In 2009, Justin Halpern’s girlfriend dumped him and he moved back in with his parents in San Diego. That could have been the end of a very uninteresting story.
But life with Halpern’s dad is never uninteresting.
Working from home, Halpern found himself spending 10 hours a day with his father, Sam, a retired doctor, “and he was talking for eight of them,” Halpern said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
On Aug. 3, 2009, Halpern created a Twitter account called “S— My Dad Says” and posted the following: “I didn’t live to be 73 years old so I could eat kale. Don’t fix me your breakfast and pretend you’re fixing mine.”
Every day after that, Halpern would post something his dad had said that day. “Tennessee is nice,” Sam said on Aug. 11. “The first time I vomited was in Tennessee, I think.”
On Aug. 24: “Who is this woman? … Kate Beckinsale? Well, you can tell Kate Beckinsale she sucks.”
At first, the account was just a joke among Halpern and his friends, who had grown up with Sam. But soon, Sam’s blunt, profane, wildly funny and often brilliant observations started catching the attention of complete strangers. Suddenly there were 1,000 people following Halpern on Twitter. Then 10,000.
Today, there are more than 2 million.
Halpern will speak at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Feb. 27 about creating “S— My Dad Says,” which has spun off into a best-selling book and a sitcom airing on CBS. The talk is presented by the Hub.
On the surface, Sam can seem harsh: “I hate paying bills. … Son, don’t say ‘me too.’ I didn’t say that looking to relate to you. I said it instead of ‘go away.’ ”
But Halpern insists he was a loving, caring parent, just with a bit of a tougher exterior.
“He definitely wasn’t there to make friends,” Halpern said. “He was there to be a dad and make sure I didn’t come out all screwed up. But I always knew where I stood, that was the best thing. He loves me quite a bit.”
Though Sam worked long hours while his four sons were growing up, he always insisted that the family have dinner together. After dinner, he would sit and read to Halpern. “When he wasn’t tired, he’d read from ‘The Hobbit,’” Halpern said. “When he was tired, he’d read from Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.’ ”
For a while, Halpern didn’t tell Sam, who doesn’t really use the Internet, that he had become a minor celebrity, fearing the reaction from his “super private” dad. But as his Twitter feed grew in popularity, Halpern started fielding offers to write a book based on “S— My Dad Says.”
“Before I could explore [writing a book], I had to tell him,” Halpern recalled. “I was more nervous doing that than proposing to my fiancée, by far — probably five times more nervous.”
Luckily, Sam was OK with the whole thing. His only caveat was that he didn’t want to get involved — so no interviews, no appearances.
“My dad is not a predictable guy at all,” Halpern said. “You never know what side he’s going to fall on.”
Sam grew up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky and got a medical degree at the University of Louisville. He served in Vietnam as a Navy doctor, moved to San Diego and ended up working in nuclear medicine for U.C. San Diego until his retirement.
Sam is Jewish, though as a scientist, he’s also a skeptic. He and his wife, a nonpracticing Catholic, raised their children nondenominational.
“My dad is obsessed with learning about Judaism, but he doesn’t consider himself proscribed to the religion,” Halpern said. “He once got really into learning about Jewish mysticism and Chassidic movements in New York — I think he thinks it’s really interesting when people delve into religion as if it were science.”
The “S— My Dad Says” Twitter feed now boasts 273 tweets, spawning not only the book and sitcom, but also a job for the 30-year-old Halpern, who is one of the show’s head writers.
The show stars William Shatner as the character based on Sam, though he’s been renamed Ed. To appease the censors, the show is called “$#*! My Dad Says,” with “$#*!” pronounced “bleep.”
In addition to work on the show, Halpern is writing a second book of autobiographical stories, though not all will focus on his dad.
Lately, the Twitter account where the phenomenon began hasn’t seen a lot of action — Halpern now posts about once a month. He explains that it’s because he doesn’t have much material these days — currently living in Los Angeles, he only sees his dad once a week for a few hours.
But the two are still close, and Halpern will get to see more of Sam soon when he moves back to San Diego to live with his fiancée, Amanda, about two miles from his parents’ home. The wedding is set for May.
Although growing up with Sam often tested Halpern’s self-esteem, he insists he’s now better off than his peers whose parents “babied them the entire time,” Halpern said.
“They had been told everything was great their entire life, whereas I’d been told I was an idiot,” he said. “It prepared me for the level of ass-kicking you get in life.”
Justin Halpern will speak at the JCCSF at 7 p.m. Feb. 27, presented by the Hub, which is sponsoring free post-show cocktails and a concert with Conspiracy of Beards. $17-$25. Information: www.jccsf.org.
The wisdom of ‘Dad’
Like the real title of Justin Halpern’s Twitter account, most of his dad’s quotes can’t be reprinted here. A few that can:
• “The worst thing you can be is a liar … OK fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then No. 2 is liar. Nazi 1, liar 2.”
• “No. Aliens exist, I just don’t think they came millions of light years just to see Earth. Be like driving 1,000 miles to go to an Arby’s.”
• “You sure do like to tailgate people … Right, because it’s real important you show up to the nothing you have to do on time.”
• “I turn the kitchen faucet on and the shower burns you, yes, I get it … No, I’m not gonna stop, I’m just saying yes, I get that concept.”
• “A parent’s only as good as their dumbest kid. If one wins a Nobel Prize but the other gets robbed by a hooker, you failed.”