Tuesday, July 08, 2008

To convention or not to convention, that is the question

There comes a time in every sci-fi fan’s life when they have to make the hard choice: do I go to the convention or not?

It doesn’t matter what convention, really. There’s always going to be some sort of carefully staged gathering poised to take advantage of a sci-fi fan’s deep, desperate love for shows with the word “star” or “Buffy” somewhere in the title. I was thinking about this last night when I discovered that something called Jump Con is coming to Detroit and the featured guests will be Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell.

I’m not sure if you know this about me, but I really like “Battlestar Galactica.”

So my first reaction was, “Awesome! Sign me up.” And my second reaction was, “Oh man, every time I go to one of these, I just come home feeling sad.”

Now, I need to clarify that I’m not talking about mega-conventions like Comic Con where you get to see previews of great new movies, comic books or TV shows. And I’m not talking about gatherings like Origins where people are interacting with each other and having a good time previewing new games and competing. I think that stuff’s fun.

But I’ve been to a few other types and, well, that word “sad” just keeps coming up. In college I went to a “Star Trek” convention with some friends on a lark, just to see what it was all about. While it was great scoring a copy of Brent Spiner’s surprisingly entertaining singing debut and checking out the merchandise booths, there was also an undeniably large amount of brightly-colored velour and middle-aged men with their mothers.

A few years after that, I dragged the husband to an X-Files convention. On the awesome side, there was Charles Nelson Reilly in slippers telling the most wonderfully ridiculous stories, and William B. Davis being Canadian and regaling us with tales of his water skiing prowess. You have to admit – you don’t see those two things every day. On the downside, there was Doug Hutchison trying to pick up college girls by telling them, “I played Tooms, you know.” And by the end of the day, I kind of felt like I was in some weird X-Files celebrity zoo.

That feeling was heightened earlier this year when I exercised my nerd duty and went to the Motor City Comic Con. Again, on the plus side, I saw a lot of great new artists and discovered some new authors that truly intrigued me. On the “wow, this is sad” side, I saw Mickey Dolenz (who I loved as a child), Erik Estrada and Lou Ferrigno sitting in little booths – not unlike at a petting zoo – waiting for people to come up and pay for their autographs. And I felt bad because I thought that Erik Estrada training to be a police officer in rural Indiana for a lousy reality TV show was as crappy as a career could get – until I saw him sitting in a booth in suburban Detroit with me walking by not willing to pay $10 to tell him how "ChiPs" made me afraid of motorcycle cops as a kid.

So maybe it’s the celebrity side of these conventions that bothers me. It’s the paying to meet people and have awkward 30-second conversations with them that just makes me feel weird, like I’m engaging in a high-end, rapid-fire act of fully-clothed prostitution. And please don’t think I’m being snobby and saying, “I’d never get an autograph that way” because trust me, I have. Mickey Dolenz and I had quite the awkward mini-conversation back at 1987’s Autorama car show and I’ve got autographs from Marina Sirtis and Michael Dorn to prove I didn’t leave that “Star Trek” convention empty-handed. And don’t even get me started on book signings: I’ve collected the signatures and disdain of many of America’s greatest writers. Mostly, I think I make these situations bad on my own. I’m notoriously terrible at human conversation in general. Put a celebrity in front of me and I become exponentially more socially retarded. Nine times out of ten, there’s a good chance I’ll fall down. In fact, let me describe for you what me meeting Mary McDonnell at a convention might look like: I would likely attempt an ill-advised joke about not being gay just because I think she’s awesome. And she would look at me like, “What the fuck?” And then, like a fainting goat, I would fall down.

I’m sure millions of people have a great time at these conventions. And I’m sure the actors who take part in them have a blast, too. It’s got to be great knowing so many people enjoy your work. But you know at some point, there’s going to be awkwardness and weirdness. At some point, someone’s going to stand up and ask Olmos to read their BSG/Punky Brewster crossover fan fic and everyone in the room is going to die from the collective shame. And everyone who bought a ticket will feel tainted by association.

So, with the prostitution vibe, my own social awkwardness and the guarantee that roughly 20 percent of the other attendees will be really weird and lacking the requisite shame to keep it to themselves, I’ve just soured on the experience.

Who are we kidding though? You know and I know I'll probably end up going to the damn thing anway. God knows, there's nothing else to do in Detroit. So if you hear about a woman falling down in front of Mary McDonnell, just pray for my shame-filled soul.


Tara said...

I love the bit about comparing yourself to a fainting goat. That'd be me if I ever met John Krasinski or Harry Connick, Jr.

The Husband said...

lol, yeah, like I am going to a BSG convention...

Liz said...

Note to the husband -- don't worry, I wouldn't make you go. You already did your penance with the X-Files convention. :)

emily said...

You know, when I clicked the label for "Fainting Goats", I was really hoping there'd be at least one other post :-P

I feel the same way about conventions. I love the idea, but can't imagine a scenario where I don't make a fool of myself. Which is generally okay because so few of them seem to come to the southern Maine region...

Trey said...

I totally hear you. The conversational awkwardness (and its close cousin, disdain for the audience) is the big reason we don't do the actor celebrity thing anymore. The famous people we invite as guests are famous because they're gamers or game designers, and can relate to the audience in a 'we're all the same tribe' kind of way. We do an absolute minimum of signings, and no longer have an autograph alley. We do other stuff instead, like "play with the designer" sessions and seminars. It all seems to help.

Last year Richard Hatch attended, but in his own booth to promote his new role playing game.

This does not preclude me trying to get Vin Diesel to the show every year, however. 'Cause he's awesome, and loves D&D. :-)

Liz said...

Emily, I'm putting fainting goats on the list for a future post. I love those critters and I think they deserve more screen time in the blogosphere. :)

Trey, the pursuit of Vin Diesel is a worthy one! I love that guy.

Kathe said...

I went to a Star Trek convention in South Bend, IN in 1995 and Number One himself was the big star there. I was so giddy I almost peed myself. That was actually a good event for me, I didn't really get up close and personal with Mr. Frakes and that was good for him too. Unfortunately in 1998 I went to a Cubs convention in Chicago and managed to step on Andre Dawson's foot while trying to get his autograph and my picture with him. He was not pleased, but saw my humiliation was worse than his sore foot. Go to that convention and have a blast! You owe it to yourself to drool all over Laura Roslin and Admiral Adama! :o)

Anonymous said...

I'm now worried that I'll achieve similar headlines when I attend ComicCon in San Diego later this month. Only mine will read something like, "Girl stumbles over Stormtrooper and knocks table full of Watchmen merch into Twilight cast."

On the fainting goats front, have you ever seen the ep of Dirty Jobs where Mike Rowe tries his darndest to get them to faint? I think one did, once. :)

Diamond Joe said...

The clothes-on prostitution thing crossed my mind a few years back at Comic-Con. I went to Erin Gray's booth to get an autograph for a friend (no, really), and she just exuded an attitude of "shut up, give me the money, and let's get this over with."

At the opposite extreme, Sam Jones seemed put out that I wasn't all "Wow! This is awesome! Flash Gordon is the BEST movie!" Again, I was getting an autograph for a (different) friend.

Shanna Swendson said...

It sounds like you've mostly been attending media cons, which are very different from general sf conventions. At most general conventions, the focus is on books/authors or the behind-the-scenes people involved with TV/movies, like the writers, special effects people, composers, etc. No paying for autographs and awkward conversations, no "celebrities." Just panel discussions about various related topics. The actors may or may not actually be into the stuff they appear in, but generally you don't get into the behind-the-scenes role without being some kind of geeky fan already.

I've been to a couple of more media-oriented conventions (including an X-Files one, and William B. Davis has to be one of the most charming men I've ever met), but the regular, non-celebrity conventions are a whole lot more fun because the focus is more on the attendees than on the guests, and it's a bunch of smart people getting together to talk about things they're excited about.

Liz said...

Shanna, you described the differences perfectly. Yes, the gatherings where people are actually talking about things and it's more interactive and very little star-gazing are the ones I put in the "hey, this is fun" column. It's the other stuff that gets a little wonky.

Camera Obscura said...

I went to one itty-bitty teeny-weeny con in high school and had a blast. But the only person of name there was Anne McCaffrey (she was still in residence on this side of the Pond, which should tell you how long ago that was) and the truly weird were relatively harmless. I lost my Rocky Horror virginity (but not the real thing, thank God) watching a bootlegged copy in some guy's hotel room (also a time-period giveaway.)

The only other con I went to, and the only con I went to as an adult, was "Hitchhiking to Gallifrey" in St. Louis in *pops over to IMDB to check Georgia Moffett's birth date* 1985. Peter and Sandra were trying to juggle a newborn and being con GoHs w/o a nanny, Mark Wing-Davey was not the nicest person in the world either b/c he was away from his SO and new baby, the sad-cases were out in full force, and I swore never again.

Jennu said...

My husband & I went to Chicago Tardis for our first vacation together ever (cringe). The new Doctor Who hadn't started yet, so there weren't too many people there. I avoided the awkwardness by not attempting to interact with the actors. We went to see them speak. Paul McGann & I passed each other in the hallway and smiled or said hi or some such.

But hanging out in the bar with the actors? Um, no.