I thought I'd offer one final post before Slate bids farewell to The Wire for good. Editing this dialogue has been a highlight of my career. Not because it afforded me the opportunity to work with the likes of David Plotz and Jeffrey Goldberg, though that has been a special pleasure. They learned no lessons, acknowledged no mistakes, and brooked no authority. They did what they wanted to do and said what they wanted to say. But in the end, they gave me good copy. If I ever were to write a serial drama, I'd want them to do the TV Club.
But, no, editing this dialogue was a highlight for a different reason. Were it not for this assignment, I would never have returned to my office one recent afternoon to find this voicemail waiting for me:
Yes, I got a voicemail from state Sen. R. Clayton Davis. How can I possibly hope to top that?
A few weeks back, David posted a bonus entry in which he launched an inquiry into the origins of Clay Davis' signature pronouncement—the now ubiquitous "sheee-it." (Three e's, one i, right Gus?) I had always assumed that David Simon, great lover of inside jokes that he is, had back in his Sun days reported on some real-life state senator who had a penchant for drawing out the vowels of his expletives. But an astute reader had informed David that Isiah Whitlock Jr., who played Davis, had actually uttered his first sheee-it not on The Wire but in Spike Lee's 2002 film The 25th Hour. This ur-sheee-it suggested it was not Simon's invention. So, whose was it?
I endeavored to put the question to Whitlock himself, which is how he ended up on my voicemail. By the time we connected, I knew I wouldn't be the first to ask, but I couldn't resist hearing the answer from the horse's mouth. Here, by way of valediction, is the story as Whitlock graciously told it to me.
He's been saying sheee-it for years. He picked up the habit, he said, from an uncle who apparently deployed the word in much the same way Clay Davis did. Whitlock offered an example: "How'd you enjoy your dinner?" someone might ask his uncle. To which he would respond, "Sheee-it, I tore them pork chops up."
So, we have Whitlock's uncle to thank for the inflection, but it was Spike Lee who gave sheee-it its big break. Lee, having heard Whitlock toss off a sheee-it or two in conversation, encouraged him to use it in The 25th Hour, in which Whitlock played DEA agent Amos Flood (and later in She Hate Me, in which he reprised the role). From there, someone on The Wire writing staff seems to have picked up on sheee-it's unique power. Whitlock says that when he got his first Wire script, it was already written into the part, extra e's and everything.
For all the talk of The Wire's critical success far outstripping its ratings, Whitlock says it's not uncommon for him to be accosted in public and serenaded with a sheee-it from a fan or well-wisher. I asked him if this gets annoying, but he said it wasn't all that much different from someone coming up and asking for an autograph. He takes it as a compliment. Besides, he said, until recently, he didn't realize he had something of a gift. It was only after people started approaching him with hearty, adulatory sheee-its that he discovered there's actually an art to it. "They don't quite do it the way I do it," he said. "They kind of butcher it." The Wire itself, I suspect, will prove similarly hard to imitate.