In the third of this series of interviews with content creators, YouTubers and Web stars, I spoke to Michael and Diana - the duo behind Geek Crash Course - about the shift in geek culture, crowdfunding and being a woman on the Web.
The geek shall inherit the Earth, but for now we just dominate popular entertainment. In a world where properties in traditionally "geek" genres have become the heart of billion-dollar franchises, spanning multiple interconnecting mediums and calling back to decades-old source material, it can be hard for new fans to catch up.
Geek Crash Course is a video series on YouTube summarising a series or character in sci-fi, fantasy, comic books and more. In each episode, hosts Michael Nixon and Diana Dekajlo detail the origins of their subject (fictional and literal), explore the various interpretations of the material and make recommendations to help the uninitiated get started.
Michael and Diana first met on the set of a fan-film, which had been written by the former and produced by the latter. "It ended up being a dreadful shit-show of a final product," said Michael, "but a friendship was formed that resulted in two major things. First my alcohol tolerance rising and second Geek Crash Course."
"At NYU...I was kind of the go-to guy for comic-movie questions. I realized that someone could make a friendly, 'Cliff's Notes' version of most geek topics, sort of a conversational primer, to help newcomers hold their own in the new, more geek-friendly world that seemed to be forming."
Michael recruited Diana to help him create the show. "As simplistic as it sounds, I got a phone call from Michael one day. He told me he had an idea for a web series and wanted my help with it. I said, 'Let's do it'. From there, we made it up as we went along, learning from our audience as well as from each other what worked, what didn't, and how to make the show as a whole grow. We never started out with the intention of a specific goal - we just wanted to see if it was possible to make the show we wanted."
Geek Crash Course premiered in 2011, at a time when there was no shortage of people talking about geek-related media on the Internet, but the pair were confident their unique format would give them an edge. "We're not a review show...we're a resource - a reference library for geekdom. That was the initial push and, while we've vlogged and done reviews since then, the "facts first" mantra of the show has remained in place," said Michael.
"Because geek culture can be intimidating to newcomers, we wanted to create an introduction. On Geek Crash Course, we never assume you know the whole backstory of a time traveler, or the all-encompassing history of a superhero. We want to teach you about something from square one, so it's interesting, not intimidating," said Diana.
Over the years, Diana and Michael have had the chance to rub shoulders with some of the big names in television geekdom. Diana cites their unique interview with Nana Visitor, of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as her best moment so far. "Instead of the standard battery of questions most actors get asked, I tried to think of unique takes on everything. When the camera stopped rolling, every vlogger, blogger, and journalist in the room was silent. Someone from the back said 'Wow, that was a really good interview'. Hands down, my favorite moment from the last three years."
As well as getting the chance to interview the actors, including Michael's favourite Paul McGann - who portrayed the Eighth Doctor in Doctor Who - the pair enjoy filming the show just as much. "The best part of any episode, as far as I'm concerned, are where the two of us just riff on a thing or pop a line in," said Michael. "There's a part of every episode I hate. That's just part of my process though."
"And there's a part of every episode I love, even if it's not one of our better episodes or scripts," added Diana. "Although, we can't quite tell which episodes will be the best until we're actually on set filming. A lot of our jokes happen in the moment. Sometimes they play just as well on camera as they do between us. Other times, not as much. Although, for solid episodes with funny moments, Warehouse 13 is a recent favourite of mine, as is X-Men."
"The gag at the end of our Lost in Space episode is a very recent favourite of mine as well." noted Michael.
On the Web, it's often the case that focusing exclusively on popular and current topics is the way to guarantee consistently strong viewing figures. But Michael doesn't avoid talking about material that's possibly quite obscure. "We're not super worried about it, as our whole goal is explaining unheard-of things to people out-of-the-know. But getting comments like 'I've never even heard of this' from die-hard geeks who watch the show is always fun."
The duo ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for Geek Crash Course in 2012. More recently, big names like Zach Braff have come under fire for leveraging their fame on crowdfunding platforms for projects they could arguably bankroll themselves. But the team at Geek Crash Course doesn't begrudge them this. "I'm always reminded of the old adage from film school about never spending your own money on a film," said Michael.
"It's not my job to dictate how other people spend their money and, as someone who enjoyed the Veronica Mars movie and donated to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter, it's probably a little hypocritical to complain about bigger properties being on the platform. I think that there's a place for all Kickstarters, big and small, and I donate to a wide range of sizes. Also, it's pretty easy to suss out those who need it from those who merely find it convenient," he continued.
Diana is effusive in her support for crowdfunding. "I think it's a new frontier in filmmaking. You, on however small a level, get to interact directly with the movie that you want to watch. It's an avoidance of big-studio bureaucracy and budgets, and lets you participate in the filmmaking process. I'm a fan of anything that allows you to actively engage with and affect your chosen media."
With geek culture enjoying probably its longest period of vogue, the duo have noticed a shift how fans of the subjects they cover regard mainstream recognition. "It's gone from 'geeks only' to 'mainstream and cool'," said Diana. "For some reason, this seems to be upsetting a lot of the 'original geeks'. I think in the future there will be much less delineation between geek ideas and non-geek ideas."
Michael agrees. "In general, geek culture's biggest issue has been accepting that it's public culture now, not just a secret society...We're at the start of the backlash, I think. The worst part is geek culture attacking itself due to the temptations of sensationalism and the 24-hour news cycle eating itself. It's not exactly helping anything."
"Oh, and if every single male geek could sit back and accept that women are people, that would be a big help...We get an evolution-refuting amount of comments about the fact that Diana is a woman. It's like they forgot that women exist," said Michael. "A lot of YouTube commenters feel the need to point out, quite crassly, that I'm female," affirmed Diana.
Above: the earliest and latest episodes of Geek Crash Course on the YouTube channel.
Michael and Diana reflect on how they've settled into their roles hosting the show. "There's a lot more of the snarky, sassy, real-life Michael and Diana in the show lately," said Diana. Michael agreed, "Yeah, I know that I started the show doing a kind of over-excited, twee caricature to seem as friendly as possible, but that's been wearing away over the close-to-four years of the show. I realised, while editing my recent solo episode on Captain Britain, that the show is really me just being myself."
Looking ahead, Michael reveals that Geek Crash Course has already started expanding its remit. "We've been very 'tentpole' previously, but I think we're starting to build a great balance of 'here's what you need to know for next week, month or summer' and 'here's some stuff you can keep in your back pocket'. The goal has sort of shifted from making new geeks to both making new geeks and giving old geeks new stuff to geek out about."
But, whilst covering more topics, Diana suggests that they'll still keep on making the show they want. "We've also started to take much stronger ownership of the show, now that we're building a significant fan base. We're covering topics that we want to cover, getting in arguments with nit-picking critics and having a lot more fun on camera the longer the show goes on."