There is an ongoing discussion that my older brother and I have from time to time regarding  William Shatner’s rendition of the Elton John song “Rocket Man” that he performed at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. I’m sure you must have seen it at some point in the last 33 years. Just to refresh your memory, here it is:

Our discussion contemplates a single question regarding the above performance: was Shatner in on the joke? We determined that Mr. Shatner is aware of his reputation now, and he enjoys playing it up (have you seen him play dead in Over the Hedge?).  When I start talking about him to friends and colleagues, they almost always acknowledge that he has a great sense of humor about himself. So we figure that in recent years, yes, William Shatner is in on the joke.

But what about in 1978?

At that point, Star Trek had become a big enough cult phenomenon that there had been talks of starting up a new show, which ended up turning into the first ST movie in 1979. Shatner was still on the verge of becoming a megastar. So his hammy reputation wasn’t quite as well known as it would in later years, so maybe he was trying to seriously put his own take on the song for this awards show.

On the other hand, how could anyone take that performance seriously?

This may be one of humankind’s eternal questions, like why are we here, or who’s sexier: Ginger or Mary Ann? I make no attempt to come up with a definitive answer here, but in Shatner Rules, our hero talks about the subject of being in on the joke, and in his documentary The Captains (2011), you see him have an epiphany while talking with Sir Patrick Stewart.

Shatner and Stewart in The Captains.

Mr. Shatner actually talks in his book about how his conversation with Sir Patrick helped to change his attitude, and after reading the book, it’s fascinating to watch the movie and see it happen.

What happened was that a long time ago, he noticed when many “fans” were laughing at him instead of laughing with him, so he started to take on the attitude that Star Trek was just this silly TV show that he did for a few years, and he shouldn’t take it too seriously. So he would laugh along with the people laughing at him like he was in on the joke.

When he spoke with Patrick Stewart, an actor whose talent is not questioned, he saw that Sir Patrick took his work on STNG as seriously as he took any other acting work he did. There was no joke. He took on the character of  Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as he would Hamlet or King Lear.

This helped William Shatner be able to reexamine his Star Trek work and be proud of it too.

A similar story can be told of his 1968 album The Transformed Man. This was an album where he tried to pair up great works of Western literature with contemporary pop songs. He would do a dramatic reading from the classic piece (say, Hamlet), which would be followed by a dramatic reading of the pop song (“It Was a Very Good Year”).

In Shatner Rules, the author tries to explain what he was going for with this artistic juxtaposition of

Golden Throats album cover. Definitely a joke.

classical and modern, but people would just hear his rendition of the pop song and take the whole thing out of context and laugh at him. Rhino Records later put together a collection of non-singing celebrity songs and called it Golden Throats: The Great Celebrity Sing Off. There were a couple Shatner songs on this album (out of context without the classical recitation), which provided more laffs.

In the 2009 documentary William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet, Mr. Shatner tells about this old album and what it was like dealing with the public who didn’t get it. In 2004 he got together with Ben Folds to make Has Been, and Gonzo Ballet is a movie about choreographer Margo Sappington creating a ballet based on the Has Been record.

This is a great movie, and I love the album too. Ben Folds’s music captures the feeling of Shatner’s words beautifully. And there’s no ham from Shatner either. I can feel the words he says whether he’s being serious or funny, and I can’t attribute the record’s quality to just Folds.

Well, again, Shatner denies there being a joke with Transformed Man, and he says he would never have made another record if he thought he was just going to be ridiculed for it. (In fact, he tells how guys from Rhino Records approached him to make an album, but he was reluctant because he knew they just wanted another Golden Throats. The album he made ended up being Has Been.)

All of this then begs the question: is William Shatner really in on the joke? Is he serious, or is he pretending to be serious? He’s such a good actor, it’s impossible to say.

Speaking of jokes, if you haven’t seen the Comedy Central Roast of William Shatner (2006), I highly recommend it, though it’s not for kids. There’s a funny intro with Leonard Nimoy, and a couple Star Trek alums, Betty White, and a lot of great comedians are on the dais to poke fun at Shatner and everyone else.

White at the Shatner roast. Fortunately, she wore black pants.

As the guest of honor puts it in his book, everyone’s jokes focused on one of three things: his weight, his hair, and his acting. If that wasn’t enough, he appears in the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen (2011) as well, where the Shatner jokes run along the same lines.

One of my faves from the Sheen roast was when Amy Schumer made fun at Shatner’s weight saying that she saw less bloated bodies being pulled out of a river.

I don’t want to spoil anymore of the jokes except one that the title of this post alludes to. I can’t remember which comedian said it (Jeffrey Ross?), but he said, “Speaking of Shatner, Better White just shat ‘ner pants.”