The actor was hosting the late-night staple as part of the promotion for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The film seemingly proved a belief held among Star Trek fans that only the even-numbered motion pictures were any good. The first feature, 1979’s The Motion Picture, was a disappointment, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan delivered, 1984’s The Search for Spock underperformed but the fourth installment was a hit with its tale of Capt. Kirk and his colleagues traveling back in time to save the world by transporting a pair of humpback whales to the 23rd century.
The stage was set for Shatner, who’d been playing Kirk on TV and in film for 20 years by that time, to host SNL on the night of Dec. 20. Writer Robert Smigel came up with what he felt was a strong sketch idea, and, as he reported later, the key line made Shatner laugh. The six-minute sketch takes place at a Star Trek convention, where the attendees barrage Shatner with questions that prove they know more about Trek and the actor’s private business than he knows himself. Taken aback, he asks for silence and tells them he’s lived through the experience for too long. “Get a life!” he tells them, using a phrase that wasn’t yet the conversational staple it later became.
Fan power based around Trek and other shows was still something that TV networks failed to understand at the time. The constant blitz of support letters from Trekkers saved the original series from cancellation in 1968; the development of fan conventions helped encourage studio bosses to bring back the show as a movie series; and the continuing interest – and merchandise profit – would later lead to the launch of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and many other shows, movies and products.
Back then, however, studio execs and even many actors regarded Trekkers with some bemusement, unhappy that the consumers had become aware of their own power and adding an additional link in the uncomfortable relationship among producers, artists and advertisers. That’s why Shatner – and SNL writers Smigel, Jon Vitti and George Meyer – thought the sketch would work, and why “Captain Kirk” was seen telling fans, “You know, before I answer any more questions, there’s something I wanted to say. Having received all your letters over the years, and I’ve spoken to many of you, and some of you have traveled, you know, hundreds of miles to be here, I’d just like to say: Get a life, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you – look at the way you’re dressed! You’ve turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a colossal waste of time!”
Smigel recalled that the unusually long script raised laughs at the read-through stage and at rehearsal, but that he had challenged Shatner to raise his game. “[He] was playing it a teeny-weeny bit jokey,” the writer told The Ringer in 2018. “I was pretty fearless back then about talking to actors if I was certain it would help the end result. Life had not yet beaten me down enough to suggest that some fights aren’t worth fighting.” So he asked Shatner to “play it more serious,” and that’s what happened.
It was all in jest, or at least mainly – in his SNL monologue, Shatner called his fans “truly incredible,” adding, “ I hope they have a sense of humor about the show tonight. Or I’m in deep trouble.” In a later memoir – tellingly titled Get a Life! – he revealed that it was an important moment in his life. “To be brutally, humiliatingly honest, that now-infamous Saturday Night Live sketch was for me, at that time, equal parts comedy and catharsis,” the actor admitted. “I was oblivious to the facts. I bought into the ‘Trekkie’ stereotypes. In a nutshell, I was a dope.”
Some fans – who describe themselves as “Trekkies” rather than “Trekkers” – agreed that the actor had indeed been a “dope.” Among the comments stored at FanLore are a depiction of “Get a Life” as an “uneasy mix of hyperbole, inside jokes, some genuine humor and cruelty.” Another claimed that Shatner himself was being parodied, noting, “I do find that too many professional media/celebrity cons fit that SNL parody. And though I believe Shatner’s heart was in the right place, I also believe that he should’ve had his head examined for appearing in it.” Another fan said a few years after the broadcast that it “haunts us,” adding that James Doohan, who played Scottie in Trek, had “expressed his disapproval of the skit” at a convention “and a large number of the audience loudly agreed.”
On the other hand, one Trekkie said that the script “captured the stereotypical convention and fans, and I laughed until my sides ached.” Another didn’t feel insulted but said, “I just want to say, I have a life, and Star Trek has enriched it tremendously!” Someone else made the point that the stereotypical male nerd fan, living a single life in his parents’ basement, “is better off with Trek than without it. … With Trek, he has friends and a shared vision of what life could be at its best. Without Trek, he’s just a lonely fellow stuck in the cellar.”
Intriguingly, it’s the kind of multifaceted discussion that a good (or indeed bad) episode of the franchise might be expected to generate. Smigel later called it “maybe the most resonant sketch I ever wrote there,” while Vitti argued that it represented a turning point in the relations between franchises and their fans. “You’re not really picking on the weak anymore,” he observed about modern-day interactions.
Trek creator Gene Rodenberry’s son Rod, who also worked on the franchise, had his own view on the matter. “I never really appreciated that skit,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2021. “Because I think it was demeaning to the fans. I think it was disrespectful, especially for a character who was an open-minded, intelligent leader.” He added: “But I don’t condemn it in any way. It’s Saturday Night Live, and it’s all fun.”
In 2009, when Chris Pine took over the role of Kirk for a new series of Star Trek movies, SNL paid homage to “Get a Life,” bringing in the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and the new Spock, Zachary Quinto, to face hard-line Trekkers of the 21st century with a script that unequivocally nodded toward the power switch that occurred between movie studios and “nerds” since Shatner unwittingly took a bigger risk than he had realized 23 years earlier.
Watch SNL’s 2009 ‘Star Trek’ Sketch
40 Essential Movies That Turn 40 in 2021
UCR looks back at 40 essential films from 1981.