff and that makes it all the more painful when you suffer the ‘slings and arrows’ of outrageous decision making. Probably the major problem with TV comedy right now is that humor is subjective and the executives who make the decisions have a certain antipathy towards what makes people laugh. Visual humor on TV is at a low tide because the executives aren’t adept at reading a script that features sight gags. That’s why television humor is so primarily verbal and even then… it’s mostly tired, insipid sarcasm. Let’s face it, most sitcoms look like they’ve passed through a colon first.

I take it that you’re still not a fan of Mr Belvedere?

Is anybody?

On the DVD commentary for Sledge Hammer! there appears to be an earthquake, is that a set up? I’ve been curious since I listened to it.

Well, I was there… so I definitely know what went down.

What projects are you currently working on?

I co-wrote a pilot with Jim Abrahams that’s a sendup of procedural dramas. People said it was one of the funniest half hours they’ve ever read… so, of course, the network didn’t order it. We’ve been trying to get it back to develop it as a movie, but so far the script hasn’t been put into ‘turnaround.’ At present, I’ve written a genre project that we’re trying to find a director for. All I’ll say is… it’s like a modern reinvention of a Hammer horror movie with a lot of humor. So you see, I’m never far from the word ‘Hammer.’