There are very few pictures of legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, and he's out of place in all of them. In one photo of the show's writing staff, he stands near the back, mustached and not exactly smiling; he looks like a man who doesn't want to be there, and maybe he didn't.
Swartzwelder is for a certain kind of misanthropic comedy nerd what Robert Johnson is for blues obsessives and J.D. Salinger is for English majors: a legendary figure who is all the more legendary for being shrouded in mystery. He never does press. He allegedly got kicked out of the Simpsons writing room for chain smoking and afterward mostly worked from home, driving an old Cadillac to the office to drop off his scripts.
His fellow writers speak about him with hushed reverence. He's universally regarded as a virtuoso. IMDB lists his birthplace as simply "the USA." He's so enigmatic that you half expect him to go out like Ambrose Bierce: alone in Mexico, his date of death a permanent mystery.
The man's status is deserved, but not because of his elusiveness. Swartzwelder should be revered for all the classic Simpsons episodes he wrote. His voice is singular in its absurdism, bizarre internal logic, and obsession with bygone America. Unlike many of the show's Harvard-pedigreed writers, he's a proud and stubborn outsider.
And he's still at it. He writes books these days, self-published absurdist dime-store novels about the world's dumbest detective. They're as funny as anything he wrote on The Simpsons, the effortless work of a truly great humorist with nothing to prove.
But his reclusive reputation gets in the way here. Because his books are self-published and look like (no disrespect intended) political manifestos salvaged from a library dumpster, you've got to work to find them. They don't get nearly as much press as, say, fellow comedy legend Jack Handey's The Stench of Honolulu, which got excerpted in the New Yorker and reviewed everywhere. Swartzwelder should be recognized as one of the funniest writers alive, no matter how tempting it is to mythologize him as merely a recluse.
Given all that, when I learned about his 1996 western comedy pilot, Pistol Pete, I immediately became obsessed with it. Like most of Swartzwelder's career, it was half apocryphal comedy-message-board whispers, which made it easy to obsess over. What would his vision even look like played out by live actors, outside of The Simpsons and deliberately obscure paperbacks? Could it compete with a show on which Johnny Carson juggled Buicks? Well, now we know, because it got uploaded out of the blue, plucked out of the purgatory of hazy anecdotes from actors who remember it only as a job that didn't pan out.
Before you watch, I should say that it helps to keep your expectations in check. See, back before our current golden age of television, in which every show has to be a long, long movie, pilots mostly served to suggest the kind of show that would be made if it got picked up for the back nine. Fortunately, and maybe surprisingly, Pistol Pete holds up OK, both as an artifact and as a pilot that had potential.
It establishes itself right away as taking place in Swartzwelder's dime-store novel universe: After some outlaws rob a bank in Abilene, Texas, the leader of the gang kills the marshal and his followers all take turns shooting the corpse for no reason. The mayor (Brian Doyle-Murray) decides to replace the deceased lawman with Pistol Pete (Stephen Kearney), an actor who plays a dime-store novel gunslinger in a New York stage show. And in keeping with Swartzwelder tradition, he's also the dumbest person alive.
The obvious comparison point for the show is Blazing Saddles, but where that's a Mel Brooks movie that happens to be a Western, Pistol Pete is tonally closer to Support Your Local Sheriff!—an affectionate take on the genre made for an audience that's familiar with its quirks. Swartzwelder's commitment to authenticity meant using as many Gunsmokeveterans as possible behind the scenes. It was even directed by John Rich, who helmed 14 episodes of Gunsmoke. As a result, Pistol Pete doesn't look like a Western parody from 1996; it looks like a Western parody from 1976. It's a total anachronism. In other words, just like its author.
Kearney does a noble job as the lead—he's a blank slate, totally lacking in self-awareness—but his jokes were obviously funnier on paper. Worse, all of his lines sound like they'd play better coming out of Phil Hartman, who he almost seems to be imitating at points. When he says, "Good, this will give me a chance to clean up the whole Western frontier on my first day!" he doesn't give the line the pathological bombast it deserves. He's a Troy McClure imitator, and the show needs the real thing.
It's a refreshing curiosity regardless, like any comedy that predates the current hegemonic influence of Judd Apatow and Seth MacFarlane. Of course it doesn't soar to the impossible heights of any of Swartzwelder's Simpsons episodes, where he had the benefit of a perfect cast and art direction that was always in service to the writing, but it's a respectable live-action cartoon—it's the sort of thing that could never be made now, not even as a vanity project.
It's just good enough, in other words, to make you wish Swartzwelder could get creative free reign on cable someplace, like Chris Elliott got with Eagleheart. Not that he'd want to do anything other than write at the age of 63. He's likely happy wherever he is and whatever he's doing, even if we wish he'd reemerge.
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