I Was A Star Wars Pundit

Here’s the amazing true story of how I was recruited to appear in The Sci-Fi Channel’s Episode 1 Unauthorized: The Phantom Menace in 1999.

Back in April 1999, SW-mania was at a fever pitch with TPM’s release only weeks away. I got a phone call on Easter Sunday from a young man who was a producer of an upcoming SW special for Sci-Fi, or what was then called The Sci-Fi Channel. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming up to New York the following Sunday to tape a panel discussion on SW.

I’m not sure where or how this guy found out my contact information. I could’ve been referred by the official SW fan club’s Jon Bradley Snyder, who referred me to a journo around the time the Special Editions were released in 1997, or I might have responded to a post on The Force.Net or some other message board.

The associate producer was very talky and he was concerned I was a little quiet on the phone. He asked for reassurance several times that I would be more loquacious on camera. Admittedly, I’m very shy and reserved by nature, but get me going on SW and I could talk your ear off. I said I would do the show and he then gave me the details. They would reimburse me for gas or however I planned to get to New York short of renting a Gulfstream. They could not however book me in a hotel. Given that I was coming from the Washington, D.C. area, where I lived at the time, I could theoretically go and come back within a day.

When I told my folks about the impromptu trip, my mother was more than happy to volunteer to accompany me to the Big Apple. She was always up for any excuse to go to New York to shop. She suggested taking Amtrak from D.C.’s Union Station on Saturday, stay in New York overnight, and return via train on Sunday after the taping. At the time I was waiting to clear a background check for a new job, so there were no worries about getting home too late.

I was all excited about this little adventure. Even though I’ve worked in t.v. before and my undergraduate degree is in journalism, it seemed quite glamorous to be part of a SW t.v. special. My SW fan friends were all psyched for me. I spent the next week meticulously planning what I was going to wear. A suit or dress was out. I did not want to look like I was going to work at a white shoe law firm or going to church. On the other hand, I did not want to fulfill every fan geek stereotype by appearing in a costume or a garish t-shirt or in all SW-wear. I wanted to show one can be a fan and still get taken a little seriously. The perfect solution was a light denim button-down shirt with a subtle “Episode I” embroidered above the front pocket, which I’d purchased from the fan club, and a pair of black khakis. It was standard Casual Friday Wear circa 1999.

Off my mother and I went the following Saturday afternoon. We got in early Saturday evening, checked into the best kept secret hotel in New York, the Park Central, and had dinner in a nice little Italian place nearby. The next morning, I got up early, washed my hair, and styled it. My broadcasting experience taught me that I needed to wear a lot of makeup under the type of lights used for shooting video, or else I’d look like a white blob, so I slathered on extra layers of foundation, blush, and mascara.

Before noon, I headed out to hail a cab down to the studio in SoHo. The studio was in a small loft, with pale wood floors and a small set consisting of what I guess you’d call ’50s Space Age style furniture. I met the producer I spoke with on the phone and he led me to a kitchen area where all of the guests were supposed to wait.

I’d been told food would be provided but this was no catered affair by Wolfgang Puck. It was a little more downscale: snacky stuff like Doritos, candy bars, chips, etc.. But they did have Nutter Butters! And all of the soda you can drink!

Gathered around the table in the small kitchen were a young Australian woman who was working for the production company, my fellow panelists, and other fans apparently culled from the East Village for other segments of the same SW special. They were all tattooed, pierced, plugged, etc., including a young man and his pregnant girlfriend (I think they ended up naming their child Ashla). Those of us assembled for the panel weren’t as interesting in appearance: my friend Steve Head, who at the time worked on TheForce.Net, another guy from TFN whose name I’ve forgotten, T’Bone from T’Bone’s Star Warz Universe, and Jeanne Cavelos, author of “The Science of Star Wars.” Steve was freaked a little bit by our East Village co-stars and pretty much stayed away from them. I fell into conversation with a tattoo artist who brought his portfolio of drawings with him, which included SW stuff he drew as a kid. There was a charming kiddie drawing of an X-Wing done way back in the day, and further on in his portfolio/book the stuff gets to be decidedly not as innocent. I recall some of his more recent work were, um, interesting. I don’t mean graphic depictions of Chewbacca with Yoda, but stuff like Rebel insignias hidden into a male nude drawing. He was planning to publish his work himself and release it on May 19, TPM’s release date. One of the great things about SW fandom is the opportunity to meet all kinds of people you’d never encounter in your everyday life.

After a long wait, they were ready to shoot the panel discussion. Steve, T’Bone, the other TFN guy, Jeanne, and I went onto the set and sat in those Jetsons-style chairs arranged in a circle. While we were waiting for the camera and lighting crew to set up, the other folks working on the show chatted with us. They were really fascinated by idea of passionately following something for as long as we have. It also hit me that these guys had very little clue about SW fandom as a whole. Steve had brought with him a replica lightsaber hilt made by former licensee Icons and one guy was so taken with it, he asked to keep it for a while, allegedly to use it with video tricks and stuff. For reasons that to this day escape me, Steve said, “Sure.”

As the camera started rolling, we were pitched topics and questions, then we discussed whatever we had to say about them. Already I could see through the corner of my eye the fancy-pants MTV-esque camera work: quick pans, zooms, lop-sided angles. Uh oh.

I tried as hard as I could to be a good panelist. As I mentioned before, when it comes to SW, I have lots to say. But after about half hour-to-forty five minutes of taping, they decided to remove a couple of us from the roundtable, me included. I sat off to the side, unable to go anywhere because for one thing, they needed to pay me back for my Amtrak ticket. They also needed me around in case they wanted to shoot more video with me. Well, the minutes stretched to an hour or so. I started to get antsy and annoyed. I wondered why I was dropped. They didn’t like my voice? They thought I dominated the conversation? I looked ugly on camera? Was I too fat? (The much leaner Cavelos remained on for the rest of the taping.) Then I thought about all of the great shopping nearby that I was missing because I had to stay.

They finished taping without adding me back into the panel discussion. After paying us back for gas and train fare in cash, we were free to go. Since I had a little bit of time before I needed to go back uptown to meet my mom, I went with Steve, T’Bone, and some of T’Bone’s friends for some good ol’ New York-style slices of pizza. We sat around discussing the taping. We got the sense that the production company was disappointed in us. They wanted to stir the pot and raise controversy, but instead of yelling at each other, we just chatted politely and respectfully. They expected Jerry Springer and we gave them The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. They should’ve waited another month, liquored up everybody, or brought in an uber-basher like Chris Gore or Mark Altman if they wanted a screaming match.

(Moreover, I later learned the same production company was looking for strippers who incorporated SW as part of their act for the same special. Red flags!)

It was raining when we left the pizzeria and you know how hard it is to find a cab in New York on a Sunday when it’s raining. But the Force was with us. We quickly found a cab, and better yet, one willing to take two of us first to Penn Station, then me alone to the hotel. At the hotel, I met up with my mom, got some sandwiches to go from the famed Carnegie Deli, and took a cab back down to Penn Station.

I wasn’t surprised when I came home from work weeks later and my brother told me that the production company had called to say the panel discussion was dropped from the show. The show, christened “Episode 1 Unauthorized: The Phantom Menace,” aired that night on the Sci-Fi Channel. The East Villagers, including the pregnant couple, made it on the show. I guess we needed more piercings and tattoos. But it was just as well. The show turned out to be utterly bizarre and embarrassing to watch. A guy in pseudo-Darth Maul makeup and a cape wandered about on the street ranting like a crazy man, people pondered questions on poor Luke’s sexual orientation, and clueless celebrities displayed their utter lack of even basic knowledge about the SW movies. Most perplexing were the “spoiler” segments. Here’s where they put their stripper search to use. You see, somebody would read off rumored spoilers about TPM as you watched some random exotic dancer–not in SW costume–wiggle about over a Manhattan cityscape. The idea was if you wanted to avoid spoilers, you could turn down the volume and just watch the dancer.

So much for my shot at the big time. At least I got thanked in the show’s credits, received a free train ride to NYC, and noshed on all of the Nutter Butters I could consume, not to mention that I had the opportunity to meet other fans.

Steve got his Icons lightsaber back, eventually. No it wasn’t used on the show.

The IMDB entry on the special: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0784993

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One Response to “I Was A Star Wars Pundit”

  1. Ten Years of TPM: I was a SW pundit « Says:

    […] Years of TPM: I was a SW pundit By lazypadawan I actually posted about my experience taping a segment for an unofficial TPM special made for Sci-Fi back in December 2007. The show was […]

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