What … is … this?

I have decided I am tired of writing about politics for the rest of the week.

One of the most infamous moments of TV before the “Star Wars Holiday Special” was this, uh, performance from William Shatner …

… during the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards.

There, is, however, an actual story to this, or so this Facebook post (taken, the writer claims, from Shatner’s autobiography) claims:

Shatner was rehearsing and during a pause he took a cigarette break with some of the crew. He was the center of attention, of course, and they got to talking about Bernie Taupin being at the show, and Shatner grabbed a chair and did what he called “Frank Sinatra doing Elton John,” performing Rocketman. He had the entire crew in stitches and they desperately wanted to get it on film, but eventualy it was suggested that he should do it for the show. It would be a brilliant comedy bit.

Because of the way the stage was situated, Shatner couldn’t tell what the reaction of the crowd was when he performed it. He just assumed everyone had a good laugh and moved on with the show.

He picked the paper up the next morning to see that the media and the audience were raving about his brilliant, artistic, dramatic performance, and how he wowed the crowd with his passion and artistic interpretation… It was supposed to be a joke, and they totally took it seriously.

That’s one story. Cover Me has another interpretation:

William Shatner’s take on the classic Elton John/Bernie Taupin tune “Rocket Man” has an awesome power—people know it without ever having heard it. It seems to exist in our culture purely as a punchline, a go-to gag to illustrate the depth to which Shatner’s career had fallen post-Star Trek. And this is a joke everybody’s in on—sources as diverse as Beck (in his video for “Where It’s At“), Freakazoid, and Family Guy have all taken a few shots at Shatner for this one. But is it really so awful?

At the very least, there’s no denying that Shatner’s “Rocket Man” is very, very weird. The man who was Captain Kirk performed this song as a tribute to Bernie Taupin at the 1978 Saturn Awards ceremony, and audiences have wondered why ever since. …

Truthfully, even if you’re going in academically, it’s hard not to laugh at parts of Shatner’s cover. Whether it’s the overly-serious delivery when he proclaims he just doesn’t understand science at 2:30 or the arrival of Dancing Kirk at 3:18, sections of this song (if not the whole thing) are just hilarious. I can’t imagine a more appropriate first response than confused guffawing.

But, after all, that’s only a first response.

This is not to deny that Shatner’s cover isn’t funny, because it is. But I think it’s more than that. The key to understanding where Bill is coming from here is in how the song is staged—there’s three different Shatners singing, each with a different tone and cadence. Shatner #1 is calm and cool, smoking a cigarette and acting aloof, describing his space-faring job as he might any other profession. Shatner #2 speaks boldly, like he’s channeling the spirit of an adventurer about to conquer the great unknown, but sometimes there’s a crack in his voice or a downturn in his expression that indicates he may be feigning the enthusiasm. Shatner #3 is a dancing fool, totally jubilant about his job—he gets to hang out in outer space! It’s an interesting dissection of the multi-faceted feelings of this song’s narrator,  bolstered by the fact that Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk is the one delivering the lines.

What makes Shatner’s “Rocket Man” so funny is its over-earnestness. It takes itself veryseriously. That’s also what makes it charming. In a way, it offers a handy prism through which to view the whole of Shatner’s career. It’s like that scene in Star Trek III where Klingon leader Kruge (played by Christopher Lloyd) murders Kirk’s son in cold blood. Shatner, standing taut on the bridge of his ship, stumbles back, falls into a slumped position on his captain’s chair, and utters (in the standard Shatner cadence) “You Klingon bastard…you killed my son. You Klingon bastard!” If you only look at that scene, it’s kind of funny and ridiculous, but if you’re caught up in the reality of the movie, I think it’s actually some pretty powerful acting. You rarely see a confident leader like Kirk so deflated. My point is that something can be both a little silly and an interesting performance piece, depending on how one wants to look at it.

I think Shatner’s “Rocket Man” is both of those things. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have some fun with it, but if you can get past all that, there is actually something kind of interesting going on. On Has Been, his 2004 collaboration with Ben Folds, Shatner proved that he can make legitimately good music. Maybe that was apparent all along, if only we’d looked.

William Shatner’s “spoken-word” version of Rocket Man made an extraordinary impact; I can only describe it as unforgettable. Initially, Shatner appears sitting on a stool, taking drags from a cigarette. An orchestra plays the melody in the background, while Shatner recites the lyrics.

Shatner over-emphasizes the line “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then,” lest anyone miss the drug allusions in that phrase. Later, using “Chroma Key” video technology, we see three different versions of Shatner. They are intended to represent three different facets of the Rocket Man’s personality. So we get the cynical hipster smoking a cigarette; a second Shatner exhibiting concern and bewilderment; and a third “swinger” persona.

One has to admit, this is one of the great moments on live television. It has been relentlessly spoofed, presumably because of Shatner’s over-the-top reading. I believe this is somewhat unfair. Whether or not one is impressed by the piece, Shatner made a serious attempt to capture the essence of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tune.

But Shatner’s performance seems to invite parody. Among other efforts, it has been lampooned by The Simpsons and by comedian Chris Elliot on Late Night with David Letterman.

Here we will show Seth McFarlane’s take-off on Shatner’s version of Rocket Man. In an episode of the TV show Family Guy, baby Stewie Griffin reprises this song, with the voice provided by McFarlane himself.

This is virtually a word-for-word re-creation of Shatner’s performance, even including three different incarnations of Stewie.

Although William Shatner became famous for his spoken-word pieces, he also became a laughing-stock. Shatner could have taken this as a slap in the face; however, he took the criticism in stride, and showed an endearing capacity to laugh at himself.

William Shatner has profited handsomely from his willingness to take a joke. He poked fun at his Capt. Kirk role in appearances on Saturday Night Live and subsequent spoofs in movies like Airplane II and National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1.

Shatner’s character Denny Crane on The Practice and later reprised on Boston Legal was sufficiently self-referential that it is sometimes hard to separate the TV character from the Shatner send-up. For several years now Shatner has been starring (and parodying himself) as the spokesman for Priceline.com.

William Shatner has shown that you can make a ton of money if you have the ability to laugh at yourself. Our hope for Mr. Shatner is that he “live long and prosper.”

Well, Shatner has so far; he has outlived all but three other members of the original cast. And, of course …

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