Interview: Writer/Producer Alan Spencer
The creator of "Sledge Hammer!" on comedic writing, script-doctoring, and "sneaking into" the business.
Earlier this year, I became acquainted online with writer and producer, Alan Spencer. The unexpected exchange (which I’ll get into more later) was a real thrill for me, being that Spencer created one of my all-time favorite television comedies, Sledge Hammer!
The series, which starred David Rasche and ran for two seasons on ABC (1986-1987), was an uproariously funny satirical poke at the “loose cannon” police-detective genre. I was almost 14 when the pilot aired, and I immediately fell in love with the show, recording every episode for repeat viewings.
Sledge Hammer! is still well remembered and revered by fans across the world, but what may be less known is Alan’s long and incredibly fascinating history in television and film, including the extraordinary, behind-the-scenes work he continues to do.
Alan’s a very busy guy, so I was extremely grateful when he agreed to take the time to do an interview with me for the “Daly Grind” newsletter. I hope you all enjoy our conversation below.
John: Alan, thank you for doing this. It means a lot. To be honest, I’m a little reluctant to try and be funny in this interview, being that you’re a comedic pro, and my lifelong efforts to make people laugh fall mostly under the “hobby” category. At the same time, I kind of feel the need to try and impress you. Because if I can draw a chuckle from between the lips of the man who blessed the world with Sledge Hammer! (a program whose mere mention draws reflexive laughter from multiple members of my immediate family), I can navigate through life with my head held high.
Alan: As Sledge Hammer would say… “Enough warmth.” Actually, I co-opted that line with the blessing of the late Garry Marshall, still late and still great, as an homage to an MOW he co-wrote called “Evil Roy Slade” that is probably the funniest TV movie ever made… as well as a backdoor pilot that could have yielded a hall of fame series. It has its own cult of sorts. It’s even been shown theatrically a few times.
John: You really do have an amazing Hollywood origin story. In the seventh grade, you were a contestant on the Gong Show, where you performed a singing impersonation of Maxwell Smart (Don Adams’ iconic character from another one of my favorite television comedies, Get Smart). The appearance led you to doing stand-up comedy at Los Angeles nightclubs, including the world famous “Comedy Store”. But things got even more interesting when, at the age of 14, you successfully sneaked onto the lot at Twentieth Century Fox studios, where one of your comedic heroes, Mel Brooks, was directing the 1974 film classic, Young Frankenstein.
Quick callback: when I was 14, I was just kind of sitting around in my basement, eating Pringles straight from the can while watching episodes of Sledge Hammer! You, on the other hand, were infiltrating a major Hollywood studio, and watching a comedic legend work his craft. That’s really something.
While you were on the set, hanging back in the shadows and trying to keep a low profile, someone rather famous took notice of you. Can you talk about that moment, and the friendship and opportunities it ultimately led to?
Alan: A troll wrote after one of my interviews how I tell the same stories over and over again ad nauseam. Then someone came to my defense that it’s only because I get asked the same questions over and over again.
Anyway, for the umpteenth time, but hopefully with some new shading… I went down to the 20th Century Fox Studios, before those became 21st Century Fox and before that became Fox/Disney, to get an audience with Marty Feldman. He was a comedic idol of mine who I’d read was in the states shooting his first Hollywood movie. Unlike a lot of yanks, I knew Marty’s background in Great Britain. He wasn’t just a pair of bulging eyes, but an accomplished comedy writer over in the UK and I hoped to seek his advice. I also just wanted to meet him. Michael Jackson wanted to meet Marty too. I have no idea for what purpose or whether Marty ever complied. Maybe it was to please Bubbles the Chimp.
Marty was thrilled to “feel seen” by me, as the current expression goes, since I knew his full background and intellect. We became friends. He took me under his wing and fed me worms.
It didn’t create an opportunities per se. I wasn’t looking for a job like everybody else usually was back then, but instead wanted guidance. The biggest gift I got was validation and confidence. Marty always said he knew immediately I would make it, but I never asked him how or why. I took him at his word.
That’s a funny thing about the entertainment industry, some people just possess a je ne sais quoi and you peg their abilities early on. It’s why some nascent appearances of major talents make such a strong impression despite the marginalized nature of their first introductions to the public. Some people stand out. Marty Feldman was always an example of that sort of individual.
John: Having been inspired to write comedy, you sold some of your early joke-work to some of the era’s top comedians, including Rodney Dangerfield, who were much older than you and had no idea that they were paying a “kid” for material. Until I read this part of your bio, I hadn’t realized such a business-model even existed. I figured that such material always came from the comedians themselves. But I suppose it makes perfect sense, similar to how the songwriting business works.
How did you break into that line of work, and do you remember which joke-purchase, by which comedian, most surprised you?
Alan: I’d read an interview Woody Allen gave in 1968 B.C. (Before Cancellation) from a book I believe called “Great Comedians Talk About Comedy” by Larry Wilde. He talked about selling jokes through the mail to something called the Robert Orben Comedy Column (this is purely from memory) that ran in newspapers, so that was the first time I’d learned about selling jokes through the mail.
Marty advised me not to write generic jokes — to pick a comic that had a distinctive voice and style and try to imitate it, since part of writing for successful comedians is tailoring the material to their personas. There was no stronger comedic persona than Rodney Dangerfield with his patented delivery and iambic pentameter rhythms.
Believe it or not, Dangerfield’s one liners and Shakespeare carry similar symmetries. That’s why you can hear his voice saying: “To be or not to be, with me it was always not to be.” There’s a poetry and rhythm that coincide. It’s not natural speech, but the key is to deliver it properly.
I was surprised during my first outing that every joke I submitted to Dangerfield (I recall it being sent to a P.O. Box) was purchased. Since he was regularly appearing on TV, he burned through a lot of material because once a joke got performed on “The Tonight Show” it was all used up. Nightclub material on the road had a longer lifespan since there were no phones or internet.
I remember a few of the jokes I sold:
“I walked into a bar. The bartender said ‘what do you want?’ I said surprise me. He showed me a nude picture of my wife.”
“I opened a fortune cookie. It said ‘I Did It With Your Mother.’ I said there must be some mistake. I opened another one, it said… ‘Twice.’”
“My wife put a mirror over the bed. It says ‘objects may appear larger than they are.’”
“When I was a kid, I asked my father to give me something to get rid of my pimples. He handed me a gun.”
“My kid asked me to tell him about the birds and the bees. I said I’ll give you the short version… you were adopted.”
While these jokes may not read as funny on the page, Dangerfield delivering them in his established style made them uproarious. It was also amusing how I was a kid writing ersatz “mature” humor.
Dangerfield treated it like a science, one wrong syllable and the joke wouldn’t land, so it was fascinating to see how he honed material. I’d heard that audiences in other countries could watch Dangerfield perform and, despite not knowing the language he was speaking, would still howl because they recognized the rhythms. He sounded funny.
John: You went on to write for a number of successful television sitcoms, including “One Day at a Time” and “Mork & Mindy”. During that time, you met and became friends with comedian Andy Kaufman, who was starring on the show “Taxi” (again, another of my favorites). I was taken back by a story you tell on your website of Kaufman compelling you to join him in a 96-hour marathon-viewing of “The People’s Court” episodes.
I’m curious how he managed to talk you into that, how you managed to stick with it until the end, and who you think would have won in a bare-knuckled fight between Doug Llewelyn and Rusty the Bailiff?
Alan: If anyone is interested in this tale, which I believe has been chronicled in print and is now urban legend, I recommend they buy the Blu-ray release of a movie Andy Kaufman was featured in called “In God We Tru$t,” where you can hear me discuss this on record during the commentary track, but not under oath like “The People’s Court.” Kino Lorber released the film on physical media which is still the best media.
Andy was fascinated by “The People’s Court” and used to study the episodes of that show, particularly the moments when people lost cases and got upset. He was obsessed with people losing their shit for real on TV.
It’s easy to envision Andy making a film with his Foreign Man character, called Latka on “Taxi,” that would be akin to the “Borat” movie. I’m sure Andy would have reveled in the pranks on display in “Jackass” which leave me gasping for air, also laughing. The “Senior Shoplifter” character in the first “Jackass” movie is sublime. I could certainly see Andy filming remote pieces like that, perhaps as Tony Clifton or some obnoxious persona. Come to think of it, Tony Clifton could run for president and win… or maybe already did?
Early on, I was toiling on a maudlin daytime show and the producers were impressed I knew Andy. One of the segments involved celebrities being reunited with old high school sweethearts and Andy agreed to do it as a favor to me. We started planning a sequence where it would go hilariously wrong, all completely staged with actors, depicting Andy’s old girlfriend having a jealous, abusive husband who unexpectedly comes home and turns violent towards the situation. We were planning to have the husband chase Andy into the woods with a shotgun, but when the producers noticed we were ordering fake blood capsules for a daytime show that housewives back then watched… they realized something was amiss and canned the segment.
John: Both Marty Feldman and Andy Kaufman unfortunately passed away at early ages, which I know was very hard on you. You say you re-focused your writing style as sort of a tribute to the two of them. Can you explain that a bit, as well as how that adjustment ultimately led to Sledge Hammer!
Alan: It wasn’t “a tribute” because, while they were influences, I had my own identity and voice… and writing for other comedies, as well as network situation comedies, entails replicating another voice and modus operandi. You’re not reinventing the wheel, just spinning it without deviation.
I’d written an episode of “The Facts of Life,” a popular and successful show, and I was rewritten, save for two lines and the stage directions, which is what happens when you’re a freelancer… as that’s what a staff and story editor are for. But it was a half hour comedy that other people laughed at and not myself. There’s nothing wrong with that show. It’s done by nice, hardworking, talented people… but it’s normal people humor and I prefer something more deranged. I toiled on many sitcoms and never found them personally funny. The actors and writers were often hilarious when they went off script, but contained by the form and respective time-slot. The groundbreaking TV shows benefited from series like those because the avant-garde efforts stood out more, whether they succeeded or not, breaking through by direct comparison.
So, I made a vow to write something I personally found funny from my own point of view, not adhering to the rules and norms that get engrained in anyone working for studios and networks back then, and just make myself laugh. And that’s when I wrote the screenplay for “Sledge Hammer!”
John: Was Sledge Hammer! as fun of a show to work on as people would probably imagine? I’m picturing lots of outtakes and laughter, and crew-members having to wear earplugs during Harrison Page’s scenes.
Alan: It was hard work with very long hours, with limited budgets. The studio making the show had a 976 number. And there was a grind of keeping up with airdates since there was no binge viewing back then. These were mini-movies and I kept striving for action and locations not usually accorded to the half hour form which, when you remove the commercials, bumpers and credits, is actually around twenty two minutes of actual show.
John: Some episodes and scenes particularly stand out for me. I loved “Witless” (with that fantastic bit where Hammer tries to discretely knock out a thug), and “Over My Dead Bodyguard” (that close-quarters closet-fight is a hoot). But one that immediately comes to mind for most fans is “All Shook Up.” It was about a string of Elvis impersonators being murdered.
A few weeks ago, you told a story on Twitter about a well-known individual (whose name has recently been back in the limelight) who was pretty upset about that episode. Would you mind again sharing who it was and what angered him?
Alan: “Witless” people still talk about. Even the holy figure of Blake Edwards saw that one and enjoyed it which meant soooooo much to me.
When Hammer tried to knock out a hitman using the butt of his gun, instead painfully clubbing the poor guy and causing him to holler in agony, that was my subconscious riff on “Mannix” which is a show I love — filled with things that are screamingly funny when you consider them out of context… such as how one private eye working out of a small office can get hired for so much over the top derring-do on a regular basis. He investigates a case about a missing broach; by the end of the first act, he’s diving off a yacht that explodes.
As far as “All Shook Up,” the late, not great Colonel Parker called me, castigating me for the episode which he deemed “sick”. He was deeply offended by the shot of dead Elvis impersonators shown in a morgue with matching pompadours and cussed me out about it. I consider it a career highlight.
John: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know until just recently that you wrote and directed the movie, Hexed (1993). My college roommates and I watched it in our dorm room back in the day, and thought it was hilarious. Granted, they were drunk, but I wasn’t, so I can vouch for how solid it is (in a clear-headed way). I don’t have any real question here. I just figured this needed to be said. Good job on Hexed.
Alan: “Hexed” was heavily compromised. The first preview went really well, but young people liked it better than the older set, so the executive in charge, a man who learned to read off tattoos, decreed that all the intelligent stuff and kitschy music had to go with an emphasis instead on the broader stuff. That meant manually inserting rock songs that had nothing to do with the film. Originally, it opened with the theme from “Valley of the Dolls” which made a satirical statement, and the adults in the first preview audience roared, but the kids didn’t… so they rejiggered the film towards youth. The exact words from this exec were: “We need to make this more lowbrow.”
I was spoiled by those great ABC execs back when I did “Sledge Hammer!” because they allowed me to show a Republican Campaign Headquarters nestled in the midst of a sleazy area of the city, and never flinched. When they tested it before an audience, the minorities in attendance cheered. Keep in mind, this was the 80s, so satirical statements weren’t being made in sitcoms too much then.
“Hexed” does have a cult following and made money since it was lower budget than people realize. It was sold as a parody film, which it wasn’t, and the recut gave it a start and stop rhythm, but I did get a few good reviews as well as plethora of bad ones. Home video releases of this and a cable series did feature “From the Creator of Sledge Hammer” on their covers, but only on “Sledge Hammer!” did I have complete creative control… which included the casting of David Rasche which was essential to me.
The head of the studio making “Sledge Hammer!” wanted an established comedian in the role, someone like Rodney Dangerfield, but I wanted someone to act, not act funny. David had a Second City background, but was doing a lot of serious work… so his casting became make it or break it to me. He’s always appearing in quality projects, like HBO’s “Succession,” and we had a cast reunion in San Francisco when Sketchfest did a tribute.
John: You have lots of other writing, directing, and even acting credits we could talk about, but since I promised to keep this interview relatively short (a promise I may have already broken), I’ll just link to your IMDB page at this point, and move over to a topic regarding work you haven’t gotten credit for (at least not publicly). From what I understand, you do a lot of anonymous rewriting of film scripts. You are what some call a “script doctor”. Can you explain what that is, what script doctors add to a movie, and why such work is often anonymous?
Alan: After suffering a loss of autonomy directing a film, I decided to retreat rather than surrender and work from the bureaucratic side of the business by rewriting other people’s work, customizing things according to the studio’s directives, often “fixing” scripts they’d decreed as not working or that had been rewritten so many times, they’d lost their original impetus. When you rewrite someone else’s concept, you’re not emotionally involved like your own original conception. You can learn a lot from this aspect of a writer’s existence, both creatively as well as diplomatically. I garnered a certain renown as a script doctor, mostly comedies… but a few dramas too.
Punch up tables where they bring in not just other writers, but comedians, can be very fun, highly charged and competitive, but we’ve seemed to evolve into Zoom sessions now as opposed to all sharing space together. It lacks the same idiosyncrasy of shouting over a table at one another.
Script doctoring isn’t just work done on the page. In a few instances I helped recut films, and one time wrote all new narration performed by a cast member the head of the studio designated. It was a historical epic, so the polarity compared to what I was previously known for was the appeal in that regard.
You can learn more about how a system works by working for it rather than battling it.
John: Here’s a question I’ve been dying to ask, for purely ego-related purposes. When we met online, in the context of a Sledge Hammer! tweet, I was floored to discover that you had read (and enjoyed) at least one of my novels. To be clear, I wasn’t surprised that you read novels, or anything like that. I was just intrigued that my work had found its way to you. Though my books do well enough on the independent scene, I’m not exactly a New York Times best-selling author, and I haven’t seen huge sales of my books in California. So, I guess I’m just curious what turned you, a Hollywood guy whose writing I’ve long enjoyed, onto my writing.
Alan: You have Amazon’s algorithms to thank for that. I enjoy reading spy novels, mysteries, cop thrillers and the like… so I’m always on the lookout. Amazon recommendations really do work, although I haven’t watched “The Boys” no matter how much they flash that title while I’m hunting for new coffee flavors.
John: One last question. You mentioned to me the other day that you are currently doing some rewriting for Disney. I don’t know if you can say much about this project beyond that, but if you happen to be working on a Snow White reboot, might I suggest adding an eighth dwarf? The odd number always bothered me.
Alan: Disney has acquired a great many studios and properties. So far, the executives have been marvelous as we’ve been developing a new adventure for Inspector Hammer in a very changed world landscape. That’s all I’ll say about that as we’re still in the scripting stages.
John: A reboot of the show would be awesome. Thanks again, Alan, for taking time for me and my readers. I very much appreciate it. People can follow you on Twitter and Instagram, and learn more about you (and Sledge Hammer!) on your website. Best of luck on your current and future writing. Is there anything you’d like to say, in closing, to Daly Grind readers?
Alan: Trust me; I still know what I’m doing.
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Regular Features Will Return Next Week
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