After much deliberation through many studies, countless sleepless nights, and endless arguing with colleagues (i.e. my cats), I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that William Shatner’s cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” is the single greatest moment in pop culture history.

The incredible event went down on January 14, 1978 at the 5th Saturn Awards (broadcast as The Science Fiction Awards on January 21, 1978), which the Star Trek star co-hosted with actress Karen Black. At one point during the awards ceremony (in which STAR WARS unsurprisingly swept), famous lyricist Bernie Taupin, best known for his songwriting collaborations with Elton John; came on stage to introduce the very special number.


The sunglasses-wearing, white-gloved, tuxedoed Taupin addressed the audience: 


“In 1972, when Elton John and I wrote ‘Rocket Man,’ it became very popular among the listeners. Due to the interest in the meaning of the song, now in 1978 at the Science Fiction Film Awards, I’m trying proud to once again present my ‘Rocket Man,’ as interpreted by our host, William Shatner. Thank you.’


As dripping with gravitas as that intro was, it did little to truly prepare the crowd for the intense interpretation they were about to experience. Watch the clip:


Chills, huh? The concept is very clear: a man pondering his existence in the early evening over a cigarette is encountered by his other selves, from as the night drunkenly progresses. When one Shatner (in a big close-up projection) statically states, ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,’ to which the original early evening Bill responds, ‘in fact, it’s cold as hell,’ it hits you right in the feels.


Then the song climaxes with the drunkest, most late night vision of Shatner, tie-undone, slurring supremely, and dancing in a fists-clenched manner that strongly resembles Donald Trump’s dance moves, appearing to take the tune home. 


The over-whelmingly power performance concludes with each of the three Shatners (maybe this concept was inspired by there being multiple Star Trek episodes with Captain Kirk doubles?) reciting the song’s dramatic last line ‘And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time,’ separately, then together until they merge as one.


When watching this amazing video, I can’t believe how the audience was able to keep from laughing (I think you can hear some gasps though) because this shit is hilarious AF. In the pre-YouTube era, or pre-internet era in general, this was a very rare video that one might hear talk of, but not actually see.


I remember seeing the late, great SNL legend Phil Hartman bring it up on a late night talk show sometime in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, saying there was a videotape of it being passed around through his comedy buddies, but it didn’t gain real notoriety until another comedy legend (that thankfully is still with us) Chris Elliot parodied Shatner’s spoken word spectacle on an episode of Late Night with David Letterman on June 12, 1992:


Since then it’s also been targeted by Beck (from the 1997 video for “Where it’s At”):

And Family Guy (“And the Wiener is…” S3E5, broadcast on August 8, 2001:

What’s funny about these takes is that none of them really satirizes what Shatner did in his immaculate presentation of the iconic pop classic, they just do what he did as it can’t *be* parodied, only imitated. 


It’s also funny that Shatner has re-framed the performance, claiming it wasn’t meant to be seen by anyone but the audience at the Saturn Awards show (although it was broadcast less than a week after its taping on network TV, and that he meant it as a joke.


“I thought how funny, amusing, interesting – all those words – it would be if I did Frank Sinatra doing that song,” Shatner reflected in a 2019 interview. “He loosened the collar, he puffed out a cigarette, and then what I thought, ‘Well, if I try to do anything different, it’s [in monotone] ‘Rocket man,’ that’s Captain Kirk, and then there’s ‘Rock it, man!’ like a rock ‘n roll guy, I thought that was another interpretation, and then there was a third interpretation, three ways, three layers that I could do it. I was trying to be amusing in front of a 100 people.”

In a 2022 interview with Chris Wallace on CNN, Shatner is again confronted with the clip, and again re-inforces his view that he was “just kidding around, I didn’t know they were recording it,” even going on to say “I’m front of an audience, I’m doing this thing; we’re all laughing, we’re all having fun,” when the clip contains no laughter from said audience. That’s one of the things that makes it so funny now, is how seriously it’s taken.


Not my finest moment,” he confessed to Wallace. “But I re-recorded it on another album the way I thought it should go.” What Shatner is referring to having released a new version of the song for his album Seeking Major Tom in 2011. 


Also, this new version of “Rocket Man” was released on a limited edition seven inch single in 2022 with this nifty picture sleeve:

Since Shatner actually became a rocket man in real life, via a brief trip into space on a capsule piloted by Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, his cover has much more resonance, which makes it even funnier.

If this post is your first time seeing the greatest moment in pop culture history, I think it’s gonna be a long, long time before you ever forget it. 

Just as Shatner recites whispering with incredible drama: A long…long…time.

More later…

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