Every year at Comic-Con, my friends Luke and Clara make the trek down from their house—less than two miles from the convention center—to have dinner with me, and every year, I wonder if they’re the only people in all of San Diego running toward the Con and not away from it. Clara grew up in San Diego, and Luke moved there after he married her, but they’ve both lived there more than long enough to get a sense of the Con and how it affects people’s day-to-day lives in the city. Luke even has a job that places him right next to the convention center every day, one where he had to struggle to find parking last year and finds people using Comic-Con as a kind of all-purpose excuse during this, the busiest week of San Diego’s year. The two of them have a good idea of Comic-Con’s relationship to San Diego—Clara with a bit of history and Luke with knowledge of the Con’s current impact on the normal, workaday stiffs just trying to get by in downtown San Diego.
And, honestly, they swear it doesn’t really matter.
We’re having a pizza in downtown San Diego. We’re far enough away from the Con—about a half-mile—that the restaurant isn’t absolutely packed, but we’re still close enough for the restaurant to be full of people. You can move around in it easily enough, but you’re also always surrounded. To hear Luke and Clara tell it, Comic-Con doesn’t really stretch out its tendrils to the rest of San Diego at all. For the most part, its impact is impressively contained to the Gaslamp District. As this pizza place is right on the edges of that district, the Con’s impact is more muted here. But head up toward any of San Diego’s other major tourist attractions—the zoo or SeaWorld or Old Town—and there’s just not an appreciable bump over other summer weekends. What’s more, the dire parking situation, which largely results in people finding ways to park anywhere else and take the trolley in (if they can’t get hotels close to the convention center), could easily be alleviated by heading a few blocks past the convention center, to the corner of Imperial and 15th, where there’s ample (free!) street parking, even if it is in a shadier neighborhood Con-goers rarely stumble into, at least as Luke explains it to me.
The most frequent complaint about San Diego hosting the Con is that it doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to host an event this huge. What this usually means is that the convention center isn’t large enough to accommodate the 100,000-plus people who cram into it every year. This is likely true, but it’s not as if the Con won’t keep scaling up once the hoped for convention center expansion is completed. What I think people actually mean when they say this is that San Diego, like many cities in California, is a city of neighborhoods, and people will often spend the bulk of their time spent living in the city working and playing in those neighborhoods (or at least nearby). Thus, the Gaslamp is built like the downtown area of a much smaller city, rather than the downtown area of one of the country’s 10 largest cities—there’s plenty to do, but parking and mass transit options are limited. The streets are all two lane, and few have stop lights at crossings. Thus, once all of the people at Comic-Con and all of the people just here to gawk are unleashed on the Gaslamp, it effectively shuts down. Clara compares trying to drive in or near it around Comic-Con to driving in Manhattan, and she’s not far off. Stressed-out drivers waiting and waiting and waiting as streams of people pour across the street, having to keep yielding to pedestrians for long stretches of time, are a common sight.
But that “city of neighborhoods” angle also works for San Diego, because it keeps Comic-Con so successfully pinned to the downtown area that it doesn’t really spill out to affect the rest of the city. Where I live, Long Beach, California, there’s a yearly car race in April that has a similar effect on our local economy as Comic-Con does on San Diego’s. But that event spreads so much further from its downtown base that it’s not uncommon for Long Beach residents to simply pack up and leave for the weekend. (I always do.) That’s less common in San Diego. Sure, some people leave (and probably downtown residents more than anyone), but Luke and Clara insist that most people view the event with a kind of quiet amusement. On his lunch hour Thursday and Friday, Luke wandered the area and checked out some of the free sideshows to the main Con, and his co-workers all mentioned wanting to get into the Gaslamp to check out all the wacky costumes and the like. Local merchants in the Gaslamp might see Comic-Con as a do-or-die time for their own business (in fact, a few years ago, I talked to a downtown restaurateur who said he made the bulk of his operating budget for the year during this one weekend), but many other San Diegans just enjoy having the chaos in close enough proximity to drive down and gawk at it for a while.
Where Comic-Con most spills out to the rest of San Diego is after 7 p.m., when the big Con largely slows down, but for a few events here and there, and the Gaslamp becomes an ocean of people looking for food, drinks, and a good time. This is the best opportunity for native San Diegans—or just people who’ve come to San Diego on vacation and have no idea that Comic-Con will be in town the same weekend—to end up crossing paths with the giganticness of the event. For instance, many comedians use this weekend to put on shows that are all but guaranteed to sell out with mostly warm, supportive audiences. This year, one of those comedians is Patton Oswalt, someone I’ve never seen live before. The theatre he’s performing at is around a mile away from the convention center, so it’s far enough away that the Chipotle across the street isn’t mobbed with Con-goers, but the event itself has such a natural overlap with Comic-Con that the theatre is mobbed.
For the most part, these are the best kinds of comedy show goers. They laugh at the jokes they find funny, stay muted at the ones they don’t, and offer up sustained applause at the beginning and end of the show. They even offer plenty of support to the pretty funny warm-up act. Oswalt’s got a number of bits in this set—especially one about realizing how what his daughter watches can affect her in unexpected ways and one about performing at a casino—that are perfectly crafted and expertly handled. This is all being recorded for an upcoming album and special, so of course the material has been polished thoroughly, but it’s just rough enough around the edges to maintain the feeling of some funny guy just going out and telling you whatever’s on his mind that makes the best stand-up come alive.
But there’s this one guy and his female companion, sitting right behind me and a handful of other TV critics, who seem bound and determined not to enjoy the show. Just from looking at them, it seems all but impossible they’re here for Comic-Con, dressed as they are in their casually preppy, Brooks Brothers best. They have the look of New England boarding school students on vacation, if New England boarding school students were in their early 30s, and they seem flummoxed by the idea that everybody in the room is amused by Oswalt’s routine. They’re immediately on edge when the show begins, when Oswalt introduces warm-up comedian Michael Drucker as a writer for Jimmy Fallon’s show (the guy, in particular, hates Fallon), and as they comment sarcastically—not loud enough to be heckling but loud enough for all of us to hear—on every little thing that happens, they rapidly drive the mood into the toilet. They’re later quiet for the first half of Oswalt’s set (after another TV critic chews them out and goes to find management), but they begin the sarcasm act for the second half, bound and determined to hate the damn thing, perhaps because everybody else is having a good time. There’s not much we can do. Since the special is being taped, we’re not supposed to leave our seats unless it’s some sort of emergency, and this doesn’t really count.
They leave before the encore, the better to not end up confronting us again, but during the initial round of applause, I take a look at them and see this look of mixed anger and confusion in their eyes. Did they not know what Oswalt’s shtick was? What sort of comedy were they expecting from the evening, exactly? Oswalt receives a standing ovation from everybody who’s not them—I join it as much to piss them off as anything else—and it’s obvious what the guy and his girlfriend (and/or wife) are thinking: Who the hell are these people?
These are the sorts of encounters that can result when someone with no interest in Comic-Con whatsoever stumbles into the events that aren’t official Comic-Con ones but are obviously scheduled in San Diego at this time to attract Con-goers. This is even more true of the event’s nightlife, which effectively turns downtown San Diego into an extension of Los Angeles for four days and seems to drag even more San Diegans downtown to see if they can spot famous people entering and leaving the event’s parties. In the Los Angeles area, we’re used to this, and the city’s club and party scene is at least somewhat predictable (said the man who rarely goes in for either). In San Diego, the stream of Comic-Con parties turns into elaborate attempts for people in their 20s and 30s to bullshit their way into a hot, crowded bar or hotel lounge to catch a glimpse of somebody they’ve seen on TV.
As an overweight, over-tall man, I’m obviously the wrong person to be telling you about how much fun these parties are, but I’ve been to enough of them now—always because I’m in the press and never because some bouncer looks at me and thinks, “Hey, there’s a fun-time guy!”—that I feel safe in saying they’re all largely the same thing, exemplified by the HBO party I was at for all of five minutes last night: Too many people cram into a small space, there’s loud music, a bartender serves up free drinks, and the famous people (if they’re even there) confine themselves to some sort of “VIP area,” where the rest of us can’t get to them. Outside, a long line of people trying to figure out a way around security—very few of whom would appear to be Con attendees—struggles to come to terms with the fact that only a handful of people in that line are actually going to get in. Once you are in, getting out of the party takes almost as long as talking yourself past the bouncer, picking your way through crowds of people who are sort of dancing and sort of just standing and all looking around for the promised celebrities. And it all stretches on into the night.
There’s fun to be had at these parties and in San Diego’s nightlife more generally. I talk to Ryan Cartwright, who played Gary on the late, lamented Alphas, for a bit at the HBO party, and a party for an independent comics publisher I attended Thursday ends up being a nice place to sit and talk with the sorts of people I wouldn’t normally come in contact with in my usual line of coverage. (As a member of the press, I’m also likely to run into at least a few people I know at every one of these, so that’s nice.) And, really, nothing here is all that different from going clubbing more generally, really. It’s the addition of famous people that makes the whole thing more tinged with desperation, I think. Those people in that line desperately want to get in to see famous people, but they’re probably not going to. While I’m waiting to check in at the HBO party, a young woman asks the bouncer if the cast of True Blood is inside the party. He nods quickly, and she lets out a little moan of irritation that they’re in there and she isn’t. But there’s really nothing she can do to get past everybody else in line, to slip past the defenses in her way and actually get to Anna Paquin or whoever it is she wants to see in there. She’s so close, yet so far.
And that’s what Comic-Con is really all about, San Diego.
Tomorrow: Maybe I’ll offer those thoughts on costumes. But I think it may be time for me to be done with Comic-Con, and I’ll let you know why.