PAX III: Brush with Fame

Posted by Arlo on Sep 18, 2007 under Life of Arlo

Jonathan Coulton sings Baby Got Back

While I was still debating about whether or not to go to PAX, Gabe and Tycho began to announce their lineup. Wil Wheaton was giving the keynote, Jonathan Coulton and Freezepop would be playing in the concerts. If Gabe and Tycho weren’t big enough draws, any one of the others might have been enough for me to commit. Put all of them together and you might not have been able to prevent me from flying to Seattle.

Just before leaving Juneau, I discovered that the first round of the Omegathon round was scheduled right up against Wil Wheaton’s keynote address. I couldn’t believe it! When I mentioned it to him, Travis promised me that the round would be over quickly and, at the very least, I could leave at any time to watch the keynote instead. Without a time limit, the last Jenga match dragged on forever. I could have left, but the suspense and anticipation was so high at that point, I didn’t want to miss the moment the last tower fell.

Gabe and Tycho attended most of the Omegathon, but they were always focused on the competition. I couldn’t bring myself to get all fanboy and introduce myself to them.

(Later in the day, I did ask Travis to introduce me to Kara, Gabe’s wife. I’d played a time or two with her in World of Warcraft and wanted to say hello. He introduced me as “Arlo,” and I think she saw me as just another one of the hundreds of black-shirted enforcers. I mumbled something it being nice to meet her after raiding with her a time or two. I will label her smile and reply as “dismissive.”)

I’d missed Wil’s speech, but I was sure the keynote would be all over the internet by the time I got home. It wouldn’t be the same as listening to him from the audience, but it would suffice. Besides, I’d spotted the booth set aside for his autographing session. Perhaps I would be able to spot him there later in the day…

Alas, no. I stopped by many times, but as far as I could tell, Wil never set any time aside for book signings.

Freezepop, who wrote one of my favorite song in Guitar Hero II, played on Friday night. However, my lack of sleep combined with a general lack of interest from the rest of our group of meant that I was easily talked into a casual dinner and early bedtime, instead. 0-for-2.

It was a good thing I was having so much fun hanging out with my new friends, because other than escorting the Neskimos to the stage for their sound check, I didn’t meet a single famous person on Friday.

Saturday and Sunday more than made up for it.

The first thing I did on Saturday morning was stop by the theater again to talk to the stage manager, Brad. We needed to discuss how we were going to play back my videos on the projection screens before the final Omegathon round on Sunday. Of course, like every other time I tried to get Brad’s attention, he was busy with someone else. This time, it was with Jonathan Coulton and his sound check.

Brad asked me if I could wait a few minutes; I told him I had no problems with that. My fellow Omegatechs and I sat down in the second row of a completely empty theater and listened to JC play through the entirety of The Future Soon. The others had never heard of him and, before the song, wondered why I had a smile on my face a mile wide. After the sound check, they we asking questions like, “Who is this guy again?” and “Where can I download his songs?”

Jonathan Coulton steps back to rock harder

When JC finished, he hopped down off the stage. His guitar case was in the front row, right before us, and as he was putting his guitar away, I introduced myself. I told him that I was a fan, and then asked if he remembered a music video about a hedgehog that utilized one of his songs.

“Did you do that?” he asked. “That was a really touching video!”

We did the small talk thing, thanking each other for collaborating-without-meeting and all that. Before he could go, I asked him, in all seriousness, what it would take to get him to come up to Southeast Alaska. He gave me the low down. If there’s enough demand for him in Juneau (and if I can figure out how to tabulate that demand), I’ll give his booking agent a call. If all goes well, maybe he could be here next spring!

My whole conversation with JC took only about 10 minutes, but it was more than long enough for me to forget all my disappointment from the day before.

As if that wasn’t enough, a half hour later, Mike and Amelia gave me a call to let me know that Wil Wheaton was signing at his table. I left the exhibition hall early and stood with them at the end of a short line. I was so proud of myself for having the foresight to grab one of his books before leaving the hotel that morning.

Meeting Wil right after meeting Jonathan Coulton was a bit of a letdown, unfortunately. Wil was accommodating enough – he let me take a picture of him and Amelia, signed our books, and answered all my questions – but he came off pretty somber. He writes with his inner voice, one that projects a goofy sense of geekish charm, and behind the table he was surprisingly quiet. I don’t fault him for it. He was probably looking ahead to a long day spent faking smiles and signing autographs with a cramped hand. Also, JC and I had at least a shared connection with the music video, so in comparison, Wil’s-give-and-my-take relationship didn’t establish much of a connection.

Amelia looks a little surprised to be with Wil Wheaton

Still, I met Wil Wheaton! I didn’t think that the rest of my day would get any better.

But it did.

Once again, Travis and I stopped by to talk to Brad and, once again, he was busy. While I waited around to see if he would have a spare moment, Travis wandered off. He returned, pulled me aside, and introduced me to Jerry Holkins, aka Tycho.

He shook my hand and opened with, “I’ve seen what you’re doing for the Omegathon, and it’s great, I love it, you’re awesome.” Jerry is an animated guy; he’s never still.

“Wow, thank you.” Lots of things were going through my head. I wanted to tell him that his writing was what originally attracted me to Penny Arcade, but I was barely able to get a word in edgewise.

“You’ll have to tell me how you did it sometime. I want to learn how, what tools you used.”

“Okay, but you’ll have to tell me how you learned to write so well, because I love that.” It was the closest I could come to expressing everything I wanted to say.

“Great, great. Yeah, we’ll sit down and we’ll talk. We’ll have a rapport.

“But right now, I hope you can help us out. Travis tells me you’re taking pictures of the Omegathon, right?” He didn’t pause as this punctuation might indicate. “Can you make us a slideshow? With animals?”

I’d heard about the slideshow project, of course, but I was still under the assumption that someone else would be creating it; I’d just supply some of my better photos to them. I was happy to work on it myself, though, but… “Animals?”

“Yeah, you know crocodiles and lemurs. It’ll be hilarious!”

I paused for a second, which felt like a long time in this rapid-fire conversation. “Okay. Animals, got it. But look, tell me exactly what you want. Crocodiles and lemurs, check. What else? Tell me your vision, I’ll make it happen!”

“No, you know, whatever. Random animals. I trust your judgment, you’ll do great, you do great work. I’ve got to go, you’ll do great, can’t wait to see it!”

And that was it. That was my conversation with Tycho. It was a whirlwind conversation and it didn’t dawn on me until much later that most of what he said connoted praise and trust.

There would be a lot of work ahead and not much time to enjoy the last day of PAX, but I was psyched to work on the slideshow. That would have to wait until the following morning, however; we still had a lot of set up for the Rock Band competition.

Because of my status as official Omegathon photographer, I was situated with the Omeganauts in the front corner of the stage. The whole area was VIP reserved, and I had the perfect spot. Nothing but smoke machine haze obstructed my view of the Penny Arcade crew playing Wanted: Dead or Alive and the Photoshop Heroes and Dangling Participles playing Creep. Even better, the concerts were slated to begin right after the Omegathon round, and I would be able to stay in place for Jonathan Coulton’s performance.

Jonathan Coulton in the big bright light

When JC took the stage, I realized that my spot wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped. While I was still within arm’s reach of him and his microphone, he was actually positioned on the piece of stage that jutted out into the audience (MC Frontalot called that the “solo thrust.”) I didn’t often get to see his face, but the pictures I took captured something different: The view a rock star sees from his stage.

Jonathan Coulton asks the camera, You know I love you, right?

JC’s concert was great, with a far longer set than I was expecting. Some of my favorite songs don’t seem to be that popular, so hearing I Crush Everything that night was a special treat. I Feel Fantastic, The Future Soon, and Baby Got Back were obvious crowd pleasers, and of course he predictibly wrapped up the show with Re: Your Brains. Once again, I could hear the conversations around me. “Who is this guy again? He’s awesome!”

Jonathan Coulton at a jaunty angle

After his set, MC Frontalot took the stage. I wasn’t yet a fan of his music – I thought I’d only stay for a couple songs – but he was so energetic on stage that I got sucked in for a few more. On the way out, I discovered that JC had set up shop again at his table. The line was short and his merchandise was running out. I decided to pick up a CD, one of only about seven left, just so I could get it signed. We chatted for another moment or two, and I was on my way back to our hotel room.

Jonathan Coulton and a mic

The following day, our group of Omegatechs ran across Gabe and his family. “Can you believe that show last night?” He asked. “How awesome was Jonathan Coulton! We’re definitely bringing him back next year!”

Sunday morning, I finally (finally!) found time to work with Brad. And the Minibosses. And the Halo 3 emissaries from Bungee. The theater was in a complete lockdown while we rehearsed the Omegathon Finale and even enforcers that enjoyed back stage passes were unceremoniously booted from the hall. The level of secrecy in that convention of 40,000, even with a volunteer workforce numbering in the hundreds, was impressive. This was a big deal.

Gabe and his wife, Kara, were on hand to see the rehearsal. It took us awhile to finally nail it, but as the visuals and stage direction finally clicked with the band, it was truly a sight to behold. When Brad finally started to see it pay off, he summoned me back to the rear stage for a semi-ironic man-hug. Kara, who had been so indifferent before, said, “Every time I see it, I get chills! I want a hug, too!”

Gabe was in and out of the theater all day and at one point I finally found a moment to pull him aside.

“Mike, you got a second?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“I just wanted to take a minute to thank you for all you did with Warcraft. The Dark Iron server, the Penny Arcade Alliance….”

“Oh, you play on Dark Iron?” he asked.

“Yeah, actually you invited me into the Fancy Lads guild. I play as Yozhik.”

“Oh, Yozhik! Yeah! I remember you!” At first, I thought maybe he was just being polite, but now, after replaying the conversation in my mind, I think he was being sincere.

“Really? Cool. Well, anyway, I just wanted to say thank you. It was because I ran some battlegrounds with you that I met Travis here,” Travis was standing next to us. “And he’s turned out to be a pretty good friend.”

“That’s me, man.” He laced his fingers together. “Bringing people together.”

We laughed, he excused himself, and I kicked myself for not being able to work my admiration for his artwork – specifically the self-directed progress he’s made over the years – into the conversation.

I had one final, brief chat with both Gabe and Tycho after the Omegathon finale. Like anyone else, my preference would have been to sit down and shoot the shit with either of them, without all the divided-by-fame class differences we inherited at PAX, but that was an unrealistic expectation. Instead, I received both their praise and their gratitude, and now that I think about it, that’s pretty damn cool.