W00tstock 2.9: A Spunky Elephant's Review

“Take a moment to look around you. This is what the Internet looks like.”

As I sat there on the mezzanine level of the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin, glancing playfully from side to side and up and down the rows at smiling nerds, I felt a tremendous rush of camaraderie that would set the tone for the epic extravaganza that was W00tstock 2.9.

For the uninitiated, W00tstock was founded by mythbuster Adam Savage, nerd musical duo Paul and Storm, and some geek named Wil Wheaton. The latter was unfortunately unable to grace our great city with his physical presence, so in his stead he sent a slew of short videos, a full-size two-dimensional effigy, and the literary rock star Neil Gaiman. We left him a heart-felt voicemail.

The memorable moments flashed past like phaser blasts throughout the entire evening, leaving little time for reflection or comprehension. It was the kind of entertainment that spawns new Internet memes (when not referencing existing ones heavily).

Speaking of spawn, I must give props to Neil Gaiman for coining the term “elephant spunk” in a short story he read us, and to the intrepid ASL interpreters who made its translation into sign language known (an obscene number of times) to the crowd assembled. I sympathized with them, but I could tell that they were having about as much fun signing the vulgar phrases the entertainers threw their way as we were watching them do so. Additionally, I spoke with them at the show’s intermission and confirmed that they were interpreting the songs in real time, having never heard them before. Remarkable.

Despite the plethora of WIN last night, there were underwhelming moments as well. Foxtrot creator Bill Amend had a speech near the beginning where he presented a number of his geekier comics from over the years. They channeled the iMac’s lack of a floppy drive, the Double Rainbow meme, and basic mathematics in relatively unoriginal but superficially entertaining fashion. As much as these generated laughs of recognition from the crowd, they also brilliantly (and perhaps unintentionally) highlighted the disconnect between the old print dynasty and the brave new frontier of the Internet.

“As newspaper comic writers we have to appeal to a very broad audience,” Amend said at one point. He called the geekier comics his “2%” panels; those which only a small percentage of his readership would “get.” He makes his living by using as generic humor as possible, but occasionally he can indulge and pandor to very small segments of his audience. Still, the print medium in which Amend swims necessitates generalization, not specialization, in order to maintain revenue.

In the opposite extreme, shows such as Mystery Science Theater 3000, RiffTrax, and Cinematic Titanic depend entirely on a scattershot construct of eclectic, non-sequitur 2% jokes smashed together in rapid-fire fashion. They cover a wide spectrum, in the hopes that their audience will wait through 98% of the content in anticipation of that 2% which resonates in them with such vigor that they come back for more. In my opinion, neither extreme makes for a very successful venture in the long run. (I invite you to comment if you have thoughts on the subject)

Speaking of MST3K, Mary Jo Pehl came on stage briefly, making an obscure and long-winded reference to the death of Supergirl (something about internal injuries sustained from an epic boss fight) and how it touched her deeply because her grandmother died the same way. The punchline, while superficially funny, smacked of anti-climax. She walked off stage to moderate applause.

But I digress! By far my favorite time of the night was Adam Savage’s monologue about parenting, porn, and Jamie Hyneman. He gave perhaps the most reasonable stance against the cruelty and misogyny of certain portions of the Internet I’ve ever heard in the context of a sex talk with his son. Some of the jokes and stories Adam shared of his time on Mythbusters I’d heard before, but seeing him do the Jamie impression never gets old. To tie it all together, he related a tale of his own teenage years and a certain beautiful girl that swept him off his feet for obvious reasons. “My first kiss happened as a direct result of a D&D session.” Spot on.

If the evening had an overarching theme, it was this sort of vindication of the nerd/geek lifestyle. Granted, a large portion of the crowd had never seen Paul and Storm before, and a smaller but significant portion (including myself) had never seen Neil Gaiman before. The camps and subgroups within geek culture are worlds in and of themselves, divided in virtual space across disperate forums, Twitter streams, and blogs. Despite this, W00tstock 2.9 managed to unite these varying subcultures to the greatest extent possible for those four hours. If the Internet were America in its formative stage, W00tstock would be our constitutional congress.

Walking away from W00tstock 2.9, I found myself filled with separation grief. The evening reminded me just how wonderful a community we have in the new continent we call the Internet, and how few times we get to bring our physically fractured society together to share in the things that give us a relatively coherent identity. I still have no idea what exactly constitutes that identity, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with prehensile mustaches, double rainbows, and a whole lot of elephant spunk.

[I might add more to this review if I feel like it. In the meantime, feel free to tell me what I missed and why I’m wrong]

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