Writer Alan Spencer returns to TV with ‘Bullet in the Face’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
In 1986, television viewers were introduced to a different kind of sitcom when a show called “Sledge Hammer!” debuted on ABC. The series, a wild riff on “Dirty Harry” and other authoritarian police dramas, was the brainchild of a writer named Alan Spencer, who was only 23 years old at the time. The series was canceled after two seasons, but it maintains a rabid and loyal fan following to this day.
Now, two-and-a-half decades later, Spencer has another certain cult hit on his hands with his new series “Bullet in the Face,” which will air on cable channel IFC in a marathon Aug. 16 and 17. The show, about a psychotic criminal whose face is destroyed during a robbery and who is given a transplant from a cop he killed, has all the irreverent and intelligent humor of Spencer’s previous work, but it has a willingness to go even further over the top than “Sledge” did.
In an interview, Spencer said that the original concept for the show came from talks with IFC, which had wanted to do an action comedy. A Canadian company had developed a concept, which was shown to Spencer in a presentation.
“They actually showed it to me and asked if I was willing to get involved,” Spencer said. “You know, at first I was going to supervise other writers on it, and then I just ended up writing it myself. I wound up using very little — basically nothing — of the original concept, except one element of it being a German cop. That’s literally the only part of it I used.”
Of course, the “German cop” is now a former crook who’s wearing someone else’s face — just one of many extreme ideas that let viewers know “Bullet” is far from an average sitcom.
“I wrote the pilot and totally self-indulged myself. In Hollywood, the odds of getting a TV show on the air or getting a pilot made, I think they’re up there with, like, being struck by lightning and winning the lotto and everything. And so I was pleasantly surprised when IFC told me they wanted to take it straight to series and wanted me to write all six,” Spencer said.
It’s hard for anyone familiar with “Sledge Hammer!” to view “Bullet in the Face” in isolation — in tone and subject matter, the two series seem like cousins. But Spencer pointed out that with “Bullet,” he was able to take the humor to some far more extreme places than he could with a family-hour sitcom 20 years ago.
“Back in the ’80s — when I did ‘Sledge Hammer!’ it was the end of the ’80s — that was considered cutting-edge television at that time.
“And now, of course, you can see more extreme than, certainly, that. And it influenced some people, too — a lot of the people doing shows right now, certain comedy shows, that was an inspiration to them because that was considered so different.
“This is basic cable, and cable’s known as being more adventurous, so basically I just approached this with — the constraints were off. I wasn’t typing with handcuffs like I was with ‘Sledge Hammer!’ Those handcuffs were behind my back, which made it really hard to type,” Spencer joked.
“We got away with a lot more. And for somebody who was working on a sitcom that was already getting away with a lot, it’s kind of a kid-in-a-candy-store shootout.”
The new series also showcases a wide range of influences from many forms of pop culture — the look of the show, with deep shadows covering most walls and an angular, oppressive look to almost every environment, borrows heavily from noir graphic novelists like Frank Miller.
“[I] wanted it to be a city that would be immersive, and people’d be wondering where it is, where it exists. And definitely the graphic novel world was an influence on that. I wanted it to have its own rules, and by having it be an international melting pot of crime, it also opened it up and anything can happen.”
Spencer learned comedy at the feet of some of the grand masters — he counts legends like Mel Brooks and the late Marty Feldman among the people he has known throughout his life. He’s quick to point out that he has known and learned from people outside of comedy as well, such as his friendship with the late Michael Crichton.
“What I was very proud of was when Michael Crichton saw the ‘Sledge Hammer!’ pilot, his wife (Anne-Marie Martin), who was the co-star, said, ‘Isn’t this silly?’ And he said, ‘This is the most intelligent thing I’ve seen in years.’”
Indeed, the idea that humor can (and should) have that level of sophistication is a theme that has remained strong throughout Spencer’s career. “Bullet in the Face,” with its lightning-fast dialogue and stinging satirical edge, is just the latest example of that.
“TV, in general, would always make you write beneath your intelligence. So one of the fun things about this is being able to write at a certain level, where you write something that attracts Eddie Izzard,” Spencer said.
“You know, one of the things I always heard during the ’80s is that we were ‘subversive’ in ‘Sledge Hammer!’ That people, a few years later, got some of what was being said, or got some of the references, because they were hidden.
“And in this case, we were allowed to be intelligent, because we’re on a network that allows for it. So I’m grateful for that.”