Star Trek is like a cultural space station not unlike the Deep Space Nine. It is a hub through which all other popular culture is connected. Even non-Trekkies who’ve never seen a minute of any of the six live-action series know who Spock is and have attempted a Vulcan salute on at least one occasion.
Star Trek is also like the Olive Garden – when you’re here, you’re family. Basking in the love here at Star Trek Las Vegas, that is certainly true of fans, but it is also true of the hundreds of actors who have graced the Star Trek stage. It doesn’t matter if you were in one episode or one scene when you were six years old in a rubber mask with your back to the camera. Pull up a table. We want to talk to you and we’ll pay for your autograph.
Guest Stars of the Star Trek Universe
There are no less than six panels solely dedicated to the “Guest Stars of the Trek Universe.” Yesterday I got caught up with little Atrim (Michael Welch), Data’s little Ba’ku buddy from Insurrection. He’s a dad now and starring in the Lifetime movie I’ll Be Watching, which premieres on Friday. I watched the all-powerful John de Lancie share the stage with Corbin Bernsen, as they discussed the experience of being Qs 1 and 2 together. We don’t care how many Major Leagues you were in, Bernsen! The only ‘major’ role we’re interested in was the one you held in the Next Generation episode, “Deja Q.”
Joe Piscopo and Brent Spiner look back at Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Outrageous Okona”
Admittedly, there are some special guests that are more ‘special’ than others, and that brings me to “The Outrageous Okona” panel with Joe Piscopo and Brent Spiner, moderated by Adam Malin, who could barely get a word in endwise, and he loved it. In the Leonard Nimoy Theater, hundreds of Trekkies gathered to watch the episode where Spiner and Piscopo shared a B plot to a pirate (Billy Campbell – The Rocketeer) who even Riker though had an unusually high libido. In this installment, Data feels disconnected from humanity because of his inability to make people laugh, so he goes for some immersive instruction in the holodeck under the tutelage of a hologram comic (Joe Piscopo). Like all of the best-worst episodes of TNG, this one is cheesy as all get out, but leaves me with the warm fuzzies and ends on a chuckle. We ate it up.
From the panel’s introduction, the kinship and mutual admiration between Brent Spiner and Joe Piscopo was indisputable. These veteran icons love each other. They cannot stop doing bits and swapping compliments. It’s adorable. The way they talk about their early showbiz aspirations in New York City, you’d think their entire careers lead to “The Outrageous Okona.” Spiner opens the interview with a recollection from 1976 on his very first day in New York City. He had just arrived from Houston, Texas, with his friend and cohort, Thomas Schlamme (director from The West Wing) and they decide to hit of the Improv, and who is the very first person that Spiner saw on the stage – Joe Piscopo! Is that fate or what?
Piscopo was honing his chops at the New York Improv with the likes of Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, and Robin Williams ,and would continue working his way through the nightclubs to the Saturday Night Live stage, while Spiner would make it in the Great White Way doing Broadway musicals such as Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and a revival of 1776, but it seems that all roads lead to the holodeck.
Another highlight of the panel was when Piscopo and Spiner recounted stories about the late and indisputably great Frank Sinatra. Piscopo does a killer Frank Sinatra impression, which he graced us with. He is clearly a very talented musician with an impeccable ear and beautiful singing voice. His impression of Mr. Sinatra was part of his SNL audition, but when it came to doing it on the show he had qualms. He didn’t want to offend Ol’ Blue Eyes. It turned out that Sinatra loved it so much he started calling him “The Vice-Chairman of the Board.” All other imitators were sent cease-and-desist letters.
Spiner then shared the story of LeVar Burton’s bachelor party in Las Vegas. The crew was Spiner, Burton, Jonathan Frakes, and Michael Dorn. They had wanted to see Sinatra, but the tickets were sold out. They hung around hoping that Lady Luck would smile on them, and when word got to The Chairman they were escorted to a table right up front and a received a backstage invitation. Of course, Frank Sinatra was a Trekkie! At that point, Sinatra was getting on in years and Frank Sinatra, Jr., was there to toss his old man some lyrics as needed. After the show, Sinatra had vamoosed, but Junior was there to pump them with Next Generation questions. Spiner noted that besides being a great musician and the son of an icon, Frank Junior was the “single most dour human being” he’d ever met. After saying goodnight, the away team looked at each other and Spiner remembers Frakes and Burton both comment on how entirely sad Junior had seemed, but Dorn said: “Hey, nice guy, huh?” “And that is quintessential Michael Dorn,” Spiner exclaimed, “it turns out the be a Michael Dorn story after all.”
When these two old friends finally got around to talking about the episode, Piscopo and Spiner could not help but bust into dueling Jerry Lewis impressions more or less immediately. It was like they were back in the holodeck cutting it up. Piscopo did take a brief respite from goofs to give Spiner some high praise “I just love performers who immerse themselves,” he professed. Though he had watched some TNG, he didn’t see how the Data character could expand enough to encompass slapstick humor. “I had to look at Brent with the contacts on, right? And I didn’t know what to do. He got so into it immediately… he was Data trying to be funny.” And, of course, the feeling was mutual. “It was a dream come true,” Spiner exclaimed.
Piscopo will be hosting the Captain’s Chair Dinner Party on Friday evening at Star Trek Las Vegas.