A late-night comedy skit William Shatner did 35 years ago is once again making news, with Shatner defending himself against criticism from the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
1986: Shatner, SNL and “Get a Life”
In December 1986—one month after the release of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—William Shatner hosted an 8th season episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. One of the skits, called “Star Trek Convention”—but more often known as the “Get a Life” skit—poked fun at fans at Star Trek conventions. The skit (which you can see below) was written by SNL mainstay Robert Smigel with help on the nerdy details from SNL staff writers Jon Vitti and George Meyer. It featured Shatner becoming exasperated with the increasingly nitpicky fan questions until he disparaged the fans, saying (in part):
You know, before I answer any more questions there’s something I wanted to say. Having received all your letters over the years, and I’ve spoken to many of you, and some of you have traveled… y’know… hundreds of miles to be here, I’d just like to say… GET A LIFE, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you’re dressed! You’ve turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME!
Robert Smigel had pitched the idea to Shatner directly; in 2018, Smigel told The Ringer Shatner was sold by the “Get a life!” tagline. “That’s what made him laugh,” he said.
While controversial for some fans at the time, it was embraced by many, who also appreciated the detailed understanding of the Trek lore it included (like references to Yeoman Janice Rand and Leslie Thompson and the episode “The Enemy Within”). Shatner himself acknowledged how he respected Star Trek fans. During his monologue for the show, he said, “I mean they’re truly incredible, and I hope they have a sense of humor about the show tonight, or I’m in deep trouble.”
2021: Rod Roddenberry weighs in
In a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter to promote the upcoming Star Trek Day, Rod Roddenberry took issue with the 1986 skit:
I never really appreciated that skit because I think it was demeaning to the fans. I think it was disrespectful, especially for a character who was an open-minded, intelligent leader.
However, he also added, “I don’t condemn it in any way. It’s Saturday Night Live, and it’s all fun.”
On Sunday in response to a tweet from THR about the Roddenberry comments, Shatner responded with “Isn’t presentism just wonderful?” along with an eye-roll emoji.
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) September 5, 2021
Shatner followed that up with some clarification, explaining how “presentism” applied today’s value system to moments in the past.
It’s presentism because it applies today’s value systems & beliefs about what is “bullying” & what is “disrespectful” to a time when those were not the values or opinions and nobody was really offended but the mindset people have is that it makes them look intelligent & caring.🤷🏼♂️ https://t.co/yIFT8IDGVe
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) September 5, 2021
1999: Shatner reflects with “Get a Life!”… the book about fans
At the time of the sketch, Shatner actually wasn’t active on the Star Trek convention circuit. The actor had experienced tense moments with some fans; in 1968, one fan even tried to rip his shirt off as he came out of 30 Rockefeller Center. But after appearing at a number of conventions in the 90s, the actor became more fascinated with Trek fandom, leading to his 1999 book Get a Life!
In the book, Shatner explains how he learned he had fans all wrong:
Who were these people? Were they sane? Were they sober? Did they really need to ‘get a life’? To be brutally, humiliatingly honest, that now-infamous ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch was for me, at that time, equal parts comedy and catharsis. I was oblivious to the facts. I bought into the ‘Trekkie’ stereotypes. In a nutshell, I was a dope.
However, in the same book, Shatner says that in 1986, he trusted that fans would not be offended by the SNL skit because it was “SO exaggerated and SO stupid and SO cartoonish.” And he was relieved to learn how Gene Roddenberry reacted to it:
In the weeks to come I do get some criticism for that sketch, but far more praise, from fans, castmates, even Gene Roddenberry, which surprises me. No one was ever more protective of Star Trek’s fans than Gene, and I really expected he might take me to task.
Shatner’s SNL episode came as Gene Roddenberry was developing the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Shatner’s Get A Life! book includes a passage from Richard Arnold retelling how Roddenberry, along with D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, and Bob Justman, all watched a tape of the sketch together the following Monday. According to Arnold, “We were all in stitches, and no one was laughing harder than Gene.”
A decade after the book, Shatner followed up with the documentary William Shatner’s Get a Life! which also explored the world of Star Trek fandom. In the video below from Comic-Con 2012, Bill talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how that one sketch spawned the book and then the documentary.
After 35 years, people are still talking about this SNL sketch. As Smigel told The Ringer, it “may be the most resonant sketch I ever wrote there.”
Watch the skit
Find more stories about Star Trek history at TrekMovie.com.