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Kurt Sutter Explains His Cultural Influences

When writer-producer Kurt Sutter isn’t getting into dustups on Twitter, he’s busy running his FX biker drama, Sons of Anarchy, which returns for a sixth season on September 10. In no particular order, here are the movies, television shows, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights, and comics that inspired him.     

1. Mad Magazine
I still subscribe to Mad. It’s different now, not as good. But as a Catholic-school kid surrounded by rules and regulations, I just loved that I was allowed to read Mad. It had all the stuff you weren’t supposed to be able to see or talk about. Even though I didn’t have a great relationship with my folks, my mom loved Mad. She’d go pick me up copies from the store. That and Johnny Carson were the two things we bonded over.

2. Hanna-Barbera Saturday-morning cartoons
When I was a kid, I just watched a shitload of TV. I’m sort of a latchkey kid. I joke sometimes that Hanna-Barbera taught me the essentials of storytelling: a teaser and a life-altering event, and a twist in Act Two. Plus, they were comedies, so there was some kind of conclusion at the end. You watch enough of that, and it kind of imprints your brain.

3. Hamlet
One of the recurring themes of Shakespeare is the idea that power doesn’t just corrupt, but that the corruption continuously repeats itself. So, motorcycle clubs: They began as these organizations by war vets—pilots who were used to a very adrenaline-filled lifestyle and were dropped into this post–World War II Eisenhower, simple lifestyle. So they started getting together. It was this fraternity of heroic dudes who’d get together and ride their bikes, then maybe have a few too many beers and kick the shit out of each other. Soon they became what the federal government classified as an organized-crime syndicate. So I envisioned the first guy that put on that leather jacket and said, “Let’s get on our bikes and have a few beers.” How does that guy feel about his guys’ becoming outlaws? That guy for me became John Teller, the founder of the club. Then I thought, What if that guy is the father in Hamlet? What if that guy is the ghost of John Teller? That archetype enabled me to establish the prince, our lead guy, Jax Teller. I loosely based all my characters on ones from Hamlet. I winked at it with Gemma as Gertrude and Clay as Claudius. Opie was Horatio. And the ongoing question was: Would the prince find out? We take these sort of huge tragic turns at different points in the series that feel Shakespearean to me, and at times we veer a little bit more toward Macbeth.

4. Hill Street Blues
The first time I became aware of style and content on television was through Hill Street Blues. On shows like Hawaii Five-O, they had two-dimensional characters, and it was all about the story: What crazy fucking thing was McGarrett gonna do? What crazy chase was gonna happen on a pineapple farm? With Hill Street Blues, I was watching more for the characters than plot. The show was engaging because we were inside these peoples’ lives. It was about the impact of the job on individuals.

5. Joni Mitchell
I’ve been married twice. I was married briefly for a year to a great woman, it just didn’t work out, and she was a huge Joni Mitchell fan. When I’d go off on Springsteen or Dylan, she’d point me to Joni Mitchell. Then I started dating [wife and Sons star] Katey [Sagal]. Katey is a musician and songwriter, and Joni Mitchell was a huge influence for her too. It was those two women who kind of set me straight about the folk influences and the power of Joni Mitchell. Maybe it’s because it’s a woman’s point of view, but I find her stuff to be incredibly personal. But there’s a level of her work that seems more personal than Dylan’s. It’s sadder. It’s so intimate.

6. The Honeymooners
When I was in grad school, before I started writing, my plan was to direct theater. I taught acting for three or four years. I’d make my students watch The Honey­mooners because it was the perfect improvisational exercise. Going in you had a premise, you had the character relationships [established], but then Ralph would show up with an idea that was supposed to change their lives. Alice would provide the complication: “We can’t, because I have to go to my mother’s.” Then Norton would be the absurd comic relief. I love that level of absurdity. Art Carney was just brilliant at that kind of non sequitur, the kind of moment where everybody else would just stop dead and look at him like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” The Honey­mooners was a documentary of actors being ­surprised at what other actors say.

7. Barack Obama
Obama said, “We can change.” He was incredibly sincere. Then he’s elected and suddenly subject to the rigidity and parameters of the office. And he starts to wonder, Does it even matter what the fuck you wanted to do? Because within the context of this job, there are rules that you must follow. Sons’ main character, Jax Teller, is that kind of idealist. He has all these plans: “I’m not gonna be [Jax’s predecessor] Clay Morrow, I’m gonna be this other thing instead.” Then he gets in, and it’s like, “Oh, right—I’m the head of an outlaw organization that runs guns.” How can you do a job like that and not become Clay Morrow? You are haunted by all the evil that precedes you.

8. The Godfather Trilogy
The third Godfather wasn’t a great movie, but you really sense its impact on our show. It’s that line you hear quoted all the time, by Michael in
The Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” We have our hero, especially in these last couple seasons, really struggling with these notions: Can you go legit? Can you really scrub all the blood off your hands and show up and just be a dude living in the world and a legitimate businessman? And if you are attempting to do that, what’s the blowback? If you’ve established yourself as this sort of king and this power broker, what happens when you extract yourself? What happens when there’s a power void? We’re dealing with that in the sixth season.

9. The Sopranos
Sons
would probably not be around if it were not for The Sopranos. A lot of shows wouldn’t be around if David Chase hadn’t broken ground in terms of “Hey, here’s a band of outlaws who are fucked up and do some really horrific and heinous things, and yet you’re rooting for them.” The Sopranos was a different show from Sons, but let’s face it: Tony Soprano is not an anti-hero. He’s a villain we fuckin’ love. Our guys are not heroes. They’re bad guys. But you love them, because they’re flawed, and because they remind you of people you know.

10. Seventies and Eighties Sitcoms
I watched Happy Days and Mork & Mindy and Family Ties. And I really loved The Cosby Show. I loved the idea of a family living outside of a city but still in an urban area. That was just so different for me. On top of which they were black.

11. The Rolling Stones
When you’re making a show about a subculture that’s strongly influenced by the Northern California sound and the folk scene and the legacy of the sixties and seventies, you can’t not think about Altamont and the Stones. Those guys were masters of innuendo that went right up to the edge of what you could get away with at the time, but you don’t always think about that, because their songs are fun. Sometimes I’ll listen to the sixties station to get ideas for covers [for the show’s soundtrack]. It’s research. But then a Stones song will come on, and I’ll find myself singing along, and then after a while I’ll go, “Wait, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’? Oh, shit, she was addicted to amphetamines, like half the housewives in the sixties were!”

12. The Shield
Before I worked on The Shield, I’d written spec scripts for TV. I understood the format, how to beat out a story. But it’s one thing to carve out the narrative engine for an episode: “What is the person doing?” Once you’ve done that, the next question is “How do you give it weight?” How do you make a scene about chasing some guys on motorcycles and tie that thematically into the mythology of it all? That’s what I learned on The Shield.
I love all that testosterone shit, but to me that’s the candy. That’s the part that grabs people, the noise that brings them to the TV. But the emotional ramifications of that stuff—asking what does it do emotionally to them, to the town, to their friends, their allies, their enemies—that’s the chewy center of the show that keeps people coming back.

13
. Bruce Springsteen
Some of my love for him comes from growing up in Jersey. What he said was, “You don’t necessarily have to have this epic life. You could just be a person and have these experiences and still have them matter.” There was a simplicity about who he was and what he talked about that, for me as an artist, made me think, That makes sense to me. I can do that. Not I can do that and be as great as him, or that I can do that and be famous, but that I can do that because I’ve had similar experiences—that this is not beyond my grasp.

14. Bob Dylan
We’ve included a Dylan song in every season of our show. How can you not be influenced, or at least think about things in your life, when you hear “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” or “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”? I’m amazed not just by how much he’s written but by the depth of what he’s written. He doesn’t give a fuck about some of it, clearly, but just keeps cranking it out. My dentist is his cousin. He grew up with him, and every time I go to the dentist, I pick his brain and get a story.

15. Archie Comics
[Sons of Anarchy’s] Tig is Jughead. A really dark, fucked-up Jughead.

*This article originally appeared in the September 16, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic/Getty Images (Sutter); © Carsey-Werner Co./Everett Collection (Cosby Show); Courtesy of HBO (Soprano); Everett Collection (Hill Street Blues, The Honeymooners); Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images (Obama); Michael Putland/Getty Images (Rolling Stones)