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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sledge Hammer! creator Alan Spencer on humanizing a gun-crazy nihilist for a network sitcom

Illustration for article titled Sledge Hammer! creator Alan Spencer on humanizing a gun-crazy nihilist for a network sitcom

For more Sledge Hammer! coverage in advance of this weekend’s 30th-anniversary reunion event, read our interview with the show’s star, David Rasche.


Alan Spencer was in his 20s and still in the early stages of his TV- and film-writing career when he created Sledge Hammer!, a seminal cop spoof that aired for two seasons on ABC from 1986 to 1988. Despite his youth, Spencer managed to develop a series with a singular voice and a lasting appeal. The series’ lead character, Inspector Sledge Hammer (David Rasche), is a violence-loving embodiment of right-wing pride whose absolutist passion for firearms still resonates amid today’s heated debates over gun rights. Spencer tempered this avatar of mayhem with the two other main characters: Dori Doreau (Anne-Marie Martin), Sledge’s sensible partner, keeps her berserker colleague in check while their superior, the perpetually hypertensive Capt. Trunk (Harrison Page), rages at Sledge’s bumbling and bullying. They are the ego and superego, respectively, to Sledge’s id.

Still, if Sledge were nothing but a Dirty Harry parody, as the character is often described, the show would have felt flat. Instead, Sledge’s gleeful rage is offset by an endearing naivete (which is baked into his catchphrase, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing”) and a latent humanity that give him dimension beyond mere caricature. The dual nature of Sledge Hammer!’s hero is evident in the show’s two season finales. The first year ends with Sledge detonating a nuclear warhead; the second concludes with Sledge awkwardly proposing marriage to Doreau and then, just as awkwardly, retracting it in the face of her consternation.

After Sledge Hammer!, Spencer would go on to a fruitful career as a Hollywood script doctor. In 2012, IFC aired his series Bullet In The Face, which (as the title might indicate) evoked Sledge Hammer! with its giddy, over-the-top approach to violence. This weekend, Spencer will appear with the original cast of the show in a 30th-anniversary reunion at SF Sketchfest. Spencer spoke to The A.V. Club about the formulation of Sledge Hammer!’s characters, the challenges of portraying violence in an 8:00 timeslot on ABC, and the enduring relevance of the show.

The A.V. Club: Do you think that Sledge Hammer would be a Donald Trump voter?

Alan Spencer: I think Sledge would actually run for office against Donald Trump. He dresses a little bit better. He has the better ties. I’ve said to people before—because people talk about Sledge Hammer! and rebooting and revivals—that basically a lot of the dialogue that Donald Trump is expounding is what Sledge would say running for office, except Sledge would be more effective. I think Sledge is more moderate than Donald Trump.

AVC: That’s actually true. Rewatching the show, it’s surprising how relevant it remains 30 years later. Do you think the show still has something to say to our current culture?

AS: I was just being true to myself and my view of society and America. Those determinations, as far as whether the show is prescient or relevant, are for you to make, not me. Definitely as far as anything that people thought was—that they refer to as “prescient”—you look at trends. Trends tend to escalate, and satire is all about exaggeration. I was exaggerating what I was seeing at the time. It started early on when I saw the Dirty Harry movies as a kid, which is when I originally started writing Sledge Hammer!. Anything that begins in a serious vein eventually starts getting parodied and satirized, and then you can’t take it so seriously. It becomes exaggerated. The ultimate example is the first two James Bond movies, particularly From Russia With Love, aren’t fooling around. Those are serious still. Then it becomes a lampoon of itself.


That applies to the arts—James Bond, genres, Dirty Harry. It also applies to life. The things that I was exaggerating and satirizing were within the Reagan era. What you’ve seen is that Reagan now has been anointed by the GOP as their Obi-Wan Kenobi. They talk about having a hologram of him walk out on the stage at the convention. I’m pretty convinced that the GOP was excited about Jurassic Park because that meant they could use Reagan DNA and clone him. But [Sledge Hammer!] was basically exaggerating the Reagan-era jingoism that was going on where you have a president saying, “Go ahead, make my day” and using Rambo as an example of what to do in foreign policy.

The thing that you have to remember about Sledge Hammer!, then and now: Liberals laughed at it because it was skewering the right, and the right embraced it because Sledge made sense to them. People were always shocked to find out my own politics, where I was standing on things. When the show was on, I was offered honorary memberships in the NRA. They wanted to bring me in. They also wanted Sledge Hammer, as if he was a real character, to get an NRA membership. I declined.


AVC: The show gained a following overseas in syndication. Why do you think it caught on with foreign audiences?

AS: Fundamentally because it’s funny. It’s visual. Visual translates well. Visual humor is universal, so it’s not so indigenous to America. They can get it. Those kind of characters travel well. Maxwell Smart. Inspector Clouseau. Sledge Hammer. Austin Powers. Those kind of comic crimefighters tend to travel well. They’re almost like silent movies in their own way.


Sledge is very big in Germany. My theory is that the show was huge in Germany because David is blond and blue-eyed, and they like those kind of fascists. [Laughs.] They wanted to have an official Sledge Hammer! convention in Germany, but my fear is they were going to call it a “rally.”

In Japan and China, where the show is really big, I learned something about it. The shows and movies that were popular in some of these foreign regions were Get Smart, Sledge Hammer!, and Animal House. And the way the foreign countries were looking at it was, they were critical of America. They were actually, to the foreign countries, they were putdowns of America. That’s how they viewed it. Get Smart was our government. Sledge Hammer! was our law enforcement. Animal House was our education system. [Laughs.] That’s how some of the countries were viewing this show.


But you know, the show can be viewed as critical of America, if you look at it under that prism. Depending on how you look at it, it works on various different levels. For some people, it’s just stupid—they don’t see any of the satire of it.

AVC: You can watch the show with the idea that Sledge embodies an essential part of the American psyche. It does work that way—it’s very funny that way, in fact.


AS: I believe that’s why it’s endured. It’s why I’ve had discussion off and on, periodically, about a new version or a reinvention of it. I’m taking them more seriously now just because of the climate we’re in. I’d rather do new ideas. I’m not a big fan of all these reboots. They don’t have a lot of relevance. I don’t know what a new Point Break gives you. Because I think Keanu nailed it. [Laughs.] The nuance of that. They talk about doing Top Gun 2. I try to visualize what that’s like. Are planes dropping nerve gas on Afghanistan as you play “Take My Breath Away”? Updated things should have some relevance.

It does seem cult shows that didn’t get their due are the ones that are better engineered for coming back. Like a Star Trek, or a Twin Peaks that can take liberties of being on cable. You know, Sledge was very restricted. It was originally developed for HBO. I originally wrote it as a screenplay, and then it was developed at HBO, and then it went to ABC. As you look back at it, I got away with a lot—people were amazed at what I was doing, but there was still a clampdown on a lot of the stuff that I could do. We did have a sitcom where, basically, the main character was shooting people and people were getting killed throughout the series. Snipers on the rooftops of buildings were being thwarted when [Sledge] blew up the building.


AVC: In one episode, there’s a gunfight where something like seven people have their guns shot out of their hands. Nobody actually gets shot, but their guns fly out of their hands. And this makes the gunfight that much funnier. Do you think that the restrictions ended up helping the comedy?

AS: You work within restrictions. That’s the best way to do things. You don’t make them a liability. You make fun of them, and then you have to embrace them. It would be a give and take. Out of seven guns shot out of somebody’s hand, that meant that in another episode, two hitmen could shoot each other. Or [Sledge] could shoot someone hiding in the closet. It was all a negotiation.


There was an episode that’s pretty popular that was a parody of the movie Witness, called “Witless.” We had this silly gag of hitmen shooting each other. It’s nothing you wouldn’t see in a Pink Panther movie. And we lost sponsors because of it! Because we were playing as an 8:00 family hour show. Even having gunfire in a sitcom, and the kind of demented things we were doing, could raise hackles with advertisers. Today they wouldn’t blink. There was an episode where Sledge Hammer’s gun is stolen, and he loses his equilibrium and can’t function properly—“Haven’t Gun, Will Travel,” a first-season episode. We got into the psychology of the character and his dependence on his gun. The psychiatrist in it equates the gun to his penis. And we couldn’t say “penis”—we had to say “manhood.” Now, today, that word is overused. I think they spell it on Sesame Street now.

I remember the “State Of Sledge” episode—I remember getting calls from ABC Broadcasting Standards saying, “We’re not accustomed to having Satan in our sitcoms.” [Laughs.] But I was slipping things in. In “State Of Sledge”—I got busted for it later—I made an Iran-Contra reference. Hammer says a line that other people have parroted since then. He says, “I’m an American. I don’t negotiate with terrorists.” That was a somewhat thinly veiled correlation to Iran-Contra. They caught it a few weeks later, after it aired. I got taken to task for saying that. I would work within the context of the episode instead of getting up on a platform and a pulpit, making statements. You’d just slip things in subliminally—hopefully, cleverly.


AVC: The show was based in this Dirty Harry idea, but as you mentioned, in the third episode, “Witless,” you’re sending up a Harrison Ford movie. And later you did Humphrey Bogart, RoboCop, Crocodile Dundee. Was that sort of wide-ranging pop cultural parody part of the plan from the start, or did you grow into that?

AS: I think it was from the start. I didn’t want the show to be stagnant. There had been this show that had aired a few years before on the same network, Police Squad!, which—while hilarious—didn’t work, and I think one of the problems with it was that there was no characterization. The problem I first saw with it was, after you saw the pilot, you saw all it was going to be. Every episode was basically the same. The same variations of jokes, the same running gags. If you watched one, you saw them all. I consciously wanted to try to have every episode be as different as possible, to have it have some scope and ambition.

The point wasn’t parodying Witness, the point was taking the character of Sledge Hammer and putting him in new and interesting situations to see how he reacts. If there hadn’t been the movie Witness, I would have figured out some other way to put him in an Amish community because that’s what I wanted to do—to get this violent guy in a peaceful community.


As you talk about the prescient nature of the show, how it holds up—there’s a statement that I apply to Sledge Hammer! now, in the light of all the scrutiny of police violence, which is that in the case of our show, “comedy plus time equals tragedy.” [Laughs.] You know? Hammer’s catchphrase today would be “May the excessive force be with you.” I think that’s why there are people wanting a new version of it. There are new things to comment upon.

But I also want to counter this—ABC was a great network to work at. The executives there were superb. They were brave. They rolled the dice. They trusted you. I was basically untried, and they gave me the keys to the kingdom. So they were terrific to work with. Even Broadcast Standards rolled with the punches to make it work. Because I was using warped logic on them a lot of the time, saying, “Look, every time he pulls out his gun, people yell, ‘Put it away!’—so I’m being responsible!” [Laughs.]


Speaking of the mental health issues, Hammer’s original catchphrase was, “I’m crazy, but I know what I’m doing.” That came from the screenplay. But they wouldn’t allow that. He wasn’t allowed to say that he was crazy. But “Trust me…” wound up working just as well and is probably funnier, because then he’s not self-aware. That’s another example of working around the picket fences they erect around you.

I appreciate ABC all the more later because some 30 years later, I did a short-lived show for IFC [Bullet In The Face], which is a very small cable network with almost no viewership. And that was the opposite of the ABC experience.


AVC: They just dumped that show, right? They ran it all on two nights.

AS: Yeah, yeah. They’re doing that for other shows, but in our case, it was a degree of nervousness—[executives] saying it didn’t fit the brand, the violence. Also, the key thing they didn’t do is—they didn’t have any clue how the audience would respond to it. And they responded well! The head of the network had never seen Sledge Hammer!, which I thought was kind of interesting.

The thing that happened with Sledge Hammer! was, it was shown to an audience. So anything that they had some nervousness about—and there was some anxiety, particularly about the sniper scene [in the pilot] where [Sledge] blew up a building to get one guy. There were a few other jokes that were considered kind of edgy. They were shown to a live audience, and the audience responded and laughed. That was our insurance. We were indemnified from that point on.


The problem at IFC is that you have people watching the show alone in their offices, and that’s not how you judge comedy. You always have to put it up in front of an audience. I mean, Blazing Saddles played to stony silence in the Warner Bros. executive screening room, and they actually were talking about not releasing it. Thankfully, when it was shown to an audience later, the response was the correct one for it. And of course those executives forgot that they didn’t find the movie funny. [Laughs.]

You know, IFC has some shows that literally get zero ratings. It’s like “zero-point-zero” from Animal House. I think there’s a difference that they haven’t learned yet. You listen to a podcast, but you watch television. You don’t listen to television. You have to have something to watch. But that same show, Bullet In The Face, after they dumped it, was released on DVD, and now it’s finding its audience. The DVD, of course, is selling in Japan and China—[Laughs.]—where they get my work.


But I was surprised by that because like I said, I had experience in a quote-unquote “more conservative” time where I had more freedom and there was more risk-taking. I think you’ve noticed there are a lot of shows on IFC that get canceled after one season, so that shows a degree of insecurity as well. I’m not alone in being “dumped”—they call that “airing it.” [Laughs.] It’s weird to look at ratings where there’s less viewers than a local fireworks show. Sledge Hammer! was considered a low-rated show in the day with 18 million viewers.

AVC: How did you cast the lead actors?

AS: David was my one and only choice for the part. When I was writing it, I didn’t have anybody in mind. When it was at HBO, being developed there—part of the reason that I got it away from HBO was that they wanted a comedian in the role. They knew I’d written jokes for Rodney Dangerfield. They actually had him as, like, their number-one choice, and, I mean—! [Laughs.] They said, “Well, he wears a tie, so you can see him adjusting his tie…”


To them, it was like, “You have this action-adventure with violence that’s warped”—and this is pre-Tarantino—“we need to tell the audience it’s funny, so we put a comedian in the role.” I wasn’t going to do it without [Rasche]. And he didn’t audition for it. He was just offered it because of me. I knew him more by reputation. I hadn’t even really seen him, but I knew I wanted him to play it because I had read reviews about him and the kind of characters he was playing. I didn’t want somebody that was known to the audience as a comedian doing it. [I wanted] someone that could make you believe that this man really was having a relationship with his gun. The fact that David was playing heavies a lot—he was playing villains on Miami Vice—yet he has a Second City background meant that he would be the ideal person. He had the ideal look and everything else.

Anne-Marie Martin was somebody that I’d seen on soap operas. She was on Days Of Our Lives, and she would guest star on primetime, like St. Elsewhere and in particular an episode of T.J. Hooker. And the T.J. Hooker episode was very earnest. She played a uniformed cop who lost her leg, and Hooker dumped her out of a wheelchair and yelled at her to get up. That thing was played for high drama, and when I watched it, I said, “I want her to play Doreau the same way.” I needed a stylish, classy, intelligent person that the audience would look up to, and adore, and like. And she was the validation for Sledge Hammer because Anne-Marie is such a wonderful actress—appealing person, sexy, with authority, and strong. And if she likes Sledge Hammer, that means he’s okay, so she was kind of the insurance on screen. No matter what he was doing, as long as she liked him, believed in him, and was his partner, he was going to be okay.

As far as Harrison Page, that was through the audition process. I did something stupid early on, which was, I didn’t write the character of Capt. Trunk for a black actor. And initially I said—we didn’t see black actors because I was concerned that Hammer would come off racist because he’s so disrespectful to the captain. And then I realized, wait a minute, that’s really wrong. And we opened up the floodgates.


In all honesty, only black actors had the strength to command the presence to stand up to the bullying of what Sledge Hammer is doing. And it kind of changed the dynamic of it, too. It made [Hammer] more of an anarchist. Harrison was bringing to it almost a Louis Gossett Officer And A Gentleman military commando [level] and was yelling every line. Just screaming everything, which was necessary. So he was the only person that could play that kind of consistent level of over-the-top outrage. Basically, he became the equivalent of Herbert Lom’s Inspector Dreyfus, except instead of trying to kill Clouseau, he has to live with him.

AVC: He can get comedy just out of saying the word “Hammer!”

AS: Screaming it! So funny.

AVC: In that first season, we saw Sledge in these different guises, but the characters were largely static in terms of their relationship. And then in the second season, I gather the network encouraged you to develop the friendship relationship between Sledge and Doreau. Were you resistant to that at all, or did you think it was an improvement?


AS: I wasn’t resistant to it. The first season, they said it was important for the relationship to be strong. Except I thought they were talking about him and the gun! I didn’t realize it was the woman. I was very young when I wrote the show, and I was also a tad immature. It was a sophomoric show. It was like, “Oh, you want us to write to the girl!” [Laughs.] I had all these other manic ideas that I wanted to deal with.

Moonlighting was the big hit show for ABC then. That was the prototype that they wanted for everything. That kind of sparring, love-hate relationship. But Hammer is a hate-hate relationship. [Laughs.] I didn’t have a problem with that because Anne-Marie is a fine actress. What I didn’t want to happen is for, all of a sudden, Hammer to soften. And then all of a sudden the character would be acting out of character, because he was misogynist. Even though he denied it—he says in the show, “Just because you give a guy a backrub once, doesn’t make you misogynist.” [Laughs.] We probably should have done some more of [the relationship development] throughout the season, but I was so in love with anarchistic ideas and the craziness of it that we weren’t focusing on that.


If you look at the pilot again—part of the reason the pilot sold is the scene between the two of them where Hammer is talking with his guard down, talking about his ex-wife. That was actually the most important scene to the network, and they were right, because other parody shows would run six episodes or 13 and go off the air. They wouldn’t have any relationships. They’d just be a joke machine. The original Get Smart really created a prototype of character comedy in the midst of a spoof. At the core, the relationship between Max and 99 was the legitimate one that carried the show. You don’t think of Maxwell Smart without 99 at his side. Without her at his side, he isn’t as much fun or interesting, because she’s doing the eye-rolling. If you look at Max and 99, you see the seeds planted for Mulder and Scully.

AVC: The show is so famous for that first season finale, but the second season finale is striking, too. It’s almost the opposite. Instead of a big boom, it leaves Sledge in this state of emotional weakness and vulnerability. What was the thinking behind going in such a different direction there?


AS: Well, I knew the show was over. I really did know it was over at this point. The ratings were so low. The budget had been slashed. Our second season was like the third season of Star Trek. It was kind of demoralizing. I was doing it for such a small audience—at that time. We were up against Cosby, which was the big show, which—you know, part of the prescience of Sledge Hammer! was, we were trying to warn you about Bill Cosby by taking that show off!

But basically, [in the finale] I wanted to show that Sledge is a dimensional character. That he wasn’t just a parody and a pastiche. People that have never seen Dirty Harry movies, or the antecedents of the day, enjoy the show. So the character stands on his own two feet, and I wanted to show some character growth and a poignancy to a character that was, conceivably, always going to be alone. I wanted to show some consciousness [of that]. To go out on a beat that there had been some change and some growth in this character that we’ve spent some time with. He has some other sides to him, versus one-dimensional joke ciphers, which are other parody characters. I didn’t view him as a parody of anything; I viewed him as his own original character born from the time.

And also, David’s an actor that could handle it, as well as Anne-Marie, and that’s why I ended it on that note. I wanted it to be the opposite of the go-for-broke finale in the first season, which was really me, in all honesty, giving my finger to the network. Not the entire network! Just a couple of executives there that didn’t care for the show or what it had to say. I do remember with great joy—it’s a current executive who will remain nameless—when I turned the script in, he said, “I don’t find nuclear war funny.” And I go, “I don’t find the timeslot funny.”


But, you know, while Max and 99 got together, and Mulder and Scully, and Sam and Diane—that tension is always going on there—Moonlighting really went downhill [when the lead characters got together]. That would have never happened on Sledge Hammer!, but I at least wanted to show that there was some awareness of it. That he might be able to have a relationship with something besides an inanimate object. Although to him, a woman was an inanimate object.