Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Internet

May 11, 2010

Shit Justin Halpern Says

By mining his dad's cantankerous ramblings for Tweet-sized maxims, Halpern has become an internet celebrity, a published author, and the brains behind a new CBS pilot starring William Shatner. He tells Gelf how it all happened.

David Downs

Seventy-four-year-old retired doctor of nuclear medicine and Vietnam-era Navy veteran Sam Halpern doesn't take any shit. Halpern's profane maxims, as transcribed by his son Justin Halpern on the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says, have garnered more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. Now, once-struggling 29-year-old screenwriter Justin has a book deal with HarperCollins, and a CBS sitcom pilot of the same name starring the great William Shatner.

Shit My Dad Says

Illustration by Conor Buckley.

Funny, well-executed, and ultimately sweet, Sh*t My Dad Says, the book, has just been released, and it will make you miss your father. Justin Halpern has successfully adapted the viral, ephemeral hit into something far more permanent by adding short, seriously funny autobiographical chapters on growing up in the Halpern household. These chapters combine with the canonical tweets to inculcate readers to Sam Halpern's cantankerous, forthright worldview. Gelf caught up with Justin as he drove down California Interstate 5 between San Diego and Los Angeles to discuss getting a book deal from Twitter, what it's like to have William Shatner portray your father, and the rules of cussing. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What can you tell me about the pilot?

Justin Halpern: We shot the pilot and I like it. It just depends on what CBS thinks and if they like it. They'll tell me in about three weeks whether or not they are going to pick it up for a series.

Gelf Magazine: Even your dad knows Hollywood is cruel and unfair. Have you divorced yourself emotionally from this project or would you be crushed if it weren't approved?

Justin Halpern: No, I will be crushed. I will definitely be crushed. He can say that all he wants, but it doesn't matter. I'm still going to be super bummed out. I mean, it's all gravy, right? I'm like the luckiest dude in the world so I kinda gotta just take everything for what it's worth. But it's hard not to get emotionally invested. It's hard to remind yourself, "Well, you're lucky to be here," because you just want it to happen so badly.

Gelf Magazine: What's it like to have William Shatner be speaking lines your dad said, or stuff inspired by that?

Justin Halpern: It's amazing. It's unbelievable. I mean Shatner is very much like my dad, in real life.

Gelf Magazine: Really?

Justin Halpern: Yeah. He's a more cordial version of my dad. He looks like he's a teddy bear, but he's also a little intimidating. And he doesn't want to get into any unnecessary conversations, which is just like my dad. You get the sense he's thinking, "Do we have to have this conversation? Oh, we do? Well, then let's have it," or, "No we don't? Let's not have it."

Gelf Magazine: I have a hard time seeing Shatner being profane. He projects this classy image.

Justin Halpern: Well, he's not a profane guy but he has that bite to him that my dad has. That's why I say he's a refined version of my father. He doesn't really filter himself. He's going to tell you what he thinks and you know where you stand with him, which is pretty great. Having worked a little bit in the industry before, I know it's really rare that you get to work with people with whom you know exactly where you stand with them at every moment.

Gelf Magazine: How did your conception change of Shatner from seeing his image to working with him?

Justin Halpern: It's funny because he's like a pop icon. I know him from the Conan O'Brien show, Boston Legal, and all this stuff, and you're never quite sure if he's in on the joke or not, you now? And I can definitely tell you he's in on the joke. He is a really smart guy. And he has incredible comedic timing. He also has a great sense of what's funny and why it's funny and how to make it funnier. He took everything that we wrote and he just made it better, and that's the biggest blessing for a writer that there is.

Gelf Magazine: His Twitter feed is pretty good, too.

Justin Halpern: I love that he ends every tweet with "My best, Bill."

Gelf Magazine: This book felt like a celebration of being forthright and direct because life is short, so we should cut the bullshit. Do you find yourself being like your dad that way? Can you be?

Justin Halpern: I just can't be direct the way he is. I wish I could. He's been that way his whole life. He has definitely suffered for it in some areas of life and I think he's lost quite a few friends because of it. He could never hold an administrative position or something like that because he won't put up with any BS.
I try to figure my way through the system. I'm a lot more careful than he is. I would like to be the way that he is, but I'm just not. But I try to be. I try to tell people what I think and I try to never lie to them or say something that I don't believe.

Gelf Magazine: People don't seem to like that kind of honesty, considering how much we bullshit each other.

Justin Halpern: It's true. I mean, you know from working in magazines, and that's where I was. It's all bullshit.

Gelf Magazine: Being nice to everyone is a dominant strategy.

Justin Halpern: Yeah, I mean, that's really how it seems, and that's just not his philosophy. As he says, if you're a pile of shit, he's going to treat you like one. I don't think I'll ever have that frankness that he has.
One of the things about growing up with somebody that brutally honest is that you tend to apologize for that person quite a bit. You tend to also be very aware of the awkward situations that it creates. You see that in the book. It might have had the opposite effect on me.

Gelf Magazine: Let's face it: You do a fair amount of crying.

Justin Halpern: I know I was very whiny.
The thing that I hope I get from him is that he is incredibly fair. He's the fairest person I've ever met. And I hope that that is the big thing that I keep. But yeah, I did have an opposite reaction to how he was. As my brother said after reading the book—I was a whiny bitch.

"My Dad would fucking murder me if I put stuff up there that he didn't say. I would be done."
Gelf Magazine: Your dad was a doctor of nuclear medicine, though. Did he have good bedside manner?

Justin Halpern: He was talking to patients who were months away from dying; that was his job. He was dealing with very severe cases, and patients absolutely loved him. Apparently patients write him things, and all kinds of stuff. From what I hear from other doctors who knew him, people really respected and loved his honesty. I think when you're sick and you're dying you just want to hear somebody be honest with you.

Gelf Magazine: That had to have influenced his world view.

Justin Halpern: Definitely, and it also really made him not sweat the small stuff. He never uses those words, but that became his mantra.

Gelf Magazine: He grew up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. I get the impression they don't make them like they used to.

Justin Halpern: Oh, 100 percent. You realize that with each generation we're becoming weaker and bigger pussies.
I feel like our generation has a huge sense of entitlement. Everything comes very easily to us. We have the internet and we have cell phones, all this stuff, and it's like, "ooh, if my cell phone doesn't work I'm so upset. So upset. I'm crushed. I'm going to the Sprint store. I'm enraged." I just think it's laughable what we've become.

Gelf Magazine: I like how your dad told you Hollywood was going to fuck you. Is it meeting his expectations?

Justin Halpern: It's fun. I feel like I've been really prepared for a system that is very black and white and doesn't care about your feelings whatsoever, because growing up with my dad, it was never, "You'll be a success. Failure is not an option." It was always, "Yes, failure is an option. Don't fail."
He never sugar-coated what possible outcomes in your life could be. I've had a really great experience working with Warner and CBS because they've really liked the project. They've been incredibly supportive of the project and I've had the chance to work with people who love what we're doing. Previously, I have had experiences where I was busting my ass and being told one thing and another thing was happening.

Gelf Magazine: It's tempting for people to assume you were an out-of-the-blue success, but you had been writing for nine years. You were working for

Justin Halpern: I completely understand the sentiment of like, "What a fucking asshole." But yeah, I had been working in writing for nine years. I was constantly trying to make as much stuff as possible, and I think ironically this wasn't something I was trying to make. It was something that I was like, "Oh, I'll save these so that I can make them into something later. I'll use these quotes and I'll use them in a script later." But I never thought, "I'll use these quotes in a script about my family and dad later."
If you just keep producing stuff—no matter what medium it's in—it's like at-bats in baseball: At some point you're going to connect.

Gelf Magazine: You had all these years of writing and struggling in Hollywood. It seems counterintuitive that moving back in with your parents at age 29 ended up being the best career move of your life.

Justin Halpern: Oh by far, yeah. If I don't move back in with my parents, I'm still struggling and pitching projects, developing stuff for free, and helping somebody who pays me here or there. No, that was the best thing that I could have possibly done, and also the great thing about it is, you have a lot less to worry about when you're living at home. You have obvious worries, like, "I'm 29, I'm living at home," but you're not as concerned about little details of living on your own. It almost frees up your mind to wander and sometimes that's a good thing.

Gelf Magazine: You've since moved out again, splitting your time between LA and San Diego. Did you stress over losing access to your oracle?

Justin Halpern: No, I didn't. Even before I moved back in with him, I would talk to him two, three times a week for hours. I knew those would continue, and I still work out of his house a couple days a week. I don't update the site as frequently because I don't see him as frequently, but I wasn't too worried about that. He's so intense to talk to, you don't think, "I'll lead him in this direction and try to get him to say something about this." We just have a conversation and enjoy it.

Gelf Magazine: It's almost impossible to quote people precisely, especially when you're remembering childhood stories for a book. Can you tell me about that process of transcription and fidelity?

Justin Halpern: With the feed, sometimes I'll have to remove a word or two to get it to fit into the 140[-character Twitter limit], or sometimes he'll say stuff but there's stuff in between it so I'll squish it. Sometimes it's just funny because it's taken out of context. There's a certain level of trying to make it work without changing things that he said. He would fucking murder me if I put stuff up there that he didn't say. I would be done. Yeah. Oh, God. I'd be in trouble.
When I thought about the book, I was trying to have individual stories that had a beginning, middle, and end, and a theme in them. That fit a lot of the stories, but you could flip to any page in the book, read a story, and it would be fine, you wouldn't need any context. But if you read the whole book, it would sort of have an arc to it, as well.
I had a lot of stories that were really funny stories, but they didn't have a point to them and they didn't factor in to the shaping of my life. I didn't include those. I wanted to have a series of stories that show how I was—hopefully—shaped into a man.

Gelf Magazine: It's comes off as very loving, and profane. Did your Dad cuss in your childhood? Are you a cusser? How do you respond to it?

Justin Halpern: I'm not a huge cusser. I will cuss—I have no problem doing it—but I'm just around it a lot so I probably don't do it as much. I talked to him about it because he won't curse in public places around women or anything like that. He's got weird rules. He never cursed when he was a doctor and he was talking to patients, you know? He was never like, "You've got fucking cancer." It wasn't like that. He had amazing bedside manner.
So I asked him, "Why is it you let loose when you're at home?" And he's like, "Well, first, it's because I'm at home, and second, all of your friends say 'fuck' and 'shit' and 'motherfucker' and all this stuff and I figured if I was going to relate to you on any level then I should just be myself, and talk the way you talk, because that's how I wanted to talk anyway." It was weird—I never thought about that before. It was funny to hear him say that.

Gelf Magazine: And he talks to babies like adults?

Justin Halpern: That is true. You know how somebody will grab a baby and get in a baby voice? He talks to my one-year-old nephew like he talks to a physicist. It's ridiculous. We all just sit there and laugh. He's like, "Hello, Carson. How is everything going today?" And Carson's, like, one. He's drooling. It's pretty funny. My dad has no ability to relate to small children who do not have fully functioning and formed minds.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of babies, you moved in with the parents when your girlfriend broke up with you. Now you're back together with her?

"By anyone's standards and his own, he's not, like, a good-looking guy. But he's just so confident that I think women just like that."
Justin Halpern: We got back together pretty shortly after we split up. It was actually before anything had happened. But I just didn't want to move back in with her because I wasn't going to move all the way back in right after we broke up. So, yeah, we've been back together since and it's been great. When I'm in San Diego, we now live together.

Gelf Magazine: You didn't get to needle her about showing you the curb until you got a million Twitter followers?

Justin Halpern: Uh, no, but now in every one of these interviews and on the jacket of my book, it's like, "After being dumped by his longtime girlfriend…" so it's, like, immortalized and everywhere where she turns. I don't even need to say anything. She hates it enough. She gets it bad enough.

Gelf Magazine: Not to pry, but what changed that now this is a good thing?

Justin Halpern: Well, she was going through grad school and it was her first year in San Diego and she's not from there and she didn't know anyone and it was just all of this stress and she just was having a tough time dealing with everything. She was just like, "I'm miserable and I don't think I can be in a relationship while I'm miserable," you know?

Gelf Magazine: Hopefully things got more stable.

Justin Halpern: Now she's acclimated in school. She's happy.

Gelf Magazine: San Diego is a weird place if you're not from there.

Justin Halpern: It's true. She went from Berkeley to San Diego. It's like Republican central down here.

Gelf Magazine: And the girls and the body-image stuff.

Justin Halpern: It's all tall flip-flops or Uggs and miniskirts.

Gelf Magazine: I mean, both places are fashion tragedies in their own ways.

Justin Halpern: That's what I tell her: "Listen, people are not pretty where you are from."

Gelf Magazine: I got the impression your dad was more of a ladies' man than you.

Justin Halpern: Yeah, definitely the case. Not even close. I don't know how many women he dated or anything but every story is a new one. It's funny because by anyone's standards and his own, he's not, like, a good-looking guy. But he's just so confident that I think women just like that. Even now he's charming, and women love him. Thirty-year-old women get the giggles when he talks to them.

Gelf Magazine: There's a great line in the book that all San Francisco nerds should read: "Son, let women come up with reasons not to fuck you. Don't make them up on your own."

Justin Halpern: That was after I had moved in. We were working out together at the gym and he said that about the girl who's, like, a trainer at the gym. She was super hot.

Gelf Magazine: Are you tired of it all yet? Did you, like, want to write the great American novel and now your life's on this track?

Justin Halpern: No, I am the luckiest human being in the world. And saying anything other than "I am so thankful and happy that this happened" would make me the biggest douchebag ever. No. I am totally content. The opportunity to write a book, especially one as personal as this, is just a gift.

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.