Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Wonderful World of 'Weird Al' Yankovic" at Comic-Con 2014

Saturdays at Comic-Con are often the busiest days of the entire event.  It has a feeling of "let's squeeze in as much as we can before it's all over".  Sunday, in contrast, is pretty mellow and relaxed.
I was nervous about this particular Saturday weeks in advance, though, because it was announced that "Weird Al" Yankovic was going to make a rare Comic-Con appearance in the form of a panel at the Horton Grand Theater.

The Horton was a new offsite location for Comic-Con in 2014, and it took some obvious cues from Nerd HQ and its intimate celebrity panels.  Nerd HQ does everyone a favor and distributes tickets to its panels before the events, so there's very little time spent waiting in line, a staple of Comic-Con-run panels.  As the Horton Theater seats only a few hundred people, I had nightmares of waiting in line overnight just to get the chance to take in this panel, which was at the top of my list for the entire show.

Comic-Con, though, chose to hold a random drawing for tickets on Saturday morning, much in the same way it gives out tickets to autograph signings and certain (LEGO) exclusive offerings.  I had never waited in line for a random drawing, and I found the entire concept a bit suspect to begin with, so there was a lot of trepidation over whether it would even be worth it or not to try and get tickets for this event.

I'm glad I gave it a chance, because it obviously worked out, and it was much more painless than I imagined.  Of course, I say this as someone who was able to get one of the few tickets available, but overall I think that Comic-Con has a good system in place when it comes to events like these.

I got in line about an hour before the doors officially opened for Saturday, and by this time the line was already stretched out of the convention center, down the stairs, across the street and onto the sidewalk near the water.  Some people thought better of it and left when we didn't seem to be moving by 9:15, but soon after we were steadily on our way to the entrance.

Once inside the autograph pavilion, the lines split up further depending on what event you wanted to go and see.  There were quite a few people who wanted to try for the Weird Al tickets, but still, I would say that before 10:00, it was my turn to grab a ticket.

The system is so low-tech to the point of being ridiculous.  Comic-Con volunteers hold a cloth bag with generic "keep this ticket" tickets inside.  You pick one, and if there's a stamp on the back (for me it was an image of a frog), you win.  Luckily, if you get a ticket with no stamp, you can get in line once again, which by this time only takes five or so minutes to get back to the front.  Even luckier, my wife pulled a winning ticket.  Luckier still, each winning ticket gets you two event tickets, so we were all set, and not much worse for the wear.

At this point, I decided to press my luck, and I got back in line for the Weird Al autograph session, which required a different ticket.  My wife took off for the George R.R. Martin line, and - wouldn't you know it - we both got tickets to those.  I'll talk more about the autograph session in a bit.

The tickets to the event came in an envelope and looked like the picture above.  For me, it was pretty cool to get a specially printed ticket with the Comic-Con logo on it, and I was even happier that we were able to keep our tickets after we entered the theater - they were checked, but not collected and not even torn.  So I got a nice keepsake from the event that I was somehow able to keep in good shape all the way back home.

The Horton Grand Theater was a few blocks from the convention center, and it's obviously designed for small performances, either theatrical or musical.  It sat probably 300 people.  There was a lot of nervous energy in line as we waited to enter the building.  Once inside, there was a poster with the Mandatory Fun branding on it, as seen above.  I wonder who walked home with that thing.  I'm sure someone claimed it.

Once inside, my wife and I got seats about six rows from the front, as assigned on our tickets, which were great.  After a few minutes, the event organizers asked to see if there were empty seats, as they would then let in the "stand by" hopefuls, otherwise known as the teeming masses who took a chance and waited outside the building.  There just so happened to be two seats in the very front row, and I grabbed them up quick.

Al and the host, comedian Jonah Ray, came out a few minutes later, after a video introduction, and the crowd, of course, went wild.  Keep in mind that this was a matter of days after the Mandatory Fun album was released, and almost right after it was announced that the album had reached #1 on the Billboard charts (Al's first, and the first comedy album in about half a century to hit that mark...which is a really big deal!).  Everyone was excited to be there and especially happy to be one of the few to see the event in person.

The panel itself was a lot of fun, though nothing revelatory transpired.  Jonah Ray might have been the most excited person in the hall, and that led him to talk...and talk...and talk about how much he enjoyed being there.  That's great, and I probably would have felt similarly, but I suppose he didn't realize (or didn't care) that no one in the hall was there to see him.  Seriously, I hate to gripe about it, but rather than moderate the panel, Ray wanted to interject his own opinion into everything that Al said and every question that was asked by the audience.  Now I know a lot about Jonah Ray, I guess.

About half way through the panel, a Q&A session broke out, and I was able to leap out of my seat and in front of a microphone, which was placed not too far away from where I was sitting.  The session was as strange as you might expect, with some people asking the almost requisite "do you remember me from..." questions to one lady telling Al that she sat on his lap at some point back in the '80s.

From my time at the Toonseum, I had learned that Al had recently been given the ACE award (Amateur Cartoonist Extraordinaire) by the National Cartoonists Society.  I knew that he had always been a fan of Mad Magazine, but I didn't have any clue that he did any drawing of his own, so I was able to ask him about it.  The end of my question was something like "I'd like to know why don't we see any of these drawings...and can I have one?"  The last part was a joke, of course, but it got me the meanest look you can imagine from the staffer who had earlier asked us all what our questions were going to be.  This in itself was pretty funny.

Someone sitting on my side of the auditorium, near the back, managed to record sections of the panel (about half altogether), including most of the discussion between Al and Jonah Ray:

You can pick me out in my trusty gold Steelers hat near the beginning, as seen below.  You could probably also see me by my enthusiastic fist pumping:

The panel ended after about 50 minutes...but it wasn't Al's last appearance of the day.  I had mentioned earlier that I had also gotten a ticket to a signing event.  This event was to take place before the panel.  And even though I've got probably too many things signed by Al in my possession, I thought it would still be fun to get in line, say hello and get an autograph if I could.

Earlier that morning, Shout! Factory made the announcement, obviously with Al's Comic-Con appearance in mind, that they were releasing a 25th anniversary Blu-Ray edition of the movie UHF later in the year.  I caught it, purely by chance, on Twitter, and as I knew that Shout! had a booth at the show, I decided to seek them out and see if they had anything - I was thinking a postcard or flyer announcing the release - that I could grab to get signed.

This was around 10:30, so the convention hall had already been open for quite a while, but I walked down to the main floor and found the booth, only to see an incredible UHF poster print resting against one of the sides of the booth.  I looked the guy working the book in the eyes, pointed to the poster, and said, "uh, what is this?", fearing that they'd be on sale for, like, a hundred bucks.

HOWEVER!  It turns out that I really hit it big.  The first 50 people to ask ask about Weird Al were given a wrist band to an exclusive poster signing later in the day, right after the panel at the Horton theater.  This was not announced!  It was pure luck that I was there at the right time.

HOOOOOWEVER!!  I was an idiot and was worried about getting back into the convention hall in time to make the signing.  This wasn't completely unfounded, as it is difficult to walk from one side of the hall to the other at Comic-Con, and I was coming from outside and blocks away.  So I asked the guy if I could forgo the wrist band and just get a copy of the poster, which, I figured, I could take to get signed at the event that I already had a ticket for.

The guy looked at me like I was crazy, and to his credit, I kind of was.  The posters were on hold until the signing event, so I couldn't get a wrist band and still get a poster, but I could, he told me, get a poster with no chance of getting it signed later.

I took him up on this proposition and, a little bit later, went up to the autograph pavilion...only to see literally hundreds of people waiting in line to get Al's autograph.  Realizing I had made the (terribly, horribly, inexcusably) wrong choice, I nonetheless waited at the back of the line for about 15 minutes...only to not move at all.  I was one of the very last people in line, it seemed, and in the time I was waiting, only about three other people showed up to stand in back of me.

At this point, I had almost nothing to lose, so I went back to the main floor and the Shout! booth and asked if I could make the trade, once again, of the poster for the wrist band.  It just so happened that there were still about six wrist bands left, so my monumental stupidity didn't end up costing me on this day.  And it's a good thing, too, because the signing was really great!

After the panel ended, I beat a hasty retreat back to the convention hall.  I, of course, understood that Al had to travel the same distance, but I imagined him taking a secret underground route or something reserved for celebrities and was thus anxious about getting there in time.  Not to worry, though, as I was about 20th in line and it was still about 15 minutes before Al walked in.

Convention security did, as it turned out, kind of sneak Al in through the back.  Probably for the purposes of crowd control, the signing wasn't advertised, so there were a lot of stunned people standing near the booth when "Weird Al" Yankovic came walking in to sit behind a table.  A lot of people (innocently enough) tried to sneak in line only to be told of the wrist band policy.

Being first in line sometimes has its benefits, but I find that there are sometimes more benefits to being back a bit, as was the case with this signing.  The first three or four people in line got a poster, said hello, got it signed and were on their way.  As the signing progressed, everyone loosened up a little bit, and soon people were chatting away with Al, getting their pictures taken, shaking hands, asking questions, the whole bit.  Al started personalizing the posters after the first half dozen or so, too.  I know that not everyone likes to have autographs personalized, but this was one item I was happy to get my name written on.

Shortly after Al arrived, he was joined by another special guest - UHF director (and Al's longtime manager) Jay Levey!  Not everyone knew who he was, but listen, people: he played the lead role in the "Gandhi II" spoof from UHF!  This was a big deal!

The line moved fairly quickly and the crowd of onlookers grew.  The overall mood was pretty low-key throughout.  Check out that oversized UHF print behind Levey...I also wonder who walked away with that.

I've been looking to give Al a copy of the UHF "Six Panel Cinema" that Jeff McComsey and I worked on a few years ago for a while now.  I took it to his Washington, PA concert in 2013, but didn't get a chance to see him after that show.  So when I heard about his Comic-Con panel, I thought that I might was well lug it to San Diego with me in case I was able to toss it at him from me seat or something.  It was a gigantic stroke of luck that this just happened to be the day that the Blu-Ray was announced. So many things came together - what were the odds that I'd get to meet Al in this context and actually have the UHF print with me?  But it worked out and I was able to give him a copy, which both he and Levey seemed to enjoy.  This was - of course - a big thrill for me.

Other things of note:

1) I was wearing my Transformers "Dare to Be Stupid" t-shirt on this day.  Both Al and Jay noticed it and hadn't before seen it; "Dare to Be Stupid" is a song of Al's that made it onto the 1980s Transformers movie soundtrack, hence the reference on the shirt.  I told Al where I bought it (the locally-based 80sTees) and he pulled out his phone to search it out.

2) This is probably the best picture that I'll ever take with Weird Al.  I should have played the lottery this day.  So much was going my way.

3) McComsey's Six Panel Cinema later took a trip to the first page of Reddit, at which point Al tweeted a copy of the UHF entry to his (literally) millions of followers (if you'd like to buy a print, you can do so here).

4) The poster, thankfully, made it back to Pennsylvania with me safely.  I bought a protective sleeve at the show and it has stayed in there ever since.  I realize that this is a pretty rare Weird Al collectible, but I'm just happy to have this memento from what turned out to be a pretty good day.

5) The poster had what turned out to be the front artwork for the Blu-Ray release of the movie, which is out and available to purchase now.  It is very similar to the previous DVD release, with a notable exception: it includes the entire Comic-Con panel as a special feature (I wish it also included footage from the signing event, which was filmed in its entirety).  It's a more professional feed than what was on YouTube, which is nice...and I also make a couple appearances on it.

6) Mandatory Fun won Al his fourth Grammy award, which continues quite a year for Mr. Yankovic, and he's also announced the dates for his upcoming Mandatory World Tour.  He'll be in nearby Greensburg on May 31st.  I'll be there, too.  You should also come.