Sunday, August 16, 2015

An Open Letter to Wil Wheaton

Let me just start by saying that I don’t typically write letters to celebrities.  In fact, I never have before.  But today I guess I just can’t help myself.

My first exposure to Wil Wheaton was, like most of the world, via Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  And, like most of the world, I found him vaguely annoying—Crusher, that is, not Wheaton.  In fact, I was never annoyed at Wheaton; I just didn’t like the character that much.  Of course, some people totally hated the character, and some even blamed Wheaton for it, but I was never that invested.

Partially that may be due to my general feelings about TNG.  Now, I certainly can’t deny being a fan of Star Trek, but I also can’t claim the title of Trekkie.1  I enjoyed the original Star Trek, although I was very young when it first aired.  In fact, like The Wild Wild West,2 I suspect that most of my memories of Star Trek are actually of reruns.  Certainly I wasn’t old enough to be able to judge the show criticially; I just liked it, cheesy science and overly dramatic plots and all.  But TNG just never grabbed me.  I liked certain things about it—Commander Data is cool, Worf is cool, Geordi is very cool, and I always had a bit of a crush on Dr. Crusher—but I was always lukewarm at best on Troi and Riker, and of course my afore-mentioned annoyance with Wesley.  But it was actually Picard I really disliked.  Again, nothing against Patrick Stewart, who I think is an amazing actor.  I just found Picard unlikable, almost by design.  I always suspected that I was supposed to like him despite his gruff exterior, but the problem was that he seemed to have a gruff interior as well.

So TNG may possibly be my least favorite Star Trek: I was deeply into Deep Space Nine for a long while, and I even stuck with Voyager long after it became mediocre at best.3  Of course, there was Enterprise, which I didn’t even last out the first season of, so I suppose TNG is better than that.  But primarily what I mean to say is that I really can’t blame Wheaton for my less-than-warm reception of TNG, or even for my less-than-warm reception of Wesley Crusher.

And I know this for sure because TNG actually wasn’t my first exposure to Wheaton: that would be Stand By Me.4  And I think Stand By Me is a fucking brilliant movie.  Look at the cast: Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland ... all those folks became famous later, and that’s because they’re all extremely talented.5  I’m not sure why I didn’t remember that Wheaton was pretty much the star of Stand By Me at the time I first saw him in TNG—I didn’t make that connection until years later, when I rewatched the movie—but perhaps it’s because Wheaton just had so much more to work with in Gideon and Evan’s screenplay than in the Star Trek shows.  Either way, that movie is proof positive to me that Wheaton isn’t responsible for however I feel about Crusher.

The next time I can remember being aware of Wheaton as a person was during my career at online retailer ThinkGeek.  Back in those days (which weren’t the early days of the company, but certainly before it reached the height of its popularity), Wheaton was a regular customer.  I never corresponded with him personally, but I read a lot of his emails.  We used to pass them around, in fact, whenever anyone got one.  Because Wil Wheaton is, apparently, in person, a really cool guy.  Who knew, right?  Well, that was my thought at first.  But my co-workers assured me that Wheaton was, in our world, far more famous than just that kid actor from that show once.  He was a regular Internet celebrity.  A blogger from before blogging was cool, a user of Linux from when using Linux required a fair amount of effort, a gamer from the early days of gaming culture, an actor who ran his own website instead of having other people do it for him.  So I checked out his website, and I was impressed.  You can still go there and read his blog and whatnot, although the thing that impressed me the most, his original FAQ, isn’t linked from his homepage any longer.  Perhaps he’s trying to disown it, or maybe he just doesn’t want to have to keep it current.  He hasn’t taken it down entirely, so that’s something.  But it was this FAQ that made me think, wow, this is a very cool guy.  A geeky, nerdy sort of guy, but a very down-to-earth, straight-up, plain-spoken, cool guy nonetheless.  Being a bit of a nerdy geek myself, perhaps I just have different standards of coolness.  But go read that FAQ for yourself and see if you don’t agree with me (outdated or not).  In all my travels across the web I have only come across one other actor’s website that was remotely in the same ballpark of cool as Wil Wheaton’s.6

So now I had another, completely different view on who this Wheaton character was.  And that was good enough for many years: he was mainly a fellow technogeek—one with a bigger soapbox than I had, true, but a fellow geek nonetheless—who still showed up on my TV screen every now and again, like when I spotted him in a guest role on an episode of Criminal Minds, or in his very cool recurring role in Eureka.7  And then my perspective on Wheaton was blown away yet again.

I’ll fully admit to watching @midnight solely because it happened to be coming on after Stephen Colbert, and maybe also because I’d seen a couple of episodes of Talking Dead and thought Chris Hardwick was pretty funny.  But after a while I got sort of hooked on it, and now I watch it regularly.  Last year, I sat down to a show which featured Matt Mira, Jonah Ray ... and Wil Wheaton.  Now, perhaps you don’t know those other two fellows, but let me tell you: they’re both professional comedians.  Not super-famous, perhaps, but they do this for a living.  And I’m thinking, Wheaton’s a cool guy and all, but he doesn’t have a chance in this crowd.  They’re gonna destroy him.  He’ll be the first one out.

But he wasn’t.

He didn’t win of course ... not that first time.  But he dominated in terms of points, and came in second to Mira ... on that episode in March.  Then second again to Aisha Tyler in July (no shame in getting beaten by that comedy great), and in December he actually won, defeating Kevin Pereira and Brooke Van Poppelin.  Because, you know what?  Wil Wheaton is fucking hilarious.  I was blown away ... admittedly, I’m not saying he’s a comedy genius or anything—Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy need not be looking over their shoulders—but perhaps it was just that I had such low expectations of him, and he exceeded those expectations by so much.  Of the 5 people he played against,8 he was easily funnier than 4 of them.9  And I knew he could be funny from reading things on his web site, but there’s a huge gulf between being funny when you have days to prepare a post and being funny when you have seconds to come up with a joke.  And yet he could do both.  Wow.

Now fast forward to this year, when I finally got around to queueing up an audiobook recommendation I got from a coworker months and months ago: Redshirts, by John Scalzi.  About this book I have but one thing to say:  Oh.  My.  God.  I mean, it was incredible.  It started out sorta awesome, then it got even more awesome, and it stayed awesome until the end ... and then it got better.  I can’t go into more detail than that; you’re just going to have to go out and get it for yourself.

Now, part of this is undoubtedly the fact that this Scalzi fellow, who I’d never heard of before, is a pretty damn good writer.  The plot is really interesting, especially to a more-than-casual-if-not-up-to-Trekkie-level Star Trek fan.  And, considering it’s essentialy a one-joke premise, it’s amazing that he can hold your interest throughout the whole story.  Probably it has to do with his characters, who feel very real despite the fact that they’re specifically designed to be cardboard stereotypes ... but then that’s part of the fun of this premise, and Scalzi definitely plays with that dichotomy in a smart and funny way.

But a huge part of why I enjoyed this audiobook so much is that it was read by Wil Wheaton.  And here, again, is another skill for which I was unprepared.  Reading aloud is a highly underrated skill, and not all audiobooks are well done.  Sometimes even the author reading his or her own work isn’t that great, because writing and reading aloud are two different things.  Sometimes the reader is an accomplished actor and it still isn’t that great, because acting and reading aloud are two different skills.  Reading aloud is, in fact, not easy, as pretty much any parent can tell you.  Wil Wheaton is, apparently, quite good at it.  Again: who knew?  I’m sure his familiarity with the subject matter (as the title implies, the story owes a lot to early Star Trek episodes) helps.  I bet he could easily put himself in the place of many of the characters just by remembering experiences he’d had on set.  But it’s much more than that.  Wheaton has a finely honed sense of sarcasm that serves him very well for this reading, and his comedy skills are not wasted either.  Though I am known to shout at audiobook characters, telling them how stupid they are (the same way many people like to yell at the screen during a movie), I rarely laugh out loud.  Generally a chuckle is as far as I’ll go.  But Wheaton (and Scalzi, to be fair) made me laugh several times during the nearly 8 hours of this presentation.  I was truly (and once again) blown away by how good Wheaton was, in a whole new context.

So, look: I’m not saying Wil Wheaton is now my all-time favorite famous (or semi-famous) person or anything.  There are plenty of folks out there that I admire and respect even more than him: Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, J.K. Rowling, Larry Wall, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Stewart, Kevin Smith, and Dave Grohl, just to name a few, and not even considering people who are no longer alive.  But today, soon after finishing listening to his voice for the past few weeks, I’m thinking about Wil Wheaton, and how amazing he is.  And, just in case you didn’t know, I wanted to share that with you.  And, on the off chance that he sees this one day, I want him to know that there’s someone out there who appreciates the wide diversity of his talent.  Which I’m sure he knew already, but I say that’s something that you can always hear more of.  I think it’s nice to be appreciated, and I like appreciating others.  Especially when they’re so deserving.

So thank you Wil Wheaton, for all you do.  And I hope I keep seeing you pop up in unlikely places and impressing me with new talents for many more years to come.


1 I understand that such folks actually prefer to be called “Trekkers,” but I wouldn’t know for sure.  As I say, I’m not one.

2 Another show that I have an inordinate and somewhat nostalgic fondness for.

3 Although between Orange Is the New Black and the audiobook version of NOS4A2, I’m rapidly gaining a newfound appreciation for Kate Mulgrew.

4 Actually, IMDB informs me that my real first exposure to Wil Wheaton was The Secret of Nimh.  But I think I can be forgiven for not recognizing him from that.

5 Yes, even Feldman.  He may have had some issues in his personal life, but that doesn’t change his talent.

6 That one being Bruce Campbell’s.  But his site now is all slick and devoid of personality like all other actors’ sites.  Happily, the Internet is forever, so to see what I found attractive back in the day, you can just check out The Wayback Machine’s copy.  In particular, check out a few of the articles in his “Babblings” section to see why I also found him to be down-to-earth, cool guy.  Well, back then anyway.  (He may still be, for all I know.  It’s just impossible to tell from the personality-free monstrosity that’s up there now.  No, I won’t link you to it.  Google it yourself.)

7 Glancing at IMDB today, I see that I probably should have recognized his voice from several animated shows I watched, like Legion of Super Heroes and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  But, honestly, I never noticed that was him.

8 Kevin Pereira shared two of his appearances.

9 As I said, it’s tough to beat Aisha Tyler.

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