Rod Serling on Writing & The Twilight Zone

          I trust my son Jotham’s judgments on, among other things, science fiction in print, on film or on radio.  After all, he insisted I watch Battlestar Gallactica, the best political and science fiction – both categories – TV drama of the past decade.  So, I paid attention when this email arrived from Jotham:

 You have got to see this.

Basically it’s chunks of a never aired interview with Rod Serling, talking about Twilight Zone, science fiction in general, but especially on television, and more.  It’s fantastic.

Plus, I could listen to that voice all day.

An hour and a half later, he wrote:

                     Another set of interviews with Rod Serling.

This looks like it was chopped out of two seminars Serling gave, probably (from what I read in the comments on uTube) at Ithaca.  Just imagine being one of the six or seven students in the room!  For some profoundly annoying reason, the seminars were split into clips ranging from a bit over a minute long to around five minutes.  Still, just incredible.  So much of what he comes up with on the fly would be a back-of-the-book quote for anyone else.

          So, I watched the clips.  As a college dropout in 1966-67, I had heard that Serling was lecturing at Antioch, a school across Ohio from where I was living.  Crashing was a hot topic in the bars, but we never found the gas money….  Seeing these tapes, I really regret not scrounging the cash.

           Serling is magnetic.  His comments are never less than apt.  His wisdom particularly about the writing process is invaluable.  His self-criticism illuminates his scriptwriting.  I had never thought of him especially as a writer of dialogue, but that’s how he characterizes himself.  Indeed, watching a couple of episodes made me think of filmed radio dramas.  The dialogue captures the imagination.

          More amazing to me were the conditions under which he produced Twilight Zone.  The shoot lasted one to three days.  He bemoaned his small budgets and limited time with the actors.  Sets were rudimentary at best.  Only rarely was he able to use outdoor sets on studio lots, as he did in the unforgettable ‘Time Enough at Last’ (1959) when Burgess Meredith loses his glasses.

           It happens that on the Utube menu when you watch these clips, you’ll see a TZ episode, ‘A Stop at Willoughby’ (1960), listed.  It is an episode I remember frame for frame.

           It illustrates Serling’s comments perfectly.  The sets are stock; the views through windows are cardboard.  The star, John Daly, was a good journeyman actor.  The show was distinctly under rehearsed.  But, what a wallop it delivers!  An ad man trapped in a horrible job and worse marriage finds escape.  Unforgettable.

          Many writers have called attention to Mad Men’s debt to John Cheever.  In bits like Don’s contract, the show acknowledges explicitly their reliance on the satirist of the suburbs.  But in its bleakness, its superb dialogue and its weekly gut punches, it owes no less homage to Rod Serling.