What Shatner Has Taught Me (About Irony And Other Stuff)

Over the past ten years or so I’ve really begun to dislike irony—or more directly: the pursuit of ironic moments as a pastime. Back when I had a job at a design firm, these ironic moments would manifest themselves as Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties or 80’s Theme Nights. As soon as everyone was in the same room wearing the same ironic attire the whole event would become immediately tiresome for me. I just couldn’t keep up the act for very long. (Perhaps my mutual dislike for playing “dress-up” is a factor here, but that’s probably a different rant.)

But as it were, I could never bring myself to enjoy these scripted get-togethers. I would always say: Can’t we just have a party? Serve drinks? Have conversations? Why do we need to pretend to enjoy something we don’t even really like all that much? Soon enough I was branded the workplace curmudgeon. The old grump. I’d still get invited to the ugly sweater parties, but my coworkers kind of knew I wouldn’t show up. To me, it all seemed like too much effort, when all I really wanted to do was have a drink and talk with my pals.

During that same time I had friends who loved to plan elaborate ironic evenings out. On a given Friday they might rent a limousine and spend the entire evening seeking out dive restaurants that offered spicy chicken wings so they could order boxes of them to eat while cruising through the city all night. They might even open the sunroof and begin cheering: “Chicken wings! We’re eating spicy chicken wings! In a limo! Woooo!”

Other friends would join adult kickball leagues or take up ironic hobbies like collecting superhero lunch boxes or cultivating fanciful mustaches. Perhaps it’s not even irony at play here—but more of a desire to simply keep one foot firmly inside the boundary of childhood forever—and I can appreciate that at some level. I really can. But, I still can’t seem to detach myself from the disingenuousness of it all. I do recognize the initial appeal, but I just can’t fathom enduring the followthrough. How does one keep the enthusiasm going? At what point are you really just pretending to have fun? (Maybe that’s the most ironic part after all.)

The musician Beck has made a career out of a peculiar style of ironic music. And it’s good stuff, I like most all of it. But, the one time Beck decided to channel Nick Drake and make a straight, un-ironic folk album, people weren’t so certain what to think. Sure, this was on the heels of 9/11 when irony had supposedly died, but this is Beck—he break-dances in ernest. I actually liked his album Sea Change very much—and I still play it often—but it took me a few listens to figure out that he was being sincere for once. Perhaps this is the danger of living a life of carefully crafted artifice.

All of this brings me to William Shatner. For years, William Shatner has been a very complex, highly ironic version of himself. It’s nearly impossible to discern the line between Ironic William Shatner & Genuine William Shatner. The seminal example of this blurring of the sardonic and the sincere is the musical spoken word album he released in 1968: The Transformed Man. He’s been channeling this debut album and its accompanying persona for a very long time. The first “hit” off the album was “Tambourine Man”, and the song quite possibly had sincere intentions—even though people mistook it for something of a joke. But against all odds, this Shakespearian take on a contemporary pop song eventually became a camp classic. Shatner went on to explain:

…yes, in the beginning it bothered me that people singled it out and poked fun at it. They didn’t know what I was doing. The album The Transformed Man is much more extensive than that song. But since people only heard that song, I went along with the joke.”

So, Shatner understood early on the ironic value of what he was doing, and he played to it for years to come. He even went on to parody himself in the 90s by repopularizing the Shatner spoken word schtick on award shows and then later still on Priceline.com commercials. More recently he did readings of Sarah Palin’s Twitter account in the now classic Shatner spoken word style on an episode of Conan O’Brien. Shatner essentially embraced the character he had long become.

Back in the 90s I would have loved every single minute of this seemingly meta-ironic persona Shatner continues to play. In the 90s I loved irony so much that I once bought an old Jim Backus album where he joyfully sang songs about high society cocktail parties while obviously half-drunk. I played this record over and over for my friends as we cackled through the chorus: “We’re having such a good time!” Backus would sing. “More champagne!” We drank it up. Thurston Howell The Third playing loungy cocktail songs while drunk on actual cocktails. It was perfect for the ironic lifestyles we were fashioning for ourselves. A perfect soundtrack for living a particular version of a real life.

But now, in my middle age, with a certain distaste for costumes and thematic get-togethers, I have essentially dismissed characters like Shatner as perpetual jokes with tiresome punchlines. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve always admired Shatner the actor—just not the ironic poet he had become.

Until now.

I recently discovered an album called Has Been that Shatner released in 2004 with Ben Folds. (Not exactly sure why it took me this long to find it.) On Has Been he’s again playing the role of Shatner The Poet, but I’m now convinced that this has never been a “role” at all. This is the Real Shatner. It always has been the real Shatner. And it’s genius! I genuinely like this album for what it is. The writing is great. The music from Folds is great. The guest musicians and singers are also great. And, Shatner is so, so great! This is actually a wonderful album.

I’m now persuaded that this whole time—since 1968, the year I was born—William Shatner has been staying true to his craft. Shatner The Poet is the genuine article. He rode the long wave of irony because it was an opportunity. It was a means to an end. But it’s been Shatner all along. On Has Been Shatner is impassioned. He’s funny. Affected. Almost world-weary at times. And I love him for it. William Shatner has finally won me over.

Listen to this track from Has Been called It Hasn’t Happened Yet. And don’t laugh it off as another ironic two-step. Listen to Shatner. He’s trying to tell you something—and it’s genuine.

In the meantime, I’m off to play some dodgeball. (Not really.)