There was a brief moment for potential awkwardness at last week’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim. On the third night of the fan convention during a Q&A with Mark Hamill, an audience member had a request. She wanted to hear about the most uncomfortable run-in Hamill had with a fan.
The actor, known best for his portrayal of Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” films, didn’t throw anyone under the bus — at least completely.
“You’ll meet someone and he’ll say, ‘I invited you to my 11th birthday, and you never wrote back,'” Hamill said. “I say, ‘I’m sorry. How old are now?’ And he’ll go, ’33.’ Wow, that’s 22 years of hatred building up.”
But to hear at least one veteran of science fiction tell it, the oddest moments at fan conventions are not the ones generated by those who paid to be there, even if they are dressed as Stormtroopers or Vampire Slayers. No, the bulk of absurdities happen behind the scenes.
That’s the premise of “Con Man,” a new Web series from Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion, two alumni of Joss Whedon’s still-beloved but short-lived series “Firefly.” “Con Man” will star Tudyk as an actor stuck in the so-called sci-fi ghetto, meaning the bulk of the character’s roles entail signing autographs and making appearances at fan conventions. “Con Man” aims to explore how that affects one psyche — with humor.
“I’ve met a few people like that over the years going to cons,” Tudyk said, referring to his “Con Man” character. “It’s such a funny dichotomy of them being at a convention where they’re hailed as stars and then they go home to their one-bedroom apartment and they struggle to work. They want fame and fortune and all those things, but they really are successes.
“They’re a success and a failure simultaneously — a failure to themselves but a success in the eyes of their fans” Tudyk said. “This asks the question, ‘What is success? And what is happiness?'”
“Con Man,” which raised more than $3.1 million in a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo, is shooting this spring and summer, and hopes are that the series will be unveiled in the fall and winter. The show will premiere on streaming video site Vimeo. A series of books, as well as a graphic novel and a game, is destined to follow.
The Tudyk-generated idea is one he’s been honing for the last three years. Real experiences will inform the show, such as the time a fan approached Tudyk at an urinal (the scene was mimed for comedy in the pitch video for Indiegogo), and Tudyk noted that was one of the few times in his career a fan was “clearly over the line.”
“Con Man,” Tudyk said, will follow advice given to him from Whedon, as the actor sought the permission of “Firefly” creator — and current “Avengers: Age of Ultron” director — because the Web series will feature a show within show that takes some inspirational cues from “Firefly.”
“Joss said, ‘That sounds good. Never make fun of the fan.’ I said, ‘We’re not.’ He said, ‘Good. That’s the one rule.'”
Indeed, “Con Man” often puts the fans in the role of the hero, with Tudyk and Fillion far more eager to mock themselves (Fillion was on set on another project and unavailable for comment).
Tudyk will star as Wray Nerely, doomed to the sci-fi circuit after his role on the fictional show within a show “Spectrum.” Fillion is his “Spectrum” costar who has gone on to enjoy the life of an A-lister. Tudyk’s character refuses to embrace the sci-fi love. That differs greatly from Tudyk’s own approach, he said.
“A lot of fans have a stigma,” he said. “They know what people assume about them and they know what the stereotype is and they don’t want to be it. You always hear people saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m fan-girling out! I’m sorry for fan-boying out!’ They’re always apologizing for being enthusiastic about your work. I mean, how hard is it to be nice when you are constantly meeting people being nice to you and talking about the thing you love in such a complimentary way?”
Tudyk said the people working the conventions are often bigger characters than anyone attending them. When it comes to attending a con, he’s learned some lessons over the years: try to avoid the ones in a mall, for instance, and stay away from the cons that book wrestlers. Also, try not to appear at conventions that are outdoors and in tents.
And double-check what you’re being offered. Tudyk remembers one convention host being a little too accommodating. “He wanted to make sure everyone had everything and was good. In that list, he said, ‘Do you need some drugs?’ He had drugs! That’s just bizarre.”
Tudyk came to the sci-fi world as a newcomer, as he admitted that he was unfamiliar with Whedon when he received the “Firefly” call, but he was immediately charmed by the colorful world that surrounds such shows and films.
He said the seed for “Con Man” was planted at one of the first-ever conventions he attended, in Orlando, Fla., and with Fillion. The scene to outsiders may have seemed “crazy,” Tudyk said, but to him it’s always been “rich,” as “things that are out of the ordinary are absolutely ordinary and accepted.”
“I checked into the hotel and there were all these women there with babies — infant babies — and they were in their 50s and in their 60s and they were mothering these babies,” Tudyk said. “Then I realzied they were dolls. They looked like infants, so there was a doll convention simultaneously with our convention. They were in the north tower. We were in the south tower.”
He continued, “Then I went to my side of the convention and there were people with action figures.That’s in one of the episodes. It lays the groundwork for a romance that’s trying to happen between myself and someone from the other convention.”
Tudyk brought the idea for “Con Man” to friend P.J. Haarsma, an author-producer best known for his work on the “The Softwire” series of young adult sci-fi books. “Con Man’s” show within a show, “Spectrum,” will receive a series of books of its own from Haarsma. The “Spectrum” books will also be set in the “Softwire” world.
Haarsma said he was immediately touched by Tudyk’s idea. “It’s the emotional journey of a character who doesn’t realize all the love and fame he has always wanted is right in front of him.” he said. “People make fun of sci-fi conventions and that, but the fandom people seek out for fame is these guys. They’re bottomless pits of love.”
Tudyk, who met Haarsma via Fillion because the latter needed more people for his online “Halo” team, was initially reticent to the idea of a crowd-funded Web series. But Haarsma said that after a series of pitch meetings didn’t go as well as hoped, Tudyk warmed up to the concept of going the independent route.
“What was happening was a lot of comments were like, ‘You know what you should do? You know what would be funny?’ The suggestions that kept coming at us were just making it more and more compromised,” said Haarsma, who arranged the deal with Vimeo.
Those who backed the Indiegogo campaign will be able to stream the series, which is planned for 10 12-minute episodes, free. Others can watch it on Vimeo on Demand, where it launch with an exclusive 60-day window. Vimeo recently had success with the weed-focused Web series “High Maintenance,” which is making the jump to HBO, and Vimeo executive Sam Toles said he wouldn’t be surprised to lose the second season of “Con Man” to a more traditional broadcaster.
“The sensibility of the material is respectful to the fan, and that’s so rarely done in a comedic spin on the Comic Con world,” Toles said. “If they create a follow-up season of ‘Con Man,’ we would love to have that come to Vimeo…. We try to be very flexible.”
And maybe — just maybe — “Con Man” will allow Tudyk to someday be known for something bigger than “Firefly.” Well, probably not.
“How could anyone know a show that would only go 14 episodes would still be alive today?” Tudyk said. “I’ve met kids who were not even conceived when the show was on the air, and they are just as enthusiastic as their parents.”