[We’ve been spotlighting the experiences of first time Comic-Con attendees, but what about the other side? What is Comic-Con like for the many celebrities who breeze on down for a walk-on role in the big panels? The Beat asked old chum actor James Urbaniak for a diary of his trip down to Con this year. Urbaniak has appeared in such films as Henry Fool and Across the Universe, and TV shows from The Office to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and had a memorable role as R. Crumb in the American Splendor movie. He’s best known of course, for voicing Dr. Rusty Venture in The Venture Bros, and he was down at Comic-Con to appear on the Venture panel. Here’s how it went.]
I was planning to arrive at San Diego Thursday morning but I ended up getting a callback for one of my trademarked red herring characters on a crime procedural for Thursday afternoon. (Seriously, why do I still have to audition for these red herrings? But that’s another blog post.) So I ended up taking the train from Los Angeles Thursday night. I arrived around 11:00 pm. An Adult Swim party was in full swing but I was tired and carrying bags. Dr. Venture took a cab to his hotel.
I checked in and although I was by myself was given two keycards. Printed on one keycard was an ad for the new J.J. Abrams series “Person of Interest;” printed on the other was an ad for “Mortal Kombat: Legacy.” First time I’d ever seen ads on keycards. I’d gone straight to my hotel from the train station and the marketing had already begun. Welcome to Comic-Con.
Next morning I took one of the city’s free event shuttles to the Convention Center (I was staying about a 15-minute ride away.) I boarded behind a man and woman both wearing t-shirts for a horror movie called “Blood Fare” starring Gil Gerard (which presumably did not have the money to buy space on keycards.) The bus included the usual array of cosplayers. A noncostumed old guy got on at one point and jovially barked “We’ve got quite a cast of characters here!” He was right.
I headed to the Hilton next to the convention center for the Venture Brothers panel that morning. As I approached the hotel (which was draped with a giant poster for “Cowboys and Aliens”), a swarm of people were exiting. I recognized television’s Johnny Galecki among them. A man entering the hotel said in a matter-of-fact voice “It’s the entire crew of Big Bang Theory.” He was right too.
I was soon found by an Adult Swim liaison who took me to the green room where I ran into television’s Martin Starr (star of Adult Swim’s new NTSF:SD:SUV and a certified mensch). There was an array of eats and drinks in the green room. I asked Adult Swim bigwig Keith Crofford if the spread was for us. Sometimes more than one production company shares a green room at these things and they guard their food with proprietary intensity. I did not want to reach for a grape that I assumed had been put there by Adult Swim only to be sternly informed that it was property of NBC-Universal. But Keith said it was all ours. I snacked with a clear conscience.
Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer arrived and informed me that I would be wearing a “costume” at the panel. Doc produced a bag of garish ’90s-style hip-hop jackets while Jackson explained that he would be telling the audience that The Venture Brothers is a “new world.” I obediently put on the jacket and grabbed my sunglasses from my bag for good measure.
We entered to the strains of Bill Biv DeVoie’s “Poison,” each of us high-fiving the mild-mannered Keith Crofford, who had introduced us. Jackson laid out his “new world” line and I offered the idea that the Venture Brothers was about “self-knowledge.” I also babbled something about the ancient wars of the Israelites. We were off to a typically incongruous start.
As usual, Doc Hammer was the engine of the panel, with Jackson and I chiming in during the occasional lulls in his hilariously articulate and energetic tangents. We showed the video for Shallow Gravy’s “Jacket” (wait, was that why we were wearing those jackets?), a teaser for the Shallow Gravy special airing in August. (Check your local listings or key cards.) As is the case every year, on the back of our nameplates was a reminder that there may be children in the audience. This never kept us from swearing or “working blue” at these panels (why the hell would children be at an ADULT Swim panel anyway?). I don’t remember much cussing at this one although at one point Doc uttered the phrase “my icy priapus.” I don’t recall the context.
After the panel I hung out on the deck behind the green room with my friends and panel attendees the nerd-centric comedy-music duo Paul and Storm. We ate free sandwiches in the harbor breeze. There are worse situations.
It was now time to make my way into the belly of the beast: the Convention Center. The first thing I saw upon entering was a large group of Venture Brothers cosplayers being interviewed by an entertainment journalist. I stood to the side and watched. A guy dressed as Dr. Venture noticed me and we shook hands.
I wandered the floor and encountered the sight of my friend Metalocalypse director Jon Schnepp making his way through the crowd in a hunched, sloping manner. He explained that he was “silverbacking,” a technique he invented for navigating the crowds at Comic-Con by imitating a silverback gorilla. Jon is a large man and it appeared to work. I eventually made my way to the Entertainment Earth/Bif Bang Pow! booth, where Jackson, Doc and I signed Venture Brothers toys (including the new, super-cool Young Rusty lunchbox, containing Young Rusty and Jonas Sr. action figures). Much pleasant fan interaction ensued.
Afterwards I met up with my friend Ben Acker (writer for “Supernatural”) who was attending the Con for the first time but whose primary concern at the moment was finding an outlet at which to charge his cell phone. We walked through the center scanning the walls to no avail. Finally, Ben asked a security guard if he knew of an outlet. The guard said no. Ben then pulled out the big gun. He pointed at me and said “Do you know The Venture Brothers? That’s the voice of Dr. Venture. NOW do you know where we can find a power outlet?” The guard’s face lit up. He WAS a fan of the show. “You’re Dr. Venture?” he asked me. But although my status had afforded me various perks at the con, it could not help us find an outlet in that goddamned building. Then I had a flash of inspiration. “The Adult Swim green room at the Hilton! There’ll be an outlet there! And there’s free sandwiches!” We headed to the hotel and as we made our way towards the green room I ran into Sarah, one of the Adult Swim liaisons. “We’re going to the green room!” I announced triumphantly. Sarah looked at me sympathetically. “They just closed it,” she said. No matter. We would head over to the bar. The food and drink wouldn’t be free but there would be an outlet. We hot-tailed it over there and in addition to finding an outlet we ran into various friends and acquaintances (including television’s Ellie Kemper) and ended up staying for a couple of hours (with me drinking far more nut brown ales than I’d planned).
Television’s Tom Lennon and Ben Garant were hosting the Eisners that evening and I enjoyed the privilege of watching them rehearse their routines as they stood at the bar in their tuxedos. I met television’s Jon Benjamin for the first time. Ben Acker’s similarly named writing partner Ben Blacker showed up. Jackson and Doc followed suit. Look! There was my old friend Maria Thayer, Susie on Adult Swim’s “Eagleheart” along with “Conan” scribes Andres du Bouchet and Todd Levin! A search for an electrical outlet had landed us in PARTY CENTRAL. I didn’t feel drunk when I left but it may be hard to tell at Comic-Con.
Adult Swim was having a series of parties at a club called Quality Social. That evening’s event featured a Venture Brothers costume contest. Most of the VB cosplayers I’d stumbled upon earlier were there, although Dr. Venture showed up late and missed the prizes (drawings signed by Doc and Jackson) that were ultimately awarded to every contestant. That’s commitment to character. As I was leaving the club at the end of the night I met television’s Eugene Mirman, who was on the street distributing a rose seller’s entire wares (apparently a friend of his had bought them all). He offered me a long-stemmed red and I cabbed it home.
Venture Brothers press interviews in the morning, then a signing at the Adult Swim booth. At one point, a guy had Jackson and Doc sign something, then walked away, leaving me holding my pen. “Denied!” Doc Hammer exclaimed. The fellow then turned around with a surprised expression and asked for my autograph as well. Doc’s always there for me. Later I did a signing for The Devastator, a humor publication created by friends of mine for which I had contributed a piece. The graphic novelist Chandra Free (“The God Machine”), who I’ve known since she was a young commenter on my Livejournal years ago, stopped by and gave me a copy of her latest book and a beautiful drawing she’d done of Dr. Venture. I felt like a proud papa.
After the signing I found myself on a windy deck at the Omni Hotel at a party hosted by Wired (my friend Megan Ganz, writer on “Community,” had gotten me in). I was informed that I had just missed a performance by Cirque du Soleil (I dealt with this fine). I had a Budweiser Select (the only beer available, presumably a proud sponsor of the event) and schmoozed. Dinner afterwards with a group including Megan and “Community” writer Chris McKenna (who was wearing a Venture Brothers t-shirt, permanently cementing our friendship) and creator Dan Harmon. Much to my enjoyment, they talked shop. I hadn’t made it to any panels so this was like my own private (and slightly dishier) “Community” panel. (Sorry, no secrets will be revealed here.) Dan regaled us with the story of how some guy at the convention had talked to him for 20 minutes until the guy suddenly angrily realized that Dan Harmon was not Peter Jackson. My day ended with another Adult Swim party at Quality Social that featured performances by cult music sensations Dan Deacon and Girl Talk. Sadly I did not have the opportunity to regale Dan Deacon by reciting “Drinking Out of Cups” to him in its entirety. I’m sure he would’ve loved it though. No one gave me a flower when I left.
Last day. Slept late and got to the center around noon for one last walk around and saw my hands-down favorite cosplayer, a young
man woman dressed as Dustin Hoffman’s red-spangled Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie.” “Dorothy Michaels!” I exclaimed. “Icon of science fiction and fanstasy!” She gave me the Dorothy Michaels salute. [UPDATE: SEE BELOW] I hadn’t yet swung by Artists Alley so I headed over and as soon as I walked in who did I see sitting alone at a table but Joyce Brabner, widow of the late, great Harvey Pekar. I’d met Joyce ten years earlier when I’d played Robert Crumb in the movie “American Splendor” and hadn’t seen her since. I said hello and offered my condolences. She greeted me warmly and explained that she was there to promote her efforts to raise money to build a statue of Harvey in Cleveland. As she explains on this donation page, “I don’t really need a monument to my husband because our home, our books, our records, our work together- that’s the monument…It occurred to me that if we were to put up a statue, it would have to be about celebrating what he did in graphic novels, comic books for grown-ups, comic books as literature, comic book autobiography…It would be saying something about the medium he championed most of his life. That’s something I could get behind. Celebration, not celebrity.” There, alone at a table at a corner of Artist’s Alley, away from the TV panels and the hotel-sized movie posters and the hip parties and the corporate clamor was this gentle, bespectacled, lady trying to raise money for a tribute to her husband and, by extension, to the medium he loved, the medium that Comic-Con was originally about and, hopefully, still is. Go to the webpage and hit the PayPal button.
UPDATE: After this article was posted, @clembastow tweeted “SUCCESS!! Someone thought I was “a young man” in my ‘Tootsie’ get up. That makes me really happy. #sdcc” Well done, Clem. Well done.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.