I'm digging into The Vault for stories to tell next week when I perform on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2: The Encrazening, and I caught myself reading this story, which I wrote and published in Dancing Barefoot, when I was a baby writer almost ten years ago.
This is from The Saga of SpongeBob Vega$ Pants (or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Star Trek) also: Put Some Thought Into What You Name Things, Kids, Because You May Find Yourself Telling a Story With A Stupid Title Ten Years After You Wrote It.
I sit at my table, uncap my sharpie, and put on my gameface.
My pen hand is strong. I'm ready to be witty, charming and friendly. Although the actual number of autographs I've signed over the years is probably close to half a million, I am ready to make these fans feel like the autograph I'm currently signing is the only one I've signed all day, maybe the only one I've signed in my whole life.
Over the years, I've learned something from this experience: it's never about the signature. It's about that brief moment, that brief encounter with a Star Trek cast member, that is so important to the fans. That 30 seconds or so of hopefully undivided attention is what they're really paying for, and I always do my best to make sure they get their money's worth. Contrary to popular belief, sitting at a table signing hundreds of autographs for several hours without a break is hard. It's not just mindlessly scrawling my name; It's stopping and listening to the always excited, sometimes shaking, always sweating, sometimes scary dude who wants to know exactly why I did “X” on episode “Y” and would I please sign his picture in silver, because Marina signed it in gold and now he wants the men in silver and the women in gold, and I hated your character and here are 25 reasons why and I expect an answer for each one of them and I'm not leaving until I'm satisfied.
The fans come down what amounts to an assembly line, stopping at a table, enjoying their 30 seconds of attention and trading a ticket for an autograph. They move to the next table, and repeat.
I personally think that this “assembly line” method, while the only one that really works, has the potential to totally suck for the fans.
The first one hundred or so who come through the line will get to see a smiling, effusive, friendly actor, and will leave feeling happy and satisfied. Those unlucky ones who are at the end of the line risk seeing actors who are tired, with cramped hands and degraded signatures.
It is a challenge for me, but I always remind myself that the last fans through the line have paid as much as the first fans, and they've also waited much longer, so they are the ones that I need to give the most attention to when I am the most drained. I know that as I get toward the end of the line, my humor slows down, and my voice fades. I know that I've let down my fair share of people over the years, but I always do my best.
I see the first fan walking down the hallway, trading tickets and getting signatures from actors. I watch her as she goes table to table. She's not wearing a spacesuit . . . that's a good sign. She has a witty sci-fi T-shirt on. Also a good sign.
She arrives at my table, and I cheerfully say, “Hi! How are you doing today?!”
“AWFUL! THIS IS THE WORST CONVENTION I HAVE EVER BEEN TO! I HATE DAVE SCOTT! I HATE LAS VEGAS! I HATE THIS CONVENTION!”
Oh boy. This is not the way I'd hoped to start out.
I try to soothe her. “Uhh . . . I think . . . that . . . this convention . . . just started . . . and . . . uhh . . . I'm sure that if you talk to Dave, everyt–”
“DAVE SCOTT IS AN ARROGANT ASSHOLE!”
“Uh . . . yeah . . . well, you see, the thing is, I'm sort of not exactly involved in the planning of this convention, you know? I'm just, like, a guest . . . maybe you could try talk–”
“THIS IS THE MOST FAN-UNFRIENDLY CONVENTION I HAVE EVER BEEN TO!”
And she storms away, without an autograph, without another word.
I look at Marina, who's one table down from me. Angry Fan has stormed past her, too. Marina shrugs, and I make the international sign for “crazy person” by twirling my finger near my temple.
I hear a man clear his throat, and I look up to see a smiling middle-aged face. He has a dark beard, and is dressed as Commander Riker.
He gives his autograph ticket to the staffer sitting next to me, and asks me to sign his model of the Enterprise D. He thanks me, and moves along.
And so it is in the world of Star Trek conventions. One person will scream at me, and the next will want to give me a hug. A person will walk up dressed in an elaborate Borg costume, and the next person will be dressed in a T-shirt and Dickies, quietly laughing at “all the weirdos.”
For the next three hours, I sign pictures of the young, geeky Wesley Crusher. I sign posters of the teen heartthrob that I'm told I once was. I sign posters that I'm not even on, in silver because everyone else did, accepting the apologies from the poster owners that I'm not on the poster. I always answer with the same joke: “That's okay, you just can't see me, because I'm on this planet here . . .” They laugh and feel good and so do I.
A group of very attractive German girls comes over next, and two of them tell me, in broken English, how much they love me.
I think, Oh yeah, tell me some more, baby. Tell daddy how you love him. Ich bin ein sexmachiner!
I am so sorry. I have no idea where that came from. I apologize.
There are also 20 Japanese kids who've all come over together from Tokyo. They are all smiles and laughter, excited, and having a great time. The girls ask me to write their names on their picture when I sign it, they giggle and bow and blush and thank me, over and over. For a second, I feel like a rock star.
One of the Japanese kids is a boy, about my height. When he presents his Wesley Crusher action figure for my signature, he tells me, “My friend all say I am you twin!”
He smiles proudly. “We look just the same!”
Last time I checked, I wasn't Japanese, but I'm not about to tell him that. I look at him for a moment and reply, “Dude. You are so right. It's like I'm looking in a mirror!”
He turns to his friends, says something in Japanese, and they all share an excited murmur. I pick up my pen, and write: “To Hiroyuki, my long lost twin brother: Don't Panic! -Wil Wheaton.”
He thanks me over and over. His smile is so huge, I fear that his face will turn inside out. As he walks away from my table, I feel happy – I've brought joy into this kid's life, just by signing my name and being friendly. It's one of the few perks (or responsibilities, if you will) that comes with celebrity that I truly enjoy.
ϑ ϑ ϑ
About 200 or so people into the day, I have one of those memorable “battlefield” experiences; the kind that we Star Trek actors share during a layover in Chicago, after a convention in Cleveland.
I've just finished signing a poster for a 40-ish man who is wearing a spacesuit that is a little to tight across the waist. He's painted his face blue, and donned a white wig topped with antennae, like the Andorians from the original Star Trek. The next person in line is a woman in her 30s, dressed conservatively.
I say hello, and she smiles at me . . . until she sees my T-shirt. Then she becomes hysterical. She points at my shirt and screeches at me, “You are going to hay-ell! You are going to hay-ell!”
“Why am I going to hell, ma'am?” I ask, trying to figure out if she is joking. I am wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of a hand making rock-and-roll devil horns that says, “Keep Music Evil.” I think it's very funny, and it's a nice counter-point to the squeaky-clean image of Wesley Crusher that is so indelibly burned into these people's minds.
“You're wearing that shirt! And that shirt promotes SATAN!”
Okay, she's definitely not joking.
“So I'm going to hell because I'm wearing a shirt? Is that right?” I ask her, patiently.
“Yes! You! Are! Going! To! HAY-ELL!”
“Well, as long as I'm not going where you are, ma'am.”
And she leaves, but not without getting my signature, on her collectible plate, in gold ink, not silver, because John DeLancie signed his in silver, so now silver is the color reserved for “Q.” Nobody else can sign in silver. Not even a captain. Well, maybe Captain Picard, but not Captain Janeway.
I am able to contain my giggles until she is out of ear-shot.
“Is it always like this?” the staffer sitting at my table inquires.
“Nope. Sometimes it's really weird.”
We laugh, and the signing goes on.
This next part is from when I went on the stage later that same afternoon. It still makes me laugh.
“I have the limited edition Star Trek Monopoly game.” I say.
“Of course, it's a limited edition of 65 million. But it's extremely valuable, because I got a number under 21 million.”
They laugh. It's funny, because it's true.
I go one better. “Plus, it's got a certificate of authenticity signed by Captain Picard!
“Yes, that's right, my Star Trek Monopoly game, which I've rendered worthless by opening, comes with a certificate of authenticity signed in ink by a fictional character.”
I see a guy in the front row say something to his buddy, and they both nod their heads and laugh.
“Cool thing about the game, though, is that there is a Wesley Crusher game piece in it, and the first time we sat down to play it as a family, Ryan grabbed Wesley and proclaimed, as only an 11-year-old can, 'I'm Wil!! I'm Wil!! Nolan!! I'm all-time Wil!! I call it!!'”
I see some people smile. I start to pace the stage. I'm hitting my stride, and the stories flow out of me.
“One time, when we were renegotiating our contracts, we were all asking for raises.
“We all felt a salary increase was appropriate, because The Next Generation was a hit. It was making gobs of money for Paramount,” (I like that word – gobs) “and we felt that we should share in that bounty.
“Of course, Paramount felt otherwise, so a long and annoying negotiation process began.
“During that process, the producers’ first counteroffer was that, in lieu of a raise, they would give my character a promotion, to lieutenant.”
I pause, and look around. I wrinkle my brow, and gaze upward.
“What? Were they serious?”
A fan hollers, “Yeah! Lieutenant Crusher! Woo!”
I smile back at him.
“My agent asked me what I wanted to do. I told him to call them back and remind them that Star Trek is just a television show.”
Okay, that was risky to say. It's pretty much the opposite of just a television show to these people, but they giggle.
“I imagined this phone call to the bank,” I mime a phone, and hold it to my ear. “Hi . . . Uh, I'm not going to be able to make my house payment this month, but don't worry! I am a lieutenant now.” I pause, listening to the voice on the other end.
“Where? Oh, on the Starship Enterprise.”
“Enterprise D, yeah, the new one. Feel free to drop by Ten Forward for lunch someday. We'll put it on my officer's tab!”
Laughter, and applause. My time is up, and Dave Scott stands at the foot of the stage, politely letting me know that it's time for me to go.
The fans see this, and I pretend to not notice him.
“In 2001, startrek.com set up a poll to find out what fans thought the best Star Trek episode of all time was. The competition encompassed all the series. The nominated episode from Classic Trek was City On The Edge Of Forever. The entry for The Next Generation was Best of Both Worlds Part II. DS9 offered Trials and Tribble-ations, and Voyager weighed in with Scorpion II.”
As I name each show, various groups of people applaud and whistle, erasing any doubt as to what their favorite show is.
“Now, look. I know that Star Trek is just a TV show. Matter of fact, I'm pretty sure I just said that five minutes ago, but there was no way I was going to let my show lose. It just wasn't going to happen. Especially not to Voyager – er, V'ger, I mean.”
I pause, and look out at the crowd. I wonder if Mr. “V'ger” is out there.
“So I went into my office, sat at my computer for 72 straight hours, and voted for TNG over and over again.
“I didn't eat, and I didn't sleep. I just sat there, stinky in my own filth, clicking and hitting F5, a Howard Hughes for The Next Generation.
“Some time around the 71st hour, my wife realized that she hadn't seen me in awhile and started knocking on the door to see what I was doing.
“'Nothing! I'm, uh, working!' I shouted through the door. Click, Click, Click . . .
'I don't believe you! Tell me what you've been doing at the computer for so long!'
“I didn't want her to know what I was doing – I mean, it was terribly embarrassing . . . I had been sitting there, in crusty pajamas, voting in the Star Trek poll for three days.”
Some people make gagging noises, some people “eeww!” But it's all in good fun. They are really along for the ride, now. This is cool.
“She jiggled the handle, kicked at the bottom of the door, and it popped open!”
The audience gasps.
“I hurriedly shut down Mozilla, and spun around in my chair.
“'What have you been doing on this computer for three days, Wil?' she said.”
I look out across the audience, and pause dramatically. I lower my voice and confidentially say, “I was not about to admit the embarrassing truth, so I quickly said, 'I've been downloading porn, honey! Gigabytes of porn!'”
I have to stop, because the ballroom rocks with laughter. It's a genuine applause break!
“She was not amused. 'Tell me the truth,' she said.
“I sighed, and told her that I'd been stuffing the ballot box in an online Star Trek poll.
“'You are such a dork. I'd have been happier with the porn.'
“I brightened. 'Really?'
“'No,' she said. She set a plate of cold food on the desk and walked out, muttering something about nerds.
“I stayed in that office for another ten hours, just to be sure. When my eyes began to bleed, I finally walked away. It took several weeks of physical therapy before I could walk correctly again, but it was all worth it. Best of Both Worlds Part II won by a landslide.”
I pause dramatically, and the theatre is silent.
“And it had nothing to do with my stuffing the box. It's because Next Generation FUCKING RULES!”
I throw my hand into the air, making the “devil horns” salute that adorns my satanic T-shirt, and the audience leaps to their feet, roaring with applause and laughter.
I can't believe it. I started out so badly, but I got the audience back on my side. I say thank you, give the microphone to Dave Scott, who is now sitting on the stage pointedly checking his watch, and exit, stage left.
ϑ ϑ ϑ
I'm a very different person now than I was when I wrote it, in every single way that matters (and a lot that probably don't). I cringe a little bit at some of the ways I wrote back then, but it's the best I could do at the time, and I'm proud of it, and the 29 year-old who struggled to write it.
Reading this stuff today made me feel strange, but also good, It's sort of like I was looking in a mirror that held a reflection within it for ten years, but let a little bit out today, just for me.