It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Psych. And while I understood that maybe the TV execs felt that after eight seasons it had run its course, still I was sad to see it go.
Everything about the show appealed to me – the goofy premise and the quick-witted humor of main character Shawn Spencer; the unshakeable best-friendship of Shawn and Gus, a loyal companion who didn’t always approve of Shawn and sometimes needed his own space but still accepted Shawn for who he was; the Sherlockian vibe of the show’s formula (and I’m always a sucker for an interesting police procedural); the running gags and nerd references (who would think spotting pineapples could be so much fun?); and the romance that bubbled in the background.
I also appreciated that the show was unafraid to feature a cast of essentially good characters – even hard-boiled Lassiter had a softer side. And I liked that Shawn’s light-hearted shenanigans also revealed his deep understanding of people – his teasing of Lassie, for one example, also served to show Lassie that it was okay to open up a little and trust that not everyone would hurt him because he was vulnerable. From the Chief to big, innocent Buzz, the characters were real without being unnecessarily harsh.
And yet, Psych had a darker side, too. I’m not just talking about the murders. You don’t get to be so good at observing human behavior without an early reason to do so. And while dad Henry’s extreme insistence on young Shawn being observational about details could be looked on as a parent’s attempts to prepare his child for the world, or hone a recognized unique ability; his harsh attitude probably played as much of a role in developing Shawn’s gifts (and stunting his emotional growth) as his actual “training” of Shawn.
The difficulties that Shawn has in maturing – from his hopping from living space to living space and job to job, to his discomfort with anything getting too serious, to his actual and obvious relationship issues with his father as an adult – are directly correlated to both Henry’s parenting in flashbacks and also to his parents’ divorce. I always appreciated that the lightness of the show and of Shawn also grew from those darker roots, and that it wasn’t afraid to reference them.
Yet, while the show acknowledged the emotional damage that Shawn attempted to hide behind humor, it also called out the harm it was doing to his prospects for a fuller life – from his inability early in the show to have a real relationship with a father he couldn’t forgive, to the ongoing frustration of his love interest Juliet with his ability to artfully avoid real intimacy. Not only that, but it explored the growth of all characters, but particularly Shawn. Amidst the treasure hunts, planetarium adventures, and petting of baby bunnies, it showed how Shawn’s eventual emotional maturing (what Steve Franks himself called being “an actual, self-realized human being”) and willingness to face those serious issues for love and be a responsible adult finally allowed Juliet to trust him with her heart.
That’s some heavy lifting for a show that also made a habit of using silly nicknames, throwing out pop culture references, and having its main characters ride around in car nicknamed The Blueberry. And it’s a show where you’re sad to see the end of all the great characters involved.
That’s why I’m so excited that this December, we are getting to hang out with those great characters again – in Psych: The Movie, which will also be starring a favorite actor of mine, Zachary Levi, as a villain. I’m really looking forward to it.
So is the Psych cast and crew, with whom I discussed the movie at SDCC. They spilled about what it’s like to be back together after some time away from the show, where the movie is going to pick up in the threads of everyone’s lives, how Shawn and Juliet are doing, Henry’s new fashion choices, working with Zac Levi, and a whole lot more!
After our chats I’m super excited to see the movie on the USA Network this December. I’m sure you will be too after you check out all of the fun interviews below!
Interview with Producers Chris Henze and Kelly Kulchak
Interview with James Roday (Shawn Spencer)
Interview with Dule Hill (Burton Guster)
Interview with Maggie Lawson (Juliet O’Hara)
Interview with Kirsten Nelson (Karen Vick)
See you around, Psych-Os! And until next time, Servo Lectio!
I’m all about organizations with heart. Places that make you feel at home. And while the San Diego Comic Con is phenomenal and offers many amazing experiences, it can also be overwhelming and make you feel a bit like you’re just one of many ants in the ant farm, toiling slowly along towards your next goal.
That’s why I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Nerd HQ is a great alternative place to go and get your geek on when you’re feeling a little burnt out on the crowds of SDCC. Not only that, but the fact that its creators, Zachary Levi and Dave Coleman, built it from scratch and maintain a hands-on approach to running it as it grows(among other things, Zac hosts almost every Conversation and Dave keeps things running behind the scenes); and that all proceeds go to the charity of Operation Smile, give Nerd HQ a great cozy, almost familial vibe. And, of course, it’s a plain fact (that I can confirm, having had the pleasure of interviewing him on a couple of occasions) that Zac Levi is just a really solidly nice dude with a lot of heart. And I think that intangible quality can be felt in everything he’s built.
Last year, I was a big fan of the change in venue of Nerd HQ to The New Children’s Museum. The layout and fun backdrop complemented Nerd HQ’s offerings and all of the various interactive activities they provided, as well as the Conversations for a Cause. This year, with the addition, as Dave Coleman had noted in our Nerd HQ preview interview, of e.g. risers and extra air conditioning in the panel rooms, the venue was even better; and although there were many things to see, Nerd HQ still managed not to feel overcrowded.
Some of the cool things on offer this year were:
Gaming – Nerd HQ always offers the opportunity to hang out and play upcoming cool video games, which this year included Battlefield 1, Gears of War 4, and Titanfall 2. And although I didn’t have much time to spare for a session, every time I was over at the HQ, the consoles were all taken and the gaming crowd looked like they were having a blast.
On top of being able to play games, Nerd HQ provides cool gaming-related stuff to do. One of my favorites was the Xbox green-screen pictures you could take, which put you into scenes from games like Dead Rising, ReCore, and Titanfall 2. Another was the Xbox wall of custom controllers, with computers set up to allow you to design your own controllers right there. Sure, you can also do this from home; but it was weirdly addictively fun to design them while hanging out at HQ. (I personally designed a Deadpool and Bob set and a Little Prince and his rose set before I stopped.)
The photo booths! One fun part of these, of course, is that during the Smiles for Smiles sessions you could get your photo with celebrities by donating to Operation Smile (and I was very happy to get a picture with Joss Whedon. Yay!) But you could also just take pictures with your friends (or yourself and props) – and that was really fun as well. Plus, the tech-savvy setup automatically emailed you a photo if you scanned your RFID bracelet, as well as printing one on the spot. And this year, if you downloaded the Johnson & Johnson Donate a Photo app and used it to post a photo, not only does J&J give a dollar to Operation Smile (or whatever charity you choose from among those listed) for each day you post a photo; but at Nerd HQ you were also given a box of Avengers-themed Band-aids for posting. And boy, was I glad about that – because they saved my feet from some terrible, terrible blisters.
Free foooooood! This year, Kellogg’s was one of the sponsors for Nerd HQ, which was cool for two reasons. 1) They brought in comics artist Francis Manapul to do themed paintings with Kellogg’s Krave. They were all pretty rad and it was fun to watch them being created; and I got a picture of my favorite, this excellent warrior woman. 2) They also had a cereal bar set up with regular, double chocolate, and mixed Krave cereal and several different choices of milk. Let me tell you, that cereal is gooooood; and being able to easily sit down nearby and have a bowl saved me from fainting from hunger due to being generally too busy at cons to stop for food. (Nerd HQ saved me from a lot of things this year. Nerd HQ, you’re my heeeero!) And on top of all of that, they were giving away entire free boxes of cereal. Kellogg’s, I approve! (Note: at various times Nerd HQ was also passing out free lemonade and coconut water from different sponsors. Also awesome!)
Chill space. Sometimes, it’s nice just to have a place to sit and breathe. Along with the little outdoor area where I had a nice bowl of Krave cereal (and made a new table friend who let me share her table), Nerd HQ also has an indoor chill area and an outdoor patio; and nobody bothering you or telling you to move along. Sometimes when taking a break from all the madness, that’s just what we need.
The fan parties! Okay, so I actually missed the Nerd HQ parties this year, alas – but I heard from several friends that they rocked as hard as last year’s, which I did make it to. And as with last year, all you needed to get in was your HQ wristband. Rock on with your inclusive parties, Nerd HQ!
Of course, along with all of these excellent things, one of the best parts of Nerd HQ is the Conversations – smaller panels of about 200-250 which generally feature a chat between Zac Levi and the featured guest(s). They had a slew of fantastic guests this year, and I personally got to see some really neat panels.
The Con Man cast, who I saw first, were great, and shared funny stories about filming (particularly hilarious were the stories about working with Alan Tudyk, who wasn’t at the panel, and faces he makes while directing) and about what we can expect from the new season. On top of that, Nathan Fillion, as usual, had brought some weird, random, but ultimately still cool stuff to auction off for charity. My favorite was a small Swiss Army knife that his parents had given him for high school graduation (!). And how he kept emphasizing that it had a little loop so you could put it on your keychain, “or if you’re a girl, wear it around your neck!” Way to know your female fanbase, Nathan.
The Scott Bakula panel was pretty much My Favorite Thing Ever, because Scott Bakula and Quantum Leap have been, since childhood, among my Favorite Things Ever. I had not previously gotten to see him on a panel (although I did see him in Shenandoah at Ford’s Theatre ten years ago, which was amazing). So this was really cool; and even better was the fact that Zac Levi, hosting, is also good friends with Scott via their work together on Chuck, where Scott played Zac’s dad. The panel was hilarious, with Scott making running jokes at his own expense, but also heartfelt, with Zac talking about how Scott helped him through the stresses of playing a lead role in a TV show. In conclusion: Scott Bakula.
The Orphan Black panel was rad, and I especially enjoyed hearing about how Tatiana Maslany has dealt with playing so many different clones (and it was cool that her stunt double was featured on the panel, as well. An important job that most people probably don’t think about while watching the show). I also loved that an audience member gave Kristian Bruun a “Free Donnie” t-shirt, which he put on right there.
The Tom Hiddleston panel started with a hilarious little dance by Tom and Zac as Tom came onstage. This was a cool panel where Tom talked a good bit about his acting process. Meanwhile, I was trying to reconcile his friendly red-haired self with the sly and frequently evil Loki. It’s a credit to his acting ability that I was having a hard time of it!
The Joss Whedon panel was, as usual with a Joss Q&A, a thoughtful, insightful panel. He was up there by himself because Zac was having a much-needed rest (by Saturday Zac’s voice was fading, and I heard he was pretty exhausted by Sunday, although you couldn’t tell from his enthusiastic hosting). But Joss Whedon doesn’t really need a host to keep the conversation going, and pretty much the whole panel was quotable.
I’d quote some of it for you, but I don’t have to! Because along with livestreaming all of the Conversations for the people at home so they could feel like they were right there with us (very cool!) you can now watch all of them on YouTube as well; an experience I highly recommend.
San Diego Comic Con is practically right around the corner now; and with it comes one of my other favorite events, Nerd HQ. The brainchild of actor Zachary Levi and his friend Dave Coleman, Nerd HQ has only gotten better each year I’ve attended. Nerd HQ, which raises funds for the worthy charity Operation Smile, provides a smorgasbord of cool experiences in a chill setting (currently The New Children’s Museum)– a nice place to get away from the madness of the con for awhile while still getting your nerd on. Nerd HQ generally offers a selection of smaller-sized “Conversations for a Cause” panels with celebrities; “Smiles for Smiles” and “Signings for Smiles,” where you can get your photo with celebrities, or get celebrity autographs; places to play video games and see some really cool new or upcoming games; other cool exhibits from sponsors, some of which may be interactive; and two rockin’ parties for nerdy fans.
I’m looking forward to this year’s Nerd HQ, and in preparation for attending, I got to chat with co-founder Dave Coleman about his involvement and what we’ll be seeing. Read on for details!
Dave, what is your background with Nerd HQ and Zac Levi?
Well, I started the company with Zac in 2010. We’ve been partners in The Nerd Machine, and I have been producing every HQ since they started. Zac and I have been very, very close friends for the last 10 years or so. We’ve had The Nerd Machine for the last 6 years, almost 7. So I’ve been a part of this since the beginning.
Are you also an actor, or do you work in television? How did you end up meeting Zac?
I was on the crew side. I used to be a prop master for television; but Zac and I actually met playing basketball back in 2004, in the neighborhood that we all lived in. It’s funny, we met a lot of our friends that way. That’s where I met Joel David Moore, who was a really good friend of Zac’s at the time, and who’s now one of my other best friends. So it’s really interesting how we all met playing basketball, and then relationships grew out of that.
Eventually, I also started working on Chuck. I had done a movie with another prop master, Scott Bauer, who was on Chuck from the pilot. And he had interviewed me to do Chuck when they thought some of the guys who had done the pilot weren’t going to come back. It didn’t work out because of scheduling, so I ended up doing a couple of other shows while they were doing the first 2 seasons of Chuck. During season 2 of Chuck, I started working on the show 2 to 3 days a week, and then for seasons 3, 4, and 5, I was the on-set prop master for Chuck the rest of the time.
Can you tell me your experience with starting Nerd HQ and how it came together?
My experience is probably much different than Zac’s experience – just because, when we first started doing this, we really had no idea how to do it. We had never produced an event of any size, really, before. I had a design background; I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in set design. So I’d done that kind of thing, but never produced a full-on event for 20,000 people. So there was a lot of trial and error in figuring things out. You know – what do we think would be cool, and let’s just do that. That’s kind of how it started.
The whole thing was really an accident. When we started it; we made some t-shirts to throw out during a Chuck panel in 2010. I had a design background, and I had printed some shirts in the past; so when we started talking about doing stuff, Zac said, “Hey, what if I wanted to just print some shirts and give them out to fans during our panel?” I was like, “Alright, I can make that happen.” So it just kind of all started happening. And we made some shirts, and we took them, and we passed them out; and some of the guys on stage started throwing them; which was a giant problem, because everybody freaked out. Like, lawyers were pissed off and like, “You can’t do that!” because people were jumping over each other to try to get the shirts, and they were worried about liability and that kind of thing. So it got really kind of hairy there; but everybody loved the shirts.
It was the classic Nerd shirt that we ended up calling the NES, with the original Nintendo font. And so people were asking, “How do I get one? How do I get one?” And we looked around and were like, there’s no real “nerd culture” brand. You can buy stuff at ThinkGeek and Hot Topic, and hell, even at Target now, or Walmart; but there was no brand. So we thought about how to start something that people could identify with. So we turned Zac’s fan website, zacharylevi.com, into thenerdmachine.com, and just started taking email addresses; like, “Hey guys, if we made this shirt, would you be interested in buying one?” And we had thousands of people sign up. So we’re like, “Great! Here we go!” and a company got started. And my wife, Courtney, was shipping t-shirts out of Zac’s garage when we first started; and it was crazy. It was a real home-grown family business.
So after that we started trying to figure out a way to have a party; like in 2010 when we gave out the t-shirts, Zac had a party at a bar in the Gaslamp on Friday or Saturday night of the con. And people came, and we gave out the rest of the shirts that were there, and he was like, “Hey man – what if we just did another party to promote the brand?” But we couldn’t really work out a convention space, because, you know, they had been full for years and it takes a long time to get into the convention. So we said, “Hey, we’ll just do something outside.” We’ll find a little place to have a party, and go from there.” And then it turned into, “Well, if we have a party someplace, we’re still going to have to rent it for a few extra days to get it ready. What if we brought in some games or whatever. Maybe we can get some of our friends to come and do some panels. Maybe we could sell some tickets, and give the money to charity. Let’s see what we can do.” That’s how it all started!
What’s your experience been with the chosen charity, Operation Smile?
Fantastic. They’re one of the greatest organizations that I’ve ever been a part of. We are blessed to be able to help them out each year, and to do everything we can to raise money. We’ve been able to do some really great stuff with them in the last five to six years, that has really affected all of our lives in a positive way. You know, we all worry about jobs, and money, and that kind of stuff; but at the end of the day you go, “Man, no matter what we do, when we’re all done with our lives, we’re gonna go, ‘We did something to really help a lot of kids and a lot of people.’”
So of course people will want to know what’s coming to Nerd HQ this year. What can you tell us?
It will be at The New Children’s Museum again, and here’s a quick breakdown: AMD is coming back as one of our headline sponsors, and they are bringing in Battlefield 1 with EA and DICE; so we’re going to have a 64-station multiplayer of Battlefield 1 on PC – which is all Alienware, super-cool tech, and a really fun game experience. We played it during E3, and it’s unbelievable. Xbox is bringing their whole lineup of games that they’re going to have during the con to HQ. So we’ll probably have between 150 to 200 gaming units on site, where you’ll be able to set times, and that will be with Gears of War 4, Titanfall 2, and a bunch of other really great titles, all through Xbox, which we’re really excited about.
Johnson & Johnson is a partner of ours this year, and we’re integrating the “Donate a Photo” app that they do, in support of Operation Smile, into our app and into our photo booth. So if you take a picture at our photo booth, that photo gets sent to our Nerd HQ account to Donate a Photo. We can upload that, and for every upload, Johnson & Johnson donates a dollar to Operation Smile. What we are hoping is that we can raise another 10 to 15 thousand dollars just from photos at the photo booths. Hallmark is going to be on site with some awesome specials and exclusives for HQ which we’re really excited about. Kellogg’s is doing an indie gaming area with the Square Enix Collective, with a bunch of cool indie games that most people have never seen before, that people will get to play.
We’re going to have a brand-new app that’s been completely renovated and redesigned for this year, with enhanced RFID capabilities; really cool photo filters inside; and connections to all your social media; so that’s very exciting. We’re pulling out all the stops. We’ve added extra air conditioning to the panel rooms, and we’re doing tiered seating in the panel rooms, so it will feel more like the seating at Petco Park. We’re adding a 360-degree camera to the panels, so you’ll be able to watch the panels at home on your VR system. You’ll be able to feel like you’re in the audience, which is what I think people want. And again, we’re lining up some amazing panels – new stuff, returning stuff; things people love, and some new stuff they wouldn’t expect. I don’t have the full panel list yet, but we’ll probably be releasing some of the panel schedule this week, and then we’ll have the full list out by next week.
We’ll be adding brand-new merch that we’ll be selling exclusively at Nerd HQ. We’re going to have this bad-ass 1960’s Nerd HQ-branded van driving around the city to promote HQ and for photo ops – it looks kind of like a big red version of the Mystery Machine. It’s going to be awesome. We’re doing more signings this year than before; and will hopefully bring in some really big names for the signings. And of course we’ll be doing Smiles for Smiles, which is one of our biggest ways to engage the fans with celebrities. We definitely want people to help us in our philanthropy by being a part of it themselves; so we will encourage everyone who comes or watches from home to download the Donate a Photo app from Johnson & Johnson. Because every day of the year, you can post a photo, and each one is a dollar for Operation Smile. Every person, by doing something that they already do by posting a picture, can change one kid’s life in 245 days. We’ll also have the fan parties on Thursday and Saturday, which will be super fun. We’re excited about those. We have a great time those nights.
So what are you most excited about for Nerd HQ 2016?
I think I’m most excited about the greater amount of offerings we’re going to be able to give this year. And I think we’re going to be able to raise a lot more money for charity, and to create a much more pleasurable fan experience through the upgrades to the panel rooms and the rest of the building, which I think are going to make a huge difference. Just being able to offer cool stuff that we haven’t been able to offer before is great.
And it’s HQ, it’s fun! We want people to feel like there’s a place where they belong, a place where they can feel comfortable, and like everyone there is their friend; and that it’s just a good time, and a good place to hang out.
Thank you, Dave Coleman, for your time and for this exciting Nerd HQ information! I can’t wait!
This weekend, on the way back from the wedding of one of my longtime best friends, I took a loooong train ride home. Naturally, I was riding in high style, in a Deadpool shirt and my handmade Deadpool symbol earrings. During the trip, I happened to be standing in the Amtrak café car line when a guy waiting with me complimented my geeky attire. This led to a several-minute conversation about Deadpool and the upcoming Deadpool movie; the X-Men movies; and (yarrrgh) the Wolverine: Origins movie. It was a great little comics nerd conversation, which I guarantee could have continued for hours were we hanging out at a convention rather than standing in a line for food on a train.
I realized afterwards that this conversation was particularly refreshing because after the initial “So you’re a Deadpool fan?” question, I didn’t encounter any of the attitude that I often get from men in comics fandom – the attitude that immediately questions or is at least taken aback by My Commitment to Sparkle Motion, i.e. my legitimate knowledge of and appreciation for comics fandom as an entity independent of any dude or some imagined desire to falsely pass myself off as a geek.
This still baffles me. If I was going to try to lie to random strangers about who I am, I think it would be way more fun to pretend to be fabulously wealthy and eccentric. I fail to see the advantage of pretending to be a geek.
It was nice to have a conversation that was not tempered by a feeling of defensiveness about the legitimacy of my geekdom in the eyes of my co-conversant, and it made me realize just how frequently I have encountered an attitude that, instead of accepting how I represent myself, continues to question the validity of my enjoyment of a certain brand of entertainment until I manage, basically, to out-nerd the other person (which, not even kidding, happens pretty much every time. If you challenge my geekdom I will pull out the big guns and quote esoteric nerd facts at you with the best of them). It’s so commonplace an experience that I barely notice it anymore; until I notice the lack of it, as in my pleasant conversation with a stranger on a train. As small an element as it may seem, for that component to be missing felt like someone had suddenly lifted the weight of Establishing My Geek Cred from the ingredients necessary to have a normal conversation about fun geek stuff.
I know that change can be slow, but I like to hope that encounters like my little train chat are a sign that geek fandom is gradually transitioning from some of the isolationist, unwelcoming attitudes I have railed against in previous columns (like the attitudes of geeklitism, or of Gamergaters) into a more understanding, celebratory camaraderie of mutual and group enjoyment of genre entertainment without snap judgments or prejudices.
I also suspect that social media, where one can generally interact on one’s own terms, is playing its part as a driving engine for change; and that some of the positive fan-interactive movements started by prominent celebrities in geek fandom, such as Supernatural star Misha Collins and his G.I.S.H.W.H.E.S. (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen), and Zachary Levi and his Nerd HQstrongly contribute to the changes I’m seeing in geek culture. I’ve already talked about how great Nerd HQ and the attitude it projects are, and more recently have celebrated the feeling of camaraderie in geekdom conveyed by the new Syfy Geeks Who Drink show and its Twitter interactions. Both of these have a strong positive and geek-celebratory social media component.
The hunt, which is now a worldwide phenomenon with tens of thousands of participants in over 100 countries, had over 14,000 participants last year and is so successful that it has been categorized by Guinness World Records as the largest scavenger hunt of its kind. It has also broken several other world records through completion of some of the challenges issued to participants. The Gishwhes site describes the hunt as “part silliness, part art, part kindness and 100% fun” and notes that Gishwhes is the single largest contributor to the charity Random Acts.
About the tasks, the site notes, ”We try to create a list that is challenging, thrilling and absurd. We like to have participants break out of their comfort zones, re-awaken their inner artist, and do a bit of good in the world.” According to Collins, the primary reason for developing the competition was that he “loved the idea of thousands of people from all over the world connecting to create incredible things.”
Gishwhes is a great example of a celebrity both following his own personal inspiration for a project and using his status in fandom for good. I also believe its encouragement towards geek teamwork and outreach through fun and passion for the fandom, and the way it began and is maintained via social media and online interactions, is a contributor to a transition in genre entertainment fandom attitudes towards a kinder, more inclusive and positive fandom. Gishwhes encourages fans to branch out, join forces, and put their enthusiasm for their fandom towards creativity, social interaction, and helping others instead of focusing inwards or dwelling on themselves. I applaud celebrities like Misha Collins and Zachary Levi for leveraging their celeb status with fans for good in this way, and hope to see more from-the-heart fan interaction phenomenons like Gishwhes and Nerd HQ.
Other than all of the nifty things accomplished due to Gishwhes, I think the biggest thing I take away from it is the warm and positive attitude of the competition and everyone involved. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see all of the people who have chosen to celebrate and express their fandom in a fun and inclusive way; especially because, in the end, it is always our own personal choice as to how we want to move through the world; and how we choose to put ourselves out there can have bigger consequences for change than we can ever imagine. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”
From what I have seen, Gishwhes is contributing to changing the attitude of the world (and fandom) in a positive way. Here’s hoping that it continues to do so; and until next time, Servo Lectio!
Ladies and gents, it’s time for my fifth and final SDCC 2015 column, and although my coverage of Nerd HQ happens to be my last SDCC write-up this year, it is certainly not least. In fact, Nerd HQ was one of my favorite parts of my whole San Diego adventure this year and is well worth talking about. Of course, the other parts of my adventure were all super fun too, and if you missed them, please go check out Part I (the con floor!); Part II (the Her Universe Fashion Show!); Part III (the party round-up!); and Part IV(the panels!). But then come back here, because this year’s Nerd HQ was chock-full of great stuff I want to share!
For those who don’t know, Nerd HQ, now in its fifth year, was started by Zachary Levi to benefit the worthy charity of Operation Smile, and takes place during and adjacent to SDCC. Generally speaking, some of its biggest draws are the ticketed Conversations for a Cause, 200-seat discussions and Q&As with celebrities who are often already in town for SDCC; and Smiles for Smiles and Signings for Smiles, photo and autograph sessions with these celebrities. (All of the proceeds for these three things go to Operation Smile.) However, Nerd HQ also offers access to a chill place to hang out with other nerds, free gaming, and a variety of other fun free activities that vary from year to year.
I’ve been covering Nerd HQ and Zac and The Nerd Machine (which would also be an excellent name for a garage band) since 2013, when I wandered into Nerd HQ for the first time (appropriately, with one of the Gazillion Entertainment community forum moderators whom I’d gotten to know during my stint in the Marvel Heroes beta), to see what this interesting offshoot of the SDCC scene was all about. In 2013 and 2014, Nerd HQ was located at Petco Park, where I appreciated the arcade-like atmosphere of where the video games were set up for free play, and the open-air feel of the setting. There were some neat things to see and do, as well as places to hang out and take a breather from the much more crowded and intense SDCC. All-in-all, it was a pretty cool place to be.
This year, however, I feel like Nerd HQ (sponsored by AMD, IGN, and Sony Playstation 4) really, truly hit its stride, something I got to discuss with Zac Levi in this interview, along with talking about future plans for Nerd HQ and what’s new with Levi’s career right now. It was a delight, as before, to talk with him, and I recommend you check out the interview. Not only does he talk about cool Nerd HQ stuff, but also, it really highlights the time and thought he puts into both his work with Operation Smile, and the planning and execution of Nerd HQ. In particular, he talked about “creating a place where fans feel like they have a voice;” and summed up his choices with the following wise statement: “I don’t want to make decisions out of fear; I want to make decisions out of faith.” He’s a guy with a lot of intelligence and heart; and it shows in everything that Nerd HQ has become.
Speaking of which, here are some things that I thought really made Nerd HQ great this year. First, it implemented RFID registration and wristbands to scan everyone easily in and out of the building and keep track of things very efficiently. Second, it moved to a new venue, The New Children’s Museum, and I just loved the feel of it. With its high ceilings, colorful accents, weird and fun bits of art on the walls, and interesting layout, it made for a great backdrop and contributed to a chill vibe, and the great Nerd HQ staff and volunteers were able to set up the activations (various things to do as you wandered around) and traffic flow in a way that made it easy to get to all of the activities without getting stuck in too much of a people-jam.
The lowest level of the Museum hosted the Conversations, and the highest level hosted primarily gaming (Project Morpheus and Star Wars Battlefront were the featured products that you could try). Everyone trying the games upstairs was having a blast; and on Friday, some fans even got to compete in a 20 versus 20 battle in Star Wars Battlefrontin which Levi played too.
In addition, they could take Star Wars Battlefront-themed photos at another photo booth; and pose for photo booth photos with the Nerd HQ logo just for kicks. The photo booths were especially cool and easy to use, since scanning your RFID bracelet automatically posted your photo to the NerdHQ Facebook page and emailed it to you; and, you could print out a copy as well. I especially liked the fun and friendly touch of the clothespin wall, where some people opted to hang copies of their printed photos (I hung one up, and my friend later saw it and tweeted a photo of it back to me!). It seemed to reinforce the feeling that we were all there to have a good time together as part of the same big Nerd family.
That feeling extended to the Thursday and Saturday night parties, which I covered in detail in my Party Round-Up. To recap here, the music was super-fun, the dance floor felt like one big happy dancing family, and Levi even made his way out into the crowd and danced with all the other nerds for quite some time. And I literally made a new nerd friend while hanging out on the dance floor, bonding over nerd things. Plus, there was a Wookiee. You can’t go wrong with a Wookiee.
The familial feeling was also present at the Conversations for a Cause, in part because they are limited to just 200 fans per panel, and in part because of the somewhat casual setting. In those I attended, there was a real feeling that the guests on stage were relaxed, having a good time, and happy to be there with the fans; and that made the experience special. It’s one reason it was great to be able to be there in person for a few, although IGN also live-streamed them all, for fans who couldn’t go to San Diego or couldn’t score tickets; and you can now watch a bunch of them on the IGN YouTube channel (sweet!).
I was fortunate to be able to attend four great Conversations. The first was with Levi and the founders of Operation Smile, and you can watch it in full here. Despite all the other awesome, nerdy, amazing Conversations that were offered, I found this one to be the most valuable I’ve attended, because it focused on the whole reason why Zac Levi started building Nerd HQ – to help Operation Smile; and on the great work that is done by founders Bill and Kathy MaGee, and the enormous need for such work. The entire Conversation is filled with stories of their experiences that will move you, possibly to tears (and moved Zac, as he talked about his experience with Operation Smile). But I especially appreciated this story from Bill MaGee:
“In the very first trip, there was a thirty-five-year-old man who came in to see us. Now you don’t see a thirty-five-year-old person in the United States with a big hole in his lip. You just don’t see it. And his mom brought him in; he had never been to school, he couldn’t read, couldn’t write. And I took care of him literally in the light of day, on a stretcher in a hall with some Novacaine, like you would in a dental office. And forty-five minutes later I brought him back to his mom and she said, ‘That’s not my son.’ And I said, ‘Of course it’s your son.’ And she said, ‘No it’s not.’ And I had a mirror in my pocket, and I gave it to him, and as he looked in it, he began to cry; and I’ve often thought, ‘What would it be like to go through thirty-five years of your life, and never whistle; and never feel the gentleness of a kiss, because somebody didn’t have forty-five minutes for you. There’s absolutely no justice in that.’ And I think it’s that simplicity of the fact that you can go, ‘before’ and ‘after.’ And before and after is a metaphor that says, involvement can create change. And no matter what it is that you’re involved with, whether it’s like Zac, who’s been such an incredible help, or whoever; just think of something that you can see with your skill sets and your talents, where you can make a significant difference. And I can tell you, it will transform the way you think, the way your family thinks, and what you do in your life.”
What a great inspiration. Another great part of the Conversations is of course that the audience gets to ask questions, and at this panel, I got to ask a question, which is always cool! (And regarding Zac’s answer to the question of whether they might be able to figure out how to have more Nerd “outposts” at different cons, a) I hope they do! and b) Oh, I have ideas.)
The panel wrapped with a great summation from Levi that really showed the passion he has for what he does. He first reminded people that they can look into different ways to contribute to Operation Smile. He then said, “even if Operation Smile is not what you feel like God or the universe or your soul or whatever is telling you: ‘That’s my thing,’ that’s okay. But find something that’s going to change the world. Find something that’s going to help people in a bigger and more amazing way; that is transcendent of you. Because we could be dead tomorrow. You have no idea how much time you have left. But there are so many people that are hurting in the world. There are so many people who have the gift of a palate that need to be told, you have this thing, and their spirits are broken; and we need to be there to love on them, and to help them to mend that. And so I don’t know what that is for you, but find it with everything you have. Go find that. Go do that. I guarantee you it makes your life, here, in this existence, in whatever time we have left, far more, not just powerful, but worth it. Because ultimately, that’s the value that we find in our lives.” Dude. Preach it!
The next Conversation I got to attend was with Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, and many of the cast members of Con Man, the trailer for which is amazing. Seriously, you guys – I am so excited for this series. If you haven’t heard of it yet, this is the best place to go for an explanation, but in brief, it’s a Tudyk and Fillion project that was funded on IndieGoGo and will be airing on Vimeo; and is a comedic and fictionalized look at some of the experiences Tudyk and Fillion have had as stars of Firefly and regular fan convention guests. In Tudyk’s words: “The series is a light-hearted take on the personalities, luminaries, and characters in the scifi community of which we are privileged to call ourselves members. Con Man is a way to share some of the surreal occurrences we have had, while telling the story of a guy learning to love and embrace his fans.” It also features a ton of celebrities you’d recognize from big-time genre fiction shows (like Tricia Helfer and Michael Trucco from Battlestar Galactica), and at least one awesome voice actor (holla, Nolan North, voice of Deadpool!).
The Conversation, which you can watch here, featured eight of the cast members, and was super fun. They talked some about the process of making the series, including crowdfunding it, and the reactions from Hollywood when they pitched the project there. I found Tudyk’s discussion of Hollywood’s reaction particularly interesting. “Hollywood didn’t understand this at all. We would talk to studios and they were terrible with it. They’d be like, ‘Ah-ha, I went to Comic-Con once: craaazy! Whoo! All the costumes.’ Like, ‘You sure, or did you just turn on the nightly news and watch the guy outside going, ‘Look at this person!'” He also said that they passed on some potential studio deals, “because they would start out by going, ‘Let’s brainstorm on a couple of ideas. Like, there’s this goofy person, ’cause they’re a total nerd fan…’ And that was their understanding of this world. They would come at it from that direction. They could only see it from that perspective, because they haven’t been to a bunch of cons; they don’t get it.”
Speaking as a full-time practicing attorney, a weekly genre entertainment columnist, a webcomics writer, a convention co-founder and organizer, and a huge geek and regular con-goer, I appreciate Tudyk’s perspective that fans and con-goers are more complex than just being “this goofy person,” and am looking forward to seeing how Con Man addresses the dimensionality and diversity of geekdom.
This particular Conversation was also cool because it ended with everyone at the panel having the opportunity to donate to Operation Smile for a picture with all the cast members present, which, let’s face it, would be really hard to make happen almost anywhere else. Chalk up another cool point for Nerd HQ! (Also, during the photo Alison Haislip told me she liked my Portal Aperture Science shirt. Thanks, Alison!)
The Con Man Conversation was back-to-back with a Conversation with Elijah Wood (which you can watchhere, and which was also really fun, and moderated in turn by Levi and Tudyk). Wood seems like a totally laid back, down-to-earth guy, who called Nerd HQ “a breath of fresh air” in the midst of the craziness of Comic-Con; although later he also said, “I love Comic-Con so much. I really do. It’s the best. I went and had brunch earlier, at Cafe 21, and you’re sitting down and there’s characters from Game of Thrones having brunch, in front of you, and then there’s someone else in a hood and a mask, and they’re having a Bloody Mary. It’s wonderful. It’s just so wonderful. And no one bats an eye. It’s this time in which everyone gets to express themselves, and express the thing that they love, and they’re as normal as can be. It’s fucking awesome.”
I enjoyed it when Wood talked about dealing with the hugeness of being a star in The Lord of the Rings. He said he really had to compartmentalize; to which Tudyk replied that it must have been “a big compartment, a huge compartment;” and Wood quipped back that “it was a walk-in closet.” It was also neat to hear about his somewhat surreal experience being on the set of The Hobbit years after starring in The Lord of the Rings. Altogether it was a really fun, mellow panel; and also ended with the opportunity to get a photo with Wood; so of course I did.
The last Conversation I got to was billed as Nathan Fillion, but actually (shockingly!) Alan Tudyk was the moderator, and so it immediately turned into The Nathan and Alan Show. These guys are an absolute riot together, as you can see in the video, and spent the entire time riffing off of each other and interspersing answers to fan questions with auctions of items they’d brought with them to benefit Operation Smile. My favorite bit was Fillion wearing this Captain America sweatshirt, although the whole thing was epic.
Aaaand…whew! I think that sums up all the awesomeness I was able to cram in during my time at the spectacular Nerd HQ, although there was plenty more I didn’t see (and speaking of that, I understand the Marvel: Partners in Prime Time Conversation was a contributing factor to another of my favorite things to come out of San Diego this year, The Great Dubsmash War, so thanks for that, Nerd HQ)! But for all the stuff I (literally) saw, check out my whole Nerd HQ photo album here or my whole SDCC collection of photos here.