Actor, author, parent, technology enthusiast, social advocate… self-professed geek. Wil Wheaton embodies the qualities of what we here at Geeks of Doom consider to be the paragon of Geekdom. Most widely known for his iconic roles in Stand By Me and Star Trek: The Next Generation, Wheaton has matured from child star into a passionate and creative force on many fronts. From being a key technological evangelist in the advent of Personal Video Production, to authoring one of the most honest and endearing public blogs on the internet, Wheaton has shown that it’s possible to successfully escape the stigma associated with childhood stardom.
His upcoming book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives, published through his Monolith Press imprint, recounts his stories of growing up as a geek and how it relates to his views of the world today, and acts as a companion piece to his first book of memoirs, Dancing Barefoot.
Wil can be seen this Friday, May 30, 2008, guest starring on Sony’s C-Spot comedy web-series Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show.
I’ve been a huge fan of Wil’s work for many, many years (we’re about the same age) and had the pleasure of speaking with him at length. Wheaton opened up about a great number of geeky topics, like video games, this summer’s superhero movies, and J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Trek XI, as well as about some of his guilty pleasures.
Geeks of Doom: You’ve done a lot of voiceover work for video games. Can you tell me what it’s like to work on a high-profile series like Grand Theft Auto?
Wil Wheaton: Whenever I’m in the booth I try to approach things as professionally as possible. I get the material in advance. I familiarize myself with the game that I’m playing so I know what players will expect. Every game has its own very unique kind of meter that fans come to expect. With something like the Grand Theft Auto series I was a player of that series long before I was involved in San Andreas, so containing my delirious, overwhelming excitement at the entire thing and doing the entire thing with a straight face was so hard that after just a couple of takes I just gave up and I outed myself and that kind of like relaxed me and let me have a whole lot of fun with it. I feel a great sense of responsibility when I work on a series like Grand Theft Auto or any of the Ghost Recon games, because I know that people love these games because, well, ’cause I love these games and I know that there’s just a lot at stake and it’s real important to me not to let anyone down. So I take them really, really seriously, which is not to say that I don’t have fun with them. Kind of the best job in the world.
GoD: So as both a gamer and as a parent, what are your views regarding video game violence and whatnot?
WW: It’s exactly the same thing I feel about violent movies, or very very scary movies. Parents know what their children are emotionally prepared for and… at least good parents do. Parents who are involved in the development of their children know what is appropriate for their children and what is NOT appropriate for their children. The Grand Theft Auto series is clearly not intended for children. My children were not allowed to play it. My older son was not allowed to play it until he was almost 18. My younger son is 16 and I still won’t let him play it and when he gets a little older and is a little bit more mature than I think it will be more appropriate to allow him to do that. I bristle at the notion of video games and comic books and movies, things like somehow having to be as an artform all dumbed down or whitewashed, or cleaned up so that we have to protect the children, and as I wrote in by blog recently a lot of these people who are so concerned about protecting the children… well, I wish that they would spend as much time working for and advocating for things like quality health care and quality education that they spend screaming about how the content of these things need to be censored.
GoD: Very good point. Speaking of the children, you also do a lot of voiceovers for cartoons. I’ve read that you have a series coming up on Nickelodeon called, is it, Kyle Plus Rosemary or Kyle and Rosemary?
WW: It’s pronounced Kyle and Rosemary. And I don’t think that that’s ever actually going to see the light of day, which is really tragic. It’s a wonderful little series about a little geek boy and a little goth girl that meet up in a massively multiplayer game that is just similar enough to World of Warcraft to let people know what it is without being sued by Blizzard. And they meet in this fantasy world but in the real world they’re kind of like star-crossed lovers because they come from different cliques in their middle school. And it was produced by Nickelodeon as part of a series of short films where they auditioned, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen or so cartoons with the intention of eventually choosing one to be produced into a full-length series, and I believe that this is how Nickelodeon found and began producing the series Fairly Odd Parents. So, yeah, this show, Kyle and Rosemary was part of that program from a little over a year ago, maybe closer to two now and for one reason or another Nickelodeon decided not to air them and my understanding is that they have not been willing to grant the creators permission to air them, y’know, not-for-profit, just to put them on their website, which is really, really a shame because it’s really funny and it’s really charming and it’s really just, it’s a wonderful little bit of animation that I think would be a SMASH hit online.
GoD: This week, actually, on Friday you’ve got an appearance coming up on Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
WW: Gorgeous Tiny is created by my friends Greg Benson and Kim Evey. We were all writers and performers together at the Acme Comedy Theater many years ago here in Hollywood. And they had a little company that they called Mediocre Films where they made comedy shorts and with the advent of YouTube and online streaming, easily syndicated video, were finally able to take their work, which I thought was absolutely hilarious and wonderful, and easily share it with a large audience. I guess Sony was probably the first organization to sort of clue in and realize how terrific they were and picked them up to put them on as part of the C-spot.
GoD: Speaking of new technology, you were as a computer programmer for many years. Can you tell me what first got you interested in computer programming?
WW: When I was a kid we had home console systems like the Atari 2600 and the Oddessey. We never had an Intellivision, but we had eventually worked our way up through all of the Nintendo systems and y’know I have an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii today. But we had home computers when I was at a very appropriate and impressionable age.
GoD: For me it was the Vic-20, that’s where I started.
WW: Yeah, we never had a Commodore machine, which was a drag. A lot of my friends had Commodores and some of the rich kids that lived up on the hill had Apple IIe’s and IIc’s and stuff, but I had an Atari 400. And when you turned it on all you got was a little command line prompt that just said
READY:, and to turn that into something cool I had to learn how to program in BASIC. So I am of that generation that went to the bookstore and bought Compute magazine and then transcribed line-by-line, y’know, 350 lines of BASIC code that would let you… if it worked correctly.. would let you maybe move a box around the screen or something like that. But more often than not it just resulted in something like a
SYNTAX ERROR [laughter]. And the debugger in those machines was really lame it didn’t even tell you where, it would just say “syntax error” and you would have to go through and find out where you had, y’know, put in a period instead of a comma or something. At that point I was sort of like typing with one finger. [laughter]
GoD: I’ve been there.
WW: That led to my love of computers, my love of technology, and my love of programming. I should make it really clear that I can’t program in any higher languages. I can’t even program in C. When I worked for NewTek and worked on the Video Toaster 4000, I didn’t do any of the actual programing. I did a ton of product testing and quality control, and worked in the marketing department and then I was sort of one of their technology evangelists.
GoD: Regarding your work with NewTek, do you still have any interest in video editing? And what are your thoughts on how the Toaster kind of revolutionized everything and how we’ve progressed now towards where we have Final Cut and video editing available for basically every desktop computer in the world?
WW: I’m really proud to have been part of the very beginning. We were the tip of the spear in Personal Video Production — which is what we called it back in ’94. I think it was ’94 when were were doing that. Y’know, I think you can draw almost a straight line between iMovie and Final Cut to the Toaster. And one of the things that I was really excited about with Greg and Kim asked me to do Gorgeous Tiny is technology has gotten so advanced and so inexpensive that the creative barriers, or rather, commercial barriers for creative people have dropped really really low. You don’t even have to jump over them any more, you could step over them.
When we were doing sketch comedy together at Acme I was telling everybody else in the company [that] we should be making these sketches, we should be filming them and putting them online. It’s hard to get development to come and see us here and it’s hard to get casting people to come and see us here, but if we put it online, all we have to do is print up flyers or something and give them out and people will come and see them. Greg and Kim were some of the people that did more than just sort of pat me on the head and tell me ‘Ok, that’s great. Now go get on stage.’ I’m so excited that my $2,000 iMac ships with editing software that is equivalent to something that would have cost $50 or $60,000 just ten years ago. And it’s so exciting that now creative people don’t have to waste their time learning how to master the technology. They can just take their ideas, make them real, and then with the last mile of distribution that eluded us when we were working on the Video Toaster… they can now take their work and put it straight to the audience of YouTube or C-Spot, or Google Video, whatever.
GoD: Yeah, they can go viral and get 6 million hits in a month. So with the advent of YouTube and all of the new services like Qik, what’s one the new pieces of technology out now that you are really kind of excited about?
WW: My answer to this question is really not that sexy. The ever-shrinking size of microprocessors is terrifically exciting to me. And the incredible explosion of solid stand media allowing us to put more and more and more data into a smaller and smaller and smaller space. I have a terabyte of wireless data storage in my home that can be reconfigured to be a raid array if I want. I cannot believe it… could not have dreamed of that, and it cost me like $450. I could not have dreamed of that for even $100,000 when I was getting out of high school.
GoD: Nah, we had 4 megabyte hard drives in our first personal computer.
WW: I remember spending like $4,000 to get like a 10 megabyte hard drive for my Mac II that had 256 colors, and I was just beside myself. I thought there is no way in the world that I’m ever gonna be able to fill this up. It’ll last FOREVER!
GoD: Heh, you could fill that up 10,000 times over within a minute these days just downloading a PDF file. Speaking of when you were younger, tell me a little bit about your upcoming book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives, where you go on about your geeky days of youth.
WW: Happiest Days is a companion piece to my first book, Dancing Barefoot, and they are short collections of narrative non-fiction that recount my stories of growing up as a geek, being a part of the geek sub-culture of Generation X that was heavily influenced by D&D and Bulletin Board Systems and home console games, and then I used those memories as a backdrop and as a little bit of a lens to examine my relationships with my own children today and the world around me.
GoD: I read both Dancing Barefoot and Just a Geek and I really appreciate you sharing all of these small moments in your life with us, and like you said, how you grew up in and around these geek cultural icons. What does being a geek mean to you?
WW: I don’t know. Y’know the definition of that has really changed over the years. We used to be looked at as these totally … like we were socially retarded. We just weren’t able to fit in anywhere and we were scared of girls and there was something weird about us. And I think that definition has change dramatically. I don’t think that’s even relevant anymore. When I think of people that are geeks, and the people who I like that are geeks, I think of people who are really intelligent and are really passionate and really interested in things that are sort of outside of the mainstream culture. And it’s a little weird, y’know… about two years ago I wrote an article for Suicide Girls as part of my Geek in Review column where I said the geeks have inherited the earth. I talked about how science fiction movies and comic book movies and great science fiction television shows were all kind of being made because the geeks that all of the cool kids had to rely upon to understand technology and understand computers and understand the world that we all take for granted today had finally become this viable demographic. We were all really successful and we were doing great things with our lives, and I just saw this columnist for the New York Times wrote a virtually identical column but he was like two and a half years behind me writing that. When I read that I thought ‘Wow’ we’ve really … mainstream is kind of crossing over and co-opting us. I hope we do not see the Hot Topic-ization of geek culture the way we have seen it with Goth culture and Anime culture and some of those other subcultures that have also been historically the refuge of people who really would just rather exist outside of mainstream pop culture.
GoD: That’s always the danger. There’s always the chance that they hit the tipping point and everybody becomes aware of it. You mentioned comic book movies and all of the geek-geared movies that have been coming out the past few years. Have you gotten to see Iron Man, and are you excited to see the upcoming Dark Knight and Hulk movies?
WW: I saw an advanced screening of Iron Man and I loved it. There’s a few nit-picky things that I didn’t like, but overall I thought it was a tremendously entertaining movie, and after movies that were geek disasters like the Fantastic Four movies and the last X-Men movie I was really, really thrilled to see something that I thought was not only a really entertaining movie, but was also really an entertaining superhero movie and sometimes those are two different things. I thought Batman Begins was another example of a really entertaining movie that was also a really entertaining superhero movie. I am so excited for The Dark Knight. Batman is my all-time life-long favorite comic book character ever and I was so disappointed with the other Batman movies. In fact, as far as I’m concerned right after Alfred brings Vicki Vale into the Batcave in the very first Tim Burton Batman movie… like, everything from then until Batman Begins I’ve just Retcon’d it out of my mind entirely. Like it doesn’t exist, it was a mind experiment or something that we’ll kind of work out in Final Crisis.
GoD: I agree with you wholeheartedly on that one. Speaking of Retcon, JJ Abrams is bringing the Star Trek series to life again starting with the soon to be released prequel/reboot. If you were asked, would you take a role in one of these films?
WW: Yeah, it would really depend on the role. I’m a huge science fiction fan and I am enormous Star Trek fan as well. LeVar Burton and I were the two cast members on Next Generation who were kind of proud of our love of the original Star Trek and we kind of talked about it, y’know, in a lot in interviews. There was a time when I was a teenager where I kind of pretended that I didn’t like it because we had sibling rivalry with the original series, but the truth is my entire life I’ve been all about Star Trek. So, the opportunity to be in Star Trek like the new one is absolutely tantalizing, but I honestly wouldn’t be interested in going back and playing the same character. I kind of feel like I’ve done everything that I can do with him. If I get a chance to go back and do something different, I think it would be really cool and really fun.
GoD: Couple of quick questions just to close. Can you give me an example of a couple of guilty pleasures that you secretly enjoy?
WW: Ahhh, guilty pleasures. Well, since these are by definition embarrassing things… uhh, yeah.. umm, I really like ABBA.
GoD: Okay, I’m down with that.
WW: I know it’s absolutely horrible, uhh, but ABBA comes on the radio I don’t turn it off. [laughter]
GoD: I’m with you man.
WW: I know, I know. It’s, its’… I’m embarrassed about it and.. I’m… but I’m not going to apologize about it.
GoD: So are you excited about the Mamma Mia movie coming out this summer?
WW: No, I just like the music. I’m not interested in the other stuff. And I saw the trailer for that movie and I actually felt like I lost IQ points just watching it. And then I’m also an enormous, enormous, enormous, looney weirdo fan for ’80s Cop Shows. I just love ’em.
GoD: Like T.J. Hooker?
WW: No… like Hardcastle and McCormick, and The A-Team. And, y’know, any stuff like that that’s just so ridiculous that like now you watch it and it’s kind of like you’re watching parody or satire. I absolutely love stuff like that.
And my son and I watch American Gladiators together. But the only reason we watch American Gladiators together is because we have a game where every time Hulk Hogan says “Brother” to someone, there’s a bell that we put on the coffee table between us, and every time Hulk Hogan says “Brother” we get to race to see who can ring the bell first.
GoD: Ha, that’s great! Let me ask you, do you have any secret talents that nobody knows about that you’d like to share with us?
WW: Yeah, my superhero ability. Everybody has a superhero power, and you just gotta figure out what it is. For example, my wife’s superhero power is that she can identify any song, pretty much ever recorded, usually within the first three notes. It’s weird. It’s a great power. My super power is that I never get lost. Once I know where I am, if I were a role-playing character I would have absolute direction.
GoD: That’s a good power to have.
WW: Yeah, it comes in very, very handy. And those few times where I actually do end up sort of disoriented, like if I’m a foreign city and I come up out of the underground, and I thought I was facing one direction and I’m facing another one, I almost get vertigo because I get so sort of spun around. I’ve come to sort of really rely on the GPS system in my head.
GoD: Regarding Revision3. You worked with them on InDigital for a while. Do you have any plans of working with them again in the future?
WW: I was so proud of the work we did on InDigital and I was so disappointed with the way the network treated Hahn Choi when the show was winding down. I was really disappointed that they gave Hahn such a disrespectful ultimatum to either move to San Francisco or just stop doing the show. Y’know, we were part of the reason that network was able to grow and become successful and our work kind of enabled that network to buy and build a studio in San Francisco, and to treat us the way that they did was really disappointing to me.
I don’t have any real hard feelings toward David Prager who was the producer that brought me and I certainly don’t wish Patrick and Jessica any ill will at all, but it really felt to me like there was a bit of a regime change and they were taking the network in a direction that was really away from all of the things that really excited me about working with Revision3 in the first place. I thought it was really cool that we were online, and because we were online we could interact with our audience in ways that were not possible in traditional, kind of old media. And we could make different shows because of that and it feels like they kind of ran away from that, and it just became TV that just happens to be online. And that was disappointing to me.
GoD: Regarding interacting online, besides your blog, which is amazing and fun to read, you’re active on Twitter and on sites like Digg.com. What are your thoughts on the new ways of bringing people together via these social media platforms?
WW: Well, I’m really excited about the communication potential of the Internet — communication and open society, and the lack of secrecy and a lack of control over information. I think really a lack of centralized control over information. Ahh, I feel like that really, that leads to strong, secure, innovative, vibrant functioning societies. And the Internet I see has this terrific potential with all of these social media networks, social media tools to really democratize how we share entertainment and how we get our news, and how our news is reported. It’s harder and harder for big companies and powerful people to hide things that they’ve, y’know, kind of always been able to hide and just deny for generations.
I am a scout for Propeller.com and I absolutely love being part of the social media revolution, because we are sort of turning to a web of trust via our, y’know, short friends lists to look at our news and look at our information and judge our entertainment and rather than having to have direct physical contact with a circle of ten or fifteen friends who we know we can rely on to have good judgement on things, we might be able to build that out a little bit more with social networks and maybe expand that to thirty or forty or a hundred people. And that’s really exciting to me, the ability to communicate with people, I already see it having profound changes in the world.
GoD: Absolutely, I’m seeing a really profound change in the way I interact with people now that I use services like Twitter and Propeller and all these sites to connect with others and get instant feedback. Even when I was preparing to do this interview with you, I was able to put out the word and ask people what they wanted to know from Wil Wheaton. I received a great amount of responses really quickly.
WW: Ahh, that’s super cool!
GoD: Yeah, it’s great! So with that, we’re geeksofdoom on Twitter and I’ll be twittering at you when our interview is up. But I just say want thank you very much for your time, I really appreciate it. And it was a great honor and a pleasure to talk with you.
WW: Thank you so much.