Seriously, don't fuck with Harlan Ellison — he showed up to Cinefamily last night with a knife.
Well, if you're Josh Olson, you can fuck with Harlan Ellison…but only a little bit.
Why shouldn't you fuck with the man who is, by his own admission, “possibly the most contentious person on Earth”? Well, other than the knife, Harlan Ellison has been fucked with before, and you, personally, don't have the chops to handle what will come at you in the aftermath. He's heard it all, he's seen it all, and he'll tell you all about it…if you keep to his good side.
Last night at Cinefamily, in a talk that was originally supposed to focus on recalling Ellison's TV career (one that includes some of the best Outer Limits and Star Trek episodes) the event became a three-hour story session and classic rendition of Jewish theatrical bickering — oh, and the host, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Olson, fucked with Harlan Ellison.
If you don't know who Harlan Ellison is, you might as well just pack it in and stop tweely calling yourself a nerd. He is the uncompromising, venerated patron saint of six decades of geeks, nerds and fanboys. Without Ellison, Patton Oswalt would probably still be a hopeless wedding DJ, there would be no Terminator, and the world would be 1,700 (mostly brilliant) short stories, screenplays, teleplays and novels lighter. And, really, that's just scratching the surface. Go ahead, read about in on Wikipedia, or better yet, buy several of his books. You remember what those are, right?
The 2,000+ people tuning in via livestream, and the hundred or so people in house — whom Ellison kept sarcastically calling “these assholes” — will all surely agree that there's no shortage of ways to talk about how utterly mindblowing last night's talk was. With his appearances being rare and Ellison being, well, outspoken, the night went all sorts of crazy places. Actually, calling him outspoken is like calling the Sahara a sandbox. From the start, Olson pointed out, “You know there's two thousand people watching this on the internet.” Without missing a beat, Ellison quipped back, “Fuck the people on the internet…and the eel they slithered in on.”
With Olson's first few questions spawning bouts of Ellison's old school raconteurism that stray well beyond the evening's stated topic, everyone began to realize that there was an igloo's chance in Ougadougou that they were getting out of there before midnight. Not that anyone minded. Most of his stories can't be done justice in less than a thousand words.
Some of them began began like, “True story, Philadelphia, 1952…” and most ended like, “Christ, I broke the pelvis of ABC network continuity — the censor! I dropped a model of the Sea View on him!”
“So, anyways, back to TV…” Olson said frequently, trying to corral the uncorrallable Ellison back to the topic at hand.
On topic or no, with endless varieties of mugging expressions and carefully crafted contraposto postures, Ellison's energy kept the crowd riveted as he ambled through story after story. If a name was mentioned, Harlan had a story. If a show came up, Harlan had a story. If an out of place noise happened, Harlan had a story. The man has stories, and all of them are awesome. Even if his memory failed on a specific detail, he had his lovely wife and dozens of other friends/plants in the audience to help him out (including Wolverine creator Len Wein). “Honey, where did I used to go to the dentist?” he asks, trying to tell us where Gloria Swanson's house used to be (oddly enough it was on Sunset Boulevard).
The night took an awkward turn at one point, when, while Ellison was rather harshly bickering with his wife, she came to the stage and slapped his foot. A heckler screamed, “Hit him again!” Ellison bounded from the stage, asking who would dare anonymously engage him, and started stalking Cinefamily's aisles, taunting the heckler. Fortunately, he eventually returned to his seat and recovered with his trademark wit.
Ellison, at 77, has the boundless energy of at least a 70 year old…and the knees of someone much younger (clearly, if he's able to jump off stages in pursuit of hecklers), probably because as literature's largest living iconoclast — he's never been on his knees, and he's never stooped to accommodate anything but his absolutely perfect artistic vision. Ok, sometimes his vision wasn't so keen.
When the topic of TV nadir The Flying Nun came up, Ellison, who wrote for the show under his famous pseudonym Cordwainer Bird, explained, “Why would I want to do a show about a flying nun? I wanted to fuck Sally Field!” He continued, “My mind went Giiiiidget…and at that time I'm a charming little fucker who loves to fuck…and I thought if I can't make her come, maybe I'll make her laugh.”
For all of his rambling, recounting and outspokenness, he is decidedly self-aware. He pauses after a particularly long-winded rant to say, “Boy, am I a bloviating fatass, or what?”
Olson, looking only a tad weary after three or so hours of constant conversation — not to mention the moments when Ellison would casually pull out his knife in the middle of conversation — tried to herd him into some sense of closure with questions about current TV. He managed to get Ellison to talk about his favorite shows and, shockingly, he loves the lowliest kind of shitty television…and in a way that only he can pull off. His list includes Judge Judy and The People's Court. “Oh, I'm a court junkie from way back…now that is real television and I love it. It's small claims court, you can't get more real than that.”
“Who is that enormous one? The most unattractive person on the show? The 1600 pound woman — who has tattoos all over her?” Ellison asks later, trying to recall details of Operation Repo, one of his favorite shows.
Against the type of his prickly public persona, Ellison is fiercely protective of his fans. Guys in sweatpants, appliqué man-vests, and all manner of unhip, uncool, and unwashed ubernerds waited post-show to glean some autographs and wisdom from him, while he in turn, took careful, personal time with each and every one of them.
One awkward young fan could barely speak in his presence. Ellison, without missing a beat, “Do they screw with you at school?” The answer was obvious. “Let me show you something…come here…” And Ellison taught the youngster a painful retaliatory handshake for his tormentors. Again, Ellison knows what it is to be fucked with so well, he can read it on a sympathetic soul — even if he plays a batshit lunatic in public. And occasionally casually wields a knife.