A Night at the Webbys

Backstage, Mistress Tiffany takes the prize

Tension perfumes the backstage air at the Herbst Theater. The Webby Awards draw nigh. Comedian Marc Maron sits in his dressing room, shuffling index cards filled with jokes. He will MC the event.

Maron is worked up, fresh from an argument he couldn't possibly win with Tiffany Shlain, the 28-year-old woman in charge of these "Oscars for the Internet." It's been a roller coaster two weeks for Maron. Shlain at first loved the jokes he prepared, then insisted on reviewing every single line he planned to utter. Then Shlain decided his suit was the wrong color, and Maron's wife had to ship another one out from the East Coast. And now Shlain has just privately chewed him out for making her look bad in front of her staff.

Shlain started the Webbys three years ago. She is the Webby Awards' creative director and executive producer, and president of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. She gets whatever she wants.

Maron lights a cigarette and turns to the others in the room. "It ain't about you, babe!" he grouses to no one in particular. "It's my ass on the line!"

The show is one hour away. There's no time to do a complete run-through. Everyone's on edge. Sweaty assistants with headsets wander the hallways, chain-smoking. An entire year of planning has gone into this March 18 event. Since Shlain's the boss, she is a primary target of conversation. Mayor Willie Brown may call her the "digital diva," but her staff reserves other phrases for her. Like "control freak," and the ever-popular "real piece of work."

"Tonight's my last night," says one young assistant, with obvious relief. "And then no more Driving Miss Daisy." People wonder why Shlain's grandmother is featured in the evening's program. The 94-year-old woman's picture appears on the invitations, and she will sing a song onstage.

"It started with a photo shoot," grumbles the assistant, "and from there it just spread like a fungal spore, until she's in every part of the show!"

Maron picks up a pair of scissors and continues cutting out jokes from his script and pasting them on cards. "How was the guy last year?" he asks, again speaking to no one in particular. "That's such a comedian thing to say."

While sustained panic builds backstage, the VIP party rages on upstairs. This is what San Francisco does best -- dress up and drink for free, as if events like the Webbys provide some weird kind of civic nutrition.

Television crews wander through the crowd, trailing slinky female hosts in their wake. Attire ranges from tuxedos to the city's patented brand of calculated eccentricity -- wacky fezzes, men with barrettes in their hair, and one guy wearing a bright red Teletubby costume.

A woman strolls about with a video camera in her hair, capturing everyone for the Webbys' Internet simulcast. God, what a witty town. "I'll be presenting an award for most immature millionaire," jokes a high-tech writer. "It's a chance to dress up," says one Internet journalist, who insists on being quoted. "I like to dress up."

A computer magazine editor shakes his head at the entire spectacle: "It's pathetic."

"There's no rock stars," mutters a photographer. "Just a bunch of geeks [and] a couple of babes." Salon Web site editor David Talbot, asked why he's both a judge and a nominee for the Print & Zines category, laughs: "Yeah, imagine that!"

Half an hour later, the crowd stumbles to its seats. The president of Wine.com cracks open a bottle in the balcony, and ushers quickly tell him to put it away. "I'm sure it's a nice bottle of wine," says one staffer. "It's a hundred-year-old zinfandel," he brags, holding up the bottle. "Well, the vines are."

Shlain gets the show rolling, decked out in a silver dress decorated with 1s and 0s. Digital. Get it? She rattles off the corporate sponsors, lavishes praise on all the judges and nominees, and coos, "I want all your autographs after the show!"

Before Maron goes on to do a 10-minute monologue, Shlain asks what he plans to open with. He tells her a joke about what the Webbys really stand for -- pandering to the corporate sponsors. She says no. He says he'll sneak it in somewhere else, and is introduced.

Maron has done the Letterman and Conan O'Brien shows, Politically Incorrect, HBO, and Comedy Central. He's archived in the social satire department of Manhattan's Museum of Radio and Television. This gig will be fine. People are here to have fun, and they're already drunk.

The crowd quiets down. Maron compares the Cold War to the Information Age. The first was a missile-friendly Phallic Era. Now people are obsessed with data storage; more of a Scrotal Era. The geeks laugh heartily. Everyone likes a good scrotum joke.

The show churns through the awards, each winner limited to a five-word acceptance speech. Again, everyone's extremely witty and clever. "This one's for Tinky Winky," says someone from PBS Online. A person from CNN Interactive accepts the News award and cracks, "Who what where when Webby!"

"Ugly commercial sons of bitches!" snarl two winners from the industrial art site jodi.org. It is bizarre to be in a theater with 3,000 people cheering for a movie database site while the theme from Star Wars blares through the speakers.

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