In search of ‘The Slap Maxwell Story’

Back before the internet, nerds like me used to have quests. We’d try to seek out a particular rare Harlan Ellison book or an obscure early R.E.M. cassette single, paging through fanzines and sending off paper money orders. One of my great quests, for years and years, was trying to track down the short-lived 1987-88 Dabney Coleman sitcom, The Slap Maxwell Story.

I was a teenager thinking about becoming a journalist when it aired, and this show – starring Coleman as a middle-aged sports columnist at a failing newspaper, stuck in his old-fashioned ways and struggling to make sense of his life – stuck with me. 

The last thing anyone wants to see these days is another story of a cantankerous middle-aged white dude who’s bitter about the changing world, I know. But, for some reason, The Slap Maxwell Story resonated with a 16-year-old me in a way it probably shouldn’t have.

I’ve always liked Dabney Coleman, who had a great run in the 1980s playing a particular kind of blustery alpha male – everything from sexist bad guys (9 To 5) to unlikely heroes (Cloak and Dagger), but whose finest hours were two TV series by Jay Tarses – 1983-84’s Buffalo Bill, about an egotistical talk show host, and Slap, about a slightly less egotistical journalist. 

Of those two series, Buffalo Bill is a little better remembered – it lasted longer, won a few awards and got a DVD release years ago. The Slap Maxwell Story, however, fell into the memory hole of short-lived “content” that is only remembered by a few.  It never received a DVD or VHS release that I can tell, has never been on streaming platforms.

Still, I remembered Slap Maxwell, and always wanted to see him again. It was a quest, perhaps one of the last ones when Wikipedia and Google are here to show and tell us almost everything.  When you can’t find something, it looms large in the memory.

I remember Slap’s fumbling romance with a woman half his age (a luminous Megan Gallagher, subject of my massive teenage crush), his boozy male bonding with his inept editor and a friendly bartender. I remember him getting fired repeatedly from his job, his rather implausibly winning a major journalism award, him pitching a fit because his editor got rid of his ancient typewriter. Really, his sportswriting and newspaper gig take a back seat to Slap’s crumbling personal life and mid-life crisis of confidence. 

I occasionally trawled the internet over the years looking for any kind of physical release of the old Slap episodes – even looking at a dodgy Pakistani site claiming to sell bootlegs that I highly doubt ever existed. It’d just be something I’d do, sometimes, over the years, bored Google searches for traces of a forgotten TV show. There was proof it existed, but never any actual samples.

Finally, finally, I found Slap again, when some kind soul uploaded big chunks of The Slap Maxwell Story to YouTube a year or so back – sure, a bit choppy and scattered, apparently sourced from VHS tapes of old reruns on the A&E network years ago, but proof of life nonetheless. I tip my hat to this uploader, the magician at the end of the quest. 

Ever since I’ve been diving into reliving these old episodes of a forgotten TV show to see if they lived up to my teenage memory now that I’m almost as old (egad) as Slap himself was in the series. For the most part, it does – I wouldn’t argue it’s the Great Forgotten American Sitcom or anything, but it deserves a bit more than being lost in limbo. It’s wry and witty, bittersweet and charming in a low-key way, far less broad than many sitcoms of the era. Coleman’s Slap is somewhat more nuanced than his nastier turns in Buffalo Bill or 9 To 5 and one of the few accolades the show got him was a deserved Golden Globe for best actor.

There’s no obnoxious laugh track here (thank god). The series is a sitcom based in melancholy – something that’s common now, but was rare then. As it went on Slap’s flailing attempts to be a better man take centre stage. I can see why it didn’t last in the age of The Cosby Show, Alf and Growing Pains, because it’s kind of about a failure. 

Slap Maxwell is grumpy but gentle, and his story is one of constantly screwing up, ruining his relationships and sometimes failing upwards. He gets it wrong a lot. It’s the story of a lot of life, to be honest. I’m still hoping one day we might get a fancy physical release of these shows – increasingly less likely, I know – but even in a grainy YouTube video, Slap Maxwell’s story is one I’m happy to revisit. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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