Justin Halpern came to Austin two and a half weeks ago. For the uninitiated, Halpern is the man behind the epically funny Shit My Dad Says Twitter feed. As he so eloquently puts it in his book’s introduction:
When one of my friends suggested I create a Twitter page to keep a record of all the crazy things that came out of his mouth, I started “Shit My Dad Says.” For about a week, I only had a handful of followers — a couple of friends who knew my dad and thought he was a character. Then one day I woke up to find that a thousand people were following me. The next day, ten thousand. Then fifty thousand. Then one hundred, two hundred, three hundred thousand, and suddenly a picture of my dad’s face and his quotes were popping up everywhere. Literary agents were calling, wanting to represent me; TV producers were inviting me onto their shows; and reporters were asking for interviews.
The book came out shortly after, and last year it was made into a TV series starring William Shatner.
Unfortunately, as hilarious as the Twitter feed was, the TV series was monumentally mediocre. I wrote about this earlier this year:
The misanthropic foul-mouthed antagonist that made the Twitter feed so popular was just too raunchy for William Shatner and the sitcom’s family hour timeslot to get away with. By the time it got through Shatner’s insipid acting and all the censoring the network no doubt required, the concept had been watered down from something edgy and hilarious to being just another couch comedy. The fact that it ran for 18 episodes is evidence of this – people knew about it, they wanted to give it a chance, they just lost interest because it didn’t live up to the hype.
When Halpern came to BookPeople a few weeks ago to promote his new book I Suck at Girls, he freely said that the TV show wasn’t very good. I asked him, from his perspective, why, and his assessment was pretty similar to mine. He said that all the major networks bid on it, and the people in his corner recommended CBS because they’ll really give you your shot. Unlike the other networks, which will cancel the show after a couple of episodes if it doesn’t perform, CBS will give you plenty of time to build an audience and find your niche.
But then, blaming himself as much as anyone else, he said that the format of the show was all wrong. “The show is called Shit My Dad Says, and you can’t say ‘shit’ on network television.” The three camera comedy format demands a constant stream of setups and punches, and he said if you paused the show after any given setup, anyone could have written the punchline. And then, because everything is so fast with a TV show, you start getting into survival mode, keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing. Finally it reached a point where his reaction watching the show was, “Yeah, I wouldn’t watch this.” As promised, the network gave him his shot – so the 18 episode run may have had nothing to do with the built in following at all. But in the end, it was just the wrong format and venue for what made the concept great.
I had started following SMDS around the time the book was coming out, but I had never purchased the book until now, and interestingly, reading the book (and the sequel) I can totally get how this format/venue mistake was made. Although the Twitter feed leaves you feeling the title character is nothing but, as I said before, misanthropic and foul-mouthed, in the book his love for his son really comes through. Yes he’s blunt as hell and he curses like a sailor but you really get that he adores Justin and would go to the end of the earth for him.
That the family is actually a happy one cuts the edginess of the product quite a bit. It’s no longer a South Park or an It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where everyone hates each other, it’s a Two and a Half Men, or a Simpsons; a product of love with a whole lot of sarcasm, which is something you see all the time in network TV couch comedies. It’s a whole different animal. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as funny. Which is why the TV show failed.
Apparently, I Suck at Girls is going to be turned into a TV show, too. We’ll see what the creators make out of this one, having learned from their mistakes. With chapter titles like “When You’re Married, Your Wife Sees Your Penis,” hopefully, it’ll land somewhere that allows it to keep the edginess that makes it great.