[16 December 2011]
“Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now”
—Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”
Lately, it seems that many people have finally come to realize what I’ve known since I was ten years old. William Shatner has more to teach us than anyone else on the planet. The man can do it all, from executing a drop kick and roll to charming a beautiful woman to making an ordinary conversation sound like Shakespeare. Shatner rules, and for those who still doubt, he’s now written a book to prove it.
Shatner Rules is an admittedly lightweight, humorous look at the basic philosophies that have sustained the actor through his up and down career. Written with Chris Regan, former writer for The Daily Show, the tone is mostly irreverent and ironic, in part because it focuses on the actor’s most famous character. No, not that one. The more recent one—“Shatner”—the puffed up celebrity and media hound who comes across as equally absurd, vain, and shameless.
While the “Shatner” character may cause some to roll their eyes and others to dismiss him as a joke, there is something rather extraordinary about this figure. In creating “Shatner”, the former Star Trek actor has produced something of real significance, a Postmodern art experiment that directly challenges two of the central obsessions of Western culture: youth and celebrity. Rather than retiring to his ranch, William Shatner, at 80, continues to force his youthful spirit into unexpected and age-inappropriate ventures, while his fictional self, the “Shatner” of the Priceline commercials and Comedy Central Roasts, subversively mocks the absurdity and shallowness of celebrity.
Pop culture is full of comeback stories, but Shatner’s is unique. Instead of following the traditional recipe for a career reboot by appearing in something dark, violent, or dramatically against type, the actor chose to magnify his own perceived weaknesses, cultivating the “Shatner” persona in a string of television commercials that led to Boston Legal and the most successful phase of his long career.
He has since won Emmy Awards, recorded albums with artists like Ben Folds, and written many, many books.
His level of productivity is staggering. This past year alone, the actor wrapped work as star of a network sitcom, hosted two serious interview programs for the Biography Channel, released his third album, directed a documentary film, and co-wrote yet another memoir.
Not bad for someone beginning his ninth decade.
This new book, Shatner Rules, is less narrative and more attitude. In a series of short essays, each centered around one of “Shatner’s” rules for living, he rejects the social inhibitions that come with age, and deconstructs the emptiness of contemporary celebrity. The book explores the significance of many of his life choices, while simultaneously illustrating what has become increasingly clear: he has learned how to transform his own life into the ultimate Postmodern text.
Shatner Rules reads like a concerto for three voices written by Sigmund Freud. There’s “Bill”, the talented Canadian actor who first gained notoriety subbing for Christopher Plummer in Henry V. There’s also the domineering and indefatigable “Shatner”, full of swagger, narcissism, and energy. “Shatner” plays id to “Bill’s” ego, leaving the third voice, the aforementioned Chris Regan, to act as the superego, corralling the other two voices into a readable structure with a consistent tone, inserting subheadings, inset boxes, and periodic interludes.
However, if all that seems too cerebral for this breezy and superficial airport read, don’t worry. Those Freudian undertones burn up faster than a damaged dilithium crystal. Nothing stays too fancy or too fully developed for long.
In fact, it’s exactly that combination of sophistication and superficiality that has typified the resurgent William Shatner as he fully embraces the absurdity of life as a 21st Century celebrity. As a creation, “Shatner” has actually been developing for a while. While “Bill” was flying starships, seeing monsters on the wings of airplanes ala Twilight Zone, and prosecuting war criminals in The Andersonville Trial, “Shatner” was always lurking backstage like a vicious understudy, popping out on occasion to perform “Rocket Man” before being dragged offstage by the proverbial hook.
However, when “Bill’s” acting career started to drift in the ‘90s, “Shatner” took the cue.
“Bill”, the actor, may be more talented, but “Shatner”, the spectacle, is intellectually more interesting. Throughout the book, “Shatner” appears as a cartoon illustration with an enlarged head, a dark suit, and a finger pointing towards one of the book’s many epigrams and “Fun Factners”. He looks like a stern uncle to some long lost edition of No More Fun for Dick and Jane. The “Shatner” character is indeed a cartoon—an absurdist glutton of our times. Yet, the self-parody doesn’t carry with it the shame of the aging John Barrymore, milking his famous profile while under various states of inebriation. Instead, “Shatner” is in control—edgy, bold, and, most of all, defiantly young.
While the culture elevates teen idols like Justin Bieber, “Shatner” stands center stage like Marvin K. Mooney, unwilling to leave, unwilling to concede to the ravages of time, unwilling to take his turn as King Lear, bow to the audience, and walk away. Instead, if the young kids are throwing a party, “Shatner” defies convention and assumes the role of guest of honor.
He combines high art and low, passion and irony, ambition and self-mockery. He trades on his many personalities—“Bill”, “Shatner”, “The Negotiator”, “Kirk”, “Hooker”, and “Crane”, happily moving from sincerity to caricature and back again.
He’s the man who appears with Conan O’Brien, reading Sarah Palin’s empty tweets like beat poetry. He’s the performer straining for the perfect balance between cool and camp while recording cover versions of space-themed songs, backed by the likes of Lyle Lovett and Johnny Winter. All the barriers of intention, execution, self-awareness, and taste collapse in a cultural mishmash that has few direct antecedents and goes where few entertainers have gone before.
While not a schizophrenic as Andy Kaufman’s “Tony Clifton”, the “Shatner” creation has more complexity and sophistication than the naughty irreverence that makes Betty White continue to shine. Instead, the creation of “Shatner” speaks to contemporary sensibilities and attitudes. As “Bill” explores the meaninglessness of celebrity, “Shatner” embraces the shallow and the superficial like an Andy Warhol soup can come to life.
The central element of the actor’s perseverance is also something for which the real William Shatner rarely gets credit: his insatiable intellectual curiosity. This is a man who invites Rush Limbaugh and Henry Rollins to the same football party just to see what happens. He’s constantly working to understand the world and the people around him, as evidenced by the two interview programs he now hosts. Both shows belong more to “Bill” than to “Shatner”, both far closer in tone to Charlie Rose than to Stephen Colbert. Yet, as he interviews celebrities and once-notorious, now-forgotten newsmakers, it’s clear that he’s pursuing the same question that underscores most of “Shatner’s” activities, What meaning can be found in the ephemeral obsessions of a mass media based culture?
In the same way, while the book may be called Shatner Rules, the obvious phoniness of the “Shatner” persona allows “Bill” some moments of authenticity in between the cartoon illustrations and rules. With the same “poignancy of the clown” that enables David Letterman occasionally to speak with more power than anyone on television since Edward R. Murrow, “Bill” manages to break character and discuss the drowning death of his wife with a surprising degree of honesty—revealing more of himself in a couple of pages than he was able to manage in a whole chapter of his more conventionally written autobiography.
If we believe the pun on the masthead here—that pop really does matter—then the ongoing experiment that is “Shatner” should prove that Shatner doesn’t just rule, he matters.