Back in the day, before I was a teenager, and possessed neither status nor a pager, I stayed in every New Year's, because New Year's Eve is probably the least child-friendly holiday going (other than Administrative Professionals and Secretaries Day). While others froze in Times Square, I got to watch the 24-hour Twilight Zone marathon on Channel 11, aka WPIX. In retrospect, as a kid (okay, maybe a weird kid), what appealed to me most in the show was its uncanny allegories and just off-kilter aesthetic, its plots that were almost, but not quite, cheesy.
Rod Serling's all-American appearance made what he said, and how he said it, that much weirder, and though the show followed a Law and Order-like fidelity to its template (i.e., an uncanny, usually science-fiction based story with, almost always, a twist ending), the show's 156 episodes, 92 of which were written by Serling himself, still hold up today. This episode, with Jack Klugman, has just one pool hall for a location and two actors, but the performances, the story, and the mood, make it, justly, a classic (best Serling entrance, 2:14).
These episodes are also marvels of economical, arguably indie-spirited production. Without a large budget at his disposal, Serling and the writers and directors he supervised managed to craft worlds from story, mood, and always a piercing psychological lense bent; it was TV, but it was smart, and never pandered. Serling, who for years I thought was just an actor hired to say weird things at the beginning and end of the show, thought of himself primarily as a writer, and in this video, he explains his philosophy of creativity in just one minute (also, anything said in Rod Serling's voice is pretty great):
The rest of the parts of his interview are up as well, and provide a fascinating look into the mind of someone who either wrote or was responsible for some of the finest television in the history of the medium. Of writing, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway's oft-quoted, Hemingway-esque observation that, "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Serling's point that ideas are everywhere, and that inspiration is there for the taking, but the execution, the discipline of sitting down every day and writing, whether you feel like it or not. After all, this is a man who once remarked that, “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest," and said, of writing:
Writing is a demanding profession and a selfish one. And because it is selfish and demanding, because it is compulsive and exacting, I didn't embrace it. I succumbed to it.
Rod Serling believed that humanity's greatest threat and enemy was itself, and that is the driving force behind almost everything he produced. The unique way he examined the human condition, the conditions under which he produced such quality work, and the excellent performances and filmmaking make The Twilight Zone one of the 20th centuries most important TV shows and Serling one of the most important writers in Hollywood history. Below, check out audio of Serling speaking at UCLA in 1971.
More than that guy in the suit, Rod Serling was an activist, a thinker, and a pioneer for everyone who works in any speculative genre. He wrote many rules, even as he acknowledged the difficulty of writing in the first place. But we're all the richer that he did, and hearing to his words like this is a singular experience.