It’s a fact that YouTube has brought a number of positive elements into our lives, including this program. HARLAN ELLISON’S WATCHING, named after Ellison’s long-running movie review column, was initially broadcast as part of the Sci-Fi Channel’s SCI-FI BUZZ series during the years 1993 to ‘96.
Lasting 2-8 minutes per episode, HARLAN ELLISON’S WATCHING features the incomparable writer (of books and stories like I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM, “A Boy and His Dog,” MEFISTO IN ONYX and THE GLASS TEAT) and provocateur Ellison in his Sherman Oaks, CA home, speaking—or more accurately, ranting—about whatever happens to be on his mind. Some 90-plus segments were originally broadcast, about sixty of which have been uploaded to Ellison’s YouTube channel, along with a handful of newer, post-2013 segments shot by longtime Ellison chum (and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE screenwriter) Josh Olson.
Resembling a more pissed-off Wallace Shawn, Ellison is an irrepressible raconteur. The commentaries are rattled off in his inimitable motor-mouthed manner, being sharply opinionated, filled with four letter words and driven by a strong sense of righteous offense. They’re also, in keeping with Ellison’s personality, screamingly funny. The man may be a writer by profession, but, as he’s proven in his innumerable convention and TV talk show appearances (many of them likewise available on YouTube), he has a real gift for showmanship.
Ellison’s chosen topics include cultural illiteracy, the ten great unanswered questions of science, how the public bought into the 1993 “death” of Superman (“My God how gullible you are, don’t you ever learn?”), Marvel trading card sets, the Branch Davidian standoff, the OZ books (the lack of which is apparently the reason so many children have become “hopeless dope addicts”), fantasy novelists whose work is unavailable in English (“American publishers are too busy publishing trash to really take any chances”), the NRA, science fiction’s alleged predictive abilities and, most controversial of all, women science fiction writers. On that last topic Ellison is none too sanguine—being a committed liberal, he seems quite regretful about admitting that most female penned sci fi is crap—and devotes no less than three segments to it.
He also speaks candidly about the 1994 Northridge earthquake in a segment taped shortly after it occurred, taking us through the portions of his house where he was thrown about during the quake, and his 1996 heart attack. Equally impassioned is a segment in which Ellison names science fiction writers he feels should win Science Fiction Writers of America lifetime achievement awards; being the fantasy field’s most widely awarded writer, awards are extremely important to him, and in segment #9 he provides an enthusiastic appraisal of his many trophies. He also offers up a number of recommended books, comics, calendars and assorted gadgets sent to him for promotion, because, as he eagerly proclaims in an early segment, he can be bought (although the majority of what was yielded up was apparently “the most useless, worthless and offensive trash I’ve ever seen”).
Other insights into Harlan Ellison’s famously mercurial personality are provided in segments like the one in which he rants at length about SCI-FI BUZZ host Mike Jerrick, who dared criticize Ellison; like most loudmouths, Ellison is shockingly thin-skinned. He’s also not afraid to bite the hand that feeds him, as occurs in what “may be my last commentary” (it wasn’t) due to his outrage over factual inaccuracies in the 1993 TV movie MARILYN & BOBBY: HER FINAL AFFAIR, made by the Sci-Fi Channel’s parent company the USA network.
The most memorable segments include one about the ten stupidest things in movies (such as when characters exit their cars and leave the headlights on or the windows down) and another involving his response to a “little person” offended by Ellison’s terminology: “I am 5 foot 5, I’m a little person—you’re a midget!” There’s also a very accurate, and prescient, rant about early-nineties internet message boards, populated by “a bunch of people who have too much time on their hands and too little intellect.”
Some other memorable quotes: “Does it not bother you that half the X-Men are women?”…“I want to be a nice guy but the world is so filled with doofuses and gazoonies I just can’t”…“The nice thing about doing these commentaries is that I get to indulge my arrested adolescent behavior”…and, most impacting of all in my view, “Sometimes one’s ethics compel you to live in loneliness.”
Of the newer segments, showcasing a much older and more decrepit (though still quite feisty) Ellison, they’re just as potent. Foremost among them is a 2013 rant about SAVING MR. BANKS, which Ellison correctly takes to task for its distorted depiction of the creation of MARY POPPINS, and a lengthy Q&A session at the New Beverly Cinema, in which Ellison brags about punching out actor Dean Stockwell back in the sixties, describes having gotten crabs from the poet Lawrence Ferlingetti, chews out his wife and claims Ayn Rand was a big fan of his work.
My biggest complaint about HARLAN ELLISON’S WATCHING? That there isn’t enough of it! Alas, a debilitating 2014 stroke has rendered Ellison unable to move about his house and sapped most of his energy (as recounted in Nat Segaloff’s 2017 biography of the man). Thus, I strongly doubt we’ll be seeing much more of HARLAN’S ELLISON’S WATCHING, or anything else, from the once-irrepressible Harlan Ellison.