Justin Halpern is an overnight internet (and subsequently publishing and television) celebrity for his Twitter account, Shit My Dad Says, currently at 1.29 million followers. After getting a few key shout outs, he grew from literally zero followers to well over 100,000 in just a few days. And, if you couldn’t tell from the title, or have been hiding under a rock for the last few months, it’s literally just shit that his dad says.
These harsh nuggets of wisdom and profanity-riddled life lessons were handed down to Justin from this dad, and they resonated with the public to such a degree, it wasn’t long before he was offered a book deal and a television show. How did it all happen? How can you use social media to do it, too? Justin Halpern took some time to tell us.
MM: Every writer’s dream is to ‘just write’ something in the hopes of ‘getting discovered.’ That frickin’ happened to you. I realize that’s not a question. Just….awesome.
JH: Yeah, I’m the luckiest dude in the world, aside from anyone on any of those TLC shows that survived their hideous, life-threatening deformities.
MM: You’ve said yourself that you might hate ‘you’ if it wasn’t you. I think I can speak for most writers when I say we’re extremely jealous, but have you dealt with a lot of negativity in the creative community?
JH: Actually, people have been really cool. I mean, it’s the internet, so by "pretty cool" I mean that one out of every five comments calls me a "talentless fag," but that’s much better than the standard internet ratio of five out of five. A story like mine makes even people who aren’t jaded say "this is ridiculous bullshit" so I make sure to let them know I of all people also know that. I also let them know if they’re going to hate me, I one hundred percent understand, but I’d love them to at least give me a chance. Shockingly, they have. In terms of the book and the TV show, I think people I work with basically waited to see what I turned in before they made any decisions about whether or not I could write. So far it’s worked out pretty well.
MM: What would your dad say if he were in your shoes right now?
JH: You know, I really have no idea. He worked in medicine for 48 years and this kind of stuff he just sees as silly entertainment, which, is what it is. So I guess he’d probably say "I can’t believe some is stupid enough to pay me for this shit."
MM: Do you still crash there for material?
JH: When all this stuff first started happening, I made a point not to try and force hang out time for material. I mean, I have a relationship with my dad and it’s very important to me, so I’d rather not screw it up by prodding him so that he’ll say something. Plus, he says enough without me saying anything. He truly doesn’t give a shit, so it makes it easy. I actually see him much less now, maybe three days a week, so I don’t update as frequently as I used to. I think people like the page because it’s genuine, and if I started forcing stuff, my dad would just flip out on me anyway.
MM: What elements that people like about the Twitter are you trying to bring to the television show?
JH: The aggressive honesty of my dad. Early on we all decided that if the character says something, it has to be something that I wouldn’t feel weird about putting on SMDS if my dad had said it. So, like, there’s no substituting "shit" for "poop" or "fuck" for "friggin." If he would have said fuck, we don’t use it. We also used a lot of the network safe tweets in the pilot script. I really wanted people to feel like the show had the same attitude, and that I wasn’t essentially taking something people loved and putting it through some safe filter that turned it into this watered down pile of garbage. I hope. God do I hope.
MM: What’s the process of turning the account into a book and a TV show from a creative’s perspective?
JH: Well, for the book, it was just essentially picking the best moments from my life that involved my dad and figuring out the best way to tell those stories. That was a lot of fun because it required sitting down with my family and remembering all the things he said. There’s quotes in the book from when I was four years old, which obviously I can’t remember, but were told to me by my brothers or cousins. For the show, it was all about trying to capture the twitter page in a 22 minute script. That was tough. It’s a lot of writing, then looking at it and going "This is terrible, I need to start again." Then starting again, and looking at it, and saying "This is better. No, wait, this is terrible. I need to start again." A lot of that.
MM: What else do you draw inspiration from as far as books and TV shows?
JH: I grew up watching Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Married with Children, and those shows have stuck with me. It’s amazing how Al Bundy can stick his hand down his pants for the 147th time and talk about a fat person that walked in to his shoe store, and I’ll still laugh. Right now I really love 30 Rock. That show is so well written that I don’t even find it inspiring, it’s almost terrifying. I get done watching and episode and think to myself "Well, I’ll obviously never be as good as any of the writers on that show, so, there’s that."
MM: Do you think your dad will watch it? Or, is he as tough as his tweets?
JH: He’ll say he won’t, but I bet you he will. Actually, to be honest, he’ll probably forget. He’s got a lot of stuff on his mind, like, sitting, and drinking bourbon, and more sitting. He came to my student film festival in college and walked out before my film because he said it was the most painful experience of his life. Hopefully there’s not a repeat of that.
MM: Bill Shatner is your dad in the show, how are they alike and what’s different about them?
JH: Mr. Shatner is like the refined version of my dad. He’s much more a gentleman. But they have the same kind of "I’d rather not get into any unnecessary conversations if I don’t have to" kind of thing going on. It was awesome when they met each other after the filming of the pilot. It was just two older gentleman who were being forced to meet by everyone around them. Shatner walks up to my dad and says "Hello, sir" and my dad says "Hello, sir" and then they shake hands and pose for a picture and then turn in opposite directions and walk away. It was pretty amazing. Everyone was like "that’s it?" It was like they were expecting them to suddenly break out into a duet of Your The Wind Beneath My Wings.
MM: Are you converted? Do you now worship at the church of social media? Are you gonna tweet this?
JH: No, no, and no. I’m not even sure I understand social media. Actually, I’m sure I don’t understand social media. Everything that has happened to me has been insane and I’m so thankful to everyone out there who enjoys SMDS for allowing me this opportunity, but I don’t personally have a Twitter page, and if I did, I’m fairly certain it would be as boring as dog shit. I don’t really need to populate the interwebs with blurbs telling people "Just went to Ben and Jerry’s and had a cone. Was delish!" By the way, I did just do that and it was delicious.