Combative, prolific, a one-man argument on subjects beyond number, but specifically the seriousness and importance of science fiction, Harlan Ellison went as gently as was possible for him into that eternal good night. He was 84.
People always introduced him via his TV credits, “The Outer Limits,” “Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek’s” “City on the Edge of Forever,” stories that became “The Terminator” and inspired generations of sci-fi writers, screenwriters and filmmakers (and inspired plagiarism in the case of “Terminator“).
But he cranked out stories and books by the truckload. For decades, he toured sci-fi conventions, colleges and university writers conferences, showing off his pugnacious wit, his militant Jewishness, his outspoken atheism and his height. He traveled with a stunning, artsy and short personal hand-carved lectern that folded into a briefcase, which he’d assemble while regaling the audience with tales of Robin Williams, random encounters, arguments with fans disapproving of his language, “Trek” nerds, the works.
That’s how I encountered him. In the wintry March of 1984, the University of North Dakota Writer’s Conference was wittily built around “1984,” an edition of this long-running gathering of readers, writers and would-be writers that focused on science fiction. Robert Silverberg, Ray Bradbury, Ted and Jane Sturgeon and Ellison were among the luminaries gathered for readings, workshops and panel discussions.
I was in grad school and working at the university’s NPR radio station and in charge of live and taped coverage of the conference. So I had to get Ellison’s signature on a broadcast permission contract and I chatted with him briefly before he started (he was paranoid about copyrights, the product of ugly prior experiences.).
He starts “the show,” does his usual dynamite 45 minutes to a huge, packed house (North Dakota in late winter has few diversions save for hockey). The climax to the evening, “a brand new story, written, in my room at the Super 8 where the university has GRACIOUSLY put me up,” was a tale he titled “Laugh Track.”
But before Ellison begins, he turns to the broadcast team (I had a student assistant with me), makes us stand up, and vow to not release this story for broadcast until it’s been published. A long, profane, “My lawyer used to be with Irgun” threats, hilarious stuff. The audience giggles along.
He finishes comically humiliating us — lots of laughs — and turns on his heels, when I decide this would be a funny moment to bait Harlan Ellison. “SO HELP ME GOD,” I shout at the diminutive, and again “outspoken atheist.”
Roars of laughter. He spins and roars back, “So help me GOD?” Does five furiously funny minutes about religion, encounters with the religious, and finally gets to “Laugh Track.” Eventually. I got a big laugh, his was epic and went on and on.
I taped the whole thing. I still have a cassette copy which I have listened to many times over the years.
He finishes the night to a standing ovation, the crowd thins out, autographing books, etc., and as I am tearing down the radio gear (two 65 pound Otari reel-to-reel machines), he comes over, shakes my hand profusely for the joke set-up, and we chat for a minute or two — about North Dakota, North Dakotans never flushing public toilets, small towns, etc. He gets my name, laughs at it, and uses it back to me the way “How to Win Friends and Influence People” teaches us.
I took the title of his collection, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” to heart that night, got out of radio and into print and later online journalism. As it says at the top of this page, right hand corner, “Informed criticism, against the grain — Since 1984.”
A few years later, I stumble across an Ellison collection, one of many, in a used book store, and buy it. There’s “Laugh Track,” a tale of a woman who died, but whose distinctive laugh had been preserved at a 1950s live TV recording and re-used on into eternity on TV “sweetening,” laughs added to the soundtracks of bad ”60s and 70s sitcoms. Her ghost is in the machine, and her nephew, the narrator, tracks that ghost down for a chat about TV, eternal life, etc.
But there are two references in the printed version of “Laugh Track” that are not on my “1984” recording of this story’s first ever public appearance. One is a running gag about Pekin, North Dakota. He had a Nodak gag, but changed the name of the town to something funnier pre-publication.
And the other are derisive multiple references to the acting and celebrity of “Roger Moore,” still James Bond at the time the story was written, also the name of the guy who jokingly baited him into going off on religion in the town where the story was written. Again, not in the taped “original.”
Cue “The Twilight Zone” theme, if you wish. I know I did when I read that.
RIP, Harlan Ellison. One of kind. And a great talent we can say with certitude is NOT looking down on us from heaven.