Celebrity and awkwardness
Thursday, May 22, 2014
If I had to guess, I'd say one of the weirdest conditions in a social interaction is when one of the parties is at the classic "disadvantage." This happens when you are stalking someone until they inevitably catch you in the bushes, or (similarly) when you go to a comic convention and meet a celebrity signing autographs. I've had this experience a few times, usually after music events when the band is sticking around to sign autographs or sell swag or potentially answer your inane questions about the industry.
Celebrity and Awkwardness
I was very fortunate to have pretty great experiences with this. I had the very awesome opportunity to meet Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten (if you don't know who they are, please Google Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Right now. I'm not even kidding. I'll wait. AWESOME, RIGHT? If you disagree, I hate you. But please keep reading). Walking up, I suddenly realized there was nothing I could say they hadn't heard before from an adoring fan. No possible way, unless I said something really embarrassing or personal. Even then, there was a good chance they'd heard that too (if you've ever hung out after a show, you'll meet at least one person who over-shares... it's awkward). I finally got to the front of the line. I kind of blacked out, but I think I said something like "I'm a huge fan and I love you and you're awesome and ohmygod you hear that all the time." Without even looking up from signing something I'd handed him, Bela just smiled and said "Yup, but I hadn't heard it from you yet, so thanks!" Then, he shook my hand and said "glad you enjoyed the show, hope to see you again!" So you can understand: I didn't know what to expect from a "normal" celebrity interaction. Thus, I was a little confused at my second brush with celebrity when Brent Spiner totally lost his shit at Dallas Comic Con.
Let me take a step back and say I go to comic conventions all over the country for my second (and third?) job as a writer and half-owner of Odd19 Studios. The first time I ever went to Canada was to attend Fan Expo Vancouver. At every one of these, my boyhood heroes are available to sign autographs and pose for pictures for reasonable wads of cash, and I've always avoided the opportunity. Maybe it was just the fact I knew there was no way to NOT feel like a stalker, and waiting in line would cost me precious time I could be at the booth selling people my funny books and my wife's awesome art. But, as luck would have it, my parents are huge fans of Christopher Lloyd, who just happened to be at this con in Dallas where they live. Out of respect (and some guilt for them putting me up for the weekend and flying me down), I decide to go get in line.
Mistake number one.
As soon as I get in line, Mr. Lloyd signs about three autographs and then gets up to take a break. The line helper shouts out to us all "He'll be back in about 30 minutes if you want to wait!" My wife had courageously volunteered to watch the booth for me, so I figure I'll make it worth our mutual while and wait it out. 45 minutes of listening to fans grouse about the celebrities taking too long to be pee or eat or whatever they do on those breaks (how dare they?!), I decide it's time to bail. On my way back to the booth, I notice Brent Spiner (beloved actor of film and stage most commonly known as Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) signing autographs. My parents and I had grown up watching that show together across two different generations, and it was a great bonding experience for my family. Even my grandmother loved to watch it with us. I didn't get Christopher Lloyd, but I could at least walk home with a signed portrait of Data! Besides, there are only five people in his line.
Mistake number two.
To awkwardly go where others have gone before
As I'm walking up, I hear him yell across to Lavar Burton (also signing autographs) if he had any energy left, and admitted he was about out of it himself. This is usually a sign that human interaction is going to be awesome. I mean awesome in the most absolute sense: something that inspires awe. The guy behind me begins geeking out harder than anyone I've ever met, recounting all the Star Trek episodes he can that had great Data moments. He's in his late teens and brimming with all the enthusiasm that makes these conventions tick. We kill some time talking about our favorite episodes, and I realize how little I know about Star Trek having not seen an episode since I was about his age. Against all odds, I actually get to the front of the line this time, and from there I can overhear his interactions with the guy ahead of me. He talks with Paul, a nice chap from Nottingham who he jokingly calls "Pole" due to his accent. They discuss England, and how Patrick Stewart had shown Mr. Spiner around his place (which was apparently near there). He is charming and clever, and they joke back and forth. The usual wall of celebrity is vanishing, and I feel pretty good that I'm not about to say something stupid. I pay my $45 for a portrait and the opportunity to get it signed. As I step forward to hand it to him, someone walks up behind Mr. Spiner and hands him an envelope. They speak for about five minutes, and he turns back to the table. In the process, he turns past the jacket sitting on the chair next to him and marks it with his paint pen he's holding in his hand for signatures.
We all freeze, not knowing what's going to happen next. He looks down and realizes what he just did. Looking back now, the air changes, but I don't realize it yet. He just seems genuinely disappointed, not really angry. "I can't believe I just did that," he says. He begins trying to rub the paint out with his finger, using a little spit by licking it first (like we all do when we see a scratch on the car or something). The facilitator working at the con next to him leans in, asking what was wrong. "I just marked an Armani coat. I can't believe that." Everyone in line vocally agrees how much it sucks, and we all feel bad for the guy. It's the last day of a three day con, we're sure he's been run ragged by now. That's when things get weird, and I notice it this time. He keeps rubbing on the paint mark, and asks the facilitator what gets out paint pen. She shrugs and says "I've had good luck with hairspray." He then stares at her for about ten seconds and says "Do you have any hairspray?" She shakes her head. He then asks the entire line of people waiting for a signature "Do any of you have any hairspray?" We all shake our heads. Lick. Rub rub rub. "That guy just had to pick right then to give me that envelope!" Rub, rub rubrubrub. At this point, we realize this is not going to get better. "This is the only coat I brought, I have to wear it all week!" Silence from everyone else. I don't want to pressure him, but I've been waiting for awhile to get something I didn't want in the first place. I awkwardly shuffle my weight from foot to foot, suddenly very aware of how much they hurt. Lick. Rubrubrubrubrub. Finally, he gets up and says "I can't do this any more," and he grabs his jacket and takes off away from the table. The facilitator gets up to follow and he gestures for her to stay. "I'll be right back," he says to no one with a plastic smile. He vanishes into the huge crowd.
The kid behind me maintains his good mood, but I can tell he's pretty bummed out. He really wanted to meet the entire cast at the con that day, and now he just lost his shot. After about ten minutes of standing around, I awkwardly ask for my money back, giving the kid my spot. This late in the day, he's probably not coming back. The facilitator apologizes on his behalf, and just keeps shaking her head. "I'm supposed to stay with whoever I'm helping... I hate it when they do that." I just shrug and head back to the booth. I'm kind of dumbstruck. I was maybe two feet from this guy for something like twenty minutes. I specifically paid for the opportunity to speak with him for a few seconds, and he never even acknowledged my existence. I suddenly realize how weird this whole thing is in principle.
What does it all MEAN?
Look, the guy is human. I can't say I would have handled it the same way. If I ripped my pants I'd make a huge joke about it and take pictures with people flashing my ripped pants. But that's how I deal with my own social anxiety, I'm like Chandler from Friends. I overcompensate with humor. I then follow it up with going home and calling myself an idiot for a few hours. Or days.
The truth is that this really normal human dude had just reached his breaking point and he bailed. He didn't know I'd been waiting for over an hour to just get a gift for my folks at that point. Even if he did, why should he care? I knew what I was getting into: this is why I avoid this whole thing in the first place. If I try really hard to see these guys as human and normal, I feel creepy. They're not my friends, they're just people I know from TV, so I can't really ask the guy to go out for a beer like I would any other person I just met the first time who I thought was cool. Conversely, I can't elevate them to the status of some kind of weird unattainable perfection, or I'll just make things even weirder and be disappointed when he acts like a human.
I dunno if Brent Spiner has some form of OCD or he was just tired, but now I feel sorry for him, and that's even weirder. I'm sure if I told him that he'd think it was weird some stranger pitied him over a dumb event like that. He might even be offended by it.
In the end
I just found a booth selling pre-autographed photos, and found a Christopher Lloyd. My dad is also a huge Pink Floyd fan and I found some official "lithographs" from The Wall, which are pretty collectible so I figured what the heck. It all worked out. But I never saw either Christopher Lloyd or Brent Spiner again for the rest of the con, and I hoped they were both okay, but I kept trying not to think about it. It kinda sucked for me, in the stressful first world problem kind of way. But in a more realistic way, I realized it kind of impressed upon me how bizarre the actor/performer/athlete celebrity phenomenon is. I've met a lot of writers and artists, and it's always a little less surreal. You may know them for their work, but since you likely don't see them during the entire process of creating the work, you can relate to them on a level as a fellow creator of things. Even though they're obviously way better at it than you, they see themselves in you as much as you see yourself in them. This may be the case with someone who I grew up watching on TV, but somewhere, somehow, this huge inexplicable wall is formed. The only people who violate it are types who get tased by guards. One of my favorite celebrities (another Star Trek Actor) Wil Wheaton is going to be at Rose City con, one of the many cons I have planned this year. I've wanted to meet him for years since I started following his blog and seeing all the stuff he does for the Geek community at large... but after this I'm not sure I do any more. Best case scenario, I end up with a story about a nice guy who was gracious enough to speak to me after paying him for the privilege. Worst case, I end up with another story to put on my blog.
I think I just talked myself into getting tased by Wil Wheaton's guards.