Wednesday, July 28, 2004

They Didn't Know What They Were Doing

I rented and watched a TV show I'd heard a lot about but hadn't seen, Sledge Hammer! a parody of gung-ho Dirty Harry-style cop movies. I must say I'm underwhelmed. The episodes I watched started with funny ideas -- Sledge Hammer goes undercover to solve the murder of Elvis impersonators; Sledge's sensible partner Dori gets hit on the head and winds up acting like him -- but executes them in a dull way, with every other joke involving a) A lame one-liner or b) A gag about Sledge shooting something. The creator, Alan Spencer, a friend of Andy Kaufman, comes off on the commentary tracks as an amusing guy but a typical kind of comedy writer who thinks he's much more cutting-edge than he really is; constantly patting himself on the back for not writing the standard family sitcom while not noticing that what he's written is an even more standardized cop-show parody. The inspiration, as Spencer acknowledges, was Get Smart! but while I'm not the biggest Get Smart fan, it had two things that Sledge Hammer didn't: a wider range of storylines, and a faster pace; silly jokes and vaudeville-style routines ar funnier when delivered at Don Adams' fast clip.

The inspiration for Sledge Hammer! that the creator doesn't acknowledge, at least in the commentaries I heard, is Hunter, a then-current cop show. Sledge Hammer! used the same credits font as Hunter, and the same idea of pairing a Dirty Harry-type cop with a hot female partner. Hunter was pretty rancid, but to be honest, I recall it being funnier than Sledge Hammer when it wanted to be (there was a Hunter episode that parodied Murder She Wrote that was pretty funny). Which is the problem with spoof shows; it's not just that the stuff they're spoofing is already unintentionally funny, but that the originals can be intentionally funny. My problem with Get Smart!, for example, always will be that the James Bond movies had better intentional jokes (the old lady with the machine gun in Goldfinger, for instance). And Sledge Hammer! is pretty much the same way.

Mike Reiss, a Sledge Hammer! writer who went on to become a showrunner on The Simpsons, summed up the problem that Sledge had in finding an audience:

We were trying to do kind of a sophisticated like Police Squad show and our fans were all 8-year-olds. We would get fan mail like in crayon and stuff and kids really loved the show and they didn't exactly know it was a comedy.

Edit: I am reliably informed that Alan Spencer, Sledge Hammer's creator and a pioneer of the "smug is better" school of comedy writing, wrote the pilot script in 1979, and therefore the show was not conceived as a spoof of Hunter (the male-female teaming spoofs the Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer, which was ripped off by Hunter). We at Something Old, Nothing New apologize for our un-rigorous fact-checking, not to mention our lack of reverence for one of those annoying sitcom-for-people-who-hate sitcoms.

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