CBS’ “$#*! My Dad Says” (which debuts Thursday at 8) is what happens when you try to apply old-media values to new-media material. It’s a mess, and if it’s not the worst new show of the fall, that’s only because it’s airing on a night when there are two other prime contenders in ABC’s “My Generation” and NBC’s “Outsourced.”
The show is based on @shitmydadsays, the Twitter feed of writer Justin Halpern. As the title suggests, Halpern simply reproduces the outrageous, usually profane things his Vietnam veteran father says to him. And as isolated, out-of-context 140-character soundbytes, it can often be very funny.
But CBS can’t use the real title (instead we get that silly mash-up of punctuation), and very little of the rest translates.
Halpern was brought on board as a writer for the show, then surrounded by sitcom veterans like “Will & Grace” creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who were tasked with fitting a square peg into a round hole. So Kohan, Mutchnick and the rest have pounded and pounded until they got the premise of the Twitter feed to fit the needs of a traditional half-hour sitcom, but the end result is largely unrecognizable, pointless and profoundly lame.
Mistake number one was casting William Shatner as Ed Goodson, the TV version of Halpern’s dad. (Jonathan Sadowski plays the TV version of Halpern, here an unemployed magazine writer named Henry.) What makes Halpern’s father funny on the Twitter feed is that he clearly has no idea that anything he’s saying would make anyone laugh. These ridiculous, offensive thoughts he utters are presented with complete sincerity; he means what he says, dammit. The Shat, on the other hand, embraced his descent into self-parody decades ago. He’s aware that everything he says is a laugh line, simply by virtue of William Shatner being the one who says it, and that self-awareness leaves virtually every joke stillborn. He’s no longer an oblivious bully, but a Borscht Belt comic waiting for you to tip your waitress and try the veal.
At one point, Ed complains that he hates going downtown, because “It smells of motor oil and hummus!” The laughtrack roars, but what The Shat really needs is a rimshot.
Mistake number two was in trying to humanize the dad and reveal that underneath the bluster is a sad and lonely man who really needs his son to give his life meaning. It’s not that the larger-than-life character with no internal censor can’t have hidden depth, but that the attempts to provide it are all clumsy and forced, like CBS was terrified viewers wouldn’t like Ed because of the $#*! he says.
So they can’t use the name, can’t use most of the jokes and can’t keep the tone of the Twitter feed. Remind me again why CBS wanted to make this into a TV show?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org