Writer, producer, and cult icon Alan Spencer took some time to talk to me about Shout!’s DVD release of his newest show, IFC’s Bullet in the Face. We discuss the use of violence in his work (including the legendary Sledge Hammer! television series from the 80s), anti-heroes in comedy, and the exceptionally unique experience that is Bullet in the Face.
Bethany Lewis: I just read an article about a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry where comedians scored unusually high on a test designed to measure psychotic traits in healthy people. It made me think of your uniquely twisted sense of humor and the kind of characters you write. Do you think it helps to be kind of psychotic when writing comedy and do you see it as a kind of creative outlet for unconventional or socially unacceptable ideas?
Alan Spencer: I would have to definitely say that. The late Marty Feldman – and you’re referencing a study from the UK – Marty used to say something akin to that comedy is trafficking in your neuroses, and that’s your business. But I think it’s useful, because with a lot of twisted behavior or twisted thoughts, if you don’t have an outlet for it you could act out in real life. It’s better to put it in fiction. It’s much healthier to write a twisted sitcom than a manifesto. A lot of extreme comedy and characters I find to be a degree of wish fulfillment, because they do and say things people wish they could do in real life, but can’t. So I think there’s a healthy kind of catharsis, would be my word, in dealing with it.
I think it’s also healthier to laugh at it as opposed to being afraid of it or being oppressed by it. Laughter takes the fear away. Mel Brooks was the pioneer of that. He fought in WWII, saw Nazis face to face, and look what he’s done. Springtime for Hitler is an amazing piece of work. As a kid there was a wax museum that had a statue of Hitler and it terrified me. And after I saw The Producers and the Springtime for Hitler musical number I went back there and was sticking out my tongue at it. That’s kind of what can happen when you deal in extreme comedy. And actually, when I saw The Producers it was on a double bill, I remember very vividly my father took me to two movies together, they were The Dirty Dozen and The Producers. So I saw Lee Marvin take down Nazis and Mel Brooks hurl tomatoes at them. It was the perfect double punch.
Bethany Lewis: Connected to that, I find it interesting that so many people had a problem with the violence in Bullet in the Face, and in Sledge Hammer! earlier. Do you think the use of violence heightens the comedy, and why did you decide to employ it on such a realistic level in Bullet in the Face?
Alan Spencer: Nobody’s really dealt with violence and comedy in the half hour form very much. I would say only really three shows, and I did two of them. The one that I was raised on and was very influential to me as a kid was the original Get Smart – a satire and spy story. And part of the milieu was that a lot of people were getting killed and a lot of the danger was very, very real, which was a conscious thing. So when I saw Dirty Harry I loved the movie and I loved Clint Eastwood, loved everything about it, but I found something funny about it. It had a sense of humor and I felt like if you exaggerated just a little you could take it as a comedy. So you know, I wrote the Sledge Hammer! screenplay during the 70s. And that would have been R-rated, it was very violent and it got an extreme reaction from people who didn’t understand what I was doing or the point of reference. But then years later Sudden Impact came out, “go ahead and make my day”, and all the Dirty Harry zeitgeist, and suddenly people are looking to lampoon it, and I had already written the script.
And then the opportunity came around to do this show, Bullet in the Face, and you know, the times had changed, there were more liberties. So I was actually taking full advantage to do things that I always wanted to do, and we got to do it. What’s amazing to me is how it upset some people, how the PTC listed us amongst violent programming – and we’re a comedy and a satire listed among Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and all those other shows. But they’re still counting instances of violence per minute, and I’m very proud that my half hour show can compete with those other shows for the most violent.
And also I was exploring a villain, which was an interesting thing to me too, a different sort of anti-hero. Sledge Hammer was a good-bad guy, who’s still a good guy. This was more of an unrepentant villain, a bad-bad guy. Many people have said that it’s akin to Gotham City drafting the Joker to make him a cop. Usually comedy doesn’t do that, you know. The Sopranos or Breaking Bad can have a villain as their main character, so that was also something I wanted to do.
Bethany Lewis: Well, that answers my next question about how you don’t see anti-heroes in comedy very often.
Alan Spencer: Yeah, it was just interesting to work in the realm of like Clockwork Orange and with evil. You know, you have a fearless actor who embraced it. With Max Williams, a lot of people didn’t know how to play the part, it was too extreme, but he got it and took a big bite out of it, and liked the main character. There was something Malcolm MacDowell said that was interesting about why Alex the Droog is liked in A Clockwork Orange. He’s totally reprehensible, but Malcolm MacDowell gave the opinion that you always admire someone who is living life to the fullest, no matter what they’re doing. For him, beating up people and kicking them in the face and singing Singin’ in the Rain, he’s doing it with such gusto and having a good time, you kind of have to admire him. I kind of thought about that in Bullet in the Face and using the fact that Gunter was having such a good time with it.
Bethany Lewis: I was interested in the use of all the Germanic names and places in the show, especially since it was a choice that fit the production so well. What was the influence behind that?
Alan Spencer: Well, German was germane to this. The answer to that, in all honesty, is that a little network called IFC came to me with a premise – they were developing something with a Canadian production company – a TV show that wasn’t working. And they asked me to come in to see if it could fix it or do something with it. The premise of it was already a German bad guy who became a cop in a Miami Vice city in a parody of 80s tropes. So basically I threw everything out, and the only element of it I kept was a criminal becoming a cop, who’s German. I don’t know why it was German in the original.
I was interested in the video game world and the graphic novel world, so I invented a city called Brüteville and subtitled it “a melting pot of crime”. I came up with that later to kind of justify the fact that everyone was talking in weird, different accents. Some people are French, one guy sounds Scandinavian – and it was funny, one the network executives didn’t like it and wanted me to take it out, but I wouldn’t do it. I argued for it by saying that this explains the show. So that’s basically how it happened. Besides, if you’re dealing with a sadist or with malevolence or whatever, a German accent seems just born for that. A lot of people felt that Max Williams’ interpretation of Gunter Vogler reminded them of a young Klaus Kinski. Klaus Kinski was one of my favorite unintentionally funny people.
Bethany Lewis: We’ve talked a little bit about the similarities and differences between Sledge Hammer and Gunter Vogler as characters, how Hammer is a good-bad guy and Gunter is a bad-bad guy – but it occurs to me that under different circumstances that their roles might have been reversed.
Alan Spencer: Well, there’s a big difference between saying something and doing something. So Sledge Hammer having a philosophy like that is a far cry from actually doing it. There’s macho posturing and then there’s true mayhem and destruction. But it’s a very thin line between heroes and anti-heroes. I think heard an actor say once that if you play a good guy you make him a little bad, but if you play the bad guy you make him a little good. So it’s an interesting mirror between the two, because no one is all good and no one is all bad. Certainly Sir Alfred Hitchcock delighted in showing similarities between hero and villain and their common ground.
But both Sledge Hammer and Gunter Vogler share a wish fulfillment, because they’re saying things that are cutting to the chase and they get to act on their frustrations. But where Sledge Hammer would single-mindedly focus on villains and stopping crime or being a fearsome figure, Gunter Vogler just causes mayhem. You know, and Sledge Hammer talks to his gun and Gunter Vogler is in love with Martine, and he’s abusive to her, but he only realized that she was his soulmate when she betrayed him.
Bethany Lewis: I have to say that in that third episode, I love when Gunter actually does the right thing and ultimately gets punished for it by being shot in the face again.
Alan Spencer: Well, it was important to me to live up to the title of the show. I mean, if you have a show with the title Lost in Space you’re going to want to see people being lost in space. So if you have a show with the title Bullet in the Face you have an integrity to keep that alive for every episode. And that’s another instance of then and now, because I thought about how to end the episode, and this is what I’d like to do and no one would have let me do this then, but they’ll let me do it now. So I did it and it was the kind of ending the people laughed really, really hard at. The reaction to it was fascinating from a live audience because they were both shocked and laughing – split evenly. Some people were laughing because they couldn’t believe that happened and others were just shocked because we played it for real with blood and the psychotic laughter. I really enjoy disturbing people.
Bethany Lewis: So are there any plans for a second season?
Alan Spencer: Well, not from the network, no. But never say never. I only had a contract for six episodes, and I gave the show an ending. The network was saying, “hold back, you don’t want to use everything”, and I never hold back. But I just had a contract for six, so I assumed that’s all there would be. It’s a little bit of an ambiguous ending, but it is an ending. So, as opposed to saying no, I’ll just say never say never. You never know what will happen.
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