Fools Tread Lightly: Harlan Ellison, Part II

Interview conducted with Jonathan Callan

Throughout his career, legendary author Harlan Ellison has always paid careful attention to pop-culture - both good and bad - and what our cultural flotsam says about us as a society. Indeed, when Ellison started a column of television criticism for the Los Angeles Free Press - called "The Glass Teat" - it was soon circulated throughout college classrooms and, to this day, is included in film and television curricula around the country.

In Part I of our in-depth interview with the multiple award-winning author and critic, CBR discussed Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the new documentary by The Grizzly Man Diaries director Erik Nelson, focusing on Ellison's life and work; rumors of his possible memoirs; the importance of strong friendships; and the danger of confusing the artist with the work.

Today, in Part II, Ellison expands on his many essays about the problems in current popular culture, why he has almost entirely removed himself from working in the medium of television, and why our cultural amnesia and the devaluation of intellect, is making Americans dangerously, steadily dumber.

CBR: How did you feel "The Discarded," your episode of Masters of Science-Fiction, turned out?

Harlan Ellison: I was very pleased with it. That will probably be the last thing I'll write for television. Television has become such a putrid, puss-filled abyss of stupidity and "reality" bullshit programming that there's virtually nothing I care to write for, nothing worth wasting my modicum of talent on. I can't even watch that stuff. The only things I now watch are Lost, Burn Notice and, oh yeah, I try to catch Judge Judy every day.

People laugh; and they ask why I watch Judge Judy, with a kind of snarky, anti-intellectual snobbishness to which I don't subscribe. The reason I watch Judge Judy is that it's the only thing on television not rehearsed. It's the equivalent of small claims court, and I've been a "court bird" for years. I used to go to small claims venues in New York, Chicago, Louisville or LA and I'd just sit there and listen to the cases... because that's where a writer who has an ear for dialogue, who wants to keep up with idiomatic changes in popular "folkspeak" can get the real stuff. You hear the cadence, the nuance, the patois, the real day-to-day concerns and the real voices of real people! Actors don't speak like real people. Real people say things that you couldn't make up. So, Judge Judy becomes my cultural etymological well, into which I dip as often as I can, on a daily basis. It's part of a writer staying unswervingly courant. And them as snickers...well... do d'words "ignorant snob assholes" strike a familiar note?

For instance, every young white girl now is a Paris Hilton wannabe and every white kid who wants to be a ridiculous faux-gangsta does the "yeah, I'm all up in his grille." So, that's where I hear the current stuff. Black people for some reason have trouble with the A-S-K-E-D pronunciation of "asked" so it's like "axed" like, you know whut ahm sayin, like it's like Lizzie Borden "axed" her momma, y'know? As a writer if I want to emulate current speech properly, I have to get that from somewhere and short of going out and hanging around in stores and malls and listening to people talk, Judge Judy is a perfect primer. When I was a kid, I was out on the road - what we called "out on the bum" in those days - and I picked up the vernacular every day, all around me. Half a century later, I can't get that even from The Atlantic or The Onion or The Week, so I do the job with what is available. And that's The Judge.

Also, I think the things people really worry about in an average day-to-day plebian life are not atomic holocaust or global warming as much as it is "I sent my jacket to the cleaner and they shrunk it up," or "this guy brings his damn Dalmatian out every day and it pisses on my gladiolas." Since a lot of what I write is about ordinary people, "Judge Judy" is a gazette for me, and I try to watch it as faithfully as I can before running amuck about how stupid and mendacious and irresponsible some of these people are. I don't understand why Judge Judy doesn't just jump over the bar and crush their fuckin' skulls in with her gavel.

Over the years, you've been an outspoken advocate for comics as a legitimate artistic medium. What comics do you read these days, if any?

Well, I've just read a long run of Mike Carey's CROSSING MIDNIGHT, eighteen issues in one sitting. Peter David's FALLEN ANGEL is an ongoing pleasure. A new Dark Horse mini-series, THE HELM, is fun. CONAN. SIMON DARK. Anything written by Warren Ellis or Kyle Baker. Much to my dismay, I can't read 98% of the Marvel or DC stuff any more.

I've given up on trying to remember who's wearing which costume this week, and who died and has been reincarnated for the eleventh time. What we've got, in my view, is pretty much the same kind of situation we have in film and TV. Redundancy and pandering to the lowest possible denominator in the history of our species.

When I started in film and TV, 1962, the people I was dealing with, the "boots on the ground" who made the decisions, were people who had grown up on books, theater and movies. Then the next generation grew up on some books, not many, some (newer) movies, very little theater, and mostly old TV shows. Then that crippling attitude newbies subscribe to, that culturally tone-deaf and ignorance-fueled "if it happened before glorious me got here, it never happened," arrogant illiteracy that devalues Aeschylus and Dickens and Al Jolson and Paul Muni and Thelonius Monk, while endlessly pushing cheap goods like Pauly Shore and Britney Spears and George W. Bush. Now the cultural plimsoll line sinks lower and lower and is bereft of any reifying value, to the depth of painfully saddening: I just heard somebody is remaking The Day The Earth Stood Still, starring Keanu Reeves!

Last week I turned down a job at a major studio rebooting Robocop. Josh Olson and I were offered that gig and we thought about it for a little bit, but soon finally had the epiphany - even if we were to write the best goddamm Robocop that's ever been written - and there's very little you can do with Robocop because they've done it to death - it's still going to be, at best, a Robocop. You've got to figure - is the game worth the candle? Do you know that expression?


Do you know where it comes from?

No, please enlighten us.

In the days of the Roman Empire when, as a matter of course, they crucified people and left them hanging on the crosses, they would set a Praetorian guard at night, a few centurions, who would watch to make sure nobody stole the bodies, that the families wouldn't come and grab them away for proper burial, à la Jesus, et al. It was freezing cold, there they were in their capes, they couldn't light a campfire because if they did somebody might snipe them and kill them. So to pass the time, they would put down one of their capes and shoot craps on it. But to be able to see the dice in the darkness, without a fire, they would hire somebody to come and hold a candle. And each soldier would chip in to pay for "the candle," a few sesterces. So if a guy lost, he'd come back to the barracks and somebody would ask him how he'd made out and he'd say, "Ugh. The game wasn't worth the candle." Get it?

Meaning it was a job not worth doing. Even if you have the best hand in the world, you lose, and it isn't worth the ante that you put up. Remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still, for instance. Which is what we've got here, in what Bogart called "a mug's game." Meaning, it's only fit for people who are thugs. That film was made properly the first time and remaking it with Keanu Reeves, or even Richard Dreyfuss or Sam Jackson or Sir Laurence Fucking Olivier is just bloody medieval. It's stupid. A mug's game. Not worth the candle. Just as it's monumentally imbecile, just damn butt-ugly stupid to remake The Dukes of Hazzard. The best you're going to do is end up making a two-hour episode of a brainless television series, out of a misplaced, likely non-existent nostalgia for childhood trash!

The problem - in my learned, sage, don't-argue-with-me, I'm-an-elitist opinion - is: these are all people who've grown up on garbage. A great French director, Alain Resnais, and I were in Paris, talking about the people who make these kind of movies, and he said, "Yes. They're always paying hommage. But they pay hommage to shit." If you bring it back to where we started, to the comic book world, you find you have an entire cadre of fan-boys'n'girls, culturally ignorant, minimally creative, imitative and "entitled" people who think they know what they're doing, because their cultural ignorance and their hubris and their donkey arrogance tells them that theirs is the noblest state ever known to the universe, and every time they sit down they say, "I'm going to redo Superman completely." Well, Superman is Superman. Batman is Batman. Whether he's dour in this story or he's an amnesiac in that story, or he gets his spine split, he's still Batman. So what you really need are storytellers and not creative typists which is what most of these people are! Or, as Oscar Wilde once summed it up, "I'm not young enough to think I know everything."

I suppose if I really gave a damn about what the total strangers who read this interview might think, I'd be considerably more circumspect. A great deal more mollifying and cozening. But though I recognize that these words are precisely the kind of hard truths the sophomoric and ego-bedizened cannot bear to countenance, words that will no more cause an epiphany than they will a revolution, I am ineluctably drawn to their burning revelation in hopes that perhaps anger will substitute for cool ratiocination, since winning either is unlikely. None of this will be popularly-received by a constituency born into a culture driven by commercial satraps who milk them for their every penny to get them to think and dress and eat and act like the cheap witless celebrities - what we used to call tools - doing their little bobblehead dances in every possible medium of attention-getting. Mercilessly manipulating narrow gimme-gimme interests, those with their hands in the pockets of the Ipod/Internet Idiocy Culture assure each and every YouTube Moron that his or her uninformed opinion is a rare jewel existent in the history of the cosmos in the number of one. (All parvenus delude themselves into believing that bullshit as fanatically as the most blindered, born-again or orthodox kosher or jihad-drunk True Believer of any sect.) Wilde again: "There is no sin except stupidity."

So. Not popular. Oh, lawdy, what an arrow through the bosom! Total strangers, like strange monkeys, will not love me. I must not even suggest that what their covey is doing ain't golden. Fresh, new, cutting edge, jiggy, tight, wide, in yer face, AWEfuckingSOME. AKA, horse pucky.

I got my first comic, DC's 1939 WORLD'S FAIR COMICS, with one of the first appearances of Superman in it, when I was six, seven years old. I've been reading and watching and writing comics since sometime in the forties when I was doing little amateur stories for myself. One of my very first sales was to Bill Gaines at WEIRD SCIENCE-FANTASY.

And it's painful to watch something you love so much, be so steadily devalued. I think it's amazing that they sell any copies at all of these year-long crossover arc things, because you can't just walk in and pick up a comic and read it for enjoyment. There's not a story there that carries all the way through, and I'm not talking about done-in-one, I'm talking about any kind of a plot that makes any damn sense. And whose life is so pitifully sere and loveless that all they have to dwell on, in the time between issues, is remembering who's wearing Captain America's costume this week, or why the latest incarnation of The Spectre is more psycho than the last one?

For years you've been one of popular culture's most careful critics. Many of the problems you highlighted in your two books of television criticism, THE GLASS TEAT (1970) and THE OTHER GLASS TEAT (1975), are still the order of the day in television and film classes almost forty years later. Do you ever feel trapped in an endless cycle of bad pop-culture?

Well, I have to absent myself from it or I would go mad with anger every day. As I said, wearily, I barely watch tv. These days and nights, for my news, I read the magazine The Week. I can't even go to a baseball game nowadays because it's too fucking noisy and the tv screens are everywhere and the constant howl, "CHARGE!" I love baseball. Big fan since I was a kid. Saw Satchel Paige pitch his first game in the big White Man's Leagues, at the old Riverfront Stadium in Cleveland, just as Siegel and Shuster did when they were kids. I want to go out and smell the grass. I want to see talented men (and maybe some day, who knows, women) playing baseball, without all that senseless, flag-waving, mixed-media cacophony, like the old days. And if that makes me a geezer, fuck it, let it make me a geezer. I'm entitled. I'm 74.

One of the things that contributes to my seemingly endless rage at the silliness of the human race is the elevation to obsession of pop-culture. I think pop-culture is a spectacular thing and I've always loved it. But it has been truly said (I wish I could recall the attribution), "It is only because of the existence in this world of High Art that protects the existence of pop art." But in a world that deifies fierce anti-intellectualism and vagrant silliness, High Art languishes, value disappears. Time magazine interviewed me many years ago, and asked me what my influences were, so naturally I told them it was Jorge Luis Borges and it was the Renaissance and it was this and it was that and even though I have been mightily influenced by Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, the truth is I got my education in a cultural box of which the four walls were: pulp magazines, comic books, movies and radio serials. I've been a SHADOW buff for years. I just wrote an introduction for some SHADOW reprints. I love comics, otherwise I wouldn't care so much, wouldn't fulminate so passionately. (And I would love for some of you punks out there to stop misusing the word "rant" for every jeremiad, exposition, panegyric, gardyloo, plea and pleading, expostulation, screed and/or sermon you're too fucking slovenly stupid and/or lazy to designate properly.) N.B.: this interview is not, repeat not, a rant.

This was my grounding and schooling in ethics. In comic strips, good guys were good guys and bad guys were bad guys. Dick Tracy caught bad guys. Luthor was not President, he was a bad guy, just like that hyena Cheney, who is also not the President, d'uh. Now, I think there's such a blurring of the line, because of television and the unworthiness of crap like Wikipedia on the Boobnet mostly, nobody knows who's good and who's bad with the spin of secret agendas.

Is there any observation from THE GLASS TEAT that you feel doesn't hold up? I know you've said several times you felt you put too much stock in "the nobility of youth" at the time.

Yeah. I think trying to predict the future is silly. It's one of those things science fiction keeps saying it does, but I don't think it does. One time, some while ago, Arthur C. Clarke and I went out to dinner and I said, "You've predicted so many things that have come true. Did you ever pull a boner on anything?" And he was kind of embarrassed and said, "Yeah, I knew we would see film of the first moon landing, but I had no idea we'd be watching it live in our living rooms." And this was the man who postulated communications satellites!

It is a mug's game to predict the future, but, like a yokel, like a hayseed, I was so naively impressed with, and so affectionate toward, the young people of the Sixties and Seventies who helped lance the pustule of Nixon, who helped push Civil Rights through, and the vitality of the women's rights movement... these monumental stirrings and courageous actions were enormous watershed events in American History, and in my Ohio-bred values! The world of the young became quick and brave and worthy! Case-hardened steel! And I thought, "OK, these are kids who've taken control of their lives and the world is going to be better from here on out." And we drove Nixon back into the swamp.

Then we all went to sleep for a while; and the next thing we knew, Reagan was in office, and the mediocre had inherited the earth. No one seems to remember this, it's almost like racial amnesia, but when Reagan took over as Governor of California, our state had always been number one or number two in education rankings. By the time he left, it was forty-seventh. I watched the steady deterioration of the intellectual matrix in this country. I don't know if it's that the gene pool is too shallow, or it has been fast food brain damaged, or it's television, or it's art-imitating-nature of that recent, terrific movie, Idiocracy, but now every fool who used to have (at best) a mimeograph to run off a hundred copies of a blog-like ego-strutting fanzine, now has the Internet, where all opinions are of the same weight. It doesn't matter if you're Enrico Fermi or Albert Einstein or JoeGeek707@MSN.com. Every person's opinion is out there without any selectivity, which makes all information suspect! Wikipedia, the OED for dunderheads, oh how I despise it, and the schmucks who use it as a variorum reference. How can you have an encyclopedia that anybody can change every five minutes to suit the information to their whim or prejudice or paralogia? You could say the South won the Civil War or Napoleon defeated Russia in the winter. Which is why I have very little affection for the Internet. I don't think it's an improvement. I think it's a way of spreading mass stupidity.

Then you think the Internet does more harm than good?

How the hell should I know? Dopey question. We are only now beginning to feel the cultural dumbing-down of this "egalitarian" technology. I think it's an odious twisted dwarf of a medium. You can find vicious, idle, demonstrably demented rumor, lie, gossip... endless adolescent behavior on the level of a baby showing his pee-pee... rampant arrogant ignorance... all of the worst grade school misbehavior... treated as if it is worthy distraction, enriching minutiae and not just babble... worthless lay opinions, racism, bigotry, bullying, violence termed "good gory fun"... in short: ugly shit about everybody - not the least of whom is me. When The Onion interviewed me - this is a great opportunity to get back at somebody here - someone claimed [in the comments section] that they were behind me years ago in a line checking into a science fiction convention somewhere, didn't say where. According to this pustulant turd who anonymously (of course) posted this codswallop, the woman behind the check-in desk asks me who I am and I, allegedly, beyond any logic, begin screaming, "Don't you know who I am? Don't you know? I'm the great writer Harlan Ellison!" Then, the writer of the story alleges, I open my suitcase and begin throwing books that I had written at the cowering clerk. Yoicks, and away!

This is a lie from beginning to end. It's not even a bad retelling of a badly remembered memory. Because, first of all, when I go to a convention I am usually an invited guest of the committee, and one of the things I insist on when I accept, months earlier, is that I don't have to check in. I hate checking in. So they always have a key waiting for me, in the hand of whoever picks [my wife] Susan and me up at the airport. Second, we don't travel with suitcases! I hate traveling with suitcases. I put every damn thing into a shoulder bag I carry with me and I certainly don't carry my old books around! Shit, Jack, I know what's in 'em! Why, after fifty fuckin' years, would I schlep the weight of my books in a suitcase or shoulder bag? (Oh, by the way, we ship books to sell at my lectures, UPS, ahead-of-time; doubly no reason to haul crap personally.) Does no one pay attention to illogic and its absence of internal consistency? Do the douche-nozzles expect everyone to be at the moron-level of idiots who believe in yetis, flying saucers, 9/11 government conspiracies and the grandeur of Sarah Palin?

I know what's in my books. I wrote them. If I want to look at one of them, I just take them down off the shelf in my house. I wouldn't be screaming I'm the great Harlan Ellison. I don't give a fuck if they know who I am or not. And I read this stuff and I think, "Wow. They really don't like me." But I'll bet you a farthing they've never met me. Bet you a buck they've never been in my company. I'm actually a very polite person. I'm just impatient with fools. I'm impatient with people who waste my time and I'm impatient with people who are ignorant. Not stupid. Stupid people I can handle. They're the unfortunates. You can't be upset with a stupid person. They don't know no better. It's people who have the capacity for knowledge and yet do not avail themselves of it that I get upset with. Which brings me to a little something I'd like to say today, circa September 20th, long after Mr. Callan did the original interview with me, prompted by a comment from one of CBR's audience. It is the comment that (this is approximate phrasing, I'm too busy to go hunting the thing up), this person (unknown and anonymous, of course) was apparently shocked and amazed that in Part One, I was not as "foul-mouthed" (or some such synonym) as s/he had expected. S/he had apparently read an interview with me at The Onion or somewhere, in which my language was ribald, profane, obscene, just plain nasty...and one is not sure if the she or he posting this troubling aberration of diction - the "cleaning up" of same, one can only presume - was happy or sad about the diminution of nasty verbiage. Thus, we have a NO WIN situation; when I am candid and speak honestly, as I do in Real Life, I am a pottymouth; when I don't reach that level, censorial grammarians such as this nameless twit are struck dumb with disbelief, and I must be either in a coma, or dissembling to clean up my act. Let me be clear here, and speak directly to this pinhead: I have been making my living from the English Language for longer than you've been alive, kiddo; and I am told I do a pretty fair country day of it. (Otherwise, why would CBR be interviewing me at such length?) And if the word fuck makes you wince, go read Louisa May Alcott. The only "curse word" I know is: NIXON. And I try to use it as seldom as possible. Other than that one, any word in the OED is fair game. And... I'm only surmising this will offend you... which is my purpose even in recognizing your contumely...you may find the word fuck troublesome, but it was the word Jesus himself expostulated at each blow of the maul on the spike. He also grunted, "Bite me, dimwit."

Where was I? Oh... yeah: I am the Demon God of the anti-internet according to people like Cory Doctorow and The Electronic Frontier Foundation wonks. These are people who are very free with other people's ideas and properties, but I'm seventy-four and my annuity is very much tied up in reprints; and now there are no reprints because you can get anything you want on the Internet! Susan and I, we're not hurting. I own my home, and I'm not going to miss any meals. But people who read this interview have got to - got to - understand that most writers are ekeing out an existence. There are very few Stephen Kings, very few Danielle Steeles and very few John Grishams. It is as S.J. Perelman said, "The muse is a tough buck."

Why do you think THE GLASS TEAT is no longer in print if so many of these problems with pop-culture are still contemporary?

Oh, it will actually be back in print early next year. Joe Stefko's multiple-award-winning Charnel House, in association with my imprint, Edgeworks Abbey, will be releasing a gorgeous boxed set of both volumes. Together, for the first time. I'm writing the new introduction even as we speak. So go away.

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