Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Wire: The secret origin of Clay's catchphrase

As part of my countdown to the final episode of the greatest drama in TV history, "The Wire," I decided it was time, once and for all, to get to the bottom of one of the biggest controversies surrounding the show: did "The Wire" invent Clay Davis' catchphrase, or did Spike Lee?

You know him, you love him, you would be a fool to ever trust him: Clay Davis is one of the most entertainingly despicable characters on "The Wire" for so many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to stretch out a certain infamous four-letter word so it sounds like it has 17 syllables. (This would be the for-adult-eyes-only portion of the blog, folks.)

But where did "Sheeeeeeeet" come from: "The Wire," or "The 25th Hour," the Spike Lee movie that Isiah Whitlock Jr. appeared in back in 2002, the same year that "The Wire" debuted?

As part of my post-mortem interview with "Wire" creator David Simon (the full version of which will appear here immediately after the finale airs), I asked him whether "Sheeeeeeeeeet" was his idea, or something he came up with after hearing Whitlock say it so splendidly in the Spike Lee movie.

Now, "25th Hour" came out in mid-December of '02, while "Cleaning Up," the first real appearance of Clay Davis (he pops up briefly earlier that season in "One Arrest" in a party scene, but it's basically a walk-on), aired in September of that year. Complicating matters is the fact that, while Simon and Whitlock both remember an alternate spelling of the word (specifically, "sheet") was in the script for Whitlock's audition scene, from "Cleaning Up," it's not in the final version of that episode. Simon's assistant heroically waded through the scripts for every Clay episode over the first three seasons to see if it was in earlier drafts, and the first time she could find it was in season 3, episode 6, "Homecoming," which aired in October '04.

Either way, it's moot. As Whitlock told me:
It was something my uncle used to do all the time. Growing up, he would do it five six seven times a day. You'd go, "Did you sleep well?" and he'd go, "Ah, sheeet, my head was on the pillow." I would every now and then just do it in conversations.

I was having a conversation with Spike Lee one time, I think we were talking about football, and I did it, and he said, "You should keep that and use it." So that's where I started doing it. I did it in "The 25th Hour," that was the first time I did it.
Simon acknowledges that his memory on this could be fuzzy, and says that the first time he saw "25th Hour" was before season four, when they were talking with Lee about directing an episode. So it's entirely possible that they came up with the idea independently -- or, as Simon says, "Maybe it started with (Whitlock), but I think we heard the Southern drawl in his tone and went with it."

For what it's worth, Simon says that first "sheet" kept expanding, first to four "e"s, then even more. No one could remember exactly how many "e"s were in the script of this season's fifth episode, "React Quotes," but Whitlock said he could sense this might be his final chance to say it, and under the circumstances (for himself and for the then-under siege Clay), he decided to stretch it out as long as he could.

There is, however, a downside.

"It's hard to get up and down the street without somebody doing it," he says. "What have I done? I've unleashed a monster."

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope it is not a spoiler to say that currently on HBO On-Demand, there is an ad regarding the series finale. It explains that HBO will not show the series finale a week early on On-Demand, and gives a date for when it will air and when it will be available on On-Demand, saying "We promise, it's worth the wait."

The ad is composed of Clay Davis saying "Sheeeeeeeee-yit" over and over (possibly every time he ever said it). It's wonderful. Watching it, I immediately forgave HBO for deciding not to show it.

Mo Ryan said...

oh that is a hilarious idea for a promo. makes me wish I had On Demand (we have satellite, so no On Demand).

SJ said...

Don't mean to hijack the thread, but here's another thing we can put to rest. Randy is indeed Cheese's son.

SJ said...

Here's the ad. Hat-tip to tvtattle.com for both tips.

Andrew said...

Here's a link to a better quality version of the promo.

Andrew said...

Just so you know Alan, the finale has leaked online, so you'd be well advised to keep an eye on the comments.

nevada smith said...

You called The Wire the greatest drama in TV history. I'm not about to argue that it's one of the best-but are you-THE Alan Sepinwall-saying the Wire is better than NYPD Blue because that's a pretty big statement for you (this coming from someone who religiously read your NYPD recaps from the very beginning)

Alan Sepinwall said...

Nevada, I loved NYPD Blue, but it wouldn't even crack my top 3 dramas of all time, and maybe not my top 5. For its time -- and especially for those first 3 seasons -- it was brilliant, but so much of what a lot of shows since then have done has left it in the dust a bit.

Ben Guest said...

Stretching out a curse-word, particular "shit," is fairly common among older, southern, African-Americans (in fact, I seem to recall a comedian doing a bit on this). No surprise than that Whitlock got it from his uncle.

On another note, do we know, or have any idea, what Daniels did so long ago in the Western to accumulate a not-so-pristine rep? It's been mentioned a few times that he has some dirt on him, and Narese has that file, but do we actually know what he did? Take money, beat up suspects, stage homeless serial killings... I seem to recall there was something about money, but may be wrong.

Ben Guest said...

"As part of my countdown to the final episode of the greatest drama in TV history..."

Alan,

Does this mean you think there is a sitcom (or news magazine, talk show, variety hour...) that you think is better?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Does this mean you think there is a sitcom (or news magazine, talk show, variety hour...) that you think is better?

Apples and oranges. The Simpsons (seasons 1-7 or so, in particular) is pretty amazing, but can you compare it to The Wire, or vice versa?

SJ said...

To me, The Wire is not just the greatest TV show I have ever seen, but the greatest thing I have seen on film period. I know that's a big statement, but nothing on film has ever affected me the way this show has.

HonTea said...

Can I just give props to Simon's Assistant?

Heroic indeed.

Dan Jardine said...

Ben,

All we know for sure is that it involved money, because he and his wife had a sudden bump in family income while he was working the Western. Lots of rumour and innuendo, but nobody's actually opened up the file for us to look at.

Clearly, though, Daniels' nervousness around the matter indicates the dirt will stick, if anyone ever chooses to toss it at him.

Dan Jardine said...

The Wire is the best American TV series ever, no doubt. But I'd go with Kieslowski's Dekalogue over The Wire for best TV event. It is a close call, though.

Tim Masterson said...

I'll go ahead and say The Wire is the single best piece of American popular culture ever.

ChiTown said...

Alan, I e-mailed you about a month ago about Whitlock doing that in 25th Hour. I was a tad sad that more people didn't know becuase it said to me that they hadn't seen 25th Hour which is a great movie in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

Was just listening to Bill Simmons' podcast about The Wire over on ESPN.com in which he gives a shout-out to your work, Alan.

Ben Guest said...

"All we know for sure is that it involved money, because he and his wife had a sudden bump in family income while he was working the Western..."

Hmm. So I wonder what he did? Take some cash from a stash house like Carver and Herc? Take payoffs from someone?

paul b. said...

"Hmm. So I wonder what he did? Take some cash from a stash house like Carver and Herc? Take payoffs from someone?"

Maybe he was a young cop with a dirty partner, or part of an entire squad that was on the take. Peer pressure would force him to accept the money his follow cops handed to them. If he refused, they'd worry that he'd flip someday they'd make him an outcast. Once he took dirty money, they knew they could trust him. Or, you could replace the other cops in my scenario with a drug dealer he was investigating undercover. That would remind me of his character on Oz.

P.S. If by some slim chance I turn out to be right, no I have not seen the finale. I got it from an old Law and Order I think?

Anonymous said...

What was weird is that on the Bill Simmons podcast, he and Jason Whitlock agree that the critics didn't jump on board until season 4.

But I remember clearly that The Wire was No. 1 on many TV critics' "best of" lists for 2002, including, if I remember correctly, Alan's list.

Additionally, I remember the NY Times' chief *movie* critic, A.O. Scott, writing about the greatness of The Wire way back in 2003. (Click here http://tinyurl.com/yrzgfa to read it.)

BTW, Bill Simmons only jumped on board about a year and a half ago, after long resistance. He fell in love right away.

(Scroll down to No. 17: http://tinyurl.com/ggawh)

Anonymous said...

For the above comment, here are live links....

A.O. Scott's Wire piece

Simmons discovers The Wire -- No. 17!

Toeknee said...

Thanks for the link to Simmons' article.

"Alonzo Mourning gives an inspired performance as Stringer Bell (Avon's manipulative consigliere). Maybe the best athlete/Hollywood crossover since Kareem in 'Airplane.' "

Yet another classic line from the Sports Guy!!

Tina said...

In the episode where Nerese gets the Daniels file, Burrell says that Daniels was part of a drug investigation that was skimming the dealers' profits. She stops him before he says more, saying that's not important, but she does have the hard copy.

Love seeing all the attention to Isiah Whitlock's great performance. I had the privilege of working with him years ago and he's a terrific, talented man.

Anonymous said...

I began watching The Wire just over the last year.I was lucky enough to be able to watch each season in order. I have never been more emotionally affected by a tv show or movie.Only Homicide comes close. I feel privileged just to have had the oppurtunity to watch this program. I also have just recently stumbled upon this site and others like it. I am so glad people are affected by this show in a similar way.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Haven't finished listening to the Simmons podcast, but the odd thing is that he starts talking about my episode 9 review and how I talked about Bunny and Namond's trip to Ruth's Chris -- and while I did, in fact, write about that at length a few times last season, it didn't come up here -- and then starts arguing a point I've never made. (He does, in fairness, seem to recognize that he's not explaining it well and backs off midway through Whitlock questioning him about it.)

Linus said...

"Just know that you can absolutely start watching Season 4 without having seen the other three seasons. It's not an ideal way to break into the show, but you can do it." -- Bill Simmons.

What an idiot.

Alan Sepinwall said...

What an idiot.

I would say that, if there's a season where you can start with the show fresh, it season four. Avon and Stringer are gone, McNulty is marginalized, and the kids (all brand-new to the show) are the main characters. Obviously, you miss out on a whole lot of nuance -- that Bunny is trying and failing with the same philosophy he tried and failed with the season before, that Daniels and Carver have both come a long way from season one, etc. -- but if the show has a jumping-on point after the pilot, it's that episode.

Anonymous said...

Totally forgot about Davis in 25th Hour. I love that movie and have seen it like 3 times. And goin down south to visit some of my country cousins I heard a few folks, black and white, udder sheit. Nowhere near as drawn out as Davis though.


And Alan f#ck your colleagues and HBO for letting this finale get out. This would never happen with The Sopranos. With On-Demand for episode 9 and blogging do you really need to see episodes in advance. And if HBO had to send critics the finale they could have waited to send it out today and the critics could have watched them a day or two before Sunday. I have 2 major points spoiled and some of the friends I have that watched the show have already seen it.

This is a travesty and how can they not figure out who is leakin this episode.

mr.smee said...

Okay, I know I'm commenting "off topic" but--I've been re-viewing all of Season 5 in anticipation of the finale and I watched Ep 56 last night and have to ask: who is Kima's informant in Marlo's org? She throws her triple in with Bunk's vacant murders because her CI told her that Junebug was disrespecting Marlo by talking shit (or, sheeee-eet, to appear to fit in with this thread) about him. Who is this CI?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Who is this CI?

Hasn't been disclosed as yet, but the info isn't the sort that would have to come from a high-ranking member of the Stanfield organiztion, or even anybody in the organization. It's the sort of thing a guy like Bubbs would hear if he were still on the street hanging around those corners, just like everyone last year (except the cops) knew that Lex was dead and boarded up inside a vacant.

Tom Servo said...

This post demands that I link to this video.

Anonymous said...

And Alan f#ck your colleagues and HBO for letting this finale get out. This would never happen with The Sopranos.

And it leaked from inside HBO. It's not the review like all the previous leaks, it's one where the credit sequence is without the actual credits on it and where the final credits only have only the "Executive Producer David Simon" (them its just a dark screen with the end credits song), it's clearly a pre-final version.

BTW, Alan can you set a thread for the people that saw it already? I know it's not very nice to either the show or HBO, but while some like me can wait sunday to discuss the episode, there's always guys that can't stop themselves from spoiling everyone else, and as good a job as you can do moderating, some people will end getting spoiled by accident.

Alan Sepinwall said...

BTW, Alan can you set a thread for the people that saw it already?

Nope. If it was available through legitimate means, sure. But I'm not going to encourage this sort of thing.

The review's going to be up the second the episode finishes airing (as will the David Simon interview), and if I start to suspect that people are throwing in spoilers, I'm going to go to comment moderation until Sunday night.

Patience, grasshoppers.

Anonymous said...

I imagine that you would say that. Can I suggest that you let the board with moderating only till sunday? Yesterday, when I heard the news about the leak, I stop looking in all non-moderate places that I usually go, and I suggest everyone to do the same.

Chris Littmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

This is what Nipsey Russell's character said often in the classic 1986 movie Wild Cats.

dez said...

Can I suggest that you let the board with moderating only till sunday?

I was thinking of asking the same thing, even though that would suck for getting my fix of meticulous analysis of the next ep of "Lost" :-) But maybe it's just better to play it safe, Alan?

Chris Littmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Littmann said...

For some reason, posting links here is like rocket science for me. Just go to http://www.firstcuts.com and scroll down to the second and third entries. Two Wire related sports posts.

dix said...

Kind of on topic, Megan McArdle wrote a piece on the economics of The Wire. She asks what would happen in a city like Baltimore if drugs were legalized. She is a latecomer and has only seen season 1.

Link

Anonymous said...

"I'll go ahead and say The Wire is the single best piece of American popular culture ever."

Let me preface my comments by saying, "The Wire" is an excellent show. Reading comments (such as the above quote), reminds me of that older "Saturday Night Live" satire of the critical praise heaped upon "The Sopranos" (during it's Freshman season). They used terms usually asociated with sexual gratification, and attributed the quotes to well known publications. When "Sopranos" reached it's last (dreadful) season, some critics (and viewers), were clearly singing a different tune. I'm happy that David Simon didn't change the original tone of the show, or cop out with dream/purgatory storylines. He's tying up loose ends, and rewarding loyal viewers with clear closure.

Being new to Alan's blog, was there this much love for "Six Feet Under?" Of these two shows, I'd have to give the edge to "Six", (that amazing final season still haunts me). Just my personal preference.

Lastly, why is HBO getting a pass for false advertising? Those who PAY for "On Demand", were told (at the beginning of each episode), that EVERY episode of this final season would be available the Monday before the regular Sunday viewing. In fact, it is still being advertised as such "On Demand." Seems to me, HBO should have considered the possibility of "spoilers" (for the finale), before making a promise they are not keeping. Critics got an early viewing, and spoilers have been leaked. I've been told "On Demanders" have a valid case for a class action suit against HBO. Please email HBO (through their website), a DEMAND (pun intended), the complete series box set of "The Wire" as payment for false advertising.

Tom B said...

I've been told "On Demanders" have a valid case for a class action suit against HBO.

In the immortal words of Mugsy from Bugs Bunny. "Shut up! Shut up shuttin up!"

310 said...

I think Mr. Whitlock also says it in another Spike Lee movie: She Hate Me.

Obediah said...

I have known Isiah since about 95/96 and I heard Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeet come out of his mouth many times sitting in front of Ted's place way before 25th hour. Sheeeeeeet is a Whitlock.